Friday, March 23, 2012

Reading Lynn Flewelling's "The Bone Doll's Twin"

Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Twin's Doll (Bantam Spectra 2001) is a vivid example of what a good writer can do with a relatively limited plot. A King, afraid of a prophecy, kills every female in the line of succession to secure his position and assure his continued reign.

Flewelling takes this skinny plot and and slowly and lovingly fattens it with character and setting. She uses the traditional Bildungsroman format to show the gradual education of a young boy, Tobin, who is sequestered in the woods, away from the medieval city of his birth, and resides in a crumbling estate with his deranged mother and the angry ghost of his dead brother.

However, as is true in most fairy tales and fantasy novels, prophecy has a way of bypassing or frustrating the political machinations of individuals who attempt to circumvent its workings. Fate, like water, seeks its own level and the same is true for prophecy in this well-written, character-driven, first volume of Flewelling's Tamir Trilogy, where two wizards, a witch, and the brother-in-law of the King perpetrate violent actions and employ dire means to protect an infant from the King's assassins.

Tobin, a strange child, artistic and shy, has a number of secrets: he is haunted and at times tormented by his dead brother's ghost; he has a friend, a witch, named Lhel that lives inside a tree in the woods; he has a doll that his mother has made with which he is abnormally attached; and he seems to have some powers of forethought.

Within the context of the plot, Flewelling slowly builds her secondary world; giving it substance and weight gradually by incrementally measuring out descriptions only when the plot demands it. Tobin's world resembles early medieval England sometime around the 12th century: reavers raid the coast and wizards and witches walk the roads between the walled cities, while strange predators inhabit the thick forests.

I picked this book up because I was a bit bored with the usual fantasy fare that is coming out these days. I had heard that Flewelling dealt with human sexuality frankly and I was intrigued. And when I say sexuality, I'm talking about gender and desire, not graphic scenes of sexuality. There are plenty examples of that in the latest fantasy tomes arriving each month. I was more interested in a writer's ability to create believable female and male characters within a fantasy context, illustrating both the similarities and differences that emerge from gender. Flewelling creates indelible characters through detail, through the minute rendering of everyday events within the context and logic of her created secondary world, and thereby illuminates their basic natures. I found myself drawn quickly into Tobin's rough, and lonely life, through the descriptions of his daily activities, his interactions with the other characters, and the psychological struggles that  naturally manifest themselves as he matures within a home, where madness, ghosts, and plain fear reside and rule.

The Bone Doll's Twin seems writ on a smaller canvas than most heroic fantasies but its limited scope enhances its intimacy, making Tobin more real and precious as a character.  I'm looking forward to the second volume. In fact, the ending was so perilous and fraught with danger for Tobin that I'm bit afraid and must know what happens next.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Myth as Theme in Intimate (a Cozy) Historical Mystery: A Reading of Aliette de Bodard's "Servant of the Underworld"

Aliette de Bodard has passed the Angry Robot Test--mix genres, shake but do not stir--by writing an intimate, well-crafted, mystery that fits squarely within the strictures of an English cozy but set in an exotic historical and cultural setting with unique fantasy tropes, arising from Aztec mythology.

Servant of the Underworld (Angry Robot Books 2010), a first-person narrative, features Acatl, a High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli, God of the Underworld and Acatl's patron. Acatl is not a policeman, or a professional crime fighter; instead, he is simply a priest, who has chosen to eschew the heroic life of a warrior like his brother Neutemoc for the quiet life in the Temple, helping the dead make a smooth transition to Mictlan, the underworld. The story begins when Ceyaxochitl, a representative of the Revered Speaker, Ayaxacatl, sends for Acatl to investigate a death where dark magic is evident. Thus Ms de Bodard satisfies one of the first characteristics of the cozy: the detective is an amateur. Acatl is neither a detective nor a warrior; however, the death he has been called to investigate not only concerns Nahual magic but a highly-charge political situation that involves his immediate family. The proximity of the perpetrators is also an element of "cozy" fiction: the mystery usually takes place in a community small enough to make it plausible that the characters know each other and are easily interrogated or examined. Acatl soon learns  his brother is the number one suspect and he rapidly tracks the threads of magic through Tenochtitlan in order to prevent his brother's execution.

Cozy mysteries usually have a thematic underpinning based upon the locale of the action or the profession of the protagonist. For instance, in Ellis Peters' series, the medieval world of his detective, Brother Cadfael, forms the thematic underpinning; whereas, in Servant, the mythic magic of the Aztecs and the internecine struggle of the Gods form the major components. The turn of the screw, however, in Ms de Bodard's work is that the Gods are active participants, creating the fantasy elements, and supporting the magical system at work in the novel. Mictlantecuhtli, although a God, is as vibrant a character as our narrator, which sets this cozy squarely within the category of fantasy. It is this use of the mythic that I found most interesting: the magical system based upon glyphs and blood seemed very real and provided a rich, numinous texture to the novel.

Finally, even though Servant involves several murders, the villains perform their gruesome acts off-stage.Acts of violence and explicit sex, although implied, are not visible. Nevertheless, its realistic depiction of magic situate it squarely within the confines of the best historical fantasy. More often than not, magic just is in fantasy novels; in Servant, magic arises naturally from the culture and the historical setting, making this cozy a very satisfying and magical (in every sense of the word) read.