The Dalemark Quartet, Books 3 and 4

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These books are where the work of the first two novels really pays off.

In book 3, “The Spellcoats,” we go backward in time. We see the beginnings of the civilization we got to know in the previous novels. We see the roots of immortals in the world of Dalemark. And, most important of all, we meet a young woman who can make the world in her weaving.

That young woman comes back later, as do most of the characters of the three novels, in “The Crown of Dalemark.” That book, while it makes no sense without having read the first three, is easily the greatest of the quartet. Every seed in the previous books bore fruit, every character returned (if only for a moment).

Having gotten to know this world in the first two novels, there was something incredibly rewarding about moving both backwards and forwards in its future. There was the “present,” but there was also the past which lived on (sometimes literally), and the destination of the future slowly being revealed.

But best of all, to me, was the bestowing of the titular “Crown of Dalemark.” Neil Gaiman once wrote of Diana Wynne Jones that he often did not understand the endings of her novel the first time, and was forced to re-read them. His children, on the other hand, got it immediately.

I’ve often been the same with Jones, and the ending to this book was the strangest and most difficult to swallow I’ve ever had. I had seen the ending coming, knew who would get the Crown. But I still am not quite sure how he won it. And I love not knowing. When you read too much, it becomes more and more unusual to not know. It’s something to be savored.

 

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The Dalemark Quartet, Books 1 and 2

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These are among the only novels by Diana Wynne Jones to win big awards. And they’re pretty damn good–better than most people could dream of. But to be honest, I was pretty unimpressed by the first two.

The merits of those two books, I felt, rested most strongly in their last pages. The young boy protagonists were each faced with a choice, which would determine what sort of man they would be.

Lesser writers would have shied away from touching on topics as “grown up” as these. Not Diana Wynne Jones. The characters of her books came face-to-face with themselves, and neither emerged fully happy with what he saw. And that is perhaps one of the truest parts of growing up: realizing that we won’t always like everything we see in the mirror, and we’re just going to have to live with that.

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The Folk Keeper and the Mystery of Identity

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Each and every one of us learns how to construct our selves. We identify ourselves as male or female first. We are this person’s daughter, this person’s son. As we grow, we add things–we are writers, warriors, teacher, students.

In “The Folk Keeper,” we walk with a girl through the creation of her self. Everything is up for grabs, it seems. Corrinna is a cross-dressing orphan. The elements of her identity are shifting and changeable.

As she grows in this shockingly short but dense novel, she discovers what is “hers,” what she was born with. And she discovers what she wants to be. We cannot have everything–we must make our choices, must decide what is central to our identity and what we can discard. But even the most apparently final decision can shift. We are all changing, from one skin to another, all our lives.

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Middlemarch and Human Nature

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Over the course of two months, I’ve been listening to Juliet Stevenson read “Middlemarch.” It’s been a fantastic two months–it was like tuning into a great television show, following the troubles and dramas of a set of brilliant characters whom I grew to love.

It’s those characters that truly make the book something special. There is so much to enjoy in Middlemarch, once you get past the snoozeworthy first 10%, but the characters are undoubtedly the most human I have ever been privileged to read. Eliot sketches beings who are utterly, achingly real.

Sure, lots of people have created “real” characters before and since. But Eliot didn’t stop there. She took her characters, built their relationships with one another, and then she dove into their heads and laid out for us what she found there. The ways people act and react toward each other, the complicated motives behind how they treat one another. The logical reasoning of the selfish, the unspoken truths of the souls of men and women–it’s all there.

Humans are, essentially, flawed beings. And I would be surprised if anyone got to know their flaws so intimately as George Eliot when she wrote “Middlemarch.”

Why I Abandoned “Prentice Alvin”

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I couldn’t take the sexism anymore.

Bear with me: I know that the historical period Card depicted was a time when sexism was considered something closer to “common sense.” And that’s all right. George RR Martin is not sexist for writing about a time when women were chattel, and no more is Ursula K LeGuin sexist for writing about a future world where men are chattel.

The issue I had was that the main characters were sexist. REALLY sexist. The people I’m supposed to be sympathizing with. Alvin thinking men who don’t beat their wives are weak. Peggy, pursuing the “finest title any lady could aspire to. Goodwife.”

More than that, the plot itself was constructed in a way as to render women mere figures in men’s stories. The women define themselves exclusively in terms of their relationships to men. Peggy spends years learning how to authentically please men. She chooses a course of life which she hopes will lead her to the great achievement of being the woman behind the great man, rather than aspiring to greatness herself.

And it’s not just Peggy; it’s every single woman character. Married or single, their lives are about their sons, husbands, and lovers. Even the relationships between women are mere outgrowths of their relationships to men–the mother jealous of her husband’s love for her daughter, the kind woman taking in her lover’s child.

Finally, to me, this sexism left a big logic gap right at the core of the novel. The idea is that Alvin is a “maker,” someone who can create on such a level that the devil itself dogs him. But why the hell wouldn’t a “maker” be a woman? The book is all about nature and people’s natural roles, their pre-arranged destinies. A “maker” should be a woman.

Maybe the book got better later on. I gave up when Peggy arrived home in disguise. I can’t take it anymore.

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Red Prophet and the Noble Savage

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In the novel “Red Prophet,” there is a woman weaving history on her loom. She is part of an unbroken line of women, who sit and weave white thread which dyes itself, on a cloth that seems to have no beginning and will never have an ending. She came to America from Europe, when one of her ancestresses saw the fabric of the loom branch off. Her daughter is half-Native American, and her daughter weaves from the Native stronghold on the far side of the Mississippi. Because someone must be there to weave that history.

This family literally embodies history. So what of America before they came? By the logic of this magic, there was no history in America before these white women came to weave. There were just people in some fuzzy, vague past.

It can be tough for white writers to do a good job representing Native American culture. Many writers who want portray Native Americans in a positive light, like Orson Scott Card in “Red Prophet,” end up frankly botching it by falling into the trap of the “noble savage.”

Card’s Native Americans and mystical “noble savages,” literally at one with the land because they can hear the land in a way white people can’t. The Native American characters are either victimized drunks or perfect warriors. The tribes of the Native peoples, with the exception of the peripheral alternate-history Iroquois, are interchangeable. That is a far cry from the portrayal of the French, who are at all times clearly different from the Americans.

White civilization and Indian civilization are portrayed as intrinsically opposed because the white seek to subjugate nature, while the Native Americans seek to live in harmony with it–never mind the vast agricultural apparatus of native peoples, or the ancient cities that several tribes built over the centuries in Missouri and Arizona.

This isn’t to say that the book doesn’t play with some interesting ideas. Spoilers from here on out:

William Henry Harrison, most famous in real American history for not wearing a coat and catching fatal pneumonia at his inauguration, leads a massacre of a Native American city. 9000 men, women, and children die in the massacre. It turns out that they knew their fates, and that they were led to death by their Prophet. The Prophet foresaw the possible path of our history–Native Americans on reservations, their culture diluted and lost–and bartered their lives to escape it. Their one great massacre was exchanged for the various smaller massacres that litter the history of Native Americans and white Americans. Their blood bought testimony, bought magic that forced the truth of shame on the men who murdered them. It’s a strange idea, and fascinating.

Card could not portray these massacres while holding to the more dualistic principles of “Seventh Son.” After all, the men who do the murdering aren’t evil. They’re the very family we spent the previous novel growing to love. And Armor, who allied himself with the devil in the first book, is the only white man to argue for the Native Americans, and who did not participate in the massacre.

The book asks interesting questions about history and human nature–the magic of alternate history lives to perhaps its fullest potential in flawed masterpieces like “Red Prophet.”

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Seventh Son and A New Phrasing

 

 

Orson Scott Card’s “Seventh Son” made quite a few waves when it was published, winning awards and praise from the literary SF and Fantasy world. It’s a good novel, too–a couple of good characters, strong and memorable scenes, folk magic scattered across frontier America.

The integration of magic into that early America is brilliantly done. It feels organic and real, magic in every home, at every birth, touching every character. The legends of Americans famous in their time, like Ben Franklin, now include wizardry.

But I think the reason the book made so many waves is that it framed an idea in a way that had never been quite done before. The idea of good against evil, of the battle between light and dark, is of course ancient. But Card framed it in a new way–as “making” against “unmaking,” with two characters, a boy and a reverend, at the center of the struggle. Of course, there’s plenty of problems with that idea, but it nonetheless remains at the core of Western religious thought, and thus its arrival in this young adult novel makes perfect sense. And it’s a good, powerful idea, well told.

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