Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review - Godmother Night

Godmother Night
by Rachael Pollack
1997 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

If I had to pick a single most common theme in fantasy novels... well it would have to be Tolkien knock-offs. But once we're past that and looking at the scope of fantasy stories across history then the anthropomorphism of death is pretty far up that list. And why shouldn't it? Death as the single most common experience for humanity is a natural choice for use in stories whether he's playing chess with a knight in a dying landscape, taking a holiday, or learning valuable lessons about life. That does mean that it takes a very special story using this theme to catch my interest.

Godmother Night is death in the novel and she watches over the lives of two young lovers. The lovers deal with a disapproving family and having a child. They ask Godmother Night to watch over their daughter and so that daughter is raised so that she can see death around her. Across all of their lives they encounter Godmother Night and her servants in ways that alternatively help and terrify them.

Godmother Night isn't as plotless as that description but it is another book that is a set of strange anecdotes from lives touched by magic. I'm not certain what it is about that form of book that has made it so popular with the World Fantasy Awards. As it happens Godmother Night is a good example of this format since the anecdotes are compelling and (most importantly) the characters were ones that I became very interested in.

The most important of those characters in terms of making the book stand out as a fantasy novel is Godmother Night herself. Using a character theme that is this common invites comparison to other personifications of death and in that very extensive pantheon Pollack's creation is in the upper tier but not a break away success. Night makes familiar comments on the necessity of death and the nature of life and I didn't see any novelty in that aspect. On the other hand she also is treated as a meddling relative and I found giving death that personality was an intriguing difference. By having her pop up and offer unwelcome advice and assistance it made her more interesting.

The human cast is much more rounded. Pollack didn't simply place characters down on the page, she spun lives for them. No character is the same at the end of the novel as they are at the beginning. The passions of youth shift in a different way among all of them whether cast aside for maturity, growing into love, or desperately clung to because it is all they have. Confronting death is a transforming process and in a novel where death is a character it will be confronted often.

I went back and forth on mentioning this and I decided that in the end it is a compliment for the author and should use it: Rachael Pollack wrote her story without an agenda. A full range of human experiences and beliefs are on display in Godmother Night and Pollack completely avoids the moralizing that lesser authors use. Recently reading a book that was heavy with its moralizing on something that came in tangentially to the actual story made the contrast stand out. This is especially true in the later portions of the novel where the belief systems of the characters take the center stage.

I do need to mention that the novel features what must have been the most unnecessary climax I've read in a while. The novel had been building to a climax for one theme (and doing a very good job of it) and then suddenly shifted to a barely touched on climax for something else entirely. It wasn't necessary and it left me wondering why it was in there at the end of the book. Despite being only the tiniest fraction of the novel it is at the very end and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

So I can't call Godmother Night perfect. Still it rarely dragged, featured a cast that entertained me, and often shifted into fascinating concepts. It wasn't the most unique novel ever created but it is a fine work for anyone who likes slice-of-life fantasy.