Friday, January 30, 2009

Review - Mythago Wood

Mythago Wood
by Robert Holdstock
Tied for 1985 World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel

It takes more than a record ice storm, widespread destruction, and five days without power in subfreezing temperatures to keep me down. Still I got a lot of reading done in the past few days as I huddled shivering in my house listening to every tree in a ten mile radius collapse.

So that brings me to Mythago Wood. I have to say that after the absolutely spectacular Bridge of Birds I thought there was no way that a book that tied with it could live up to that highwater mark. I was right in that regard; Mythago Wood isn't anywhere near as spectacular as Bridge of Birds is. On the other hand if it had been a World Fantasy Award winner any other year I wouldn't have blinked since I found Mythago Wood to be an interesting effort but not a monumental literary achievement.

In post-war England there is a tiny patch of ancient wood. The wood is just four miles across on the map but it is tied to human psyche. The old archetypes and myths live on in its boundaries, shaped from the subconcious of the people who live around it. And if one was to penetrate the maze of tracks to get deeper in they would find that the further in they went the larger the wood becomes.

Christian and Steven's father spent his entire life attempting to unravel the mysteries of the wood and seeking the first proto-hero at its heart. When he died his neglected sons discover the secret that the woods harbored. Steven falls in love with an ideal woman who emerges from the wood and when she dies he begins to obsess over entering the deep wood in order to find another version of her myth. When Steven vanished into the woods pursued by the proto-myth his brother Christian attempts to rescue him despite the fact that they are becoming wrapped in a myth of their own.

The central theme of Mythago Wood, the creation of myth and the exploration of those cycles through human history, is extremely strong. It's strong enough that I'd considder recommending it on that basis alone. Yes it's a theme that has been covered many times before (Neil Gaiman has built a career on it) but here it felt very different from other attempts. Part of that is Holdstock quickly abandons myths that would be familiar to readers for supposed "earlier forms" that he created. The transition in concepts and styles can be followed the deeper into the wood the story takes the reader through an enjoyable tour of prehistory.

A good concept isn't enough for me though. Fortunately the book's plot works just as well. The story of the father and both of his sons parallel each other and as such serve to reinforce that theme again. Their slow spiral to obsession as they are pulled deeper into the woods for reasons that are so similar between them is fascinating to read. The final act of the story is particularly worthy of note as myth surrounds the protagonists and they work to make the myth the one they want.

I did have a problem with the plot in that I felt the pacing was a bit awkward. The first half of the novel moves in jerks and sputtering motions. The pacing does get better in the second half where the form transitions to more of a traditional adventure story but those early pages were tough going initially.

The family conflicts that help tie the threads of the novel together are built on interesting character interactions. While Holdstock doesn't place heavy characterization in the forefront I appreciated his lighter touch. The characterization is done as subtle growth not giant epiphanies.

All in all Mythago Wood is pretty good. It's not quite as smoothly plotted as I would like but the other elements hold together well enough that I don't think it makes a significant difference. I can't say it was a brilliant novel but that doesn't diminish its qualities.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Review - Bridge of Birds

Bridge of Birds
by Barry Hughart
Tied for 1985 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

When talking about the World Fantasy Awards I mentioned that there were a few winners that had been on my list of books that I wanted to read for years. It has drifted off and on my radar from time to time but due to things like it being out of print and impossible to find at that time or my being bogged down with other things I never quite managed to get around to it. Now that I've finally read it I have to say that I'm disappointed that I took so long. Bridge of Birds is not only a good fantasy novel, it's one of the best novels that I've ever read.

The novel takes place roughly around 600AD in a China where the myths and legends are true. All of the children in a small village are struck by a mysterious ailment and so the strong but good-hearted peasant Number Ten Ox seeks help in the city. There he finds a sage with a slight flaw in his character named Master Li and the two of them have comic misadventures as they travel through mythic China solving mysteries and seeking a cure.

There's a lot more to it than that, of course, as Hughart weaves a careful and subtle plot among the comic misadventures. If I said anything more about it, though, it would completely ruin the fun of having things quite go as expected. The only thing approaching a complaint about the novel turned into one of the central mystery's big plot twists; it was a turn so ingenious that it subverted a plot device that I normally despise (if you've read the book before I'm not referring to the revelations in the last chapters but a little bit before that).

Part of what makes the story so effective is that Bridge of Birds is broken into easily digested chunks. One could view it as a set of short novelettes however this is one of those circumstances where when the last peice falls into place at the end of the book the whole tale is greater than the sum of its parts. So Hughart has Ox and Li move to a new adventure, get in trouble, and move on and each time the cycle repeats the view becomes just a bit wider. It's masterful pacing in which the novel never slows down; even the required exposition is presented dramatically.

A significant portion of the novel's charm is how smoothly it shifts tone. Hughart can comically relate the preparation of porcupine and then add in a romantic subplot before jumping into an adventure in the underworld that culminates in a tragic loss. He juggles those moods and settings like a master and while the overall tone of the novel is humorous there is far more going on than simple comedy.

All of that wonderful plotting would be worthless without characters and Bridge of Birds is not a let down there either. Number Ten Ox and Master Li are wonderfully engrossing characters and I think part of that has to do with the fact that they are the active characters in this story. It's typical in any novel with an adventure plot that the protagonists are reactive; the villain does something and they respond. By turning that normal situation on its ear Hughart lets the characters shine through their actions more. It's a lesson that a lot of fantasy authors need to learn.

If that wasn't enough the prose itself in the book is incredibly sharp. Hughart uses some awkward constructions to make it feel more like a novel translated from Chinese and in this case I think it adds to the story's charm.

There were two more books about Number Ten Ox and Master Li and I am eagerly looking forward to reading them. Bridge of Birds left me hungry for more; I want to see more of the wonders of mythic China through Hughart's tales. The only other thing I can say is that if you have not read it yet then you need to read it now; the only flaw with the book is that you'll be angry at yourself for not reading it sooner.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review - "Born With the Dead", "If the Stars Are Gods", and "The Day Before the Revolution"

It's one of those cruel ironies that when I finally no longer have to order three anthologies to get another year of Hugo winners that I strike a block of Nebula winners where they agreed with the Hugo winners two out of three times. I wound up having to order the next five Nebula Winners anthologies to keep things moving. Somedays it's just rough to be a collector.

"Born With the Dead"
by Robert Silverberg
1974 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In the near future of 1990 the dead are revived and once brought back they go off to live a separate existence from those who have died. One man pursues his former wife who has been revived like this trying to find his own answers and to determine if a relationship between them would be possible in the future.

I had a major problem with this story that undermined the whole thing for me: I never understood why this separate society would form. Silverberg does give some insight very late into the novella but I spent 90% of the story wondering how this was any different from someone revived with CPR. We were assured that those who died still had the same memories and desires and yet they all abandon their past lives as soon as they get up to go live with other revived people in an alien society that they would have never encountered until their death.

It seems to me that Silverberg was too busy making his point (the dead standing in for any segregated population) to realize that his metaphor didn't stand up to even casual consideration. I suspect that the metaphor may have resonated more with readers in 1974 than it does today which would explain how it won the Nebula but I can't recommend the story.

"If the Stars Are Gods"
by Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford
1974 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

An alien spacecraft enters orbit around the moon and the travelers on it demand to meet with an expert on the sun. The closest expert is an aging astronaut who finds that the aliens have come to commune with our sun as a benevolent god. Since the astronaut is the only man that the aliens will speak with tensions rise as they work to communicate.

I found the idea of aliens coming to us on a religious pilgrimage to be an interesting one and the authors do a wonderful job of presenting the interactions between the two species as our human viewpoint character tries to extract any information they can from the somewhat secretive aliens. They don't like to be recorded and dodge certain questions because of obvious concerns; it's not sinister, just a give and take. Unfortunately I think the spiritual aspects of the story fall short mainly because they're only defined in the broadest concepts. Still I found that the first contact portions were very well done and for that reason I'd recommend reading it.

"The Day Before the Revolution"
by Ursula K. Le Guin
1974 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

I dead seeing Le Guin's name after a story since it means that it will either be a terrific piece of human insight or it will be shrill political ranting. This story falls solidly on the terrific side of the line.

It ties into The Dispossessed but the connection is the only thing that makes this story science fiction. In "The Day Before the Revolution" the woman who founded the anarchist movement that is the center of one of the cultures in The Dispossessed has reached the end of her life. She is the old revolutionary whose work was done decades ago, watched the consequences of her civil disobedience, and now is the revered mother. This story is simply her reflections on the past and weariness of the present.

Le Guin does a wonderful job at humanizing someone who has become a legend in their own life time; whose persona has outgrown their life. It's a great reflection on the difficulty of the old revolutionary. The story may only be science fiction by way of the associative property but I've never been one to confine myself to a genre. It's definitely a story worth reading.