Clockwork, Rocks and a TragicomicApril 10th, 2011 at 22:30
I’ve finally kicked up a gear or two in my reading this month! Enough that I am way behind on my book blogging, in any case. So here’s a mass post to catch up on three books I finished recently: gaslamp fantasy YA The Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, epic political fantasy The Last Stormlord by Glenda Larke, and ‘tragicomic’ memoir Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
I enjoyed Clare’s first Shadowhunters trilogy, as a fun Buffy-style YA paranormal, though it didn’t rank among my absolute favourites because I wasn’t all that attached to either character in her central supercouple, and none of the far-more-interesting supporting characters got nearly enough page time for my taste.
The first book of this new trilogy, though, set back in the Victorian era of her same world, has absolutely knocked my socks off. Tessa is a touch too modern to feel like the Bronte-esque heroine she is obviously modelled after, as indeed are all the characters (the feel is more like that of a suave, postmodern TV adaption of a Victorian fantasy tale, than one which actually belongs in that era) but I didn’t care because it was just so delicious from beginning to end.
Fans of Gail Carriger will really enjoy this story of warlocks, shapechangers and magical secret societies. Tessa is an orphan girl with attitude, coping with more tragedy, betrayal and terror than Jane Eyre on a bad day, and somehow managing to keep her chin up. Will and Jem, two teenage boys who embody Clare’s fascination with deep, loyal more-than-family friendships, are both quite fascinating despite holding their mysteries close to their chest.
As with Clare’s earlier work, it’s the dialogue that really makes this a captivating page turner of a read, though the added bonus of really appealing protagonists this time around has made this a series I will be hanging out for, instead of merely adding to the reading pile if I have time.
This is the kind of book which reminds me why I started loving fantasy in the first place. Glenda has created a stark, vivid and utterly convincing world which is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Her desert people live in cities that descend down slopes and cliff faces, and the society is (understandably) obsessed with water, which is the only currency. We see these gorgeous, harsh and cruel cities through many different perspectives: the rainlords who form the social elite because of their powers to manipulate water magically, and their proximity to the throne; and also the waterless, who barely survive on the fringes of society.
Everything hinges on the abilities of the Stormlords to lift and desalinate water from the faraway oceans, and to bring it over the cities in controlled storms. But there have been no new Stormlords for generations, and those few hopefuls have had “mysterious” accidents befall them. The only remaining Stormlord is old and sick and weak… and there is no one to replace him when he finally wears out. These are desperate times, and the lack of water leads to awful political decisions, civil unrest and, ultimately, to war. And all this before we even get to the end of Book 1!
Court politics, tangled societal rules, gender issues, romance, art and scimitars. How could I not like this book? It’s a measure of how much I did like it that I was able to get past the extremely gruesome death of a toddler early on in the story – for what should be fairly obvious reasons, death or cruelties visited upon babies and small children is one of my absolute pet hates in any kind of fiction, and something I just find myself unable to deal with. This one was rough, and still haunts me, but the story and the writing are both good and clever and crunchy enough to get me past that. I’m saving Book 2 (the one I share two shortlists with, in the Aurealis & Ditmar awards) for the plane, the one time I know I will have several of spare reading hours!
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
And moving into entirely different territory… This is a marvelous, awful, incredibly powerful graphic memoir (as opposed to graphic novel) of the artist/writer’s childhood, and particularly her relationship with her father, who died suddenly (and, she believes, intentionally) when she was twenty, shortly after she came out to her family as a lesbian, learned of her father’s own closeted homosexuality, and supported her mother in asking for a divorce. There’s an intensity to this book that comes from the layers and layers of meaning through each panel – often the illustration completely belies the text, or shows a different interpretation of reality. This means that you really get the sense that you are dredging through someone’s memories, circling round and round instead of following a single narrative line.
We are often told facts or details more than once, but each time it happens we understand more about the narrator and her family, and so we feel like we have been pulled deeper into the story. Bechdel exposes herself regularly as an unreliable narrator, but also pulls no punches in detailing her own perceived flaws or those of her parents – the three of them often feel like the only real characters in the story, or the only ones that she feels she can be honest and revealing about. Bechdel’s brothers, for instance, are only lightly sketched.
Most of all, this is a story about books – and it’s particularly interesting to me in light of several conversations this year on the topic of ‘books within books’ – Jo Walton’s Among Others, which I still haven’t got to, sparked off many of these, inviting comparisons with that classic book about reading books, Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. Listening to Farah Mendlesohn on the recent Coode St podcast, I was reminded in a sudden startlement that Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock is also a book about reading books, and was fascinated by Farah’s assertion that every book cited in that book contributes to a deeper understanding of what is going on in the story. I didn’t need an excuse to go back and reread one of my favourite novels of all time, but now I am bursting to do so.
But yes, Fun Home is a book about books – I find it really revealing that Bechdel barely mentions her interest in art, but the whole story is wrapped up in her halting beginnings as a writer. We see her progression as a diarist, under the critical eye of both parents, and there is a whole meta conversation about herself as narrator, and how early she began to weave ambiguity and misinformation into her text. Likewise, she examines her father’s letters, from his courtship of her mother as well as to Bechdel herself when she was at college, for clues as to his personality and his secrets. Bechdel discovers her sexual orientation through books, and we are treated to her reading list and her thoughts on several of the works which most affected her, through the narrative. Wound into the story also are the books she shared (sometimes with delight, sometimes with exasperation) with her father, an English teacher and (she felt) frustrated student of literature. After learning to fear, despise and be critical of Bechdel’s father for so much of the story, it is quite stunningly effective to show how he and his daughter, who seemed barely capable of having a conversation together, bonded so deeply over literature. Bechdel’s mother is an altogether less deeply realised character (as with her brothers, it seems likely that Bechdel was holding back here, only feeling completely free to write about herself and her late father) but we also see her portrayed through her intersections literature, the masters degree she regularly disappeared into and the amateur dramatics that seemed to consume so much of her attention.
Fun Home is a difficult, confronting read at times, but is a spectacularly realised memoir, and I was deeply affected by the artwork. Bechdel has copied in old letters and sketched new versions of real photographs, and you can see in her depictions of her family home in particular that she was using this book to capture and honour so many memories, from the deep and dark to the absurd. It’s a masterpiece, and the kind of book you need to reference when people start saying dumb things about how comic books are shallow, or just for kids, or only about superheroes.