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Monthly Archives: April 2021

“The Memory Theater” by Karin Tidbeck

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I loved Karin Tidbeck’s short story collection Jagannath, so I was thrilled to discover that her new novel, The Memory Theater, features characters and scenarios from a few of those pieces. Dora was raised in the Gardens, a realm where immortal Lords and Ladies attend endless feasts, balls, and games. Thistle is a human child stolen away from his family to be a servant in the Gardens. Augusta is a Lady banished from the Gardens and determined to get back. Their journeys will take them across worlds, and some of them will learn important lessons along the way.

I absolutely love the concept of the titular Memory Theater. I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and the Memory Theater feels like something that could appear in that story. Its members could easily have become ciphers, but Tidbeck gives each of them a compelling personality.

In fact, strong character work is a hallmark of The Memory Theater. The friendship between Dora and Thistle comes across beautifully. Augusta’s alien way of thinking, built up over hundreds of years in the luxurious yet stagnant world of the Gardens, felt right for the character. Even minor players are given interesting histories and vivid emotional lives.

We catch glimpses of other worlds and stories around the edges of the main narrative: a couple of huldra-like beings living in a Scandinavian cave, a refugee from a mystical library, the mysterious traveler whose actions set off the main plot. I would love to see those stories fleshed out more in future works.

“The Witch Elm” by Tana French

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Tana French burst onto the literary scene in 2007, when her debut novel, In the Woods, won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry Awards. Her Dublin Murder Squad series currently stands at six entries. The Witch Elm (or The Wych Elm, depending on which edition you have) is a separate story but is similar in tone and style.

Toby’s life is going well until he’s attacked by a pair of burglars. He retreats to his uncle Hugo’s house both to aid in his own recovery and to look after Hugo, who has a terminal illness. He finds some measure of peace there, but his life is once again upended when a human skeleton is discovered in the hollow trunk of a huge tree in the backyard. The case ties back to the summers Toby and his cousins spent at Hugo’s house during their teenage years, and he finds himself having to reevaluate many formative experiences.

One of the aspects of the story I liked the best was French’s twist on the classic unreliable narrator. Toby suffers a head injury at the hands of his assailants, and this leaves him with some memory loss. He is, of course, one of the suspects in the murder of the tree skeleton, and while he doesn’t think he did it, the gaps in his memory mean he can’t be absolutely sure. I’ve read a lot of mysteries where I had no idea whether a given suspect had committed the crime, but I’ve never read one where one of the primary suspects has no idea whether he committed the crime! This was really refreshing.

I also loved the dialogue throughout most of the story. There are a lot of characters in this story: Toby, his friends Shaun and Declan, Detective Rafferty, Hugo, and Toby’s cousins Susanna and Leon. The distinctive voices French gives each of them go a long way toward helping the reader keep them all straight in one’s head.

I loved the first three-quarters of this book, but unfortunately, I had some problems with the last part. The dialogue for a couple of characters becomes a lot less realistic, with long expository paragraphs that took me out of the story. Another character made a pivotal choice that didn’t feel to me like it made sense. This was still an enjoyable book, but if French had stuck the landing, it could have been truly great.

“The Overneath” by Peter S. Beagle

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Peter S. Beagle is best known for his novel The Last Unicorn, but he’s also written a great deal of short fiction. His 2017 collection The Overneath made me fall in love with Beagle’s short-form work.

Two of the stories in this collection feature Schmendrick the Magician. “The Green-Eyed Boy” is an origin story that tells how he became apprenticed to the wizard Nikos. “Schmendrick Alone” takes place shortly after he’s set out on his own. Both stories provide more insight into Schmendrick and should be welcomed by fans of The Last Unicorn.

Speaking of unicorns, Beagle has written several stories that deal with different cultural takes on this classical symbol of innocence and goodness. “Olfert Dapper’s Day” presents the quintessential unicorn—the single-horned white horse that only allows itself to be touched by pure-hearted maidens. The story asks deep questions about the nature of innocence and redemption. In particular, it raises the idea that the unicorn’s judgement of a person’s worth may not match up with the judgment of other people. Some of the same questions are on display in “The Story of Kao Yu.” The unicorn in this story is a chi-lin (the spelling used by Beagle; Wikipedia renders it as qirin). Kao Yu is a magistrate, famed for both his wisdom and his integrity. The chi-lin occasionally appears in his courtroom, rendering its own judgments. When Kao Yu finds himself conflicted about a particular case, he worries that it may also bring him into conflict with the chi-lin. Finally, in “My Son Heydari and the Karkadann,” Beagle gives us a very different take on the unicorn. Inspired by the Persian legendary beast, Beagle’s karkadann is regarded by the human characters as a dangerous predator that can be soothed only by the song of a particular bird.

The creativity of this collection isn’t limited to the stories with a connection to Beagle’s previous work. One of my favorite stories was “The Very Nasty Aquarium,” which merges a folkloric supernatural being from the Caribbean with pirate lore. “The Way It Works Out and All” is a wonderful tribute to Avram Davidson, and “The Queen Who Could Not Walk” is a poignant tale of forgiveness. “Trinity County, CA: You’ll Want to Come Again and We’ll Be Glad to See You!” is probably the most imaginative dragon story I’ve ever read. There’s a lot to love in this collection, and while fans of The Last Unicorn will probably get the most out of it, it belongs on the bookshelf of every fantasy fan.

“Vesper Flights” by Helen MacDonald

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I loved Helen MacDonald’s memoir about grief and falconry, H is for Hawk. Her insightful writing about nature and human emotion really hooked me. That same insight is on full display in her new collection of essays, Vesper Flights.

One of my favorite essays was “High-Rise,” in which MacDonald visits the Empire State Building to watch the migrating birds that pass by it. The top of a skyscraper doesn’t seem like a place you’d go for bird-watching, but some are high enough that they reach the air routes birds use to migrate. Finding interesting organisms in unexpected places is a theme that recurs throughout the book, from flying ants along the roadside on a trip back from the grocery store to halophilic bacteria living in Chile’s Atacama Desert (the most arid place on Earth).

MacDonald is also deeply interested in history, and particularly in the way our relationship to various aspects of the natural world has changed over time. It’s not news that cultures invest certain plants and animals with symbolic significance, but MacDonald presents examples that are less obvious than, say, the bald eagle. In “Field Guides,” she discusses how the imagery and descriptions in field guides have changed over the years. One guide from 1889, for example, described birds in terms of humanlike character attributes. Bluebirds had “a model temper” (this one is particularly amusing given the iconic “mad bluebird” picture!) while catbirds supposedly embodied “lazy self-indulgence.” The first essay in the book, “Nests,” talks about how the practice of egg-collecting became politicized in postwar England. Native birds were viewed as symbols of the country, and stealing their eggs (even if the species wasn’t endangered) was seen as unpatriotic. Another essay, “Birds, Tabled,” presents an ethical debate over the keeping of trapped wild (non-endangered) birds. This is illegal in Britain, and while there may be legitimate concerns about the welfare of wild birds in captivity, it can’t be ignored that the keeping of wild birds has historically been a pastime of working-class Britons and of disadvantaged minorities such as Romani and Irish Travellers.

In her nature writing, MacDonald doesn’t shy away from thorny questions about “who has the right to define what a creature is, who has the right to interact with it, and how.” Nor is she afraid to bare her own feelings. Her frank discussion of her emotional state as a young adult working at a falcon-breeding facility in “Dispatches from the Valleys” was poignant. The deep humanity in her writing makes Vesper Flights a wonderful collection.