Recommended for: ya traditionalistsRead in July 2021★ ★ ★ 1/2
I’ve bounced off Sabriel by Garth Nix enough times that I was hesitant to give his latest a try, but Nataliya’s fine review caught my imagination, along with–of course–the titular booksellers. It’s still recognizably the Nix from Sabriel, but somehow modernized. Not that modernized, as it is set in 1983. Like Daryl Gregory’s latest, The Album of Dr. Moreau, it is a time frame that resonates with me–Your tolerance for Boy George and the A to Z road atlas may vary. At any rate, though I flagged once or twice, I found it both entertaining and comforting.
Before Susan begins her first semester at a prestigious art school, she heads to London early to earn some extra money and search for information about her father. Although her mother could certainly provide details, she’s inexplicably vague (there’s a hand-wavy “drugs in the 60s” line, which is a surprising line to find). This brief interaction sets the tone of the entire book: it follows fantasy convention in the general absence of supervising adults (adults can be present, but from a distance), bills (rent? meals?), and legal implications while setting it in a modern age with guns, helicopters and listening devices.
At any rate, despite being visited by strange water-mud-creatures in her dreams, when she finally encounters real magic watching Merlin skirmishing with Uncle Frank, she’s surprised by it. It’s a classic framing device for a reason, as it allows the reader to learn about the world along with Susan. Unfortunately, the magician–excuse me, Wizard–Merlin is generally vague on the big picture and tends to focus on the details. And, honestly, both Merlin and Nix take a major shortcut with their descriptions. If I read about hands once, I read about them thirty times. It was enough to make me wish I had an e-book, just so I could do a phrase scan. “He’s telling the truth, said Vivian. “We can nearly always tell. A right-handed thing, you know. ‘Verum ponderet dextrum.’ The right hand weighs the truth.“
Perhaps because I’m even-handed, it manages to charm. The tropes have been somewhat ‘modernized,’ with Merlin a bit gender-bendy, Susan embracing her DocMartens and coveralls, and and the “family” of booksellers containing a mix of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, blood relations notwithstanding. (Which is really the minimum of expectations I have these days, so yay, that). It’s a very honest book: everyone is sincere, even the villains, and grey areas are absent. I’m not complaining, mind you, but it does add to the ‘cozy’ feeling of the story.
Nonetheless, something about Nix and I just don’t quite gel. I think because he manages to be very specific when I’d rather he’d be vague, and vague when I’d wish he’d be specific. Here’s Merlin offering an explanation: “As a matter of fact, Norman did have a look for me. But by then it was five years, and he’s really on good for a month or two back. But there are… entities… who can help unravel the past or look toward the future, give clues to help work out what went on. So I went to one of them.” Helpful? No. Germane? Not really. I suppose it shows a facet of Merlin’s character, but since most of his conversations go along those lines, it doesn’t, not really. Ultimately, though Nix takes word count to give these hand-wavy explanations, do they really matter? Furthermore–and I’ll be super-blunt here–Nix mostly writes within the world of tropes, without bringing anything truly special to the table. Much of it feels mass market (spoilery stuff) with only a few scenes standing out.
What is notable is writing competence. It is action oriented, often scant on description, but with enough structural complexity to feel like I needed to pay attention. Occasionally Nix manages to capture a more ethereal or fairy-tale like quality with certain scenes. My favorites were the ones with the Grandmother(s), the wolf, and the undine, where the writing started to remind me of Charles deLint.
“The Grandmother raised the flower and sniffed it again, her piercing dark eyes momentarily hooded, a smile passing across her thin-boned face like a glimpse of some small, colorful bird darting between dark and brooding trees.“
A decent read, certainly, but not one I’ll be urging on everyone. Reminds me of DeLint, some of Wynne-Jones and maybe even that ethereal library series.