A new Ellen Kushner! And a selection to read here! Excited as I am, I’m going to hold off on buying it, because this is the time of year when I start saving up stuff-I-want for the Christmas list. Sir John and his family believe in Lists, so no one will be disappointed by getting socks or a lava lamp, and sometimes I have a terrible time coming up with things I can ask for. But this will be great.
One of the (many) things I love about the Riverside world is that Kushner managed to insert a fantasy-inflected academic novel inside the “fantasy of manners,” in Fall of the Kings. It’s a convincing academic world, one in which people care, passionately, about history and mathematics, about knowing, where it’s clear what history is good for in practical, political terms, but also where the past is, simply, interesting, where academic politics get in the way of research, where the joys of research are in themselves magical. There is “real” magic, yes; but Kushner seems to grasp that learning is itself magical and does not need to be overly-equipped with Major Arcana like the Holy Grail, or magical critters of every possible stripe.
The contrast I’m thinking of is a book I would like to like, which came highly recommended by a friend; I enjoyed the beginning because it gets Oxford and the Bodleian down so perfectly, and I can easily swallow enchanted manuscripts (aren’t they all?). But when it comes to vampires and the rest of the exotica, my willful suspension of disbelief breaks down. I suppose I was scarred by Bram Stoker, but to me vampires are icky and I cannot face any of the vampire-hero fiction. Well, OK, I tolerate Harry Dresden’s brother Thomas, but the whole point of Jim Butcher’s Dresden series is how incredibly over-the-top every single book is. Disbelief never even gets off the ground. My interest is always “how is he going to get out of it this time?”
So Ellen Kushner’s evocation of a world where magic is nearly gone, deliberately suppressed, but can be approached through beat-up old books by scholars who know how to interpret their language and symbolism, that floats my boat. That’s my world . . . plus a little something. It’s the world I glimpse when reading my own old romances, the world that’s just around the corner from this one, where the magic lies in grasping what was magical for people of 500 or 700 years ago. Scholarship, when it’s well-done, creates (or re-creates) something that is akin to fantasy. And Kushner, I guess, creates fantasy that is akin to scholarship. Minus the footnotes, but we have Susanna Clarke for that.
And now, back to my own efforts at creation. Revisons of the MMP-Octopus. Someday all the bits of that project are going to see the light of day.