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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Faren Miller reviews Greer Gilman

Though her work has been showing up on Locus Recommended Lists since debut Moonwise back in 1991, Greer Gilman remains one of the great hidden treasures of the fantasy field. That novel brought two contemporary women to a stark island known as Cloud, invoked in extraordinary language I described in these terms: "Imagine that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins... had downed a dark, pungent brew of old English ballads and even older myths and, gloriously intoxicated, decided to write a fantasy novel."

I missed out on "Jack Daw's Pack", the 2000 novelette where Gilman returned to that background and style, but managed to catch follow-up novella "A Crowd of Bone" — an eventual World Fantasy Award winner — when it appeared in Small Beer's 2003 anthology Trampoline. Now Small Beer has gathered both works plus a long original sequel to the novella in Cloud & Ashes, for a trio of "Winter's Tales" far more potent and connected than a standard collection.

"Jack Daw's Pack" (a Nebula finalist) starts with a group of vignettes showing figures from myth, folktale, country masque/rituals — not quite a tarot pack, and all still active in some form in Cloud and the other lands of Gilman's world — before turning to an extended encounter between a woman and a beggar with a child. That's an overly bland description of a work that reads like language stripped bare, myth tracked to its origins. Seasons, weather, lust, pain, sacrifice... the stuff of old ballads becomes intensely real, with the natural contradictions of a cold wind that both chafes and dances.

If that opening novelette seems a bit low on actual narrative, "A Crowd of Bone" amply makes up for it. Addressed to a dead woman's daughter by her mother's ghost, this beautifully proportioned novella tells of a young man who is "stolen," then pulls the trick himself as he steals away the daughter of a witch who has some of the powers of a goddess, and takes her back into the world with him. Their trials and adventures over the course of one year will end with her death in childbirth, a tragedy with some magical elements. But the fate of the pair's own daughter Margaret, whom the witch has taken into a kind of metaphysical close custody like her mother before her, still hangs in the balance.

The figures in the cards/constellations/rituals also appear in this tale (and the next one). The most important of these, in both emotional and narrative terms, is Ashes: part Cinderella, part Persephone, and one of the few who regularly take on human form as girls are chosen to embody her in a winter ritual — where their brief reign may also leave them with an unwanted child.

Readers who have spent any time at all as English majors are likely to find many echoes of classic poetry and drama here, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Burns, Marvell, Blake, and Hopkins, along with a few non-Brits like Dante, but Gilman never really seems to be quoting; she's going back to the source. A blurb on the galley cites John Clute's comment on Moonwise, where he says much the same thing about that book's relation to dreams. And a bit of dialog from "Crowd of Bone" condenses the feeling into a brief exchange, as a girl named Ciss says "A new tune? I do love a new tune," to which Kit the musician (and Margaret's father) replies, "One I've made.... The oldest in the world."

Of all the poets quoted, the one with the strongest influence on language and plot turns out to be Gerard Manley Hopkins, particularly the opening lines of "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child": "Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?"

We've already seen Margaret, and this book's long original work "Unleaving" — which continues her story — takes its title from that quote, though Gilman goes on to give the word an expanded meaning both richer and even more arcane than Hopkins' reference to the autumnal fall of leaves.

If you're wondering why the subtitle of Cloud & Ashes refers to these three works as "Winter's Tales", it's more than just a passing reference to Shakespeare (or a snub to the seasons in the poem just quoted). Though a few cultural elements could almost come from Victorian England, most of life and work and speech in these magic-haunted isles is closer to the hardscrabble existence of shepherds, farmers and traveling players whose relatively small homelands are bordered by a cold sea and never all that far from Winter's cruel force. Here rituals to bring back the sun and Spring still have an urgency that has almost vanished from our own Christmases and New Years. Like human cruelty, another strong player in Margaret's young life, in the northlands Winter can seem invincible.

Though the publisher calls "Unleaving" a short novel, at more than 300 pages it really qualifies as full-length, and that gives it room for some of the lifelike messiness that gets pruned from the more elegant novella form. Margaret escapes her witch grandmother without quite knowing what she's doing, and tumbles into a new world with no partner or initial mentor. Even after she finds a place in the household of a scholar (who happens to be gay, so no handy romance is in store) and develops a passion for astronomy which even she sometimes finds awkward, her life doesn't conform to the stately cadences of myth, folklore or ballads — at least not until she really gets into trouble, and that won't be for a while.

But by the time you've explored the many forms (physical and metaphysical) of Unleaving, spent time with various incarnations of Ashes, and seen just what Margaret could become after childhood's left behind, it shouldn't be all that hard to show a little patience with her adolescent uncertainties, plus subplots and further arcane references. And the payoff is immense. I finished Cloud & Ashes almost tempted to write a thesis that compares it favorably to what James Joyce did in Ulysses and tried in Finnegan's Wake, yet feeling like I'd lived through it all.


Read more! This is one of many reviews from the May issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter's Tales

Greer Gilman

(Small Beer Press 978-1-931520-55-3, $26.00, 438pp, hc) May 2009.



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