The Indigo Pheasant (ChiZine, Oct. 2012) is a multi-cultural historical fantasy, with a complicated alternate history/religious bent, written for grown-ups, but with YA appeal. Here are my thoughts, with a Bonus Question regarding "muscular fantasy" at the end.
On Thursday I had the pleasure of welcoming Daniel Rabuzzi, author of The Choir Boats, and its sequel, The Indigo Pheasant, to my blog--if you haven't visited his post on historical fiction, do! At the time of posting, I had not yet finished The Indigo Pheasant, which arrived just before I went to New York for Kidlitcon. So I am reviewing it today.
To briefly summarize: In the first book, The Choir Boats, we are introduced to Yount a place thrust out of normal space, and reachable only by traversing seas full of places that aren't of Earth. It is the early 19th century. A family from Scotland has the gifts of music, math, and dreams to restore Yount to its proper place in time and space... but in this imagining of reality, there are malevolent fallen angels who will use that fluctuation in reality to seize control of Earth, and Yount.
The first book is primarily the story of this family's journey to Yount and the dangers that beset them, and focuses on Sally, daughter of mercantile privilege and brilliant mathematically. In the second book, Sally and her family return to London, to build the great ship (to be called the Indigo Pheasant) that will, through a marvel of music and math, sing Yount home again. But for this project to succeed, another girl, perhaps even more mathematically brilliant, is essential.
She is Maggie, whose mother escaped with her from slavery in Maryland. Despite her life of poverty, Maggie is even more extravagantly self-taught then Sally. But unlike Sally, whose loyalties become torn, Maggie has the clear-eyed fierceness to impel the Indigo Pheasant to completion. And Maggie has visited the Goddess in her dreams...the Goddess who must wake if order is to be restored.
On the downside, hideous demonic entities are working against them, both supernaturally, and through more mundane financial and political channels (it was a nice mix!), and the bounds of family loyalty are strained. It is all very tense (but in a less adventuresome, dramatic way than the tenseness of book 1).
Now, as readers of this blog know, I read lots of children's books, and almost never read adult sci fi/fantasy. So it was a rather different experience, reading these two books--they took longer, the typeface was smaller, the narrative point of view was more distant than I'm used to (more time spent floating above the characters, rather than living inside their heads).
But that being said, The Indigo Pheasant was a checklist of things I appreciate in my fiction:
1. strong and interesting protagonists, for whom I can care. The books have a fairly large cast of characters, but the focus was on Sally and Maggie--teenage girls (hence YA appeal) who are good at math ftw. A third protagonist, another teenage girl (this one from China) was kind of stuck on at the end in a rather sudden way, which felt a tad awkward--I would have liked to have had her come on to central stage sooner.
Bonus points here for being a book about family--not just biological relationships, but the bonds between people that make them kin. I like this sort of book.
2. interesting world building (aided, in the case of this book, by the inclusion of miscellaneous side matter, like newspaper clippings and letters). Geography, religion, and politics were all important, and deserve their own sentences:
--the geography of Yount and the seas around it was haunting. Really, truly, memorable and gripping descriptions of strange islands and oceans.
--I wasn't ever fully convinced by the religious restructuring that Rabuzzi asks us to accept, not because of any conflict with my own convictions (the existence of a Goddess, along with an absent God, doesn't phase me), but because I don't think the Goddess actually did enough to be worth making a big deal about waking her. Rabuzzi draws considerably on the Old Testament, but it's definitely a reworking of basic Judeo-Christian monotheism that might make some readers unhappy. I myself liked the inclusion of spiritual entities/saint type people from religions and cultures outside Christianity in Maggie's Paradisical dreams.
--This is historical fiction, and Rabuzzi knows his stuff. The politics of the burgeoning world system of the early 19th century are a large part of the story; characters reflect and comment, and act, as a result of an accurately presented global reality.
One issue I had with the world-building is that Rabuzzi has perhaps too much fun with vocabulary--his early 19th-century people use many words (some of which I need to check out in the OED to see if they are really real) that were outside of my ken. It got a bit distracting.
3. Authorial tricksy-ness. The cards are not laid out on the table all at once. People's motives are not clear right at the beginning, and one character in particular is a really toothsome example of someone who appears one thing, but is really another.
And under this heading of tricksy-ness I'll put the fact that Sally's family knows the Gardiners (from Pride and Prejudice) and corresponds with Lizzy Darcey....
So, to summarize, I enjoyed these books just fine and would happily recommend them to a reader (YA or Adult) who wants something a solidly entertaining and thought-provoking, multi-cultural, historical fantasy, which is just one small step down from Loving them and desperately wanting all and sundry to read them.
That concludes the review portion of this post; and now, a question.
Question: a review of The Choir Boats called it " a muscular, Napoleonic-era fantasy." I am not exactly sure what "muscular" means. Does it mean a really complicated, yet firmly-constructed plot? Do you have to have lots of things happening to be "muscular"? Or does it mean a really confident, strong authorial hand? (Choir Boats fits all three definitions).
The opposite of "muscular" I guess would be a "timid" or "weak" fantasy, which implies that no risks are taken, the stakes are low, and everyone, including the author, just vacillates like crazy. Or it could be one that is simply more cerebral, or spiritual, in which the character development is internal. If you are a muscular fantasy, are you a less thought-provoking and intelligent book?
My own conclusion is that I will continue to eschew "muscular" as a descriptor of books.
Thanks, ChiZine, for sending me copies of these!