Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The outer edge of the fantasy spectrum

kw: book reviews, fantasy

I used to be irritated to find Fantasy mixed into the Science Fiction section. However, I've learned to enjoy the differences among the various subgenres of Speculative Fiction. I really don't care for sword-n-sorcery, nor for the "sort of sciencey, sort of magicky, epic-in-a-gothic-envelope" stuff I can't otherwise classify. But that leaves plenty to enjoy.

I am also careful of social-fringe-thought-experiment work; this latter harks back to Guy de Maupassant and stories like "Boule de Suif", in which he goes to great lengths to get you to sympathize with a prostitute. Anyone who knows anything about prostitues will surely sympathize with them, a lot...doesn't mean one ought to patronize the business.

So how could I get any sort of enjoyment out of reading a pure sword-and-sorcery, all-magic-and-no-technology, gender-reversal, homoerotic-speculative novel? Water Logic by Laurie J. Marks is in a genre of its own. It happens to be astonishingly well written and carefully plotted, with characters just slightly exaggerated so they don't (quite) strain belief.

The book cover has a tiny subtitle, "An Elemental Logic Novel". It follows Fire Logic and Earth Logic into print, and Air Logic is sure to follow. If Ms Marks is quite, quite creative, perhaps Quintessential Logic will then ensue.

In the Logic sphere, most warriors are women and the cooks and "help" are men. According to their elemental "blood" nature, there are four kinds of witches, who appear to be in competition of a sort. But the warfare that must have dominated one or both earlier books is not between elementals; rather, it is within them. (It occurs to me that these "bloods" correlate with the historical "humors": sanguine, choleric, and so forth. It takes them all to make a society.)

In fact, magic dominates this sphere, with ravens replacing cell phones (at least for Earth witches), two levels of healers, and effects based not on spells, but on skill, talent, and desire. Few read, and there are two written languages, an apparently phonetic script that is hardly mentioned, and "glyphs", which seem to be richly illuminated Tarot-like icons; in simpler form the glyphs are a Chinese-like script with each glyph holding a word's meaning.

I am sufficiently cosmopolitan to put aside my distaste for a society in which the men all have husbands, the women all have wives, and male-female relations are limited to procreational needs; in fact many women adopt rather than bear. It was unclear whether the larger citizenry, nearly unseen, have a society we'd find more familiar.

I was looking for how people relate on all levels; how does this society work? When you have turned all the visible elements of a society on its head, can it still hang together?

The author's message is, a society is based on commitment and trust. Regardless of one's milieu, the one is required to earn the other, and a suspicious or notorious past requires one to go to extraordinary lengths to earn (or re-earn) trust. As the guy said in the movie "Family Man": "The Commitment Bank of Trust only takes deposits. Once you make a withdrawal, the account is closed."

And herein lies the joy of the author's writing. Ignoring the pronouns, love and commitment bind, envy and hate sunder, and the people who feel these things are seen to feel them in what they do. The words themselves seldom need mentioning.

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