Back in mid to late January, I reviewed the suggested reading list for the Altered States reading program promoted by the Kansas City Public Library. Many familiar titles popped out at me like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and PKD’s The Man in the High Castle. The more modern (recently published) offerings I’d seen making the rounds of the GoodReads book clubs over the past couple of years, titles like McCarthy’s The Road, Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (currently in a run-off poll at the SciFi & Fantasy Book Club for our March 2011 selection), Priest’s Boneshaker and Moore’s The Watchmen.
With limited reading time, and way too many book clubs to keep up with, I quickly eliminated the two books I’d already read: Fforde’s The Eyre Affair and Clarke’s Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell (see my GoodReads reviews below). I visited my local used bookstore twice and found a copy of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I found a public domain ebook version of London’s The Iron Heel. I placed a hold on Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and PKD’s The Man in the High Castle. I’ve read two of those five, and started a third one, with the other two waiting patiently on my shelf at home.
Of the remaining suggested titles, I plan to read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (because I should have a long time ago) and Roberts’ Pavane (because it sounds interesting and more remote from my own times).
I read The Iron Heel and Connecticut Yankee simultaneously, an experience I’m not soon to forget. I may someday re-read Twain’s novel, but I find myself wishing I’d passed over London’s weak attempt at novelizing a political tract (see my review below and click through to see the comments of other GoodReads readers and reviewers). The KC Library’s blurb on it just doesn’t do it justice (tongue firmly in cheek):
Considered the first modern dystopian novel, The Iron Heel is presented as the fictional autobiography of American revolutionary Avis Everhard and her struggles against the Oligarchy, a group of robber barons that co-opted the U.S. Army and forced the middle class into serfdom. The narrative is complemented by sometimes extensive footnotes written from the perspective of a future scholar and descendent of the revolution inspired by Everhard. The Iron Heel proved a strong influence on George Orwell as he wrote 1984.
Another comparatively similar novel, but better written, Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here shows a chilling and plausible turn of events in 1930s America. I’m only a few chapters into it, but I can’t wait to continue reading it. You can follow along with me via my status updates here and eventually read my review once I finish (all on the same page for easy navigating).
I hope to finish all these novels prior to the end of the Altered States reading program. Either way, I’ll post an occasional travelogue here as a I journey through the Warped Zone of dystopian, apocalyptic and alternate reality/history fiction.
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A wonderful thing happened on the way to The Eyre Affair; I read Jane Eyre. For that alone I will be eternally grateful.
Otherwise, it was an enjoyable but forgettable mystery set in a chaotic vortex of genres spanning paranormal, science fiction, alternate history, and time travel. At one point, it even reminded me of Butcher’s Dresden series.
The puns, literary references and alternate history gaffs intrigued me and sparked quick forays of research to confirm or deny my suspicions.
I have the sequel Lost in a Good Book waiting in the wings to see what happens Next.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This novel was rich on many levels. It was fantasy, for it had magic and fairies, but it was also historical fiction, possibly even an alternate history of Britain during and shortly after the Napoleonic Wars. It’s pacing matched that of the times, sedate and thoughtful, rich in detail and characters.
Gilbert Norrell is a miserly magician of Yorkshire who hoards any and all books of magic he can get his hands on. His first act of magic in the novel actually results in the dissolution of a society of theoretical magicians in York for the sole purpose of making himself the only magician in Britain.
Jonathan Strange is an idle gentleman who stumbles upon his talent for magic and like a moth to the flame, flies to Mr. Norrell, the only source of magical information, and becomes his pupil. Their association lasts for several months until Strange surpasses Norrell in inventiveness and intuition and Norrell sends him to assist the army in Spain.
In Spain, Strange eventually becomes indispensable to Lord Wellington, initially by providing magic roads for the British Army to use which disappear back to a morass of mud just in time for the French Army to get bogged down in. Finally, Strange’s magic turns the tide of the Battle of Waterloo and thus ends the reign of Emperor Bounaparte.
Three background characters are pivotal to the story. The first is Emma Wintertowne, who eventually becomes Lady Pole after marrying Sir Walter Pole. But only after she is resurrected by Mr. Norrell with his second and most famous act of magic. But Norrell bargains away half of Emma’s life to the fairy he summoned to ressurect her, a fairy gentleman we know only as “the gentleman with the thistle down hair.” This resurrection reults in the enchantment and imprisonment of Lady Pole in the fairy hall of Lost-hope, doomed to dance and endless balls or participate in pointless processions.
The second supporting character also enchanted by the fairy gentleman is Sir Walter’s butler, a black man named Stephen Black. The fairy took a queer liking and attachment to Stephen and forced him to attend the same balls and processions that Lady Pole suffered. Both Lady Pole and Stephen were returned to the real world each morning, but they both suffered exhaustion and distraction from living a double life, which both were prevented from relating to others of their predicament.
The third enchanted and most tragic figure was Strange’s wife, Arabella. Because Arabella struck up a friendship with the ailing Lady Pole, she came into the sphere of the gentleman with the thistle down hair. He immediately sought to enchant her permanently to the halls of Lost-hope. With Stephen’s reluctant assistance, he was able to pull Arabella into fairy, seemingly causing her to perish to her family and friends.
Strange was nearly mad with grief but was eventually persuaded to take a long holiday on the continent, where he met another English family, the Greysteels. It seemed he was on the path of a second marriage to Flora Greysteel, when he discovered a pathway to fairy, stumbling upon the hall of Lost-hope and learning of the fates of Lady Pole, Stephen and his wife, Arabella. The rest of the novel is Strange’s struggle to free the women. As we learn later, Stephen breaks his own and Arabella’s enchantments when the opportunity presents itself.
Two of the most interesting supporting characters were Mr. Childermass, Mr. Norrell’s strangely independent servant, and Vinculus, a seedy street sorcerer of London, run out of town by Mr. Norrell thanks to the efficient efforts of Mr. Childermass. Both of these characters provide some of the most colorful scenes and plots to the novel.
And in the background, every present in the sky, on the wind or sleeping in the stones, is the Raven King, a mythic being from Britain’s past, a king who reigned in Northern England, in fairy and in Hell. He is vital and instrumental in the return of English magic.
The ending was sad and somewhat tragic, but not unexpected.
If you enjoy historical fiction, especially of the early 19th century, you will enjoy this novel and savor it for many hours, especially curled up by the fire with a warm cup of tea.
Dystopian, or very dated alternate history, which drowned me in Marxism and the evils of capitalism as viewed through the lens of the very early 20th century. My perspective, a century later, shows many of these ills have been legislatively remedied. Not much of a story or plot, no real character growth; mostly essay or lecture on socialism, topped off with stomping feet, neo-terrorism and the beginnings of a non-nuclear Cold War.