Saturday, February 8, 2014

Book Reviews: Faerie Tale, Fevre Dream

Faerie Tale
by Raymond Feist
I had heard good things about the fantasy author Raymond E. Feist over the years. So I was interested in reading his work. But I wasn't really in the mood for starting another fantasy series. I don't have the interest or time at this moment. So Faerie Tale, an older book by Feist, was exactly what I was looking for. This book mixes the thriller and fantasy genres with just a minor touch of horror near the end. Compared to today's gore fests it's very mild indeed. It's a blink and you'll miss it sort of thing. I thought the story was lengthier than it needed to be but that impression may have had more to do with things going on in my life than the author's pacing. You may feel differently. I was interested in what happened next but to me this wasn't a page turner which I'm staying up late to read or reading at every opportunity during the day. So it took me a little longer to get thru the book than it usually does. I did think that this book would be ripe for a cinematic treatment, as Feist is very very good at invoking the pleasures and fears of an old house with plenty of secrets and even older woods where strange things lurk. In Faerie Tale, a very successful family decides to move from California back to upstate New York. Phil Hastings is a famous screenwriter, movie producer and author who would like to reinvigorate his literary career outside of Hollywood. His wife Gloria is an actress more known for character and stage roles than lucrative leading famous ones. 

Phil has three children. His eldest, Gabrielle, his teen daughter by Phil's first wife, is an heiress whose wealth upon maturity will far exceed Phil's own. Gabrielle's mother comes from old money but Gabrielle's grandmother disinherited her daughter in favor of Gabrielle. Phil also has two young sons by Gloria, Sean and Patrick, enthusiastic young baseball fans. In moving back to New York, Phil is not only looking to get some writing done but looking forward to being closer to his now elderly graduate adviser, Aggie, one of the first and most important people to believe in and encourage Phil's writing career.
So everything looks good. Of course if all was really good there wouldn't be much of a story. The mansion which Phil and Gloria purchased was originally owned by a turn of the century German immigrant named Kessler. Kessler was involved in some shady religious rituals in Europe before fleeing to America. Phil and Gloria learn this from Mark Blackmon, one of Aggie's younger associates, though she dismisses a lot of his work. Mark tends to write or edit a lot of books about alien encounters, archaic religions, alternate history, and pre-human races. Aggie thinks his evidence gathering is not rigorous though she grudgingly admits that he knows more than people give him credit for. As Mark seems harmless enough, though somewhat secretive, Phil and Gloria allow Mark and his research assistant Gary to search through the house for anything Kessler may have hidden as well as research Kessler's library. Mark has been eager to get into their house for years.

Meanwhile Gabrielle and her brothers have encounters, some of which seem very real with things that can't be there. Adults, with the exception of Mark, tend to ignore what the children tell them. But things reach a fever pitch when Gabrielle is assaulted by someone who fits the description of Puck. Having found a handy local drunk who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Irish myths, Sean and Patrick think they know what they're up against. But again, besides Mark no one believes them. Mark knows that the stories told don't begin to capture the malice and majesty of the creatures known as The Fair Folk. As it is close to Midsummer's Night those people will be on the move. But this time the being known as The Fool thinks the time may be right to restart an ancient war long forgotten by humanity. I guess you could place this in the urban fantasy genre, that is magic interacting with people in our modern world. Overall it was an ok read but as mentioned the pacing didn't quite grab me. This book was written a while ago and people's expectations have likely changed. There are some erotic themes as the virginal Gabrielle has met the man she intends to marry. But the young lady also seems to attract the attention of more malicious creatures. I liked how the story posited an underlying truth that's hinted at in various myths and religions across the world.

Fevre Dream
by George R.R. Martin
This is one of Martin's earlier works. It was written long before A Song of Ice and Fire Series. I originally read it WAY back in the day. Then because I was curious to see how he had changed as a writer, I reread it about three months back. The most obvious difference between the Martin of then and now is that he was much less verbose. This book is just under 400 pages but it feels like less than that. The plotting is very tight and the story, while not quite breakneck, doesn't spend a lot of time on what I thought of as irrelevancies. As far as the theme, there's not a lot of similarities between this and his later work except that the protagonist, much like Tyrion Lannister, is a remarkably ugly fellow with a sardonic sense of humor. Good and evil are more sharply defined than you would expect given Martin's oft cynical voice in his other creations. There are characters for whom you will be rooting to win and those for whom you will have nothing but contempt. 
The story takes place in antebellum America, mostly in the South and lower Midwest so if realistic depictions of racist characters offend you why would you read this book. The most racist characters are the most morally debased in every way so there's that. The supernatural elements are in no way as horrific as the casual and widely accepted racism. Although the subject matter and a few harrowing scenes make this a horror novel, again just like Faerie Tale, this could be understood as dark fantasy. Ultimately Fevre Dream is an optimistic book. 
Abner Marsh (think Mark Twain) is a steamboat captain who's fallen on hard times. He doesn't have the capital to keep up with his competitors. He's very good at what he does and still has some fire in his belly but not much else. He is anti-slavery and does what he can behind the scenes. In 1857 Marsh is approached by a polite and eccentric man named Joshua York who has researched Marsh and his business. York wants to partner in an investment to build the biggest fastest steamboat the Mississippi River has ever seen. It will be called the Fevre Dream. Marsh will be captain and York will be the silent partner with all the cash. York has enough capital to make this dream a reality. The frank but shrewd Marsh decides to accept the offer. But York is a strange sort. He is quick to command Marsh, sleeps all day and is incredibly furious when Marsh wakes him up during daytime, refusing to leave his darkened room. And York's friends behave as he does. Marsh doesn't like anyone telling him what to do and is concerned about never seeing York out and about during the daytime. It's obvious as to what sort of story this is to the reader before it is to Marsh as Martin very early introduces a "man" named Damon Julian, who is York's opposite number. Living in New Orleans, Julian is an enthusiastic slaveowner who doesn't hide his true nature as well as he should. He is completely opposed to everything York stands for. When things get a little too hot for him in New Orleans and he hears of York's attempts to "fix" their kind's nature, he decides to set his will against that of York's to see just who will be the true Bloodmaster. 
Julian likes slavery in part because he views it as humanity's attempt to imitate his kind. Julian very much believes in superior and inferior groups and individuals. And to him trying to change something that is "natural", such as his people being at the top of the food chain, is insane, blasphemous and ultimately impossible. Martin has some insights into morality here. He does not stint in describing slavery's ugliness or the foulness of humans who would hurt other humans just for fun or a chance to advance. Julian's aide-de-camp, Sour Billy, is just as much of a monster as later Martin characters such as Gregor Clegane or Ramsay Bolton. Marsh is a stand in for the reader as he is forced to make a decision about doing the right thing and helping the "man" who would become his friend, Joshua York. This has some strong horror scenes in it, both supernatural and otherwise, so if that's not your deal then you know what to do. If you are into this stuff there was also a graphic novel version but I prefer the original novel.
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