The premise: a theatre set in NoParticularTime, inhabited by every character of every play, who come on stage to perform when their scene is announced. Also inhabited by appropriate backstage personnel, and Beatrice Shakespeare Smith, an inappropriate foundling who loves the theatre (her home) with a passion and who is followed around by the Midsummer Night’s Dream fairies, who are as crude and rambunctious and loyal and awesome as (William) Shakespeare would have wanted. Also, two love interests. With this sort of set-up it would have been hard for me not to be completely in love. Happily, Mantchev does not disappoint.
Beatrice – sorry, Bertie – is a wonderful heroine, defiant and strong-willed, fiercely loyal and amusingly devious. She causes all sorts of mischief in and around the theatre – enough that eventually, she might have to leave, unless she can prove herself. This is a coming of age story, with Bertie discovering her gifts and talents and likes and dislikes, as well as dealing with how other people react to her and act on their own. She faces loss – new and old – and disappointment, confusion (especially about love) and revelation, and the glory of strong and true friendship. Basically, it’s all the good and bittersweet bits of the classic coming of age, in a marvellous and enchanting package.
I loved the Theatre Illuminata. I love the way the scene changes work, I love the irascible backstage types and their petty feuds. I was delighted by how Mantchev took mostly Shakespeare’s characters and used them on stage but also imagined them as people outside of their scenes (much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern does, without the loopy philosophising and dialogue…). The characters from Hamlet were especially amusing, playing on and reflecting so many of the tensions that can easily be imagined from the play itself, and that might arise from the people playing those characters day in, day out. It’s just really clever. And then there’s the fairies: Cobweb, Mustardseed, Moth, and Peaseblossom. Pulling hair, mooning important people, eating all the cake… it’s all in a day’s work, really, and there better be cake after, too. Oh, and Ariel. I am not a huge fan of The Tempest, but I’ve read and seen it; I loved Dan Simmons’ play on Caliban in Ilium and Olympos… but I’ll never be able to see Ariel in the same light again. (Huh; this connects with Obernewtyn, by Isobelle Carmody, which I’ve also just read. Interesting.)
How much did I love this book? I’ve just ordered books 2 and 3. I HAVE to know what happens.
Slight spoiler: One thing bugged me. She’s all hung up about her mother, and wanting to find her mother, but she doesn’t seem worried about her father until right near the end. This is a girl who’s grown up around Shakespeare, where half the time it’s the mother who is missing, but the father is present. Surely, when she knows neither, she should be curious about both? Also, growing up around those stories, shouldn’t she be wanting to know the romantic story of how they met?
*Spoilers for Obernewtyn, the first book*
Continuing my re-read of the Obernewtyn chronicles, I devoured most of this one in a night. Interestingly, it’s set some time after Obernewtyn ends, and therefore we don’t get most of the fight against Alexi and Madame Vega, nor Rushton’s work at being made legal owner of the place. Possibly because Elspeth is out of it for a while thanks to the burns to her legs? Anyway, we open here rather abruptly to discover that Rushton is in charge, and the Misfits have formed themselves rather (too) neatly into Guilds according to their mind powers. This was one thing that bugged me about the book – they all seemed to have come into their powers rather quickly, and easily, whereas I had the impression from the first book that many of them were uncomfortable and certainly not that good at using them because of the fear of being discovered. Perhaps Carmody imagines that once released from that fear, most young people would flourish in experimentation… and when I put it like that, perhaps she is not far wrong.
Anyway, the bulk of Farseekers is not actually set at Obernewtyn, but in the lowlands, as Elspeth and some others set out on a joint mission to find a library and a strong Talent they’ve sensed. Of course, things do not go easily, and they encounter most of the villains foreshadowed in Obernewtyn – Council, Herders, and the Druid himself – in various ways and with various consequences that I shan’t spoil. It is a more convincing narrative than the first book; while there are still happy coincidences and useful chance-meetings, well, that’s really the stock in trade of a fantasy, in some ways; and here it’s done more smoothly and with less jarring “oh hai, yr conveniently who i need” moments.
Characters are more interesting and well developed in this second novel, too. Elspeth is a bit more complicated and nuanced, conflicted between the desire for safety and an impatience with staying put. The characters she goes travelling with show hints of personality and individuality; the most developed and interesting are the animals, and particularly the arrogant stallion Gahltha. He’s way cool. Rushton continues to be gruff and remote but still appealing (to me, anyway!). The new people our Misfits meet on their travels are probably the most interesting characters aside from Elspeth, and although one of them gets a bit preachy and info-dumpy that’s hardly his fault, and I liked him for his rash-yet-considered ways.
Finally, the world is built up just that bit more in this novel, mostly thanks to the travels of our heroes. We learn more about the current society – which is complex enough to be not all bad, but simple enough that the reader knows (well, this one did) that they really wouldn’t want to live there. There’s more about the Beforetimes, too, and I seem to remember that it took me until this book to be absolutely sure that Carmody was envisioning this as OUR world after some sort of human-caused apocalypse. Which is a bit embarrassing frankly. Anyway – more Beforetimes things, and stories too. This sort of idea isn’t unique, but I like how Carmody runs with it.
I remembered a fair bit about this story – bits and pieces of Elspeth’s story, like the cat, and Ariel, and aspects of life at Obernewtyn. I had forgotten – or didn’t notice the first time – that the quality is quite patchy. There are some bits that really ought to have been picked up by an editor, like the fact that Elspeth uses Ariel’s name without ever being told it (and with no indication that she had got it telepathically either). Some of the scenes are very rushed, and others are just oh-so-convenient. It reminded me, actually, of Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone. I understand that bits of this were first written when Carmody was in high school, so perhaps this was her debut, which means I’ll give it some leeway. Because it really is a fascinating story, underneath it all. A world recovering from the Great White, which has poisoned significant portions of the land and caused various mutations; now-forbidden knowledge that perhaps humanity caused the Great White with very amazing weaponmachines; the society which has developed over hundreds of years initially to ensure survival and now, of course, ensuring that the social structure and power hierarchy is maintained. And in to the mix a secretive and fairly unpleasant religious group called the Herders (following the god Lud, which I presume is a corruption of Lord? and being Herders is a bastardising of the idea of priests as shepherds?), and then a group of Misfits with mental powers… and there’s a lot of potential for enthralling storytelling.
Elspeth, the main character and narrator, has her moments of awesomeness and her moments of not. She does develop nicely in terms of her sociability, over the course of the novel, and the conflict she feels over who to trust sometimes works and then at other times seems to melt away far too fast. Of the other characters, I always liked Rushton, the gruff farm overseer; the other Misfits Elspeth encounters are hardly developed at all, but have their flashes of brilliance.
If I were reading this for the first time today, I’m not sure I would continue reading it, which is a surprise to me and a sad one. I am going to keep reading, of course, because I know that the plot becomes ever more tricksy… and the incurable romantic in me remembers some of the emotional conniptions from the later books and desperately needs resolution.