Spoilers for the first two Obernewtyn books.
The book opens with a halfblooded gypsy about to be burned at the stake by a Herder, which is nicely dramatic and also introduces the gypsies themselves, who have only been vaguely alluded to in the previous books. Here, beginning with Elspeth’s rescue of the gypsy woman (oh come on, that’s not a spoiler; as if she could ride past and let it happen!), gypsies and their place in the Land play a large, and intriguing, part. And so does Dragon, the mysterious child discovered in the Beforetime ruins who turned out to be an immensely powerful coercer.
The narrative continues to follow Elspeth and her somewhat torturous groping after her destiny as presented to her by the Agyllian birds, as well as the Misfits of Obernewtyn striving towards acceptance, or at least not open hatred, in the Land. For Elspeth this means travelling away from Obernewtyn for much of the book, meeting new people – gypsies and foreigners amongst them – and experiencing a wide variety of responses to herself and the things she has to say. For the Misfits it means confronting the unTalented rebels also present in the Land, and whether the Talented have a place with them or not.
The word ashling refers to a sort of dream, and dreams play a prominent role here, especially when Elspeth discovers the dreamtrails. This is a really interesting aspect of the world Carmody has created for her Talents, although not many can access them or understand how they work.
This is a third book in what has turned out to be a six-book series, and to some extent it suffers from classic middle book syndrome. It doesn’t really start anything, and it certainly doesn’t bring any real resolution (except in one matter). It definitely doesn’t stand alone, not least because there’s not much effort to explain Obernewtyn and the Misfits, because much more infodump would have made me very impatient. What it does do well, though, is character development. Elspeth is of course the focus – she’s telling the story, after all, and apparently the fate of the world actually does rest on her. But other characters do become more well-rounded. Dragon, the foundling who is gradually being civilised; Matthew, the impetuous and romantic farseeker, has a big role to play; Kella, the healer, whose feelings and attitudes are perhaps the most complex of the lot. And then there’s Brydda, the rebel, who plays Big Bluff Larrikin but whom Carmody rescues from buffoon by giving him gentleness and wisdom as well.
It’s not a perfect book; it’s definitely a bit slow going in some parts, and could have done with some better editing. Still, enjoyable.
This is the delightfully-packaged third book in the Twelve Planets series, from Twelfth Planet Press. I should mention that I am friends with the editor/publisher, Alisa Krasnostein, and a passing acquaintance of the author, Lucy Sussex. But don’t worry; I would have no trouble saying I didn’t like it much, if that were the case…
The first story is, for me, the blazing outstanding story of the four. Called “Alchemy,” it is set in Babylon, a city as evocative, perhaps, as it is foreign. We are presented with a story told from two perspectives. The first is that of Tapputi, a perfumer from a long line of such. She is a mother, a widow, and a skilled artisan. She has also attracted the attention of Azubel, a spirit whose point of view we also read. Azubel has knowledge of the past and the possible paths of the future, with a particular passion for and understanding of what we would call chemistry. The stories of these two, over a long span of time (by human standards) has many strands, weaving in examinations of knowledge and the dangers thereof; juggling career and family; tradition and innovation and the pitfalls of each; and that essential conundrum, discerning good from evil when the world is grey, not black and white. Tapputi is finely, delicately drawn, the balance of concerns inherent being in being a widowed mother and artisan nicely indicated. She is both practical and romantic and, perhaps most wondrously, is actually based on a woman known to historians because her name and trade are recorded in cuneiform from the second millennium BC. This is a story that mixes fantasy and history in a glorious blend, and is one of my favourite stories for the year.
The second story in the collection is Krasnostein showing her readers that the Twelve Planets series is not going to follow the path set by the first two sets (Nightsiders and Love and Romanpunk), because it neither follows “Alchemy” (sigh) nor falls into SF/fantasy. “The Fountain of Justice” was first published for the Ned Kelly Awards, given in Australia to crime authors, and is indeed a story of crime and policing set in Melbourne, Sussex’s home city. It wasn’t really my sort of thing – crime never really has been. We get the story predominantly from the point of view of Meg, a solicitor who works mainly for the Children’s Court, and with the juveniles accused there. It’s a convoluted story questioning issues of justice and truth, asking I think whether our legal system delivers justice and even whether it can/should. It is clever, but it didn’t ultimately work for me.
Thirdly, “The Subject of O” is again completely different, and perhaps on the face of it far simpler than the preceding two – although it would be a mistake to actually believe that. Petra, a probably twenty-something university student, is the focus, as a stupid comment from an acquaintance sends her memory over the past few weeks and months in which she has been thinking about, and learning about, women and orgasms. On one level it is quite a funny story about students and their conversations, and plays into the common theme that university students are all rather busy with sex and drugs. But the reality is that underneath is a genuine questioning of why discussion of women’s sexuality and experience of sex is more often than not hidden, or spoken of only hazily, or left to blokes leering and imagining them as God’s gift to womankind. It’s frank and honest, refreshingly spiked with wry humour. But don’t read it on public transport if you are the blushing type.
Finally, the collection is rounded out by the eponymous story, “Thief of Lives,” which itself contains a book of the same name (confused yet?). This is the most complicated story of the set, although fortunately almost everything is clarified by the end, making hindsight a wonderful thing. It’s set in Bristol, and told from the first person by someone who is not what they at first appear to be, and whose intentions in Bristol are far from straightforward. It’s impossible for me to give a good idea of the narrative, really, without spoiling it. Let me say that it toys with ideas like a cat with string: why (as the blurb puts it) do writers think that other people’s lives are fair game? How do writers get their ideas? Can writers and their writing have a concrete impact on those around them, especially when drawing on them for inspiration? It’s a little bit labyrinthine, which is echoed somewhat in the maze-like qualities of Bristol itself for our protagonist. It’s very, very clever, and the main character herself is a little bit hypnotic.
Also, isn’t it a totally lovely cover?