Have you read this book?
Some stories exist to enlighten, to instruct, or otherwise educate, while still others expect to do no more than entertain. Most of the tales in Laura J. Underwood’s Tangled Webs, a collection of 15 young adult fantasy short stories, do the latter, and do so consistently well. Sure, the plotting is often transparent, the prose riddled with the kinds of cliches that litter much of the rest of the genre (hands are meaty, things twist in hearts like daggers, people often do things with a sigh, chicks with red hair have tempers to match and, dontcha know, that hair is so very often flaming … and red hair, by the way, has to be the most common-denominator fantasy hair I’ve seen…), and the style is that archly elevated, stilted, vaguely artificial kind that so many continue to mistake for a “fantasy” voice, but hey, it’s part of the game, and Underwood plays it well, especially if you’re thirteen or fourteen and haven’t read this sort of thing before. If you have, and if you’re an older reader … well, you’ll likely knock a point, maybe two, off the overall rating.
As for the stories themselves, Underwood weaves them in and out of a consistently envisioned fantasy staple pseudo-medieval I-want-to-be-sort-of-like-Tolkien-but-not-too-much world in which Old Ones and fey folk and unicorns and giants and magic exist around some very familiar-seeming religious tropes and cultural artifacts. That’s also a bit puzzling because the “created world” sense of the stories don’t really need them, but they don’t really suffer for them, either.
There’s pretty clear-cut formula here, too, of the setup, back story, resume action kind, which means the plots often telegraph what’s going to happen well before it does, eliminating almost every conceivable chance for surprise, but the full-speed-ahead-with-formula approach also means these things tick like well-made clocks.
Now, you might be thinking after reading all the above that there’s no way this collection could rate a seven of ten, not with such formulaic plotting and fantasy topoi at large. Ah, how wrong that would be. The critics, the real ones and the respected ones, smart people with advanced degrees and much acclaim, tell us that we oft find comfort in these familiarities, and the ability to predict with relative certitude anxiety-provoking plots, then to see those predictions come true, is just as often what satisfies our sense of control of the material, of understanding it, and of relieving our own anxieties about it, or, to a larger degree, relieving even our anxieties about the world around us via the agency of such fiction. The degree to which this occurs, and occurs at an instructive level, may even exhibit proportionality relating to the age of the reader, per, say, Bruno Bettelheim’s famous instruction in The Uses of Enchantment (well, his and others), these tales being rather fairy tale like, after all…
Hmm. Yeah. Maybe.
The bottom line: these stories entertain. At least they entertained me, and I’m an old guy. A grumpy old guy;<
Here’s what we have:
This is essentially a monster story (vampire-like) with the sex roles reversed, and in it Terra is a weaver girl with a bit of mystical eldritch quality to her, a dimwitted though handsome brother named Aaron, and a crippled leather-crafter pop. On page one Terra meets Lady Lindora of St. Creed, whom she has nicknamed the Spider Woman because of a gold pendant she wears around her neck that, hey, looks like a spider on a web.
Guessed who the villain is, yet?
Suffice it to say that the good-looking dimwit who must be rescued here is no girl, but a guy, and the monster, too, is no guy, but a girl, and the final salvator is one to whom salvific action brings to light self knowledge tied to a by-the-number backstory involving maternal heritage and the truth about how Terra’s mommy died and her daddy became crippled.
THE BEAUTY IN HER TEARS
Some stories work without a lot of dialogue and explanations. Other stories rely on lots of explanations. This is of the latter kind.
It seems that young Lord Roland’s mother — whose tears became pearls — married his father, much to the dismay of his pop’s mother, the Grandmere, and this dislike of the grandmother for the pearl-crying step-daughter led to a clash between the two that finally sent the mother away and exacted a ruinous, though not fatal, toll on the Grandmere.
Young Roland likes to hunt, and pursues a mysterious white doe that avoids his every arrow only to one day confess to him a secret about that old familial conflict and how he may make things right. Of course this involves the white doe and the Grandmere to accomplish, along with the spilling of some blood.
Ah, here’s where things go wobbly in a more-or-less well-done yarn: see, Roland brings the white doe home and has to tell a lie to justify to his father why he has done so, but he chooses to tell a lie that should make most readers ask, Why on earth didn’t he pick an easier one?
Nonetheless, there’s a trick in store here for readers, and it more or less works, even if it requires some explanation.
KNIGHT WITHOUT A FACE
First things first, unless an author happens to be a linguist like Tolkien, magical lingo almost universally yields silly gibberish like the composite quoted from the story, “Geata falbh anail buail mi glac do beatha mo fein.”
And a hearty hickery dickery dock to you, too.
Moving on … what we have here is a Gothic/romance fantasy that uses a lot of exposition to explain what happens when Alana, fleeing the slaughter of her family by soul-sucking bloodmage, Onora Ni Nathrach, seeks refuge in the ruins of Dun Seelie, supposed home of one of the Old Ones, a knight cursed never to have a face until he meets one who truly loves him.
In these supposedly deserted ruins she finds herself confronted by the bloodmage, discovers that the ruins are not deserted, after all, and that what once happened here is connected to her own lineage.
Anyone with half a Freudian thought will probably find the special dirk she took from her family slaughter, coupled with the possibility of incest, an all-the-more intriguing angle to this story of righting wrongs, past and present.
THE WHISHT HOUND’S BONE
Ah, probably my favorite story of the lot, and in this one a fearsome bloodmage named Ultan MacNarr terrorizes a village, and the only way to stop him is by taking the whisht hound’s bone, said hound being a fearsome mystical beast, said bone being a means to control it. Young Brighid, descended from a mage family, yet exhibiting no special powers herself, decides to end this reign of terror while the village men quake in their boots, even if her doing so means risking danger from mage and beast.
Magical bargains are struck and terrible prices promised to be paid in a story that once again brings present sense to a past mystery (well, kind of a mystery) in a manner tinged Poe-like and filled with things to make a psychoanalytic critic salivate ala a Pavlovian hound: What’s really so important about a dog and a buried bone, after all? And what is the lure of its special power to a young woman, even an older one, and what’s the special horror it holds over blond haired, blue-eyed Ultan?
Interpreting the possibilities is almost as much fun as reading the story, and if you’ve half a wit, you will (read and interpret, that is).
THE BARLEY MAID
Rory MacEwen is a bastard. Not a literal I-don’t-know-who-my-father-is bastard, but one of those gambling with his chums and staying out late kinds of bastards who expects things he doesn’t deserve and treats people badly. He has a checkered past, and one of those blights concerns what happened to barmaid Mhari whom he and chums one drunken night accused of witchery.
What they did to her, and what subsequently happens to them, makes this kind of like that old Clint Eastwood movie, Hang ‘Em High, only with supernatural elements.
Since there are no surprises here, and since Rory is such a bastard, the conclusion is pretty much foregone, the end result seeming slyly tutelary for any young readers who may identify in any number of small ways with Rory.
HIS HEART OF STONE
This one reminds me of an old Sinbad movie in which the villain kept his heart locked in a room atop a tower, thus remaining impervious to mortal blows. He met his eventual end when someone finally scaled the dangerous height to poke a knife into the disembodied heart left beating there.
Here, the villain is the gille sith, a kind of sweet-tongued subterranean monster who keeps his own heart hidden for the same reasons. It seems that Kira Ni Niall’s brother has been stricken by the gille sith and returns home to waste away and die by the time of the next full moon if someone doesn’t confront the gille sith and solve the problem straight away.
Lucky thing that Kira is a scrappy young lady with a knife and that she’ll dare anything to save her dying brother in this good, old-fashioned revenge tale. Once again, the formula works like a ticking clock. The only trouble here is an all-too-easy seeming final confrontation.
GRIND HIS BONES
Okay, there’s some sex here, so maybe this isn’t, strictly-speaking, YA material, or maybe it merely stretches the upper YA limits because the sex isn’t graphic, after all. Whatever the case, this is a case of girl meets boy, girl wants boy, but boy isn’t interested, so boy must be either gay or wickedly enchanted.
The boy in question is the miller Eldon (with hair of molten copper, so guess what color that is?), and the I-wanna-shag-yer-bones girl is Alice who, after failed attempts to nab the miller’s interest, decides to find out which of the two earlier conjectures is true.
There are double-entendres enough to entertain anyone alert to them, and they’re innocuous enough that most YA audiences probably won’t get them, but the perpetually insurmountable problem — how to make a sex scene impart an appropriately effective sense of enthrallment — remains unsurmounted.
The famous saying goes something like this: “if you show a gun hanging over the fireplace in the first act, then by God somebody had better get shot with it in the second,” point being that if you draw attention to something in a story, it had damn well better deserve that attention, or the audience will feel deliberately misled and tricked.
So in “Dream Catcher” little Princess Alana is intrigued by a crystal ball under construction by the Court Wizard Corwyn, a device that will record the dreams of anyone who sleeps with it by his bedside, allowing said dream to be replayed again and again. Alana thinks she can use it to expose the truth behind her mother’s accidental death, but as in any good story, things don’t always work out.
Except here we have only an average story in which things not working out seem less like a good and tricky plot, and more like a failed attempt to avoid formula that, so far, has worked pretty well. On top of that, everyone, even the villain, seems too nice. Alana’s hatred for the villain requires enormous will to subjugate to a scheme of waiting for just the right moment to take action, a moment whose thunder relies not so much at all upon the dream-catching crystal ball (the gun over the fireplace), but a moment whose thunder is stolen by a little pop instead of a big bang, one that will leave most readers thinking, Hey! What a gyp!
THE CAVE OF ROSES
Sometimes it’s possible to try too hard to achieve a desired effect, or, as Thomas Pynchon has written, “It is simply wrong to begin with a theme, symbol or other abstract unifying agent, and then try to force characters and events to conform to it.”
One of the two seems to have happened here.
“The Cave of Roses” appears to be a story designed from the get-go to be a tragedy, yet there seems to be no real reason for events to turn out as they do — except perhaps for the protagonist, who happens to be a warlord, and a weak one.
That protagonist is Petru, and he inherits the kingdom of his warlord pop, including all the leftover rules of pop’s reign, most notably that one about tossing adulterers and adulteresses into the Cave of Roses, a pit full of poisonous snakes — how Freudian, once again — said pit then sealed over the hapless soul.
Petru finds himself the unwilling recipient of an arranged marriage to Loredana, daughter of Vali, a man rumored to be a sorcerer. Trouble is, he’s really in love with Dorina and already promised to marry her.
Oh the trouble when love and duty clash!
How Petru handles this dilemma gets him deeper and deeper into trouble in such a way that it will make you sit up and shout, “For chrissake! You’re a frikkin warlord! Chop somebody’s head off!” This is not a good thing, because it means you’re not buying the character’s lack of will on a most important matter. That, in turn, means there’s a streak of unbelievability here that ruptures your willing suspension of disbelief.
Frankly, I wanted to enjoy this story more than I did. It has scope. It has intrigue. It has deviousness and skullduggery. But, alas, the initial weakness of Petru appears insufficiently justified by the text, the ending bent to fit an intention the text, likewise, doesn’t really seem to support, either.
THE BOG OF TANFORAN
Wandering mage-descended harpist Anwyn Baldomyre, oh he of the magical unicorn harp, Glynnanis, finds a village near a bog where all the townsfolk have huddled into a perpetually bonfire-lit compound so that the fire might keep them safe from the cursed thing bedeviling them.
And, like the wandering David Carradine hero of TV’s Kung Fu fame, our itinerant hero here must save these folks from their self-brought misery, even though they don’t trust mage-like folk and seem conveniently ignorant of Anwyn’s silver eyes, primary identifying trait of those very folks. But never mind their ignorance, after all, because we already know they’re rather dim, these folks who have ample opportunity to flee their town, yet don’t.
Although the story idea is in itself not bad (there’s a good bit of story-within-a-story relating to the curse, and a fair degree of involving action), the story can’t help being a let-down because Anwyn seems to have little believable reason to go out of his way (and he does, literally) to help these unappreciative dolts.
Schopenhauer once wrote something to the effect that it is not what a man says that is remembered, but how he says it. He also wrote that the public is more interested in material than form.
Here we have a good example of form carrying the day as “Harp Dreams” interweaves two narratives to tell in one the story of a unicorn eluding a hunter while in the other the harpist Anwyn Baldomyre strums ditties for Lord Mallory, Baron of Westor, in whose court there are displayed a pair of ancient unicorn skulls. The effective use of narrative structure has the distinction of making what is said both cleverly done and engagingly done, rather like quick cuts from one scene to another in a movie shows congruent plot lines or action moving toward a point of convergence. In the lead narrative we are immediately engaged by the plight of a unicorn running for its life. The second narrative is decidedly low-key by comparison, but it also immediately introduces elements of conflict (Anwyn’s harp is inexplicably sad) and anxiety-provoking identification with the plight of the unicorn in the at-first-glance seemingly disconnected initial narrative. That Anwyn sees unicorn skulls in the court of Lord Mallory makes us think we already know how the lead narrative is going to turn out, and the moment is something like driving down a highway and suddenly seeing two cars doomed to collide: we are transfixed by what seems inevitable.
But there’s some trickiness here, and it actually works. Part of that trick results from Lord Mallory introducing his own narrative about unicorns and hunting so that each of these story-lines introduces a new instrument to the symphony, as it were.
The resolution of the three narratives yields a conclusion some might not see coming, others will, but most should find quite pleasing in this cracking short tale.
Setting material aside for a moment, and even clever structure, what lifts this work above the others (so far, anyway) is that the story offers more of value than mere entertainment: it has something to say about history, its distortion, and truth.
SONG AS SILENT AS THE SEA
Once again the fey-featured wandering harpist Anwyn Baldomyre finds a spot of trouble and intrigue, this time while plucking tunes for Moralt Blackwell, “a tall, swarthy man who dressed himself in leather and fur.” (Now we know something of why Samuel R. Delany saw fantasy as a literature of sado masochism…)
Moralt also, by the way, keeps a little girl locked away in his keep, and it is when Anwyn seeks to find out why that he decides to make his host very unhappy.
Ah, but it’s all to correct an injustice perpetrated by the unjust host, don’t you know, in what turns out to be another good old-fashioned revenge tale. Here the conveniences of magical powers may make you roll an eye or two, but as with any good magical system, Underwood makes sure to state and apply rules and limits to what Anwyn can do — which of course means it assists Anwyn when it’s convenient, and it’s of no use when so being is convenient for the plot.
SONG OF DEATH
Deserted village ruins.
I think I’ll stop here for the night!
Does that sound like a good idea? Really? Hmm? Well, it’s the decision taken by wandering harpist Anwyn Baldomyre who gets creeped out in his nocturnal layover, during which time he meets Treesha, Lady of Dungeal, who warns him away from the village ruins and, by the way, invites him up to her palatial home where she offers him food and drink, both of which he declines because he’s equally creeped out by her and those digs from which, upon approach, he thought he saw someone palely peering.
There’s a lot here that will look very familiar to anyone acquainted with the many iterations of “Dracula.” Once again, it’s a gothic fantasy that shows just how pervasive the vampire myth is, and how effective those conventions still remain though we’ve seen ’em a zillion ways before, from Vincent Price, those old Hammer films with their tomato-colored blood spills, black-and-white Bela, and so on. Just like a true knockoff, this one shows its weakest threads when it departs more and more from the power of the source, which is to say the ending comes off far too easily to satisfy.
THE SELKIE’S TALE
Hmm … we’ve seen this sort of thing before back in “Song As Silent As The Sea,” but there’s mileage in the idea, so without tipping the hand here and giving away the underpinning, let’s talk setup.
Conor Manahan, something of a good-guy mercenary type with a healing-woman wife, Eithne, has a son named Rhoyd, who is adopted and mageborn. At a seaside village they’ve stopped to render some midwifery aid, and while Eithne is so engaged, sensitive little Rhoyd is intrigued by a seal skin hanging up in one of the houses.
Pop Conor tells him it could, you know, be the skin of one of those folks who live in the sea.
And little Rhoyd is intrigued.
And Conor tells him a story both amazingly spare and effective about the possible origin of that skin. Being mage-born, Rhoyd has the capacity to know the truth about that skin, and what he does, even against his father’s wishes, once again rights a past wrong. The one story hitch is, once you know what’s up with that skin, you may well imagine the story being stronger if the village suffered a perceptible consequence for its keeping.
THE DANCING STONES OF NEVERMOHR
Pretty clearly a fairy tale, and another well-done one, this one has Conor Manahan wanting to get his family over some hills to join his employer’s caravan.
He’s faced with the long way or the short way, but the long way means he’ll probably miss the caravan and the short way means crossing the dreaded moors of Nevermohr, shudder and balk, the place he had a terrible experience as a young fighter.
Guess which way he goes?
Again, we get stories inside of stories, and about this place’s awful past we get one about how Conor and his men fought a battle on the moors where, in ancient times, the Seelie folk (Underwood’s magical people that I take to be sort of elf-like, sort of fairy like) put a stop to the rampages of a giant and how, in more recent times, Conor lost a good friend upon the moor.
Of course little mage-born Rhoyd can’t resist the call of the mysterious stones amid the moor, forcing Conor to finally confront his past, overcome it, or die.
If you’re bothered by flashbacks that “detract from the present action of the story,” you might get the feeling that the plot goes all wonky, but in fact it doesn’t; present action and past recollection work to achieve a sense of burgeoning dread and mystery in a manner akin to both the weird tale and the fantasy.
Matters remain clear, uncomplicated, and well-done, despite at least one moment during which most readers will see the obvious salvific action postponed because it’s good for the plot.