Saturday, January 3, 2009

Foundling and Lamplighter (Monster Blood Tattoo) by D. M. Cornish - review

Author D.M. Cornish has a passion for neologism. His Latinate and Germanish terms sparkle through the first two books of his series Monster Blood Tattoo like the bubbles in champagne. Maybe, then, we can commission him to come up with a term for the tiresome literary state, common in Greek tragedy and really crappy mysteries, that happens when readers figure out a character's Big Secret long before the character does.

Rossamund, a gentle, short orphan conscripted into dangerous service in a fancy, fanciful land peopled by everymen (humans) and untermen (monsters), does not know the truth about his origins. But we do. We figure it out a few hundred pages into the first book, and by the end of the second book, which, by the way, is over 600 pages long not including the extensive glossary, Rossamund has not figured it out himself.

On its own, this is not a fatal flaw. After all, everyone knows what's going to happen to Oedipus a quarter of the way into his play, and he doesn't figure it out til almost the end, and this knowledge only adds to the tragedy of Oedipus Rex. But in Monster Blood Tattoo, the machinations that the author goes through to delay Rossamund's epiphany feel like they are thrown in his path merely to give the book more space to describe the Half-Continent, the world that the author has, by his own admission, spent fifteen years imagining and peopling in his head. You should see the map he drew. Detailed? You'd have to blow that sucker up wall-size before you could even read it.

Listen, I am not against world-building. I have drawn my share of maps, believe me. But there comes a point, if you are writing a book, that the narrative has to take precedence.

Comparison has been made to Tolkein, and I can see why. The world of the Half-Continent is the most completely-imagined fantasy world since Middle Earth, in terms of material culture - maybe even more so. Cornish does all of Tolkein's descriptive work, and adds in much of the incidental detail Peter Jackson had to design when he made the movies - the weapons! the uniforms! the stylistic elements! And, like Tolkein, he has illustrated his world himself - and he is a very talented illustrator.

But the pace and tone of Monster Blood Tattoo has very few ups and downs. What Cornish does not do as well as Tolkein - and I make the comparison only as a shortcut, I don't mean to imply intent - is this: when Frodo, in his wanderings, encounters new subcultures and meets new people, Tolkein manages to bring most of these people alive in a few strokes. Rossamund moves about quite a bit as well, but most of his transient comrades seem all but interchangeable. Young guy, old guy. Mean guy, nice guy. Plus, there is not one smile to be had in either of the books so far. The bleak tone never lets up. It's like the trip to Mount Doom all the way, with no Sam Gamgee to occasionally crack us up, or at least cook us breakfast.

I will recommend these books to ravenous fantasy readers, but as spectacular examples of obsessive vision, not as adventure literature per se.

1 comment:

gail said...

I think I know Rossamund's origins as a result of reading the first book. But by the end of the second book, I think there's a definite suggestion (perhaps a red herring) that I am wrong. So I'm up in the air about that now.

I found the second book slower than the first. I actually needed the glossary with the second book but didn't even know it existed with the first one. Overall, though, I still like these books.