When I talk about a book, I often feel like I’m comparing it to some ideal (and non-existent) book, with features that get checked off on my list. Like a formula, or like a conformist’s view of art. But should every book resemble every other book? The answer is no, obviously, and somewhere in between the two extremes is a way of judging books on their qualities, yet not cramming them into a cookie-cutter.
I thought of this because of two wildly different books I read recently: East by Edith Pattou and Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones, two YA fantasies. Each are enormously frustrating books in their own way, but that might be a mark in their favour. For one thing, they’re not Harry Potter clones.
East is a retelling of a Norwegian fairy tale called “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” (online here), and Pattou makes quite an interesting book out of the project. The writing is smooth and polished — my copy was over 500 pages but it felt much shorter due to the swiftly-paced prose. Pattou switches the viewpoint through an assortment of characters, delving into each one just enough before returning to the protagonist, Rose.
Over the outlines of the fairy tale, Pattou adds a superstition about cardinal directions: Rose is a baby born while her mother was facing north, and the north-born are restless and never settle. She’s the eighth child, a replacement for an east-born sibling who died. Her mother, fearing the north nature, has told everyone that Rose is an east child. Good, solid stuff because it matters in how the characters treat each other.
Ironically, I would say that Pattou probably adds too much character development. Fairy tales are usually short, and don’t concern themselves too much with motivation or logic. Pattou shows us, over the first 100+ pages, that Rose is indeed north-born and wants to ramble. Then the whole middle section follows the fairy tale’s plot — she has to stay confined at a castle for a year. I simply didn’t buy her actions at this point. It might be possible to gloss over a contradiction like this in a fairytale but in a book that gestures in the direction of realism, it’s a bit more jarring.
So: a book that lacks nothing in writing power and gloss, but with some internal contradictions. This might sound like a complaint. In fact, Pattou has convinced me of the reality of her main character!
I was worried when I picked up Hexwood. I might be the only person on the face of this planet who didn’t care for Howl’s Moving Castle, the book version by Jones or the movie version adapted by Miyazaki (which is a tale for another day, considering I’ve loved Miyazaki’s other movies). Also, Hexwood has one of those appallingly bad covers that make me cringe (even with last month’s cover in the running).
The book starts off quite rough, then seems to get much easier and smoother. Then Jones throws it all into flux again. Hexwood is an estate in a rural village in England. A young girl named Ann lives around the corner, and spies on the comings and goings while sick. It takes a while to get to that point though, with some odd backstory about some Reigners who rule the universe and some malfunctioning machinery at Hexwood.
It’s this odd stuff that becomes the main focus of the book, in a gutsy move that eventually makes the narrative coherent if a bit tough to parse. The “magic powers” of Hexwood, or the “paratypical field” as Ann calls it, is rather a decision-making machine called Bannus — it ropes real people into multiple versions of a scenario in order to find the best course of action. With its near-absolute control over reality, and perceptions of reality, once the characters have been ensnared by Bannus, it’s only logical that the resulting narrative has to jump around and surprise us. What else would happen in virtual reality?
(As a side note, has anyone else noticed that the term “virtual reality” is passé? So far past passé that no one even mentions it anymore? It was certainly trendy a few years ago… maybe it’s now properly integrated into other storylines?)
Hexwood is not the book I was expecting, and I gained some grudging respect for Jones as I started to understand that this convoluted and rough story was its own creature. While the two books differ entirely in the matter of surface readability, Hexwood is, like East, a flawed, unique thing.
This YA fantasy thing, it seems to have potential. Previously here at the Gutter, I looked at two versions of the Snow Queen story in Retold, ripped into Philip Pullman for His Dark Ending, praised Ursula K. Le Guin for not getting on The Bandwagon, and used Garth Nix as evidence that Stories Never Fail Us.
My thanks to Chris Szego of Bakka-Phoenix Books for recommending great material to consider for this article.