The OF Blog: February in the Lands of Magical Realism

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

February in the Lands of Magical Realism

So far this February, I've been caught up in the realms of magical realism, which might not be all that surprising to those of you who frequent this blog. Below are my reviews to my two most recent reads... plus a little more.

The Narrows
By Alexander Irvine, Del Ray 2005

Irvine approaches all his stories as quasi-mythic retellings of specific historical contexts, a somewhat specific version of magical realism. In this case, the story is set in World War II Detroit, specifically the war effort as put forth by the industries of Henry Ford. The twist to this story is the question... “What if folk magic worked?” We see a world striving to harness all the mechanical, physical, and esoteric resources at hand to win this second, great war. Enter the main protagonist, Jared Cleaves, who works on the assembly line of a top secret federal war effort project that is secreted in a Ford manufacturing complex. Jared is part of a team that creates Golems through the cabbalistic magic of an old Rabbi.

The story itself is an interesting retelling of the war effort for those at home. Jared has been several times denied military service because of an old injury to his hand, which left it partially lame. However, Jared, and the other workers on the Golem line, known as the Frankenline, have all been chosen for their poor paying jobs because of certain sensitivities they all posses. Jared is a depressive sort, feeling sorry for himself that he has a poor paying job, has been turned down for service, has a marriage that is slowly falling apart, a wife who actually makes a recognized difference for the war, and he’s plagued by dreams of a Red Dwarf, Nain Rouge, which is said to omen the destruction of Detroit, as it has in the past. The problem for Jared is that people are starting to take interest in him, and what he sees, including a nazi spy, his supervisor, a shape-changing Indian Shaman, and a very specialized Government Department, the Office of Esoteric Investigation (OEI).

The primary focus of the story is the internal struggle of Jared in the context of being a father, a husband, and a person on the wrong side of a secret. In such, the story is well-executed. Irvine imbues the hidden elements of Detroit, and the war, with a straightforwardness and ingenuity that allows it to work. It is both a recognizable portrayal of 1940s Detroit, and it is a story of the secret history of that Detroit. This world is interesting, and it makes a certain amount of sense. The story is told from Jared’s limited PoV, so this is also somewhat of a suspense mystery story as Jared tries to manage his way through plots and espionage.

As with other Alexander Irvine novels, this book has some flaws, which seem to be a different set in each novel. For this one, the primary complaint that I have is that the ending seems awfully rushed. The book is a great length, at about 330 pages, but it has the feel that another 20 pages wouldn’t have hurt. The Narrows has a very good build toward a climax. The final 10 pages, while trying to reflect the general chaos of the climax, does fall short of complete. There are too many holes in the action and the implications of what happens during the climatic scenes.

The Narrows is a well-told story, and the limited perspective and the flawed, but compelling, primary character makes for a satisfying read. It might not be a perfect novel, but the story is engaging, the world and setting have a tangible reality that is really quite impressive, and the characters are compelling. While the ending suffers in comparison to the rest of the novel, my overall impression of the novel is a positive one.

The Narrows by Alexander Irvine


Perfect Circle
by Sean Stewart

Published by Small Beer Press - 2004

Perfect Circle is not a standard fantasy, fantasy novel. There are no swords. There is no discernable magic. The story is set in current day Texas, Houstan in fact. However, Perfect Circle is a blend of magical realism and suspense that translates into a page-turning, pleasure to read.

William (Dead) Kennedy, DK to family, is a 32 year-old, divorced, father of a teenaged girl, an aging rebel, who is out of work yet again. Will sees ghosts, and he's beginning to see them all over the place, especially dead family. The novel begins with Will getting a call from a distant cousin with a problem... he's got a dead girl in his garage. Dead in the ghost variety. With the offer of money to get rid of the ghost, Will grudingly agrees to help his cousin.

The ensuing plot revolves around the repeated statement... Some people are haunted for a reason. The novel is about family legacy, mistakes, redemption, love, loss and pulling yourself together. One of Stewart's great achievements is that he manages to make the black-and-white ghosts as dynamic and integral to the shape of the story as the rest of his living characters.

Stewart is a very talented writer. He strings together images and sensory decriptions, inter-weaving believable dialogue, humor, suspense, and intrigue. The results are engrossing and entertaining. Perfect Circle comes in at roughly 270 pages, which is the perfect length for this story. The pacing is balanced and the plot is full, and it brings a complete conclusion, though not a completely tied up one of course.

One of the aspects that surprised me the most when I was reading the novel was how it could be both suspenseful and down right hilarious at the same time. Stewart does a deft job balancing both aspects.

Being somewhat slim, for a current speculative fiction, helps the novel in the fact that the story doesn't weave through a lot of extraneous material. One aspect that does take a little getting used to is the fact that story is told in a reflective manner, the single PoV moves back and forth between about 28 years of the William's life. The challenge is to pull together the character and his background from the seemingly random scenes and history. It's somewhat of a mosaic affect, but the results are well worth the style.

So, to sum it all up. If you see the novel on a shelf somewhere, I highly recommend that you pick it up and give it a read. Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart

I was captured by how both authors were able to harness the gritty feel of a specific real world locality, time and place, and were able to push beyond the boundries of common perception. The true treasure of Magical Realism, well done MR, is the stories' ability to carry the reader beyond the known while still maintain all the edges of real world experience and feel. While, Stewart and Irvine are working at different levels of skill, both achieve a level of tangibility in the novels reviewed, that make them both successful.

What do you find are the challenges of reading magicial realism? What are the challenges of switching between magical realism and other speculative fiction genres?

1 comment:

Tamara K Sellman said...

Hi Alric
I loved Perfect Circle as well and was glad to find some gringo MR that wasn't so full of itself. Great fun, PC.

I haven't read The Narrows; thanks for the heads up!

Tamara Kaye Sellman, Founder/Editor
MARGIN: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

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