For week 31, I read The Tower At Stony Wood, by Patricia McKillip.
A friend lent me this book, prefacing it by saying that McKillip was one of her favorite fantasy authors, and while this wasn’t the most famous of her books, she knew I liked the story of The Lady of Shalott, and thought this might help ease me into the author’s work. So no pressure, or anything.
Side note: I do love getting recommendations from friends, but let me ask you guys something. Do you ever read something a friend really likes, not really jive with it, and then not know what to say to the friend? I’ve been in this position before, on both sides. I remember recommending the Dragonlance books to someone who had never read them, as Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were responsible for filling in the gaps of the fantasy genre during my adolescence, gaps left between Tolkien, Lewis and L’Engle. I distinctly remember asking my friend later about the books, and receiving a less-than-enthusiastic report. Disappointed and a little affronted, I picked up one of them from my bookshelf and didn’t even make it past chapter three before the wincing became too painful even for my nostalgia. The books aren’t bad, but they’re clichéd now, and more importantly, they’re not as good as I remember. Inconsistencies, blatant scenery-chewing, trope after trope, stereotypes galore… Embarrassing. Not quite to the point that I couldn’t meet my friend’s eye the next time we met, but still.
I think, possibly, that this is one of those situations. The book was a fundamental part of my friend’s youth (what part I cannot say, as it was only published in 2000; in related news, JFC, I am getting old) and exploration of the genre, which lends it a lot more weight on the nostalgia scale and less on the book’s own merit.
I will have to read more McKillip to see if this particular dreamy, disconnected style is typical of her as an author, or if she affected it for the purposes of this particular story. The dreamy quality, the copious illusory visuals, the heavy embellishments, and the somewhat stiff speech of the characters evokes a high-fantasy, heavily fairytale feel. The characters are at once archetypes, but become individuals; no easy feat, let me tell you.
The individual plot elements are clearly drawn from old stories that we in the Western world are at least glancingly familiar with, and all this adds up to specific expectations. The knight has a quest. The knight goes on a quest. The knight meets an oracle, the oracle is cryptic. The knight encounters trouble on his quest; he doubts himself and his purpose. The knight is bolstered by others he meets on his way. The knight finds the lady and frees her. This is nothing new; we know this by heart. While the knight’s tale progresses, we see a woman in a tower. A woman in a tower, watching another woman in a tower. Another woman joins her, watching this woman in a tower, through a mirror that shows wonderful, strange things. The entire situation is strange, but not in a story full of magic and oddity. A man meets an oracle and is sent on a quest of his own, to find and slay a dragon and take its gold back to save his starving people; again, nothing new.
Yet, it IS new. The knight has only the most general idea where he’s going; the lady he seeks is not his lady, but his king’s. He leaves his king unknowingly in the arms of a monster, because he doesn’t know what else to do to save him. The women in the various towers are important, but utterly disconnected from everyone else in the book. The man striving to save his people from poverty should be a hero, but he is driven by hatred. Which will consume him first, the darkness or the dragon?
I’ll admit, I put the book down for several weeks, about halfway through. I knew that in the end, the disparate stories would have to be connected somehow, but I despaired of them ever finding each other until the very end. Not even fifty pages later (once I picked up the book again), a link is made. A solid link, too, not a flighty “I dreamed of you” sort of link. I discovered that I had to be in a certain mood to enjoy this particular style of story, so that I could just flow with it rather than fight against it to guess what would happen before it happened. It’s a fairytale, a dream; it has its own rules, and the journey through it can be a lot more enjoyable if you just let it happen.