Monday, February 21, 2005

The Bitterbynde series, by Celia Dart Thornton

Oh man. Did I have trouble believing in Harry Dresden? This ones got him beat hands down for incredulity. Our main character, a 15-year-old girl, wakes up mute, horribly scarred, and with no memory (but at least enough subconcious memory to deal with the world around her.) She then proceeds to live in a medieval castle as a servant for like a year before she realises shes a she. Yes, thats right, the 15-year old takes a YEAR to work out what sex she is. Do you /remember/ being 15 Ms Thornton? Let me summarise: sex. That was what being 15 was about. Not having sex but rather being preturnaturally aware of all of those things that were different about the other sex, and intrigued by them. I'm not saying she has to have a love affair - shes been traumatised, and shes ugly and scarred - and I'm not saying she couldn't HIDE her sex, but I completely fail to believe in a teenager who isn't aware of the difference between the sexes (and how could you be aware of the difference and not wonder which you were?) or who somehow assumes they are a boy just because they're wearing trousers. Ms Thornton has to go to elaborate lengths to avoid using any male pronouns - so much so that its dead obvious that shes a girl almost from page 1 - what about everyone who actually lives with the kid? Are they doing the same thing? Cuz if I was 15 and everyone kept referring to me as "it" I'd be even more curious about why...

But then our little mute scarred lass finds out shes a lass, and wanders around for a bit, and falls madly in love with some guy, leaves him, and then gets a facelift and kicks off to the royal court. And lives there for several months without noticing that the king is the guy she fell in love with. I'm not making this up. This amazing coincidence passes mostly unremarked - there is a brief passage about her not looking too closely at any of the kings pictures because shes distracted by her lost lurve. Oh please. You went to court, you're trying to get an audience with the king, you pass his picture and you don't even bother to look at it closely enough to notice its your lost love? What-ever.

The staggering improbabilities go on, but I'll de-rant. What Ms Thornton does do well is research faery tales (and she lists her sources too - bravo!) She pulls a lot of tales from celtic and welsh mythology and recounts them for us, with her character Imrohen acting as Sheharezhade to our 1001 tales, only she pulls them out of other people rather than telling them herself. And that would be fine, except the interesting bit of these stories really is the folk tales, not Imrohen's story (she spends half of the second book sitting around in various courts and country houses getting people to tell her stories) yet her story makes up by far the bulk of the text. So we're wading through dull bits waiting for the next spark of a story. The second half of the second book finally gives up and goes almost entirely faery tale, which is a relief, but it doesn't sound like its going to last.

What makes the dull bits dull? Well the descriptive style appears to have been learned from a thesaurus; vast chunks of text are taken up by lists of nouns and adjectives without relent. And Ms Thornton has a demonstrable knowledge of the medieval terminology for articles of clothing and furniture, but since shes just listing them rather than describing them or giving you any context, more often than not you come away with no idea what the object in question is, other than present. Couple that with the fact that these auction house rosters are often about rooms or meals or costumes with no impact on the story whatsoever, and you quickly find yourself not caring when you slog through one with no idea what it looked like at the end. The sense of pacing is also abominable; our heroine, madly in love and separated from her lover, goes off and does something else for a bit, pining for him occasionally. About the time she actually seems to notice the lads gone and begins to think about doing something to track him down, he turns up all on his own, proposes marriage, and is revealed to be the king; all in about 10 pages. Not much room for dramatic tension in there, is there? Thats all right, we were probably bogged down reading the contents of someones underwear drawer anyways.

I'm one of those people who feels a moral obligation to finish a book once I've started it; I've only ever left a book half-read about 3 times in my whole life. Well I finished the first one of these, which was bad, and in a weak moment picked up the second, which was mostly worse. Sick fascination and/or extreme boredom are the only things that will drive me to read the third.


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