Monday, May 17, 2010

Delia Sherman's Changeling

I'll start by saying that Changeling is not the sort of book I'd've likely picked up on my own. Were it not for the fact that its author, Delia Sherman, will be the instructor for my first week at Clarion, I'd likely have gone my whole life without reading this. It's not that I don't like fantasy. I do. It's just that the kind of fantasy I tend to read these days is more in the China Mieville/Jeff VanderMeer vein.

That said, I'm really glad I did read it, because I really liked it.

Set in New York Between, a sort of fairyland version of NYC populated with imaginary monsters and spirits from all over the world (not unlike the real city), Changeling is the story of Neef, a mortal child stolen by the fairies and replaced with one of their own (which is what a changeling is, btw), who breaks the rules of the Genius of Central Park and has to go on a quest in order to return to her home and the life she has always known.

Like many a YA fantasy heroine, Neef is long on moxie and short on foresight. She knows the rules (we all do, because we all grew up listening to fairy tales, which are really valuable life lessons disguised as parables and stories and where the negative consequences of foolish actions are exaggerated for pedagogic effect), but she's at that age where rationalization and the beginnings of adolescent entitlement start to blind us all to the realities of the world as it is (as opposed to how we think it ought to be). We've all been there: old enough to know better, but young enough to do it anyway and rationalize after the fact. Of course, she learns some valuable lessons along the way, and everything comes out alright in the end; but, as with all quest tales, the journey is the destination. And for the reader it's an enjoyable, engaging page-turner of a journey.

For me as a writer and critical reader, it's not the details of the plot per se that are the most interesting things about this book (though the plot is well-conceived and -executed). What interests me about the book is twofold: the self-conscious submersion in the metatropes of world folklore and the pacing.

First off, having come of age in the '90s, which was the golden age of ironic self-awareness, I'm a sucker for the sort of self-conscious playing with received tropes and narrative structures that Sherman engages in here. It's clear she's done her homework, and the integration of numerous cultural and folkloric traditions into a more or less integrated whole, which underlies and provides the foundation for the story, is a real joy, because not only does it provide the backdrop for the story, a good deal of the story involves consciously playing with and negotiating the backdrop and the traditions from which it is contrived. It's that most wondrous of beasts, a book for younger folk that older folk can also enjoy, the younger because it's a ripping good tale with lots of exictement and adventure, the older because there's quite a bit of the old nod-and-a-wink while playing with the structures we all recognize from our own childhoods. Like I said, I'm kind of a sucker for that kind of thing.

As for the pacing of the plot, Sherman really keeps things moving along. A chapter would end, and before I knew it, I was two pages into the next one, because I wanted to know what happened next. No lulls, no lengthy expositions. Just a lively pace kept up admirably for the entirety of the story (which I read in less than twenty-four hours, and might've read cover-to-cover had I not begun it right before going to bed). I hope she will forgive the comparison, but it reminded me a bit of reading The Da Vinci Code (except the part where I winced once or twice per page at just how awful the writing was; still, like everybody else, I couldn't put it down, even as I hated myself for getting sucked in to it so easily). With the constant forward motion of the plot, the constant okay-this-is-done-but-now-there's-this-to-be-dealt-with, I was totally sucked in. I mean, I could've put it down, but I didn't want to. As a writer trying to work a similar magic I find it to be a valuable lesson, something to keep in mind when I'm in danger of getting bogged down in exposition or just playing with language: keep things moving, keep giving the reader a reason to keep reading that isn't just you hoping they get all enchanted with how freakin' talented you are as a writer (having come up in the '90s, I've been exposed to more than a little literary wankery, which was quite the fashion at the time, and still is to a greater extent than I would like, though I won't name names).

In all, I really enjoyed Changeling, and look forward to reading more of Delia Sherman's work (and to working with her this summer). She has a light, engaging style, and really nailed Neef's narrative voice, which, as someone who thus far can only write in my own, more or less, I find really, really impressive (cf. my thoughts on Jeff VanderMeer, who's aces at that sort of thing). I think it's the sort of book that anyone could enjoy, and that would make a great gift for that younger reader in your life, the one you really want to encourage to keep reading, but that you maybe don't know what to recommend to (I know I'll be passing this on to my gf's son August, who's that kid). There's a sequel, The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen, which I hope to have time to read before Clarion (though I've got a lot of stuff to read between now and then, not that reading awesome fantasy and sci fi is a terrible chore for me), and will certainly read eventually, along with her short stories (which are probably what I'm supposed to be reading).

Still, I'm even more excited about this summer, having read this. I didn't know anything about Delia Sherman before this whole Clarion business, but I know now that she's definitely got a lot to teach me, and I'm eager to learn it.

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