January 20, 2009

Literary Impressions: D.M. Cornish's Fantastic Achievement

A Review

Monster Blood Tattoo, Volume 1: Foundling (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006)
Monster Blood Tatto, Volume 2: Lamplighter (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008)

Oh, the damage Harry Potter has done! The tale of how J.K. Rowling, struggling single mother, produced in 1997 the first in a series of seven young adult fantasy novels that shattered nearly every publishing record is a story so well worn that my fingers grow tired in just the typing of these words. Stellar sales have drawn copycat titles galore--and this despite the attempted library purges of our unique brand of American church lady.

Young adult fantasy novels are now all the rage, with Rowling’s publisher, Scholastic, supplying one case study after another in the science of merchandising this genre. To attempt any full list of young adult fantasy titles published in the last decade would be utter foolishness. In addition to the many that have come back into vogue—from Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising to Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series—the number that jockeyed for position as just last year's best is enough to daunt marathon readers.

But I have a teenage daughter and a prepubescent son who are omnivorous readers of this species of literature, so it was inevitable that while I incline towards adult fantasy—from old standards to such obscure classics as Tanith Lee’s out-of-print Tales from the Flat Earth—how could I not want to know a little more about what my kids were reading? At a minimum, I thought, let me at least see my way clear of the puff pastry reviews (“…The Hobbit for the 21st-century reader…!”) to suss out the best of these.

To start, I combed my daughter's bookshelves, where I discovered and later added several surprisingly good titles. Despite a lousy movie,Jeanne DuPrau’s City of Ember served up solid post-apocalyptic fiction; Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy was distinguished by its unique anti-hero; Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, which I read before my children did, shocked me with the maturity of its subject matter, putting even most adult fantasy to shame. And then there were the lesser-known works, like Chris Wooding’s Storm Thief and John Connolly’s remarkable Book of Lost Things, both of which have convinced me that this increasingly overworked and oversold genre can not only produce quality work but, oftentimes, better than that its “adult” peer.

All of this brings me to D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo series, which currently has only two entrants for his proposed…trilogy? tetralogy? pentalogy? Honestly, one can no longer tell in an age where adult fantasy authors like Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, or J.R.R. Martin can get away with churning out volume after ever more slowly-paced volume for their pet series. Fortunately, most young adult fantasy has avoided this trap. The only exception is Harry Potter (technically a “heptalogy”), which still aesthetically outperformed its adult counterparts by maintaining its excellent pacing from start to finish and successfully tying up every loose end by its conclusion. How many volumes Cornish intends to produce remains to be seen. What he has accomplished so far is remarkable.

Despite the fancy website and the vaguely concealed threat of a movie option, the series is unique in several respects. When I recommended it to my daughter, I describe it simply as a “cut above” the other fare. Now, I won’t spoil you with the story, which is simple and, in some ways, typical enough. It’s Freud’s family romance written inside out: the story of an orphan, Rossamund Bookchild, who sets out to begin his career as a lamplighter in a land where its city- and farm-dwelling human inhabitants live sometimes in an unquiet peace, more often in open war with forest- and field-dwelling monsters. The first volume, Foundling, chronicles our teenage hero’s journey from orphanage to outpost by road and waterway so he might serve as a lamp-lighting laborer. The second, Lamplighter, recordis life at his new home. There he learns his trade, lighting the lamps that speckle the local patch of road that run through the untamed area and, when lit, keep the beasties away. A more detailed description of the plot is not necessary. Encounters with friends and foes, the accompaniment of protectors and potential love interests, confrontations with detractors and outright villains inevitably spice up the story. But it’s not the pacing or the plotting that ultimately wins you over. It’s the thickness of the telling.

What I write next I do so with trepidation. Dragging Tolkien into any review for purposes of comparison is a fool's gambit. But I am not so foolish as to draw an aesthetic comparison. Monster Blood Tattoo is not the next Tolkien for kiddies. It’s not even a question of whether it’s as good or almost as good. It’s different, and what it shares with Lord of the Rings is a distinct thickness in its textual universe, with ample borrowing in technique from Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, on the one hand, and the devices of alternate history fiction, on the other.

The story’s events take place in an 18th-19th century, Anglo-Germanic world, the “Half-Continent” as it’s labeled. The first volume is accompanied by a 100-plus page appendix that is much more than a mere glossary when read with care. It maps a universe and a culture, with ample entries on vocational types, species of technology, alchemical concoctions (there are quite a few of these), customs and behaviors, geographic locales, and individuals of note. The fairly heavy use of neologisms throughout the novel —potives (externally acting potions, often hurled like grenades), sedorners (“monster lovers,” in essence, traitors to the Half-Continent’s human population), threwd (a feeling of being watched, a sixth sense) and so forth—wears at first. But after enough flipping to the back, the reader eventually settles in, able to appreciate, even relish, the associations—etymological and metaphorical—that link Cornish’s world with our own, such as the portmanteau word “sedorner,” which merges sedition and suborn to create a fittingly nuanced idea. (To understand how fitting it is, there is no substitute for reading the book itself, a sign of how successful this neologism is.)

To emphasize the scale of the series’ universe and sink the reader ever deeper into the hero’s world, Cornish sets the entire action of the first novel, quite literally, in a microscopic portion of the Half-Continent. The second novel takes the reader slightly further afield, but not by much, leaving vast—and I do mean vast--tracts of that world unexplored, thus enticing us onward, much in the same way my son continues to ask me about Tolkien’s ne’er-mentioned Rhun, which lies northeast of Mordor, or the southerly Haradwaith.

But there is more than mere immersion to recommend the series. Unlike so many other writers, Cornish develops in novel ways what still too few fantasy writers dare: moral ambiguity. Most fantasy novels commonly suffer from the simplicities of Manichaeism, especially in their villains. True, Tolkien manages to suggest the temptations of power among the forces of good in Saruman’s betrayal, Boromir’s weakness, and Denethor’s insanity. But Sauron and his orcs remain unremittingly bad—and so, too, the usual assortment of fantasy villains whose quest for power is always manic in nature and psychologically trite in explanation. Lord Voldemort, a.k.a. Tom Riddle, is no different in this regard.

Some works, however, do play the moral complexity card with greater nerve. In these, the noble actions of heroes precipitate less-than-noble results; the seemingly villainous means of antagonists actually do some good. It’s this moral ambiguity that has made the work of Philip Pullman or George R.R. Martin’s best work so compelling. In these, the villains don’t feel so villainous, while the heroes seem a little less than heroic. But Cornish takes matters a step further by situating the moral ambiguities of his work not in the internal drives of personality but the external realities of the marketplace of goods and ideas. And most intriguingly, he manages to do this through the glossaries.

There is war between human beings and monsters in the universe he has created. But why there is war is what stirred this reader most. There are no megalomaniacal land grabs by sadistic would-be princes, no demon kings seeking the extermination of the human species. There aren’t even the platitudinous ambiguities of heroes struggling to make things right through unseemly choices or villains seeking benevolent outcomes through inhuman means. Currently at least, Cornish is more coy about the matter. Difficult moral choices do confront our hero, but his argument is with a culture that he doesn’t much understand but that we do through the outer lens of the encyclopedic glossary. What we see around the corner that Rossamund does not is the clink of coin that precipitates all sorts of bad behavior: forest raids to capture the smaller “monsters” that will be thrown into illegal fighting pits that have popped up across the Half-Continent; a cottage industry in monster bounty hunting that has resulted in a flourishing trade of some rather creepy forms of surgery to super-energize this hunting class; political maneuverings that with a wink and a nod “ban” certain illicit trades (such as the revivification of corpses).

Ultimately, what so fascinates about Cornish’s ambitious work is the slow convergence of the back story told in the glossary--a story of greed and exploitation, irresponsible behavior, and false ideology--and Rossamund’s personal tale of heroic naivete. We stare, like drivers slowly rolling past a highway accident off to the side, as the path of Rossamund's life and the secret of who he is come to intersect, quite literally, with the economic and political rumblings of the Half Continent itself. Cornish’s work is more than a series of novels: it’s a campaign, a slow accretion of background and foreground, a thickening of the hero’s Bildungsroman within its textual universe. If Cornish can maintain the path upon which he has started, we may well see entirely new possibilities in what this genre can accomplish.