Prime (311 pp, $14.95 in paperback, August 2012)
Reviewed by David Soyka
The stereotypical image of your local librarian is that of a dowdy, matronly spinster who is constantly telling you to “shush” while your adolescent self is trying to do something vastly more interesting (usually involving a person with whom you are sexually attracted) than figure out the Dewey Decimal system. And, these days with whatever we need to find out only a Google away, who needs librarians anyway?
Well, it would seem the preservation of the underlying fabric of the universe does.
While it’s unlikely that Liz Williams will make librarians cool the way that William Gibson made noirish anti-heroes out of computer nerds, in Worldsoul, librarians brandish magical swords that speak. Not to hush people, but to help defend ancient texts against rogue storylines amongst book stacks that date to the fabled Library of Alexandria before it burned to the ground (at least on Earth).
The novel’s title is the name of an otherworldly realm quartered into distinct cultural, climatic and political realms (and probably having something to do with maintaining the “soul” of the mundane world as we in ordinary life understand it): a hot desert land of ancient Cairo; a cold Nordica where Loki the trickster is an imprisoned nutcase, albeit not totally powerless; the Court inhabited by beings called the “disir” who take human form but aren’t; and the Citadel, the land of the library. This city of Worldsoul somehow or another connects Earth with something called the Liminality, a multi-dimensional storehouse of storylines, the integrity of which no doubt has something to do with the preservation of life as we know it here in realityland.
Our librarian heroine, Mercy Fane, is struggling to counteract strange beings that have escaped from primeval manuscripts and the boundaries of their original storylines. And which take on a female personality that seems to have an agenda to fix some longstanding wrong:
[Mercy] thought of the thing she had seen; the thing that, mentally, she had started calling “the female.” Part of a story from so long ago that any humanity had surely been leached from her, if indeed she had ever possessed any. Something forgotten, that raged, like so many forgotten things. Something that wanted to be known.
And something that, now, would be.
Mercy may be particularly prepared for the job, not just because of her talking Irish forged sword, but her parentage (for those keeping score, check off “ordinary protagonist who must mature into a destined role as part of a quest against evil” on the standard fantasy conventions form). If that weren’t weird enough, the entire city has been left unprotected since the exodus of the Skein (whoever they are or were). Exploding flower bombs (yes, flowers, perhaps a joke on the 1960s flower power) sent by an unknown enemy has everyone’s nerves on edge as various forces maneuver behind the scene to fill the political vacuum.
If I’m not too clear on the details, it’s because the details aren’t all that clear. On the one hand, this avoids tedious info dumps to explain world building foundations typical of too many fantasies; on the other hand, it does result in some “what-the-hell-is-going-on” moments. If Williams is attempting some kind of meta-fiction on the nature of narrative, okay, I understand that game and purposeful obfuscation is part of the territory. And, this book is (surprise, surprise, make another checkmark), only the first part of a trilogy, so another part of that territory is to leave us wanting to learn more as the overall story unfolds in subsequent sequels. (Note to publisher-I’m assuming it’s the publisher because I can’t believe Williams would commit something so tritely clichéd-attaching the coda “The End…For Now” to the last page is exceedingly, well, trite and clichéd and, frankly, borderline insulting to the vast hordes of fantasy consumers who figured that out long ahead of that unnecessary annotation.)
I was initially attracted to this book in part because I enjoyed Williams’s Inspector Chen series, but also I’m a sucker for post-modernist musings on the correlations of real life and story life. However, this library is stocked less with Borges than a feminist take on Edgar Rice Burroughs (though, again, there a are few hints that maybe the adventure trappings eventually take us to something more thought-provoking, though references such as that to Robert Holdstock, for example, may merely be wink-wink name dropping). Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Just caveat emptor if you’re in the mood for something other than just another “chicks kick butt” fantasy.
This subgenre grafts girlhood self-image insecurities onto Joanna Russ feminist warriors. Our heroine may save the day with her magic sword, but she is also something of a mess, quite literally:
…Mercy’s monochrome outfit was covered in crumbs. She took a moment to brush them off. Why could she never stay tidy, unlike the many chic women she saw coming out the Citadel buildings first thing in the evening, their chigons intact and free of escaping tendrils, their shoers as polished as beetles’ wings. Mercy felt as though her clothes and hair were perpetually escaping from her control, in spite of a reassuring glance down at her now crumb-free shirt. Sure that her hair was coming loose, she checked it. It seemed smooth enough. For now, anyway.
Even her Victorian-sounding name is an interesting contradiction, “mercy’ on the one hand connoting compassion and forgiveness frequently associated with feminine sensibilities (and which in patriarchal societies is viewed as weakness) with “fane” a couple of consonants away from “bane,” a cause of distress. Books would seem to be both the bane and the concern of Mercy’s life. Then again, maybe as a recovering English major, I’m reading too much into this. Could be that it just sounded like a cool name for a heroine. Which it is.
Actually, for a book that’s marketed with the blurb “What if being a librarian were the most dangerous job in the world?”, I found Mercy the least interesting of the four primary characters whose exploits are for the most part detailed in alternating chapters. One is the putative villain, the Abbot General, in thrall to Loki’s plan to regain dominion of the universe. (Interestingly, the bad guy is male and a harasser of his female underling, though since both of them really aren’t human, maybe that doesn’t count. Unless it is to say that such a relationship is, or rather should be, inhuman.) Another is Gremory, a female demon referred to by the male title of Duke, charged to find a lost magical object (put another check on that checklist). The last, and to me most interesting character, is Shadow, a veiled alchemist residing in the Eastern Quarter and reluctant recruit of the Shah, who becomes Mercy’s sidekick (or shadow, get it?). Once again, there are hints here of greater meaning, a woman who is hidden, both physically and by identity, with magical creative capabilities.
But, as with everything else here, surface impressions don’t have much depth beneath them. Williams is less interested in characterization than putting the characters in strange and stressful situations. The focus here is on action as the paths of these various protagonists merge into the struggle of good versus evil (check again), with various cliff hangers, the seeming demise of a key character, a darkening sky just when you thought the light had been achieved and, well, whatever else you see on the standard checklist gets checked off as well.
Liz Williams seems to be having fun playing with the conventions. While she manages to come up with some interesting variations on the theme, I usually prefer my fantasy with a little more heft and character development. Of course, it may be there’ll be more of that in the upcoming volumes. And the premise remains intriguing enough that it might be worth turning a few more pages into the next edition to see where it’s all heading.