Snow White straps Rose Red to her hip and rides out on a big apron-faced Appaloosa with spots on his rump like eyes. So what if it’s stealing? She took her daddy’s hat, too. Snow White can ride so sweet, you’d think there’s no horse under her, just a girl with four legs pounding the ground. Fuck that mirror and fuck that house. What’s she owe them? Her back, that’s what. The girl is gone. She is plumb finished. She walks out through the front door.
This novel rewrites and massively expands author Tidbeck’s prior (2009) short story “Augusta Prima” concerning inhabitants of the Gardens, a rather small and artificial fairyland whose chief inhabitants have fallen into a sybaritic cruelty in their never-ending festivities. Augusta herself, a Lady of the Gardens, is the villain of the story, and she expresses a strangely innocent and nevertheless repulsive sort of evil. The heroes of The Memory Theater are Thistle, a “servant” (i.e. slave) who had been abducted from Earth to the Gardens as a child, and his adoptive sister Dora, an enigmatic magical offspring of one Lord of the Gardens. A non-human sorceress named Ghorbi assumes a tutelary role for these two.
Despite my original inferences from the title, The Memory Theater really has nothing to do with Renaissance memory arts or the mental theater of Giulio Camillo (ca. 1480–1544). Instead, the title refers to a small collective enterprise with larger metaphysical consequences: a set of performers enacting memories in order to dignify vanished cultures and values. It is the polar opposite of the Gardens. In the Gardens, time is suppressed, suffering is taken for comic entertainment, and Lords and Ladies are expert at forgetting.
Tidbeck’s prose in this book is lean and efficient. It reads quickly, and some of the descriptors in the original story (e.g. the servants of the Gardens as “changelings,” Ghorbi as a “djinneya”) have been dropped. One effect of this change is to open up a little sfnal ambivalence: the “traffic controllers” of the inter-world crossroads have an air of extraterrestrial exoticism for instance. The relevant Earth history is set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, largely in Sweden.
From jacket copy and other short descriptions, I expected this book to have a feel like works I had read from Susanna Clarke, but it didn’t. The constellation of central characters and the worlds-transiting magic involved reminded me more than a little of Paul Park’s Roumania books. Still, the flavor was really its own, and I enjoyed it as a distinctive instance of the micro-genre of “fairy weird.”
That poem of Browning owes much of its haunting charm to this very circumstance, that the reader is never told who Childe Roland is, or why he wants to get to the Dark Tower, or what he expects to find when he does get there. There is a skillfully constructed atmosphere of Giants, and Ogres, and Hunchbacks, and the rest of the apparatus of fairy-tales; but there is no trace of the influence of Bædeker in the style. Now this is really very irritating to anybody who happens to be seriously concerned to get to that tower. I remember, as a boy, what misery I suffered over this poem. Had Browning been alive, I think I would have sought him out, so seriously did I take the Quest.
The dude don’t see himself as a bad man. Way he sees it, he’s an angel for hire. He can gather in lost lambs from the four corners and kiss away their tears, or he can shake a flaming sword. Up to his employers. Saint Michael don’t question why when the Big Dog says git. Ole Mike, he just ties up his war-bag, thumps his golden road, eats his beans out of the tin, and when he sees his mark, he gets to it no fuss. That’s the dude in a nut.
It was a snake, cold of eye, its tongue flickering, its fangs dripping with poison. It hissed, and a drop of poison from its mouth dripped onto Loki’s face, making his eyes burn. Loki screamed and contorted, writhing and twisting in pain. He tried to get out of the way, to move his head from beneath the poison. The bonds that had once been the entrails of his own son held him tightly.