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The Memory Theater

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Memory Theater [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Karin Tidbeck.

Tidbeck The Memory Theater

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.”

Night’s Master

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Night’s Master by Tanith Lee.

Lee Night's Master

I’ve been slowly working my way through Tanith Lee’s fantasy oeuvre, reading first The Birthgrave and its sequels, mixing in the Wars of Vis (of which I’ve not yet read the last), then Volkhavaar, and now the first of the Flat Earth books: Night’s Master. The style here was most similar to Volkhavaar, which could very well be a Tale of the Flat Earth itself, for all that it fails to insist on any particular larger continuity. But I was most pleasantly surprised by the insanely high story-to-word ratio in Night’s Master. In less than two hundred pages, Lee executes six major plot arcs, all realized with efficient but beautiful language, and still finds time to linger on terrific images.

The title refers to the character who provides the book’s continuity over “many thousand mortal years,” Azhrarn Prince of Demons. He is “one of the Lords of Darkness,” but we never meet his peer or his superior in the course of the many tales in which he figures here. He is amoral, capricious, and cosmically charismatic, ruling over three sub-races of demons from his splendid capital of Druhim Vanashta in the center of Underearth. Often, he fades from view for much of a given story, while the events that he has set in motion work themselves out in the world of humanity. But he is not just a linking device; the book culminates in his special fate, which draws on the full fabric that is woven to that point.

I read the original DAW paperback edition, which features wonderful art by George Barr on the cover and in four or five interior illustrations. There are four more Flat Earth volumes to follow this one, and if Lee was able to keep up this prodigious level of imagination and elegant writing throughout, I will be hugely pleased. I know there was a book club omnibus edition, but this sort of work deserves to be housed in an abundantly illustrated, leather-bound tome. [via]