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July 2002
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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Tanya Huff, The Better Part of Valor, DAW March 2002, 6.99
Majgull Axelsson, April Witch, Villard April 2002, 26.95

January was an interesting month. It's February as I write this, but January of 2002 lingers, and probably will for some time. Let me break January into two parts, as they're both relevant, and let me start first with the good news: The Lord of the Rings.

I've probably gone on at one time or another about Lord of the Rings and its particular place in my life. I've literally read it so many times, I've lost count, and Unwin Allen bible-paper edition was one of the first books I bought because I'd always coveted it. When the Bakshi movie came out, I watched it; I watched the television version of Return of the King; I watched The Hobbit. But I was younger then, and probably more forgiving. When I heard that a live action film was being done, I cringed. I'll admit it. I also studiously avoided all news about, and consequently missed the fun of so many misplaced rumors. In fact it wasn't until I'd seen the second trailer for it, downloaded on a whim, that I had any desire to see it at all—but when I did, the desire was intense.

I loved the movie. Not the first time, though; the first time I spent the entire movie waiting, breath held, for the Other Shoe to drop with a resounding thud. You know the shoe: the one which, having fallen, breaks the piece entirely, relegating it into the realm of failure. But that didn't happen, and when I saw it the second time, I really watched it. The part of me that evaluates and weighs, that examines structural changes and compares the one against the other, was silenced.

After that, I wanted more, and since the second film won't be out for a year, I went off in search of the entire Sharpe series that starred Sean Bean. I've said this before, and I'll say it again, so bear with me. I'm not a fan of military fiction. I've never read the Sharpe books, and I generally avoid Military SF because I know I'm not in its target audience. So the British series was, in places, a mystery to me. As my husband, who is much better versed in things military than I, watched them with me, he was peppered with questions. The Army made no sense to me, and I wanted an explanation. For those of you who don't know the series, the gist of it is this: it's set during the Napoleonic wars, it's set almost entirely in Spain, and it features a commoner who is elevated from the ranks of the NCOs into the ranks of the Officers. It is not a transition that is comfortable, for class differences abound, and they're pretty clearly captured.

During one of Sharpe's sharp harangues, I turned to my husband and said, "There, he's going off like a Sergeant again." My husband said "No, that's an Officer's speech." "But... but... he's shouting a lot while the soldier he's shouting at isn't saying more than 'Yes sir' and 'Sorry sir'". To which Thomas replied, "Yes, but it's not about anything practical. Officers don't shout about anything practical; Sergeants do."

Tanya Huff would clearly agree.

The Better Part of Valor is the second book to feature Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr. Set in the far future, the Valor series---starting with Valor's Honor---is military sf with a particular turn of phrase only found in a Tanya Huff novel; it's sure to appeal to David Drake readers and to Huff's legion of fans. If we're very lucky, it will be the second of many. And although the first book establishes her character very clearly, it's not necessary to read it first, because having established Torin Kerr and the men and women who serve under her, Huff drags her away from almost everything she knows, setting her in command of a group of hand-picked individuals, none of whom have ever served together before. Why?

Well, it seems that, during a salvage run, a lone operator chanced across a great, yellow ship, drifting in space. The ship clearly does not belong to any of the known sentient races on either side of the war's divide.

It is considered a military matter, and the military has therefore attempted to put a lid on any publicity surrounding it while they attempt to gather information about its origin and its possible intent. Staff Sergeant Kerr is chosen to lead the team that will represent the military.

Unfortunately, for political reasons, she's saddled with a Commanding Officer that is universally admired as a hero—by anyone who is not actually in the Marines, the Navy or, in fact, in any sort of combat. Although he doesn't actually carry a full-length mirror with him at all times, he should—he preens enough to need one.

Instead, because he mentioned the fact that he's going on a Top Secret Mission for the Two Star General who has chosen the mission team to the ubiquitous front-line reporters, he has something better: representatives of the media. Surrounded by them, aware of his own image—and very little else—he leads his marines to the derelict ship.

In and of itself, this wouldn't be so bad, but Torin's orders are clear: She is to keep the Captain, bumbling and incompetent, alive, and she is to keep the media happy. She's had worse orders. Maybe.

This type of partial synopsis could apply to a host of other novels. But Huff's shine because of her ability to draw the distinction between commissioned officers and NCOs through the strength of the characters who fill those roles.

Torin Kerr is a very practical woman. She's a Marine, she's done recon, and she is entirely dedicated to her job—which is, as she sees it, to keep casualties to a minimum while following orders. To do this, she focuses on the men and women under her command; she knows them, their past, and their capabilities, and she trusts them. In return, she gives them the most important thing she can: a leader they can follow.

Not for Kerr—or Huff—the agonizing and the angst that often comes out of this combination. She doesn't question Right or Wrong in a broader context, and she doesn't waste time pondering morality. She has a job to do; she does it. If the job tomorrow were to suck up to the enemies she has to kill today, she'd do that too, and she'd see to it that everyone under her command pretty much did the same. She's not interested in personal glory. She measures success—or failure—by the military code that she's embraced, and she lives with it. She is that most unusual of people: completely practical, and almost completely clear-eyed.

But within the confines of her world, honor counts. If it didn't, she wouldn't be much of a leader.

Huff mixes grit and black humor with grace. The action doesn't stop once it starts, but it's peppered with laugh-out-loud observations.

The things stand out for me in this novel: Huff doesn't lose track of her characters. They don't suddenly become Generals. They aren't accoladed and accorded the recognition that they'd be due in a sane world. Nor does she tie up everything neatly at the end—because, in the end, Torin Kerr doesn't actually give a damn about tying things up in a neat little package. She does her job. She does it well.

For a reader, boredom is the enemy, and the fight against boredom goes on in and endless march. Huff win's the battle handily; she kicks boredom's butt.

*     *     *

Sometimes, the things that combat boredom are not as entertaining, and not as hopeful. In January, I spent nine days at the Hospital for Sick Children with my youngest son. Hospitals today are not like the hospitals of my youth; not only are parents allowed to stay, they're pretty much expected to do so when at all possible. In my case it was very much possible, thanks to family and friends. I lived there, in a small room with my son, sleeping on a bed about six inches wider than me.

It's easy to lose track of time in a hospital. It's easy to be disturbed by phantoms: fear, worry, anxiety. Other phantoms rear their heads in different ways. There was, the nurses said, a child in the ward who had been there for more than a year. The nameless, genderless child had been released once into rehab and had been sent back within a day.

I'm a writer, so of course I started to think about that child. And to think about other children, left in a hospital in the dim past—a hospital without MRI machines and CT scans, and antibiotics; without IV drips, without monitoring equipment, and without parents. Especially without parents.

The only word my little boy could speak for two days was "Mommy", although by the last day, it was "Ommy" because he didn't have the muscle control to make the initial M.

My son is home now, babbling and scampering like the energetic three-and-a-half year old he is. If I'm not careful, it's easy to slide into the darkness of a Thursday in which he hadn't enough muscle control to eat. Memory has a lot of caverns like that one. But Majgull Axelsson goes farther than that in April Witch, a book that is at once fantasy and reality, and full of those caverns into which people would rather not venture. They've been through them once, after all—what's the point in returning to them? Well, some memories are like weights, heavy anchors that keep a person on a very short leash.

Desiree was born in the 1950's, in our world. But whole worlds reinvent themselves, and the harshness of the fifties hospitals were very unlike the ones we have now; darker, certainly, than the ones I remember from my own childhood. She was also born in a time when children with severe birth defects were shunted into medical institutions by parents who had neither the desire nor the resources to care for them at home, and she is very much aware of this. She is aware, in fact, of everything, although it was believed that she would be incapable of so much as learning simple speech by all of her early doctors.

She is the April Witch of the title; a woman who transcends space and time, but who cannot control most of her body. She cannot speak well; she can eat, although feeding herself is strenuous, and she can puff air into a mechanical device that makes sense of it, giving her speech on a terminal screen. Is she lonely? Not really. Is she angry? Yes. Angry about lost opportunities, about the deprivation of her life, and about the fact that her mother, the woman who abandoned her, chose instead to devote her life to three foster children.

One of those girls—the ice princess cum physician, Christina, the restless and sensitive physicist, Margareta, or the wild, out of control Birgitta—lived the life that was meant for Desiree, in her mother's tidy house. Desiree intends to find out which.

An April Witch is not helpless. Because she is incapable of interacting with the world outside of her useless body, she is granted the ability to travel through it in ways that a normal person can't: she can glide on the wings of birds, slip into the thoughts of strangers, and if she is willing to take the risk—and pay the price—she can actually force those strangers to carry out menial tasks or more, taking control of their bodies.

The only person living that Desiree values is Dr. Hubbertson. He was once a boarder in her mother's house—the house in which the three foster daughters lived—and it is Hubbertson who first tells Desiree of the existence of the three girls; Hubbertson who first introduces Desiree to the invalid who was her mother; and Hubbertson who asks her for the story—for she tells him so many—of what happened the day he came home to find the three girls in the hallway over the fallen body of Ella, Christina against one wall, hands over her mouth in silence, Margareta holding Ella's hand, and Birgitta, against another wall, crying over and over again, "It's not my fault! It's not my fault!"

And what happened afterward.

Desiree is prepared, at last, to give him that story. But she has never spent much time in the minds of her foster-sisters, for she wants distance. From them. From everyone. Everyone but Hubbertson.

To get that story, she wields words, invokes old memories; sends letters to each of the three. They're ugly letters. They contain both her knowledge and her anger. But they're meant for a different purpose, and they do what they were intended: they invoke memory, dark, cavernous memory.

There is almost no joy in them.

Margareta, discovered abandoned in the laundry room of an old building, is Ella's first foster daughter. She has never had a mother, has never known any but Ella. But she knows that she was abandoned, and knows that she will never know who her father was.

Christina is on the surface the most successful of the three; she is married to a man who loves her, has twin daughters, has a career. And a perfect house. Taken from a mother who tried to burn her to death, she spends her early years in an institution, and her later years in Ella's home. Ella, seen through Christina's eyes, is a gentle, quiet woman whose ferocity comes out only when dealing with food. When she is a young teen, after Ella's stroke, she is returned to her birth mother.

And Birgitta, taken from her mother by child welfare authorities, is the last of the three. Ella took her in reluctantly, and Birgitta went even more reluctantly, for Birgitta's mother was the center of Birgitta's lopsided world. She knows that her mother really wanted to keep her. That her mother needed her. It burns her. Lost possibilities. All of them. Because she was the angriest of the three, she was the wildest, and her life, after her early marriage, went into a spiraling decline that has never stopped. She has been in and out of rehab, in and out of jail; she is old, tired, fat, ugly, trapped in the present by her desire to remain in the one perfect moment of the past.

Christina and Margareta come together because of their letters; they assume that these are potshots made by Birgitta, as it would be almost entirely in character. They don't know about Desiree. How could they? April Witch, hidden by Ella, she has never been part of their lives.

And always been part of them.

But here we come to the reason that Desiree took so long to offer Hubbertson the story he really wanted: There is a fourth sister, with memories as dark and unforgiving as the three, and in order to plumb the depths of their lives, she must also revisit her own.

I can't read Swedish; the book is a translation. Linda Schenck is listed as the translator, and of necessity, the words chosen for the English edition are hers. She does a very good job; turns out a novel that is compelling and intense. There is a flow and a rhythm to the sentences that spin and weave in and around each other that mirrors the structure of the book. There is a beauty in the language, and a poignancy in the observations; there is a reality in the drift between anger, fear and the tangled, painful expressions of love between the sisters that feels completely true.

I can't decide, in the end, how I feel about the book.

Read on the surface, read only for the facts that come through the sweeping sheen of words, it is a bleak book about people who are broken by circumstances beyond their control. Healing, such as has been done, is a scab that's picked at time and again, scarring skin and tissue until it is unmistakable. There is no moral center to the work, and why should there be? Morality comes from community, and seen through the eyes of Desiree, who has been isolated for almost all of her life, there is no community.

But behind the surface of the words offered in anger and resentment, there comes a certainty: the narrator, the April Witch, is no better able to understand herself than the sisters she manipulates. She is not a reliable narrator because her facts shift with time and with knowledge, her anger finds other things to move onto. She is more than human, less than human, and perfectly human, as flawed as the sisters she resents. And what does she resent, in the end? That they had what she didn't have? That they had, in a broken dysfunctional way, each other?

She weaves her web, hoping to offer Hubberston the story that he asked for. Incapable in the end of seeing why he asked for it: She is, at last, grieving, and in grieving, in passing through the grief of memory, she is able finally to appreciate the fact that she lived at all.

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