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February 2005
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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett, HarperCollins, 2004, $24.95.
Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War, by Clive Barker, Joanna Cotler Books, 2004, $24.99.
The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Runes of Earth, by Stephen R. Donaldson, Putnam, 2004, $26.95.

I'VE OFTEN written here that mood and reading are intertwined for me—that one follows the other, depending on how much I have to give a book in the time, attention, and emotional involvement departments. There are days when I'm so drained of one, or all, of these that I can only drift through books where the lines are simple and the emotional cost light; there are days when I'm so bright-eyed that almost everything strikes me as incomplete, simple, and predictable. Often it can be the same book.

Terry Pratchett is one of the few authors that I can read at any time, and in any state of mind.

What is so quintessentially Pratchett, so much at the heart of his work, that makes that transition possible? You never have to turn the critical faculties off, for one. If you examine everything he says—or everything any of his characters say—there's a very clear-eyed, pragmatic, and almost direly cynical view of the world and the people in it that accords with bitter experience. Yes, he's funny, and much of his humor is derived from the cynicism.

But having said that…Terry Pratchett is also capable of a great deal of sentiment and affection. Believing that people are exactly as pathetic and delusional as they are, he somehow manages to present this truth as if there were great joy to be taken from it. And because he does, there is. You can believe in the shifting quicksands; he can tell you clearly that they won't carry you or hold you up, he can say it with words—but they somehow do; you defy gravity, look at the murk beneath your feet, and are even glad it's there. It's a gift I've found in almost no other writer, certainly none of this generation.

And no book of his is a clearer example of this strange dichotomy of text and reaction than Going Postal, his latest adult Discworld offering.

In it, one Moist von Lipwig is touched by an Angel. The fact that the angel happens to be the dire and unpredictable Lord Vetinari has to be taken in stride; it's Ankh-Morpork, after all, and Vetinari is probably the closest thing there is to an Angel in the vicinity. Well, okay, at least he's competent.

Why Moist von Lipwig needs an Angel is part of the novel's strange grace: He's a con artist. He's a man who looks so honest, so guileless, and so slightly stupid that he can trick anyone into thinking they can trick him out of whatever it is he happens to be trying to sell them. Which, of course, is usually worthless. It's got him in a bit of trouble. And Vetinari is, out of a spirit of generosity attributable only to Vetinari—which is to say, twisted and next to none—offering him his one chance to get it right this time. But because Vetinari isn't a fool, the two large strings attached to Moist von Lipwig are called Mr. Pump, a very literal Golem (there really isn't any other kind) and the position of Postmaster at the ancient, towering and quite useless Ankh-Morpork Post Office.

The Post Office comes with two (unpaid) employees—an ancient Junior Postman named Mr. Groat and a less ancient and not quite right young man named Stanley. Oh, and an awful lot of undelivered mail.

It's the job of a lifetime. Literally. And if Moist can't up the ante and use the skills he's developed in a life of crime, that lifetime can be measured in days.

This is a book about Hope—mostly of the variety that makes people stupid. And in fact, it's a book about stupid people, because without the stupid, there's no Hope. It is also a book about smart people, because without the smart, there's no one to take advantage of the peculiar grace and value of stupidity.

It's a book that many people have said reminds them of Pratchett's extremely well-loved novels about the Watch—but it's not a book about the Watch. It is, rather, a book about governing a city. Sort of. Von Lipwig is the anti-Vimes; he's not a man who believes, and hates believing in a world that gives him so little purchase; he's a man who doesn't believe. In anything.

Which is part of what makes the book so satisfying.

Pratchett could write Discworld novels until the skies collapsed, and I would be the happiest reader alive. They only get better with time. They always get better with time.

*     *     *

Pratchett's Discworld is often described in asides that might come out of a lunatic's travel guide. He frequently mentions strange Ankh-Morporkian sights that seem like blips on the radar. I love those.

Which makes my reaction to Barker's Abarat—admittedly a universe so unlike the Discworld that I probably shouldn't compare them—a bit odd. Barker's second venture into this world (after Abarat, 2002) once again features young Candy Quackenbush and Malingo, the former slave that she freed. It features the Criss-Cross man and showcases Christopher Carrion, the Lord of Midnight. A word: each hour of the day in Abarat is an island, a geographical location. One can cross the waters and travel, spending a very long stretch of time in one hour, and seeing no change of day or night; Day and Night are locations here.

And the first several chapters of this novel are taken up with…locations. With long descriptions of the peculiar, dark vision that has always inhabited Barker's fiction. There is a sense, impervious to all action and story, that this is a voyage, and the tour-guide is stopping along the way to point out the more visually interesting elements of landscape and inhabitants along the way. Unfortunately—for me—some of those elements feel like window dressing; akin to the research that has been so much labor it's all been jammed into the book, regardless of whether or not it fits.

Candy and Malingo are on a leisurely flight from the Criss-Cross man, and while they're at it, they might as well see more of the world. The Criss-Cross man is on a flight away from pretty certain and unpleasant death if he doesn't find Candy and bring her to the Lord of Midnight. But Candy has power in her—a power that she's not aware of until she needs it—and with that power comes a lot of uncomfortable questions.

Who is she? Why does she have power at all? Why does Abarat feel as if it's her real home, when she's spent most of her life in the unfortunately named Chickentown in the real world?

It's only when the sightseeing elements fall away, when the tonal use of the imagery meshes with the internal voyage of the characters—Candy in particular, as she gropes her way toward understanding the mystery of her existence—that the book comes to life. In fact, it's when the story shifts from the external reality of Abarat to the internals of the horribly evil and strangely compelling Carrion.

There's pathos and an unflinching honesty in the depiction of Carrion, in the varied flavors of love, and the way we break its meaning or build on it, that make, in the end, a compelling read. There's never so much violence (and certainly no sex) that this couldn't be the Young Adult novel it claims to be—but Barker has never been the world's most settling read.

This book reminds me, in odd ways, of C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but stripped of Christianity, updated, modernized, and threaded throughout with a glittering sort of ugly that's almost beautiful. I read, somewhere, that Disney bought media rights to Abarat as a whole—and I honestly cannot imagine what they're going to do with them.

But if you feel hesitant about picking it up, if for some reason you didn't fall in love with the first book, this one is stronger, and in its own way, heartbreaking.

*     *     *

In 1977, the leprous Thomas Covenant, one of modern fantasy's more controversial protagonists, was first introduced to the fantasy field by the promising new writer Stephen R. Donaldson. Thomas Covenant was an ordinary man living in an ordinary world until the day he was diagnosed with leprosy. Although the world was ordinary, Covenant wasn't, and he found out that the word "leper" still had strong social consequences. He lost his family, his physical health, and eventually—or so he thought—his sanity; he traveled to The Land, a world that was patently so much psychosis to his rational mind.

This first novel—and Covenant's first of six appearances—hit readers with all the mildness of an abortion argument; there were very few who didn't have an opinion about Covenant, or Donaldson, after they'd read it (or tried).

But Covenant bore the title "The Unbeliever" for a reason; he didn't believe in The Land. He told himself many things about his lack of belief, and one of them was that actions played out in dreams have no consequences. He wanted something; he wasn't bound by social rules because he wasn't in the "real" world; he satisfied a need. The problem—as any reader could have figured out at that point—was that it wasn't a dream. The Land, replete with giants, magic, and shadowy figures of evil, was of course real.

The bitter consequences of his action took six books to resolve, as the Unbeliever began his long struggle toward redemption.

Now, after a hiatus of twenty-two years, Donaldson is returning to The Land.

Or rather, Linden Avery is. First introduced in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant as an emotionally broken person who accompanies Covenant as his doctor, she was forced to grow beyond the psychologically crippling reality of life on Earth; her ties to The Land were strong, and she didn't suffer from lack of belief. Through her actions and Covenant's eventual act of nobility, The Land was saved.

But the real world to which Linden Avery returned, changed, went on without Covenant. In his place was the mad woman Covenant had once promised to love and cherish—the wife who abandoned him.

Linden Avery is still a doctor. She has taken the burden of Joan upon her own shoulders. But Joan has been silent and unreachable for ten years; not much of a companion.

It isn't until Linden meets Jeremiah that she finds a cause as important as the saving of The Land. She adopts him. Damaged, uncommunicative, he is the focus of her life when she isn't working at the institute.

When Roger, the son of Covenant and Joan, shows up unexpectedly to claim custody of his mother, Linden knows he's trouble. Trouble, not in the mundane sense of the word, but in the magical sense: The Land is somehow involved. And with the Land, Lord Foul, the Despiser. Afraid, but caught in this reality, she accepts this truth in time to lose everything—and she's translated, along with Roger and Joan, to The Land, only to find that the Despiser has her son.

The first two hundred pages of this book are scattered throughout with so many references to the earlier books, they play the sort of catch-up that almost feels like infodump. The rest of the book loses that forced familiarity as Linden struggles to master magics she's never used. When Covenant died, Linden kept the white gold ring that was the source of his power in The Land. It's still a source of power—it's just not hers.

Linden is not Covenant. The twisted remorse and the desperate need to take as little responsibility as possible that almost defined Covenant mean nothing to her; she is—in the Donaldson canon—an entirely sympathetic character, with a clear motivation. Does she have doubts? Yes. But she can't let them overwhelm her if she's to do what she set out to do: save her son.

It becomes clear, however, that in saving her son she's fulfilling some part of her ancient enemy's plan—and while this book is almost entirely straightforward, the ending of it leaves little doubt that things are going to bunch, knot, and twist—because people can do many things in the name of love, and the test of her character, which hasn't even started—will be answered by the question how much? Donaldson gives us a glimpse of what he does best here as he lays the foundations for what's to come.

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