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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Secret of Crickley Hall, by James Herbert, Pan Macmillan, 2007, $9.99.

Ilario: The Lion's Eye: The First History Book One, by Mary Gentle, 2007, Avon Eos, $14.95.

Ilario: The Stone Golem: The First History Book Two, by Mary Gentle, Avon Eos, 2007, $14.95.

The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, by Catherynne M. Valente, 2007, Bantam Spectra, $14.

I'VE SAID before in these pages that I'm not really a horror reader. I don't really love roller coasters and things that make me queasy, and I particularly dislike gore. This makes me not ideally suited to read a lot of horror novels. Let me make clear that I don't think they're bad, and I don't turn my nose up at them—I'm just not part of the audience with which Horror in general finds itself at home.

But—you knew there was a "but" coming—I've always had a weakness for ghost stories. I'm not sure why; something about the attenuated cry of the long dead, something about the loss, and the possibility of justice, or at least the emergence of truth, strikes a chord in me. There's something ineluctably human about ghosts.

So I picked up the trade paperback of James Herbert's latest novel, The Secret of Crickley Hall, and the opening pages (well, beyond the prologue), drew me in.

Gabe and Eve Caleigh, along with their two daughters, have chosen to rent a large house in the small town of Hollow Bay, well away from their home in London. Gabe has a number of reasons for wanting to take a break from the city, but the most pressing, the most painful, are the memories it contains.

Almost one year ago, their son Cam went missing in a London park. Since then, Gabe and Eve have lived by the phone, waiting for word—from the police, from possible kidnappers, from anyone who might have seen their son. Their life has been put on hold—but they have two daughters, and children don't stand still; Gabe's aware that in some ways they've been absent from their home life since the moment Cam was discovered missing.

It's clear at the outset that the ghosts of Crickley Hall already pale in comparison to the things that haunt the Caleighs. Clear as well that until a body is discovered, hope is a brutality that endures, day in and day out, stretching and thinning but never quite breaking.

Even when faced with the evidence (ludicrous though it is to Gabe's mind) that supernatural forces do indeed exist at Crickley, that hope simmers. The locals are curious about Crickley, of course, and the information extant makes clear that, during a flood, several orphans, evacuated from London to the safety of Crickley, perished, as did the man who was in charge of the orphanage.

As the book unfolds, it becomes clear to Eve and Gabe (it's pretty clear to the reader from page one) that the children's deaths were not due to drowning. The couple is aware that something isn't right—the doors that they lock open themselves during the night, water appears on the floor when there's no rain and no obvious signs of leaking pipes. Herbert contrasts the mundane with the mystical, pulling the threads together so that the reader, in the end, is aware of all aspects of the tragedy and the insanity that lead to the haunting of Crickley.

It's almost too much information; every single person except daughter Cally has a point of view—including the medium that Eve consults in desperation—and every single point of view serves to explain elements of the past that might not be clear otherwise, some of which might have been stronger for the murkiness; it's as if the plot and every single thing that could possibly be relevant to it had to be laid out explicitly for the reader.

But having said that, I read it through to the end, and the end was perfect. Enough so that I sat down and read it again.

For me, Herbert is at his strongest when dealing with the profound terror of the simply mundane, and one particular scene between Gabe and a London police officer is strong enough that you instinctively close your eyes (which makes reading difficult) in order to give Gabe Caleigh a moment of privacy and respectful distance.

*     *     *

Mary Gentle's alternate history is interesting not because it's an alternate history of Carthage—although that aspect of the novel is certainly one of its strengths. No, it's interesting because, against the vast panorama of intricate daily detail, her unlikely protagonist, the Ilario of the title, stands out.

Ilario is a freak by birth and position—the King's freak, to be precise. What makes him a freak? He's a natural hermaphrodite. A freak is not generally considered worthy of assassination, and when Ilario is almost killed by the one woman in the world he loves and trusts, he flees the safety of his position, having earned his freedom—and the necessary papers that prove he isn't chattel.

Hermaphrodites are tricky; Ilario is a he because he thinks of himself that way, bodily truth notwithstanding; it's not with the women that he most strongly identifies—and in this, he's a product of his culture. Gentle's work, given her protagonist, can't help but examine gender, identity, and gender-issues, but the examination arises out of the characters who are made, broken, or both, by their culture's expectations and limitations; there is one speech given toward the book's end, by Ilario's mother, Rosamunda, that is in equal parts ugly, true, and painful—and it never feels forced.

The first heady rush of freedom, mixed with Ilario's hopeful naiveté, conspire to rob him of said freedom; his ability to write secures him a place—as a slave—to Rehkmire', an educated, well-traveled and somewhat inscrutable man. Because he is once again a slave, the second assassination attempt is treated as a crime against his owner, which complicates the political landscape. This, for Ilario, becomes obvious much later; he has a measure of safety with his new owner, and his new owner doesn't seem to want a servile, silent slave; he wants a companion.

Ilario's journey takes him to an artist, for whom he serves briefly as an apprentice; he falls in love, he travels to Egypt, and in doing all these things—and more—he learns the limits of his own compassion, and how to stretch them, making, in the end, friends of enemies. I want to say more, but I don't want to spoil the book in any way, so I'll limit myself to this: Gentle's novel(s) cover a small span of time, but in that time, Gentle gives us the sense of a life, with all of its ironies, ugliness, and beauty, made slightly larger than life, but never larger than humanity.

This book reminded me of nothing so much as a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, and the unexpected ending was also perfect. I highly recommend it.

*     *     *

Cathrynne Valente's The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice concludes the two-book The Orphan's Tales. I found I had to reread the first book (The Orphans Tales: In the Night Garden) in order to follow and appreciate the second fully, because the two books are halves of one long tapestry. You can make out the individual threads that comprise the almost-fairy tale stories, but if you pull them, you find that you unravel much more than a single knot.

We are returned to the Night Garden, and the strange orphan with ink upon her eyelids. We sit, as the young boy who has befriended her does, at her feet while she tells the tales that are written there—because the telling of each and every tale will possibly free her. Or perhaps that's how it began; it's become more, to both of the children, who live in isolation in their own ways—she, in the garden, living on scraps and forage, and he, in the glittering palace, in the harem, surrounded by people who aren't really aware of who he is, but are aware of what he will become. He is the heir.

I loved the end—the very end—of the last book, because it took the evil sister stereotype, which had worked so well at the book's beginning (although it had frayed toward the end), and turned it on its ear with so few words. It was an act of generosity, both to the character and to the reader, because it was unlooked for.

In the second volume, in the world outside of the Night Garden, said sister, Dinarzad, is engaged to one of many suitors. She of course has no choice or say in her future husband, and she takes solace from her stolen hints of an orphan's tale. Not for Dinarzad the open and naïve befriending of a strange, fey girl, but in the life she's led, that's not a possibility.

But she's heard the stories that the girl tells the boy, and in her own way, she clings to them, and she offers what help she can, quietly and firmly.

The book is broken into two story cycles; in this it maintains the structure of the first novel. But while the first deals with all manner of strangeness, wending its slow way to the birth of a child in an extremely unexpected place, the second shifts completely—because in the second half of the book, and in the last of the four cycles, the girl is no longer the sage and active teller of the tales her eyes horde—because the last of the tales are ones she could not read on her own eyes; the sentences break and cross over the lids, and she cannot, on her own, make sense of the narrative.

So the boy, her audience, becomes a participant in the last act in a much more obvious way: she asks him to tell her the stories, and while he's fretful and certain he will do a bad job, he does begin to read, and to offer to her what she herself can't see. As a metaphor about friendship and interdependence, it's brilliant.

And as the stories at last draw to a close, as the threads of the whole are finally woven into whole cloth, the stories end, and the Orphan and her heir are left looking out at a world that we won't see—but can, thanks to Valente's work, imagine.

Valente's language is lovely, her imagery evocative, and she can make even the ugliest and strangest things seem briefly luminescent. But her fairy tales, while they have the cool precision of Angela Carter's, have as well some visceral blood and bone, some messiness that speaks of a reality that is not dissected and viewed through a microscope—and given the framing device and the structure of her story-within-a-story-within-a-story, this is impressive.

And yes, as in the first book, it's the unlooked for moments of kindness that almost break the heart. This is not, in any sense of the word, a traditional narrative structure…but I loved it.

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