Friday, September 7, 2007

Fox by Sherwood Smith

New Eligible Book to Add to the list:

OSC reviewed this one 8/26/07--though it wasn't posted online until 9/7/07

A few months ago, I reviewed Sherwood Smith's fantasy novel Inda, the first volume of a projected trilogy, and I believe I said very positive things.

I recently read volume two, Fox, and the achievement of this writer is only getting more remarkable.

So many fantasy novels take place in a space about the size (and with as much variety) as the state of Delaware.

But in Fox, Smith opens up the novel into a wide, wide world, with enormous variety. Here we have nation within nation, layers of history, and a real sense that there are kingdoms and empires on several continents, with complex interactions among them, and wide variation in their cultures.

Every group has its own history, its own objectives, its own grievances. And Smith handles the relationships and machinations among them so deftly that you don't realize you're being given a course in politics.

The novel begins by plunging into the story about fifteen minutes after the end of the previous volume. I strongly recommend that you reread that last chapter of Inda before starting to read Fox. Otherwise, you'll be as lost as I was. As with the first volume, Smith does not define things as she goes along: You're expected either to remember or figure it out.

But the sense of dislocation is only momentary. Within a chapter or two I was fully reoriented, despite the months between volumes. And what a ride this new book is!

Though the international politics is deftly handled, what matters most is that the personal stories are believable and compelling. The close-in core of Inda's companions; the second core of characters surrounding Prince Evred; the potential rival to Inda for leadership of his anti-pirate pirate fleet, Fox; and the most mysterious character, a warrior mage named Ramis who seems able to control space and time -- all are richly created, sympathetic, and real.

Nor does Smith infinitely postpone decisive action, the way so many writers of long series do. No, when it's time for something to happen, it happens, and Smith flings out the consequences with reckless abandon. It's often quite breathtaking how daring she is.

Naming and vocabulary are, as always in this series, a challenge. Inda goes by the nom de guerre of "Elgar the Fox," perhaps intending that he be confused with his ally and rival, whose name is Fox.

After a while, titles like sierlaef and harskialdna begin to sound like natural words, and family names like Montredavan-An and personal names like Indevan-Laef Algara-Vayir become not just pronounceable, but freighted with all kinds of meaning. It's as if we enter into the culture, like immigrants who finally catch on to the language.

Sexuality in these books is a bit utopian (in a libertarian sense) and denies much of human evolution -- it's a world in which sexual activity is largely separated from mating and child-rearing, and sexual orientation is accepted no matter which way it turns.

But nothing is ever pornographic. You don't necessarily give this book to pre-adolescents, but nobody is going to learn the facts of life from it, either. As always, the best suggestion, if you have a fantasy-loving teen, is to read it yourself and then discuss the issues raised by the books in an intelligent way. It works far better than banning a book at keeping your child's moral lens clearly focused.

In the past few months I've started reading more than a dozen fantasy novels or series; I haven't reviewed them here because they were, to put it kindly, a waste of my time, and I didn't bother finishing them.

By contrast, I didn't want Fox to end. I savored every paragraph and continued to live in the book for days afterward.

I keep thinking that if I write a good enough review, the publisher or author will relent and let me read the next volume early. Like now. Please.

No comments: