Monday, October 03, 2011

Book Review: The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss

Have you ever experienced a book, a movie, a painting, that you knew was in many ways a work of art but you just couldn’t get into it? Something that you knew was an extraordinary example of what it was supposed to be, but that something just repelled you?

So it was for the first half of The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss. With the fond memories I have of it today, it would be much more bearable to sit through the first half of the book, but the first time around it was like trying to build a beach house with your bare hands, in the middle of July. God, you hope it’s worth the effort, because if not, it was a lot of misery for nothing.

The reason for this is because The Twelfth Enchantment, from early on, does not have a single character I could relate to, let alone like. There’s the characters you’re not meant to like, of course. There’s the selfish uncle, the nasty nanny-esque figure, the outright antagonists and the character that they tell you from Page 6 to hate, not to mention the bland Olsen, who ranges from being nothing to an antagonist to nothing again. But then you have the alleged protagonist of this novel, a woman who, true to her 1812 setting, allows her life to be dictated entirely by the choices of the people around her. My inability to accept Lucy Derrick as a true protagonist for much of the novel may seem contrary to somebody who at times feels a female protagonist is a prerequisite for an enjoyable body of work, but my idea of a female protagonist is someone like… Ellen Ripley from Alien.

MizzeeOH: I love Ripley, and even I think you need to go a lot girlier than that.

Okay, Jaina Solo.

Sith Jammies: Bay? A little girlier than that

Princess Leia

X-Wingurly: Girlier.

Hermione Granger

SQT: Girlier!

me: I got it! Usagi! MizzeeOH: *shocked stare* Sith Jammies: *shocked stare*

me: You know, Serena? From Sailor Moon?

X-Wingurly: *shocked stare* SQT: *shocked stare*

You see my point here. Even for an extremely flawed, down to Earth and inexcusably girly female protagonist, I expect something a bit… modern. Most outspoken female feminists will tell you that they would rather deal with a misogynistic man than the type of woman who would invite such a man into their lives any day of the week, and my feelings are much along that nature. It’s much easier to read about an outright villain than a character who feels their identity is defined by the villains in their life.

There are a lot of readers who wouldn’t mind this in a character, particularly since it’s a more realistic approach to the women of the time than a lot of Fantasy novels use. This is fine- you’ll probably find it a lot easier to get into this book than it was for me.

Another thing that a lot of readers are liable to find much easier to read than I did is the style of the prose. In order to allow the reader to get fully into the early 19th century setting, everything, from the internal monologues to the descriptions of the characters, is written as though by a scribe of the local day. This is fine… unless you’re a reader who has actually put down books in the past because it takes you too long to get used to that style of prose. I have. That made this book a particular challenge for me to read.

I mentioned it got better. It definitely did- I finished The Twelfth Enchantment glad that I had read all the way through, although given the opportunity I may have skipped a chapter or two of the more inconsequential variety. There are plenty of subplots that, if not filler, are still rendered inconsequential by unrelated actions later.

What is it that gets better about the book? Well, first of all, the Fantasy plot- you know, the reason I read this book in the first place- is slow to pick up, but eventually it becomes very interesting. This is definitely Fantasy in the pre-Tolkien sense, creating its own mythology that has its roots in folklore that already existed, even if it’s not as well known now. I always enjoy a Fantasy story like this, even if it takes a bit longer to get into than one with familiar rules, and despite this one taking longer than most, I still enjoyed the fleshing out and eventual execution.

Lucy also becomes a character (in my way of thinking) as the novel goes on. She comes to realize that with the importance others place on her and the needs they have that only she can fulfill, she must make her own decisions. It’s a tad on the “too little, too late” side, but as it is the cause of many of the most interesting scenes in the book, it’s very welcome and well done.

I would enjoy reading more novels by David Liss set in the same universe, as long as they don’t each spend half a book introducing a new main character and her troubles. I’d hesitate to recommend this to somebody with the same interests as me, though, because of the difficulties I had getting through the first half, but if you can overlook the writing style and the lack of a single, driving character for the first half of the book, it’s a very enjoyable book that I would definitely recommend.

Bill Silvia is a regular contributor at Fantasy & SciFi Lovin' News & Reviews. You can find more of his content at Man in Black Reviews.


Linds said...

I'll definitely have to put this on my 'to read' list. I have a thing for 19th century British fiction, but then, that's what I focused on in college.

But I totally get how that isn't a lot of people's thing. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

Personally, even for a fantasy story, if the author approaches the setting to mimic 19th century fiction, I'd be more irritated if the female character had a completely modern 'take'. It's an odd balance to strike, paying homage to the times without undermining your character. Because even in the time period you have such an array of personalities: from Austen's limp Fanny Price to Wilkie Collin's take action Valeria from the Law and the Lady.

SQT said...

While I like stronger female protagonists, I have to say the Linds has a point about the need for the character to fit the setting. That said, I doubt I'd care for this either because I doubt I could relate to the main character and that's essential for me to like a book. In any book like this my taste runs to Elizabeth Bennet from "Pride & Prejudice"-- that's the standard.

The Happy Booker said...

Like you, I am quick to put a book down if the prose is difficult to understand. I do not enjoy books that I have to practically decipher each paragraph in order to grasp the meaning. I enjoy a much more straightforward style of writing. This is probably a book that is not for me. Great informative review, as always!

The Man in Black said...

Thanks for the feedback.

To clarify, it wasn't that I found the prose difficult to understand (my high school English teachers would hunt me down and hurt me if that were the case) just more that it is so difficult for me to consider natural that it would have been easier for me to read a manga written entirely in Spanish than to engross myself in the Old English.