Monthly Archives: May 2012

Phantom by Susan Kay

A child is born… His  mother’s only gift is a mask. Precocious and gifted, he will live friendless and alone. taunted and abused, he will flee, only to find himself caged  again – as a freak in a Gypsy carnival. A brilliant outcast… the world is his home. Filled with  bitter rage, he will kill to escape, becoming a  stonemason’s apprentice in Rome… a dark magician at  the treacherous Persian court… and finally, the  genius behind the construction of the Paris Opera  House and the labyrinthine world below. Lacking one thing only: A woman’s love. Cloaked in secrets,  his power complete, he will see the exquisite  Christine and for the first time know what it means to  love. Obsessed, he will bring her into his eerie  subterranean world, driven to posses her heart and soul. (Synopsis source: http://www.amazon.com/Phantom-Susan-Kay/)

For fans of The Phantom of the Opera, Kay’s Phantom should, theoretically, be a compelling read. Both prequel and retelling, the novel follows Erik’s life as he steadily sinks into psychological instability and moral darkness, ending with the story that is so familiar to those who enjoyed Leroux’s Gothic classic. Yet Phantom is a messy and poorly executed novel, one which fails to make improvements upon its source work. Like countless others who have attempted to delve into Erik’s complicated psyche, Kay explains his steady decline from innocent child to remorseless killer with a series of traumatic incidents in which Erik is exposed to the brutality that people show to each other. Unfortunately, most of these incidents are related not by Erik himself, but by a scattered cast of bystanders and acquaintances, from his abusive mother to his kindly mentor to, finally, Christine by way of her diary. As a result, the majority of the novel finds the reader observing Erik from a distance, often through perspectives that are ill-informed or severely limited.

It is unclear what Kay’s intent in this is, other than to shield the reader from the perspective that they want most. Erik narrates at only two points in the story: when he is being held captive by gypsies as a young boy and, more than thirty years later, when he is hidden in the Paris Opera House. Phantom is a novel which is very much interested in the way that perspectives of others impact the way we see ourselves. But without giving the reader a firsthand glimpse at the way that Erik reacts to the prejudice and hatred that he encounters when he attempts to engage in normal human relationships, she fails to consistently give readers the most important perspective: that of Erik himself. In a work that strives so hard for psychological intimacy, this feels like a problem. Phantom could have been a fascinating book in which readers were forced to critique their own prejudiced perceptions, but Kay completely failed to do this. In the end, after all, Erik is proven to be exactly what we think he will be. By the time he can speak for himself, he is already transformed into the stereotype behind the mask.

As a result, I find Erik’s character no more sympathetic at the end of Phantom than I did at the end of The Phantom of the Opera, a work which was markedly more successful in creating stirring portraits of morally complicated characters. Though there were parts of Phantom that I found enjoyable, I was almost always distracted by the shifting first-person perspectives that told me everything but that which I really wanted to know. The last 100 or so pages of Phantom are by far the best because they finally put the reader in the place where they should be: behind the mask of the novel’s elusive main character.

Not recommended

Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiakwan

Of Bees and Mist is an engrossing fable that chronicles three generations of women under one family tree and places them in a mythical town where spirits and spells, witchcraft and demons, and prophets and clairvoyance are an everyday reality.

Meridia grows up in a lonely home until she falls in love with Daniel at age sixteen. Soon, they marry, and Meridia can finally escape to live with her charming husband’s family—unaware that they harbor dark mysteries of their own. As Meridia struggles to embrace her life as a young bride, she discovers long-kept secrets about her own past as well as shocking truths about her new family that push her love, courage, and sanity to the brink. (Synopsis source: http://www.ericksetiawan.com/)

Though Of Bees and Mist is certainly not a fantasy novel, it might well be described as a fairy tale. After all, the familiar elements are all there: a wicked matriarchal figure (not a stepmother, but close enough), an unhappy childhood, a surreal, atemporal world where fortune-tellers and ghosts serve as plot devices, and a charming prince. But Of Bees‘ Daniel is a lackluster substitute for the proverbial knight in shining armor, a problem which lays at the heart of Of Bees and Mist. At its core, this novel is an interrogation of the fairy tale formula that is so much a part of women’s fiction.

Meridia herself is a perfect character for such an exploration. At the beginning of the novel, she is naive and desperately optimistic. She expects Daniel to save her and when he appears to do so, she takes his actions and their consequences at face value. Throughout Of Bees and Mist, Meridia suffers the consequences of her naivety and so does every other character who tries to live by the rules of their society. If Of Bees is, as its synopsis says, a “fable,” then its moral would certainly be that breaking the genre conventions of your own life is sometimes the only way to survive to the end of the story. As Meridia comes into her own and becomes an increasingly self-assured character, she learns to take actions that are dangerously unconventional. To the surprise of her husband, in-laws, and society, Meridia’s strength and courage is often rewarded.

My only major qualm with Of Bees and Mist is its ending, which is an ambiguous and possibly contradictory way to end Setiawan’s otherwise beautifully expressed fable. In beating Eva at her own game, Setiawan hints that Meridia has possibly “become” Eva. If Eva embodies the same strength that Meridia does, Of Bees is portraying self-reliance and inner strength as problematic character traits that guide the actions of antagonists. The rest of the novel suggests that this is not true. The clear moral lines drawn between characters like Eva and Meridia never blur earlier in the story; Meridia’s actions are portrayed as attempts to survive, while Eva’s are expressions of tyranny. If Setiawan truly does mean to imply that the only way to survive a fairy tale is to become its villian, Of Bees and Mist is a hopelessly bleak novel. For this reader, that creates a weird and unsettling contrast when held up against the rest of the book.

Recommended

Welcome to the Blog!

With this first post, I join the ranks of the numerous book review blogs on WordPress. There are many of them, I know. Which is why I mean to spend the first post explaining why you should read this blog. (And also all of the others, which are lovely from what I’ve seen so far).

I am a Literature major, which is not a synonym for English major, but actually a descriptive term implying that I have given up any hope of gainful employment as a technical writer and am instead immersing myself in literary analysis and the pages of Russian novels until I graduate. Once in the real world, ironically, I intend to earn an MFA in writing fiction and work as a literary agent for Weird Books that No One Else Wants.

When I write this blog, I write not only as a reader who is looking for an enjoyable read, but as a scholar of literature who has spent many a sleepless night trying to figure out what some author from two hundred years ago was saying. In writing this blog, I hope to highlight both perspectives. Will I give a book a bad review if it has no literary meaning? I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. Depends on how genre-bound it is.

A note: I plan to review both literary and genre fiction, but as far as genre fiction goes, I am mostly interested in psychological thrillers, soft science fiction, urban fantasy, good YA, and historical fiction. The more weird prose choices, the better. I will accept both recommendations of books published by other people and submissions of books by self-published authors, so if you think you fit in somewhere there, feel free to let me know!