I really should stop reading books clearly targeting an entirely different demographic to me. But it doesn’t have to be that way: some teen books are great for grown-ups too.
I might have enjoyed this if it was one of the first fantasies I’d read. She’s got so many clichés, which are so much more enjoyable when they’re not yet clichés to you. The Celtic sounding names, the travel/quest, the way magic functions, etc. To her credit her characters are not all total carbons, but at most they are blends of Yodas, Aragorns, Galadriels, Palpatines … and at least simply something like ‘the mother’ or ‘the minion’. Hey, I couldn’t begin to produce something as faithful to this style – it’s a feat – but I’m not going to enjoy something so utterly derivative.
There is a deliberate individual touch in the focus on Maerad on the cusp of (speaking of clichés) or blooming into womanhood. Her menses (no, I’m not being formal and euphemistic – this is one of the terms Croggon herself jarringly uses) is cyclically foregrounded, in a way that invites her young female readers to feel accepted into a grown-up secret – one that discomfits and humbles even man-of-the-world hero Cadvan (absurdly, given that he’s supposed to be 90 years old and that bards in this mythos are, among other things, healers – imagine your fifty year old GP blushing if someone mentions a tampon). Still, it’s about the only positive focus on such a common and defining and usually ignored process that I can recall.
A couple of things bugged me. Maerad is just so perfect – there is virtually no damage, or even effect, of supposedly being raised an orphan in utterly squalid, abusive and brutal circumstances (cf. Harry Potter). Two weeks out she is an ideal polite middle class well-spoken girl. Everyone (with the exception of a disgraced bard) in Gilman’s cot is dismissed as stupid and thuggish – not by an ignorant child, but by the author. I don’t like being coopted into this ugly classism, something all too common in fantasy, even occasionally by people like LeGuin (who is generally in another league to Croggon). Tolkien’s towns – Gondor, the Shire, Edoras – have a range of characters that can be petty, heroic, bland, foolish, sharp, loyal, lazy, silly – or a combination of these and other characteristics: for a place to be entirely corrupt (or pure) it is populated by a different race, where human rules don’t apply. Tolkien didn’t need to devote any more pages to, for example, Rohan, than Croggin did to Gilman’s cot to add this wiser and less offensive texture. You could go with the fantasy (or more folk-tale) staple of royal blood bestowing royal character despite circumstances (cf. the princess and the pea – or even The Princess and Curdie/the Goblin ), but Croggin is trying to humanise her heroes rather than have them as godlike archetypes. Even if we had Gilman’s cot as an uncouth, unsavoury mess, would it have killed Croggon to allow a month or two – even a year or two into the narrative (it only takes a sentence or two) so we can accept Maerad’s metamorphosis (at least she tries a little harder with her brother – but only a little). (Yes, I do realise there is the damage of Maerad’s fear of sexualised touch, even just at the level of a kiss, but kids who receive nothing but abuse do not instinctively give out consideration, trust and manners). Very much the same annoying rushed approach as Eragon, where the central relationship of the series just happens instantly, when there was no need for the plot to skip having at least some build.
Another annoyance was just how goddam easy everything is for Maerad. Check me out – I’m amazingly talented. In our world she would have been a scientologist – a religion for people who think they’re just that much better than most people. The tone – and even the specifics of musicality as making you a spiritual, moral and intellectual elite – reminds me of the arrogance of Anne McCaffrey’s ‘Crystal Singer’. Maerad’s exactly the same daydream egocentric protagonist for girls that Garion of the Belgariad is for boys. Oh look, I matter more than everyone else. The gods ignore you, but they notice me. Oh, magic? OK – um, I’ll make light, or fire, or resist the attack of some uber-wizard or balrog equivalent or something without a hint of training or cost or learning or process or discovery or reading or whatever. And if anything really bad is going to happen, even though I’ve never done it before, I’ll screw up my eyes and reach out and somehow … blam … I’ve won! Yay. How can you have suspense with these casual demigods as heroes?
Oh, the constant superlatives. They bugged me too. How many things were ‘unutterable’ or the like?