Sunday, February 8, 2009

Book Review: Modern Magic by Anne Cordwainer

So, this is a review of the promising first novel ... err, collection of short stories... Errr, anyone for "cycle"? Modern Magic, by Anne Cordwainer. Can you tell that terminology is going to be a problem here?

This is a novel in the sense that Asimov's Foundation is a novel - a book-length work of prose fiction on a single subject, that happens to be written in the form of short stories. Garnering praise by "everyone from Piers Anthony down to some guy on the internet", as the press packet from Clotho Press jokes, Modern Magic is a very strong work by freshman writer Cordwainer.

Let's pop in that Piers Anthony quote here, shall we?

"I love it! The magic framework is well worked out, the writing is apt, and the crises are scary. The manner a non-magical girl relates to her magical family, especially her brother, is effective... overall, this is a fun novel."

I was excited to hear Cordwainer's book was being published, since I was an early reviewer of some segments on the critters critique site a few years back, and I remembered it fondly and with anticipation. When she contacted me about her book launch, the people and the situation from the first movement of the cycle surged back into my head. Ummm... "First story"?

Or is that "first episode"? Whatever it's called.

I started reading the ARC as soon as it arrived, around two-thirty on Friday afternoon. I am happy to report that my bladder did not explode, and I finished the book just before the clock clicked over to Saturday.

Being an ARC, the layout looked a little odd to me, and there were a couple of minor language clunks in the first two stories, but by the middle of the third movement the narrative drive was pulling me along, my pulse was thudding and I was wondering what the heck was driving events in this magical world.

Liz Prospero, the "non-magical girl" in Piers Anthony's quote above, is doing the best she can to live a nonmagical life, but keeps being pulled into fights with renegade or insane sorcerors who, coincidentally, seem to wreck every chance her boyfriend has to meet her family. Sometimes tense, sometimes comical, but intensely realistic interaction between sister, brother and boyfriend on the subjects of ethics, society, their relationships and lives paint the issues both large and small against the backdrop of crisis after crisis.

It seldom slows down.

Meanwhile, her brother John is thrust into leading the Prospero family's traditional duties of tracking down these renegades and insane sorcerors -- who seem to be becoming more numerous every year -- catching them, and turning them over to their families for control and safekeeping. Even as magical technology is advancing geometrically, the social system is under stress from increasing numbers of these sorcerous breakdowns, and finally an organized group of criminal sorcerors starts a murder spree in Houston.

From that point I dare you to put the book down. I double dare you.

The work's not perfect, the page layout is a little odd, and you can argue with the editing of any particular section of the book. For instance, when what later is known as the Houston Horror is well under way, the narrative swerves away from the action to follow a refugee family to Liz's apartment in New York. As a short story, this writer decision fails utterly, but as part of a story cycle, it adds something. This kind of decision by Cordwainer is what pulls the book together as a whole - sacrifice the integrity of a "story" to the integrity of the cycle.

This book could have been structured other ways, for example as a generational novel, by avoiding the positive resolutions that are typical (but not guaranteed) of each story. Lots of other decisions could have been made.

I can't find the quote I want. I thought it was Paul Simon who responded to a "compliment" that, as good as his song lyrics were, he should be a poet. He replied that he was a songwriter because he subordinated the words to the needs of the song. This is the sign of a professional, and part of what makes the feel of Modern Magic unique. Yes, it's a collection of short stories, and yes, it's a novel of sorts, but the overarching narrative drive of the "story cycle" is a form of its own.

Cordwainer has made the decision to place five of the twelve movements online at her site, which gives you plenty enough time to get involved in the world and the people. It's urban fantasy without weres or vampires or squick, so try it out and see whether it works for you. For prose style, think Piers Anthony or Zelazny, but not quite as lush, since both the first-person protagonists are pretty down-to-earth people, although with clear viewpoints of their own.

This format should work well for people who, like me, prefer short fiction, and prefer to be able to pick up a book and put it down again feeling satisfied at reasonable intervals. Unfortunately, interest in the driving mystery of the second half of the book is going to lead you to be unable to do that.

Sorry, you'll just have to live with it.

If you're interested, Cordwainer has a launch party coming up February 15. If you buy the book before then, you get a password and access to great stuff.

And, don't worry what the book needs to be labeled. Just read it.

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