Saturday, May 14, 2011

Why You Should Read Ekaterina Sedia's House of Discarded Dreams

I had started writing something else for the Blog Carnival, but then there was a mighty Blogger Fail, and I lost the post, and could not get on until earlier today. That'll learn me. But I did want to close this week by saying a bit more about why this novel is not just a good book, but an encounter that is well worth a reader's time.

It's a portal fantasy where the protagonist not only says "YES!" to her entry, but has actually created the world in which she journeys. It is a quest fantasy where the goal is something more profound than getting a magical artifact back or even some sort of kingdom-recovering or world-saving. It is epic in the more classical sense of the world, a sometimes poetic rendering of a person's life story; it is an odyssey of the mind and imagination. And all of these elements culminate in one tale, about a woman discovering her life by dealing with the fragments of her past, both "real" and oneirocritical.

What makes the book so engaging is its combination of excess and subtlety, mythological and prosaic concerns, animated by characters that are surprising and human in an exaggerated milieu. It is a book of unexpected moments that refuses to brutalize its protagonists, that does not go to cliched extremes, and whose focal personalities do not fall prey to the reactions that often constrain and marginalize women in fantasy literature. The two main characters are both strong young women still finding their way but increasingly open to taking this bizarre path that has opened before them, this endless queendom of dreams and stories. They do not always make the right decisions, they are not always certain of their actions, but they do not respond like stereotypes, and they accept and actively interact with the world that is constantly expanding and changing around them.

In fact, there is a gentleness and a permissiveness in this novel that is a welcome counter to gritty, campy, ironic, and/or over-the-top fantasy. Early on I felt that not much was happening in this novel, and I soon realized that I had some particular expectations for what such a fantasy novel should do. It was a bit embarrassing as the novel unfolded and I realized that something very different was going on in this book. And yet, it is not "literary fantasy" (a horrible category), it is not a modernized fairytale, and it is not some Campbellian archetypal apologia. It is, on a profound level, simple, nestled in the psyche but not psychological, a story but not a saga, a tale in which you can experience all of the different tastes of words but that refuses to repulse or scourge you. Instead, it invites you into the characters' strange new lives and encourages reflection: what dreams have affected your life? What stories from the past still unfold in quiet or hidden places in your head? If you could let them all out, walk around in them, retell them, what would be different? What can all the dreams and memories you contain tell you about what is possible for you?

Deftly written, thoughtful, and evocative, House of Discarded Dreams can be approached in many ways; it asks you to bring something of yourself to the tale, to be as open as Vimbai and Maya to chance and contemplation, and to not be afraid of the stuff in your head, or to ignore it, but to understand how it contributes to who you are and what it has left to teach you.

1 comment:

Carl V. said...

This is a book I have on my shelf that I am looking forward to getting to. I read her book The Alchemy of Stone a few years back and really enjoyed it.