Friday, April 28, 2017

Short Book Reviews: Two Great Novellas

Readers often give the novella short shrift as a literary form. It’s too long to read easily in one sitting and not long enough to make a satisfying novel-variety reading experience. It’s also hard to write. You need a single plot line that’s rich enough to sustain the length but doesn’t meander off into the subplots and so forth that give a novel its complexity.

Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold. 
The short review: A new Bujold novella set in the world of The Curse of Chalion! (Everyone jumps up and down for joy and runs out to buy it!) 

The longer review: To say Bujold is a master of her craft is an understatement, also that she has the ability to take what seems to be a simple enough proposition (in this case, tracking down a murder suspect) and imbuing it with emotional resonance. Her work rarely leaves me unmoved, and this one is no different. She manages to bring the reader into her world of five gods, shamans and sorcerers and spirit animals (as a dog lover, I adored what she did with more-dog and Great Beast dog) and ordinary folk without ever inflicting massive backstory or infodump. The richness of this world and its potential for powerful human stories never fails to amaze me. The alternative viewpoint characters (Penric, a sorcerer-divine who is host to demon Desdemona, who carries the memories of all her previous partners; Locator Oswyl, beset by his own rigid sense of honor and his limited abilities; and Inglis, a shaman now bereft of his powers, struggling to keep the ghost of his best friend from being eternally sundered from grace, at the cost of his own blood) provide both close-up emotional intimacy and a wider perspective of events. Did I say I loved the dogs. And the ghosts. And the demon. And the dogs.

In Calabria, by Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon. The short review: A new Peter S. Beagle novella-- with unicorns! (Everyone jumps up and down for joy and runs out to buy it!) 

The longer review: Claudio Bianchi, a crusty not-so-old hermit, farms an
aging plot of land in rural  Southern Italy. At first glance, he is not very prepossessing; he’s crotchety, battered, and solitary. He also has a secret: he writes poetry. One day a unicorn appears on his land, and she too has a secret, one that will forever transform their lives. Like everything else by Peter S. Beagle I’ve ever read, this short work brims with earthy magic and tenderness. He has the ability to take a character who at first glance is not particularly appealing (middle-aged, grouchy hermit with dubious social skills and personal hygiene) and draw us into that character’s world, weaving the threads of our own disappointments, humdrum lives, deferred dreams. Claudio has all but given up on his dreams, so much so that he no longer knows what they once were until the impossibly magical creature touches the dreamer within him. In Calabria is not The Last Unicorn, but they share that sense of longing and transcendence, and offer the same thoughtful, immensely satisfying reading experience.

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