Thursday, April 07, 2005

All the world in a library: Rhiannon Lassiter, Outland (Oxford: OUP, 2004)

This appears to be book two, the first is Borderland the third is Shadowland. I'm hopeless with most trilogies, I just can't be bothered ( I still haven't bought the latest Liam Hearn) but this series I want.

InOutland Rhiannon Lassiter has made a YA sf story out Borges' "The Library at Babel". I kid you not.

What I think happened in book one was that three teens, Laura and Alex (siblings) and Morgan, a goth chick, found a doorway into another world. Morgan discovered she had small magics which gave her rank as mage, Laura took up politics and Alex took up armies.

Morgan met Charm and Ciren who turned out to be World travellers. Charm can read minds, Ciren can read magics. She also took up with Kal, ruler of the desert fortress,

Alex and Laura meanwhile took up with the desert nomads who were under increasing pressure from the fortress people and also from the neighbouring empire (which also had it's eye on the fortress and saw "pacifying" the nomads as a way to get both--the political discussions in this book would not be out of place in a Ken MacLeod novel). Alex acquired a nomad girlfriend (Jhezra) while Laura imported an acolyte, a girl from earth called Zoe.

It all went horribly wrong and Alex brought down the fortress with mines and killed pretty much everyone.

In this book Morgan and Kal are working their way through the Library with Ciren and Charm and getting ever more unhappy about the two.

Alex, Jhezra, Zoe and Laura first have to get out of the collapsed fort which they do through a Door, work their way through another world and eventually also land in the Library. Laura is blind thanks to Morgan's curse, Zoe and Jhezra are discovering they don't much like Laura or Alex, and Alex is completely impervious to anything resembling a learning experience.

The book is mostly about the adjustments each person is going through after the disaster of book one. Nothing happens and it is the most rivetting nothing happening I can remember in a long time. Lassiter uses the Library of Babel brilliantly. Underneath the apparent scholarship are factions, and ideologies and quite possibly a little war. The nice characters end up being sucked into the wrong side, the really horrible Laura manipulates the nicer factions. Lassiter seems to have broken through the awful closed orientalism of the quest fantasy to create a constant sense of confusion rather than destiny, and there is a very real sense that this world does not belong to the questors, and that Laura and Alex are so damn dangerous because they think it does.

But is it sf? I think so, because the explanations suggested (not given but argued) for the construction of the Library and for the Doors are about physics. Laura finds herself wondering if the Library is a Dyson Sphere. Alex insists that even where there is magic there are rules or the universe would fall apart,

Is it young adult? Interesting: Lassiter makes no bones about the fact that some of the characters are lovers (she uses the words). To my relief only two of them are in love (don't get me started on the insistence of some writers of "excusing" underage sex with love, personally I think lust is a healthier response from 14 yr olds). But there is coyness, We get chapters ending with the implication of sex, and then starting with kissing, On the whole, there is that sense of censorship which makes it feel YA even though the characters and plot could fit happily into the adult genre.

The end of the book is unpleasant. Things do not go well. But we know who the villain is: he uses the leaves of a book as toilet paper.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm curious --- why "orientalism"?

Greg (gvwilson _at_ cs _dot_ utoronto _dot_ ca)

5:53 PM  
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