Wednesday, 20 April 2011

2011/04 Best reads 2/2 The Dawn Palace by Helen M. Hoover

It's Wednesday again...

In this blog entry, I'm going to talk about the other best read of April 2011, "The Dawn Palace: The Story of Medea" by YA science fiction author Helen M. Hoover. The first novel was le Guin's "A Wizard of Earthsea".

Amazon USA has no cover illustration for this one, and in fact only has one version of this book available, with which I am unhappy in two regards: It's a hardcover, and it's 0.01 cents so you clicking on it probably won't earn me much of a referral. The version I have myself, bought from Amazon UK (with whom I seem unable to get any sort of associate/referral deal), is also hardcover.

Unlike everything else I remember reading of Hoover's, this one is a fantasy, although with science fictional elements (yet I'm unwilling to call it a science fantasy - perhaps because it is more of a co-existence rather than a mixing, e.g. as seen in May's Pliocene Exile).

I'm also not happy calling it a YA (even though I dislike sorting people into categories based on chronological age), unlike all the other Hoover I've read which is clearly and inarguably YA. Still, if you have kids that read novels, there's no real harm in letting them read this one too.

Hoover spends most of the afterword talking about a sort of smear campaign against Medea, some citizens of an ancient city state (no, not the one from the Bard's Tale games) paid a still-today-famous playwright a large amount of money to write a play portraying Medea as a villain.

Before I read this novel for the first time, in Danish translation, all I knew about Jason was from the 1960s stop-motion movie, which I'm pretty sure skipped all the Congreve stuff (I think it ended with Jason and Medea and the Argonauts sailing into the sunset or something), so it made for an interesting read.

The world very interesting and appealing. It reminds me in some ways of the setting - at about the same time plus/minus a couple of centuries - of "Spionen fra Atlantis" (not available in English translation, but the title would be "The Spy from Atlantis") by Erik Juul Clausen, except that Clausen's is more of a science fantasy (i.e. a mix rather than a co-existence).

Apart from the general setting, early iron age, the female priesthoods are also similar. Clausen's priestesses seem to be engaged in some kind of usage of the Norse gods (which has always struck me as anachronistic - Asatru in Helgoland in Western Europe at around the time of Pharaoh Ramesses II?!?!?!), although I don't remember seeing them engaging in any kind of sacrifice, and are also highly educated with lots of useful skills, a clear model for the druids of my historical fantasy Ärth setting.

Here the education is less in the priestesshood, and more teacher-apprentice-based, with Medea becoming the apprentice of Circe, and frequently being teleported to Circe's island (full of animals with strange behaviour patterns), then staying there for days at a time, but when she's teleported back, no one appears to notice that Medea has been away. In order not to make things too challenging for herself, though, Hoover has Circe teach Medea mainly scientific stuff, while keeping the magic for herself (now, who does that that remind me of?). It's still pretty cool stuff to learn, though.

Adulthood begins at age 7, claims the text. I don't actually believe that was ever the case, not even in the iron age (and when a patriarchal culture is trying to subjugatematriarchal one), but there is a lot of truth in the claim that childhood is a fiction, invented in the Victorian Age. There's nothing anachronistic about Medea being expected to be married at age 13, but the statement in the text that 13 is almost too late to marry for a woman is exaggerated, by a couple of years (and I also don't believe Hoover's insinuation that it was common for teenaged males to marry).

Slavery is taken for granted. Medea owns a slave as a child very young adult, and later she buys several more and has no problems at all with it. Ignoring silly writers, I've rarely seen slavery handled at all well, one exception being Gillian Bradshaw (Render Unto Cesar is good, but far from her best novel. It's just the one that touches the most upon this issue), and it strikes me as particularly daring to have slavery be so completely institutionalized without any questions ever being asked about it in a YA, a type if literature written fiction that many would expect to be at least serve a didactic secondary purpose. Even Bradshaw hasn't got the balls to not raise "the issue" (in "Render", and "Island"), and she (after "Beacon" and the "Down the Long Wind" trilogy, anyway) writes for grownups! To be fair, slaves play a very minor part in this novel, even though there are a lot of them.

The protagonist
Is really good. Medea is highly intelligent, and acquires mad skillz during her apprenticeship to Circe, which she uses to heal the sick, and to improve the agriculture and the general economy of Jason's city state, Corinth. She's also a citizen of the zeitgeist, and so owns and buys slaves without the least bit of moral qualms, although eventually she has all her female slaves married off

mad dance through Iolcus. Most people will find it extremely objectionable that a 13 year old woman can do and achieve so much, but while I've never been a 13 year old woman, thinking back to when I was a 13 year old boy, I could do quite a lot of things, so nothing Medea does (except for the actual magic, which she does use a little of) strikes me as impossible. I am convinced that Hoover's portrayal of this iron age prodigy has had a lasting effect on me, and while re-reading the novel I was relieved to realize that the protagonist Ginger from the (single-player) computer games Farm Craft and Farm Craft 2 isn't the only inspiration for my Ärth setting character Daalny the Herb-Wise.
... and she has a bad story of not being able to with rejection in a self-enhancing manner.
Prospero, talking about Medea, "Tea" by Esther M. Friesner, in the anthology "Sorceries"
The revenge thing makes a lot more sense in this novel. Jason rejects Medea, divorcing her and thus denying their children the opportunity to inherit the crown of Corinth, so Medea takes revenge on him, as best she can, instead of acting like a White Christ-user.

The plot
I find the mix of fantasy and science fiction slightly odd. It's like there are two novas in the story, but they never interact. Circe can teleport and do all sorts of things (which she largely refuses to teach to Medea), and then there's the pretty scientific herbalism, chemistry and so forth, and strange steampunky things as well. I don't mind science fantasy, as in May (or Clausen), or a more coherent co-existence, but this time it seems not-well-thought-out. Perhaps because Hoover is at heart a science fiction writer, and can't really wrap her head around magic (notice also the usually great distance between the use of magic and the point of view; that's characteristic of Howard and Tolkien, not fantasy written in the modern era as a mature genre).

The verdict
I don't usually rank novels against each other, although I probably do have a top 20 or something... Top 20'ish anyway. This novel isn't in it, but is still very recommended. Easily 9.5 stars out of 10.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

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