Sperring, Kari -- The Grass King's Concubine

Aude, as a young girl, saw fairies dancing under a bush. She spends years covertly searching for them in her mundane life. Then, as an adult, she runs away with a guard from an industrial textile mill owned by her family. Travelling across the steppe with her new husband, she is kidnapped by -- not faeries, exactly.

It would be fair to call those sentences from completely unrelated novels; if I've made them sound like a smooth progression, I've done them an injustice. This book is what people call "a hot mess". It has immortal elemental spirits, the printing press, organized labor in an industrializing world, the Wounding of the Land from an industrializing-world perspective, the historical master of natural science (an Aristotle-like figure) -- all mashed up together -- I have no sense whatsoever of what they're all supposed to be saying about each other. What the story is, after Aude's high-speed childhood and marriage, is long scenes of Aude and her husband staggering around WorldBelow. Separately, mind you; with Marcellan (the naturalist writer) as a third point of view, indeterminately earlier. The linking element is the pair of shapechanging ferret sisters, who are inordinately charming, but in a way that makes me regrettably certain that the author keeps ferrets. (I have not tried to verify this in external reality.) Because that's why they're in the book. That's why everything is in the book, I'm sure; because the author has been carrying it around forever and wanted to Get It Into A Book.

There should be fantasy about the industrial revolution and factory girls and Triangle Shirtwaist and the catastrophic, civilization-destroying singularity of the printing press. But it cannot be constructed by flinging all this stuff into a blender! The blender-wodge that comes out just has no momentum. I put this thing down twice to read entire other books that had arrived. (Okay, one of them was the Bujold, and not many books should expect to compete with Ivan Vorpatril on my doorstep wearing his Imperial greens and a gamy smile. But still.)

Worst indictment, I think: the story wraps up at the end with neat explanations that make sense, follow from the imagery, and are thematically appropriate. But neatly! If you're going to give me chapters of eerie Faerieland -- and this is eerie, beautiful, blood-and-dust tangible stuff, redolent; Gaiman quality, the scenery is wonderful -- if you're going to do that book, you leave it all floating on the wind! Don't package it all up with a bow: here, this is what the bees were, this is who sabotaged the clock, mystery solved. For (John) Crowley's sake.

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