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Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt (1990)

Roland Michell is a literary scholar who specializes in the work of one Victorian poet, Randolph Ash.  One day, while conducting research, he comes across a draft of a letter, written by Ash to an unknown woman, and for Roland, an obsession is born. 

Part literary romance, part epistolary novel, and part detective story, Possession examines the ways in which life affects literature, and the ways in which literature affects life.  Byatt juggles voices flawlessly; each letter, each poem, and each character are completely distinct from each other, switching back and forth from Victorian to contemporary styles.  The story told in correspondence and poems is deeply sad, and touching, in the way that Victorian poems often are, and the modern story is full of hope.

Readers should be aware that this is not an easy or quick read.  The book starts slowly, each event building on the next, and the language is dense; it requires close reading.  But as the characters become more obsessed, the book itself becomes more absorbing, until it reaches a very satisfying conclusion.

Fans of the fairy tales and epics of Victorian literature should not miss this novel; Byatt includes exerpts and entire texts of poems written by the fictional characters, and they are every bit as lovely as those by Tennyson or Shelley or Byron.

Rating: A

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I’m asked sometimes, particularly by professors at the university where I work, why I choose to write in the fantasy/speculative fiction genre.

It’s not an easy question to answer.  I like to read fantasy; I always have, ever since my sister gave me a full set of  The Chronicles of Narnia when I was in fourth grade.  I wanted so badly to be able to open my closet door and find a world waiting for me there that sometimes I couldn’t sleep at night.  I didn’t have monsters in my closet; I had fauns and centaurs and talking lions.  My love of fantasy and science fiction didn’t go away when I got older, either, as it did for many of my friends.  I discovered Yeats and Shakespeare and Spencer, and since I read them in classes, nobody batted an eye.  When I read Bradbury and LeGuin, a few of my teachers pursed their lips and became very quiet.  When I read Marion Zimmer Bradley, one of my teachers told me, “But you’re so much smarter than that!”

Excuse me?

The best fantasy is not simply escapist; it uses myth and magic as metaphor, as symbols for the kinds of things we really don’t like to talk about in the open.  That’s what fairy tales are, and that’s what myths are: the verbalization of cultural and collective fears and hopes, the dreams that we may not say aloud.  So we talk about them in hushed voices, with symbols that we may not see immediately, but that we feel nonetheless.  The Dark Wood is everything that frightens us in the night, everything we don’t feel strong enough to confront in open daylight.

I write fantasy because it’s where the “meat” of human existence is, from my point of view.  The fears that stir deep inside the belly, that pull the covers over your head at night.  I also write fantasy because there’s a sense of wonder there that I’ve never found in any other kind of literature.  I want to feel that there’s something mysterious left in the world, something that neither science nor religion can properly explain.  Fantasy, while I’m reading or writing, lets me imagine a world where anything is possible, and there’s no one to tell me that the things I fear and the things I hope for are foolish.

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Solstice Wood by Patricia A. McKillip (2007)

Sylvia Lynn has spent most of her adult life avoiding going home, staying away from the dark, tangled woods that surround her family’s estate. But she feels an obligation to return to Lynn Hall for her grandfather’s funeral. While she’s there, she meets the Fiber Guild, a group of women who, with needles and hooks and thread, stitch together things far more mysterious than torn hems and quilt squares. She has something to hide, and so do they, and their secrets form a pattern that could change Sylvia’s life forever.

Patricia McKillip, as always, paints vivid, magical pictures with her lush, lyric language, which is her chief strength as a writer. Instead of a secondary-world or historical fantasy, however, she turns her pen to the modern day, to a sleepy little village and characters who are reluctant to embrace the modern age, but are desperate to escape the stagnation and bonds of the past. She revisits the village that provides the setting for Winter Rose (2002), a couple of centuries after Rois Melior’s story, and Rois figures prominently in this novel as well.

McKillip’s characters in Solstice Wood are well-drawn, and even the tertiary and secondary characters are fully-fleshed. The book is divided into sections told from various characters’ point of view, and while their motivations and personalities are distinct, the tone and the language they use to describe their separate journeys are not; the language of a fourteen-year-old boy sounds suspiciously like that of a mature fantasy writer.

The plot here is nothing a seasoned fantasy reader hasn’t seen before; but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In McKillip’s very capable hands, a plot that might seem cliche from another writer is fresh and absorbing. The ending, however, seems a tad contrived, a bit pat for the intricacy of the rest of the novel.

All in all, Solstice Wood is a very satisfying read, but not an earth-shakingly good one. Grade: B+

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