Here are two novels that are, in some ways, opposites: one by an author who’s been publishing celebrated work for 40 years, and one a debut; one that blends numerous genres with a skillful and inquiring hand, and one that glories in modeling a single genre by hitting every one of its notes. Between them they contrast the pleasures of surprise with those of satisfied expectations.
Elizabeth Knox’s THE ABSOLUTE BOOK (Viking, $28) contains multitudes, spanning the geographies of Canada, Britain and New Zealand; the cosmologies of fairies, demons and angels; and the genres of thriller, domestic realism and epic fantasy.
Taryn Cornick was 19 when her sister, Beatrice, was murdered, and her rage and grief over that loss have shaped her life: her distance from her famous-actor father, her marriage to a wealthy older man, and her strange, brief intimacy with a Canadian wilderness guide she calls the Muleskinner. Several years later, Taryn is the successful author of a book called “The Feverish Library,” about the dangers faced by collections of books over centuries. It includes anecdotes about the Firestarter: a locked scroll box that is “said to have survived no fewer than five fires in famous libraries.”
As Taryn’s work enters the spotlight, this object, and Taryn’s relationship to it, draws the attention of several otherworldly parties, including Shift, a man who can change his shape at will but loses his memories every 200 years, and whose origins seem connected to the Firestarter.
“The Absolute Book” is a threaded needle embroidering itself into being. Its section titles echo Taryn’s concerns about the threats to libraries: Insects, Fire, Light, Damp, Carelessness and Uncaring. It’s also as much a shape-changer as Shift, moving from genre to genre with dizzying grace. I read the first six chapters puzzled as to whether this was a fantasy novel at all, before an epigraph from Patricia Lockwood’s “Priestdaddy” announces the transformation: “It makes me long to see a different animal, from a different story. I wish Grendel would burst into the hall and eat us.” Chapter 7 lands Taryn in a fairy otherworld.
Reading the book is like holding folds of shot silk to the light, finding green flash in something that looks purple, and appreciating how thoughtfully the warp and weft embrace each other. But when I finished it, I was left wondering whether it had cohered; it felt as if I’d been admiring all the cogs and gears animating a fine watch while uncertain about whether or not it kept time. Hasty resolutions and an odd departure of an epilogue somewhat unbalance the whole. But I’m in awe of it, ultimately, its precision and care, and its wry, understated humor.
Everina Maxwell’s WINTER’S ORBIT (Tor, $24.99) did every single thing I expected it to do and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. The Empire of Iskat needs a political marriage to cement a treaty with Thea, one of its vassal planets; unfortunately, the Iskatian representative, Prince Taam, has just died under mysterious circumstances after five years of marriage to Count Jainan, the Thean representative. With a day’s notice, the emperor forces Taam’s cousin, Prince Kiem, to marry the widowed count.
Kiem is a genial social butterfly; Jainan is a quiet, reserved deep-space engineer. Kiem is aghast at the thought of marrying someone so recently bereaved; Jainan is horrified by the prospect of failing his people by giving any pretext for the treaty to be broken. Over the course of awkward cross-talk, social functions and life-threatening incidents, Kiem and Jainan fumble their way toward understanding and affection.
Originally published as “Course of Honour” in 2017 on Archive of Our Own (AO3) — an online repository for fan works — the novel was acquired by Tor Books and developed further. (It’s still being marketed with the content-tags AO3 is famous for: “slow burn,” “space princes” and “mutual pining,” to name a few.) Unlike most of what appears on AO3, “Course of Honour” is not derivative; the site states that “original works that are not based on a specific media source (canon) may also count as fanworks so long as they are fannish in nature.” For this story, “fannish” essentially means adherence to a certain grammar of genre tropes — which it maintains in its revised form.
I never read “Course of Honour,” but the fannish heart of “Winter’s Orbit” beats strong. The world and its politics are ably developed, but they are very much not the point. Jainan and Kiem’s relationship is spot-lit and center stage, every misstep and hesitation both building and delaying the reader’s satisfaction. I gulped the slow burn down, the lengthy and implausibly sustained misunderstandings, the inevitable moment when the protagonists have to, under duress, share a single sleeping bag for the sake of conserving warmth on a long trek through a perilous winter landscape. High-pitched noises escaped me; I shouted, more than once, “Now kiss!” as tradition requires. One doesn’t fault a sonnet for having a rhyme scheme — and in a world so relentlessly uncertain, there’s a powerfully simple pleasure in the experience of a promise kept.