Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Microreview [book]: A Different Kingdom, by Paul Kearney

Kearney, Paul. A Different Kingdom. Solaris Books: 2014.

Or, What is Love?

 The Meat

 You know what's creepy? Male adolescent desire, that's what, and who it targets. Of course, one could argue that it's pretty indiscriminate, or rather un-discriminating, by its very nature, but surely even for oversexed teenaged boys there are people who should be off-limits.
   Enter Michael Fey, the aptly named wild boy of Ireland/the Wood, whose first experience of desire—for someone who, I would have thought, would be off-limits—triggers the strange, haunting journey of his life. Or at least, the half of his life that is interesting, namely the portion he spends outside of time in the eponymous 'different kingdom' of the Wood, a wild land full of wolves, goblins and fairy-folk (as well as human bands of hardened wanderers) aplenty, as well as the crusading Catholic priests and their knight protectors. This part of Kearney's tale is riveting, for the most part—we read in amazement of each new development or challenge facing Michael and his beloved Cat, and cheer them on when they set out on their impossible quest.
   Yet this brief synopsis has already hit upon the two main problems I had with Kearney's well-written and engaging book. Firstly, the story is told non-sequentially, jumping around in time and between the worlds but basically alternating between Michael in the 'real' world and the fairy-land—but I had no issue with this somewhat unconventional structure, only with the content of the portions about the real world. Michael is uninteresting, or rather, is interesting only in the strange world of the other side, where he is a great warrior in his prime, not an awkward boy of thirteen or, even worse, an awkward 'middle-aged' 28 year old. 

Problem number one: Michael turning from this...
...into this.

More importantly, he is accompanied by his great love, Cat, in the fairy world, and Cat is plenty interesting.
   And here we have problem number two: Cat and Michael are deeply in love, soul-mates really, and yet Cat is not the 'first love' to which I refer above for Michael, despite which fact she agrees to accompany him on his quest to find that other girl. My willing suspension of disbelief took a major hit at that point, and Cat ceased to be a fiery character with a genuine identity and became, instead, only a simulacra of what Michael wanted—a wild girl with the appearance of true spirit but one who secretly would follow him anywhere, even to rescue his other lost love! The story does eventually develop in such a way as perhaps to explain why she turned out to have less depth than the reader might have expected, but that too is a disappointing revelation given our certainty that the two are truly in love.
   What IS love (baby don't hurt me)? When we say something like 'unconditional love', do we really mean "Yes, I'll help you replace me with someone else that you love better?" My answer is "No", not because it's inconceivable a person could be this selfless but because Michael's very identity is bound up in this forbidden love story with the other girl, and why would a person with any depth find herself falling in love with a weirdo like him anyway? This is a million times more true in the real world, when he's apparently destined to be nothing but a big overweight smoking alcoholic loser. Even his decision to leave the wild wood and return 'home' seems odd, since it was such a fundamental part of his very nature to seek his first love; why would he ever give up, as (no spoiler here, really) we swiftly learn he must have given the sections devoted to his prematurely middle-aged twenty-eight year old self in our world?
   Parts of the story are extremely well-written, lyrical in their beauty, and despite being rather too long overall (in my opinion), I would still recommend this book, but with major reservations, as outlined above. You might want to skim over the 'real world' sections from the middle of the book on (the early ones are more interesting in that the separation between 'real' and 'fairy' is much more permeable when Michael is a boy), at least until the end, where the two worlds again seem to collide in a haunting, wistful conclusion. Call me a sucker poisoned by years of Hollywood romances, but I was really hoping less for wistfulness than for a genuine, worlds-can't-keep-us-apart love affair between Michael and Cat!

The Math

Baseline assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the mesmerizing weirdness of the fairy-world

Penalties: -1 for the dismal drudgery of (Michael in) the real world, -1 for failing to develop Cat into a genuine alternative to the object of his forbidden love quest

Nerd coefficient: 6/10 "Still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore."

[Actually, a 6/10 ain't bad in our book!]

Brought to you by Zhaoyun, sf/f book and movie aficionado and main cast member of Nerds of a Feather since early 2013.