Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Microreview: Spring's Arcana by Lilith Saintcrow

Lilith Saintcrow brings her own unique ideas to an American Gods sort of universe, where a sheltered young woman is much more than she appears or even realizes.

Nat Drozdova has a problem she knows about, which ties to a problem she doesn't know she has yet. Her imperious, overbearing mother is dying, and Nat, devoted daughter, is willing to go to great lengths to save or help her. Even as she has a real love/hate relationship with her mother and wants to be out on her own and free, she is intensely loyal. Nat is loyal enough to go to a mysterious building owned by a powerful woman with esoteric powers.  Nat soon finds that her ability to talk to cats and that things aren't quite what they seem (no matter what her mother has told her) is far more true than she ever imagined.

This is the story of Spring's Arcana, first in a duology by Lilith Saintcrow.

I might as well come out front and discuss the gigantic elephant in the room, and at length, because many people reading this book in addition to myself are going to see it right away too. A young person, in America, finds themselves dealing with a host of the embodiments of esoteric powers, who jockey for power, influence, and a piece of the American pie, as it were. A novel that winds up being a road trip across America, meeting more such powers, places and the protagonist getting a sense of who they are, and who they want to be. So yes, Neil Gaiman's American Gods has to be part of the genre conversation of this book, absolutely.

But the book is not a clone of American Gods. While Spring's Arcana, like American Gods, is intimately interested in the American experience of divinities here, it's in a fundamentally different way. Where Gaiman's world is of old gods jostling with and against the new, American gods, Saintcrow explores these questions in a different way. There is sharpness, and commentary on the immigrant experience in Saintcrow's work. Questions of native born and imported powers and principalities are explored, I do wonder if such questions will be explored even more as Nat continues her journey into America in the second book.

The other way I thought about this book, and even more than American Gods, even, is the roleplaying game, Scion. It's one of my favorite verses, even if the system itself is something that is clunky and unappealing to me. I've lost my tolerance for that immense complexity of White Wolf games and really just go for the setting and characters and possibilities. In Scion, you play a child of a God. Maybe you knew you were special, maybe you had no idea why weird things kept happening around you. Maybe you are biologically a child of a god, and maybe a shard of divinity got put into you (à la the RPG Nobilis). Either way, congratulations, you are now part of a wider and larger world, and you have a Destiny, whether you run toward it or try and run from it. 

So I kept thinking of Nat's story in the latter framework. Sure, she could talk to cats and weird things kept happening growing up, but her mother said it was nonsense and foolishness. But when Nat uses a business card to meet someone who might be the Russian goddess of winter and winds up learning about the supernatural universe that really exists, I kept thinking of this as an initiation for a young Scion. She gets paired up with Dmitri, again, Russian or Slavic, and what he is the power of becomes clear to the reader, and he introduces her to the world she never knew. Even as Nat just wants to make her mother all better, she is caught in a whirlwind of people who know more about her and what she is than what she knows. It's a bit of a puzzle for the reader to figure out who Nat is, and who her mother is. We as the reader get enough information (especially from Dimitri's point of view, who knows more than he thinks to the reader, but enough leaks through to pick up clues) before Nat figures out who and what she is, who her mother is, and what her quest actually means in esoteric as well as real terms. 

I am sure that you can find other parallels as well to other works. The book is rich that way, from the start aware that it is in conversation with other books and literary references abound.

Above and beyond the plot and worldbuilding setup, however, where the novel really shines is where my previous readings of Saintcrow's work has really shone, and that is in character and in the line by line writing. There is a very palpable feel to the way she describes characters, locales and situations that is wonderfully immersive. I may be two decades removed from New York, but her description of Nat making her way through a winter in NYC brought back to me the feel of a New York City winter in memorable detail. Her cross country adventure, a party given for beings such as herself, the mirror-maze of a jumped up sorcerer, all of these locales and more are vivid and memorable. 

So, too, the characters.  Nat makes for a young, engaging protagonist with contradictions, flaws, and a lot of heart to root for. Once the reader (ahead of Nat) figures out what is happening to her and what must happen (and if you are clever, what her mother really wants), I felt for Nat and her story deeply.  Even though he is a murderous little fink, I came to respect Dmitri, our other POV character. His fate is tied to Nat's throughout the book, and he is our "inside man" to the esoteric world of sorcerers, powers and principalities that Nat knows nothing about. (That phrase and indeed the book's title makes me think of tarot, and it is clear that tarot also was a taproot for this book as well). Briefly seen characters like "New York Jay" not only show Saintcrow's ability to create characters on the fly, but also, as per the worldbuilding above, show the range of possibilities for the aforementioned powers and principalities. 

The novel ends with the road trip to find what Nat needs only partially done but with her getting a real sense of who and what she is, a natural stopping point. A map at the beginning of the book suggests that Nat's journey really has only just begun, and going from New York City to the plains of South Dakota is really just the beginning for Nat, and for the reader. I am quite interested in continuing Nat's journey.


The Math

Highlights: Fascinating, esoteric, Hidden World, excellent writing, of characters and of locales, places and events

Nerd Coefficient: Score 8/10

Reference: Saintcrow, Lilith, Spring's Arcana, [Tor Books, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.