Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Review: Mortal Follies by Alexis Hall

 A compelling, cheeky, charming narrator making magic out of an already great story.

Did I buy it just for the cover art? No... but I wouldn't blame me if I did.
Credit: Radiante Mozzarelle

Some people like their stories with the prose taking a backseat, getting out of the way - streamlined, as Max Gladstone called it - rather than the focus of the story. Some people like the prose to be purposeful, pretty or poetic, far more the point of the endeavour. If such a distinction in views exists for narrators, as well as their narrative, Alex Hall has leaned so far onto the second side of the scale that the whole thing is tipped over off the table and onto the floor, no doubt to the amusement (or at the hands) of Puck, Mortal Follies' charming, cheeky and absolutely centre stage raconteur. Far more than our protagonist, antagonist or love interest, Puck is the main character of the story he's telling here, even if he does his best to make us think otherwise, and he is also, absolutely, the star and highlight - he is a delight.

Much of what Mortal Follies is doing is in the mode of a lot of popular romantasy around nowadays. We've got regency, we've got fairies, we've got polite society shenanigans, fancy dresses, forbidden love and hijinks, all wrapped up in a relatively light tone, even when events take a turn for the sour. But the devil - or hobgoblin - is in the detail, and it is there that Hall has thrived in making his story really stand out.

Firstly, by so aggressively highlighting our external, third person narrator Puck, we're already standing somewhat apart form the norm. He gives us a clear narrative voice while mostly being uninvolved in the actualities of the plot, and that's really rather rare in stories. Which is a shame, because it's a really great tool for influencing the tone of the narrative, and that's where it shines here - Puck is consistently clear about his emotional responses to human behaviour, and his interests and boredom with various events, which gives him a clear licence to direct the narrative lens in specific ways. Some of this is how the tone is maintained as lightly as it is, even in the worst circumstances. Puck, simply, is not overly concerned by mortal suffering, so can rise above it. It is also a particularly neat way to draw a curtain across sex scenes - Puck isn't interested in the physicality of it, as he tells us, but the dynamics, and so it is on sex's effect on the characters more generally that he focusses, pulling away from the nitty gritty without the story ever starting to feeling prudish in its avoidance. More than an unreliable narrator (though he is one, sometimes, and I do love that when done well), he is a partisan and opinionated narrator, and turns the whole story in on itself, reflecting his personality back to the reader.

Luckily, it's a very compelling one.

In part, this is because he's extremely funny. I legitimately found myself giggling while reading, in a way I rarely do, and it's simply because he has a specific sort of dry, deadpan humour that gets me every time. It's understated, it's not the point, but it suffuses every sentence and, alongside the lightness of tone, makes the whole thing intensely readable. If I had to compare it to anything, I'd say it has an element of the Tom Stoppard to it, that witty, light but surprisingly deep sort of acerbity that fizzes across from phrase to phrase with delicate speed.

And this comes through in the character dialogue too - conversations bounce back and forward, simultaneously substanceless and laden with meaning and intent, the tip of an iceberg of characterisation that leaves you in no doubt that these people do all know each other deeply, intimately... and are going to use that knowledge to wind each other up. This is particularly true in the conversations between our protagonist, her best friend and her cousin, all of whom are clearly the closest of friends and thus sometimes think the others are absolute fools (as only good friends can).

In fairness, they sometimes very much are fools, especially when it comes to investigating the mystery which is the core of the early part of the story. There was something utterly delightful about a bunch of total amateurs trying to solve a complex puzzle and turning out - to their honest admission as well as the reader's observation - to be completely hopeless at it. They're regency socialites; what would they know about curses? Nothing. They have no leads, no expertise... and I'm making this sound terrible, as if they spend the first third of the book pootling around achieving nothing, which they do... but it's good. It's novel, which is some of the joy, but it also never feels extraneous to the story either. It feels true, where them being competent wouldn't. And watching them fail and falter is a far better insight to who they (and the narrator) are as people than success ever would be.

Of course, it's also an excuse to introduce, and keep introducing, the dark and mysterious love interest, who might actually know literally anything of use. She's also sarcastic and funny, but in a Byronic way (per the protagonist). Little bit of brooding, as a treat. And then of course completely fraught underneath the surface. Top marks on all counts, 10/10 for her.

The really interesting thing about her - or rather about the romance in general - is that it and the initial part of the plot aren't coterminous. We get overlapping layers of plot and romance and plot and romance, and again this is something that feels like it ought not to work, and yet Hall has pulled it together. What truly sells it, if anything, is the in-world reasoning - our dark and mysterious love interest thinks it might be a mite exploitative to ravish a young innocent while she's riding on the adrenaline high of life-threatening hijinks. And well... now I think about it... she's probably not wrong. And this is a thoughtfulness around tropes, around ideas, that comes through throughout the book, and makes it all the better. Yes it's light and frothy, but there's real substance to back it up.

The same can be said about the worldbuilding, much to my delight. A good chunk of the plot takes place in regency era Bath, but in a world with a thriving classical cultic scene, not to mention actual witches, fairies and spirits around the place. Because we have for our narrator Puck, we get a pleasing but entirely definite insight into much of these - he sees the invisible, knows some of the unknowable, and of course has opinions about everyone involved - but even if we didn't, for the characters, it's a matter of course that magic and old gods are real. They lie alongside Christianity in a way that feels wholly apropos for the neoclassical mania of the period, and Hall has done the most endearing thing for me and got the details right - we get a couple of really neat little niche factoids subtly alluded to in places, as well as the cult of Magna Mater and accompanying societal discomfort that is very Roman in tone and some entirely tidily presented historicity both for classical mythology generally and Bath specifically. It's not a substantial core of the book, and I'd never call it a mythology retelling or anything, but where it draws on it for its backdrop, it does it well and gracefully, and always precisely in keeping with the interests and mores of its setting. I always prefer light touch worldbuilding, and Hall has done it in just the right way to keep me happy - what we have works well, is accurate, alludes to greater depths, but never feels the need to spell any of it out exhaustively because it's simply not the point. The reader can be trusted to infer the salient points, so we can get onto the fun stuff (witty repartee).

All in all, this was an extremely fun read, with some very clever tweaks to normal formulae, as well as a beautifully presented setting and a charming, funny and very present narrative voice. I really hope, given how neatly the concept of Puck telling the story is framed, with hints to a whole set of events outside of this story, that we get more along these lines, but outside of this time and place. Puck as narrator absolutely made this a book worth reading, and I would be delighted to get more from him in the same vein.


The Math

Highlights: genuinely witty banter, light touch but accurate regency setting (but make it magic), thoughtful tweaks to well-known forms, top tier narrator, stunning cover art

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: Mortal Follies, Alexis Hall [Gollancz, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea