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Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Midsummer Night" by Freda Warrington (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Freda Warrington Website
Order Midsummer Night HERE
Read FBC Review of Elfland

INTRODUCTION: I mentioned in my review of Elfland that I opened that novel in a bookstore "just to do my duty in checking any new sff release I know nothing about" fully expecting to put it down after a page or two and forget about it. Instead I was hooked from the first page, so I bought the novel the same day and read it immediately. Given that, of course I wanted to read "Midsummer Night" asap and I asked for an arc though I was a little apprehensive if the same "magic" will happen again - the "curse" of high expectations versus no expectations that often determines how one feels about a book.

Here is the Publisher's Weekly blurb which is very incomplete and somewhat misleading, but considerably better than the "official blurb" you can find say on Goodreads which has some wrong information and it is even more misleading.

"In this moody and spine-shivering sequel to 2009's Elfland, Warrington takes readers deeper into the workings of the Aetherials, the magical beings who live in the Spiral, and the Vaethyr, who flit between the Spiral and Earth. World-famous sculptor Dame Juliana Flagg lives in Cairndonan, a dilapidated mansion in the highlands of northwest Scotland. Dame J can barely afford to care for herself, much less the mansion and grounds, but she can't tear herself away from the haunting, haunted place. Her uncle mysteriously disappeared from Cairndonan just after WWI, never to be seen again. Sometimes Dame J makes eerie sculptures that she can't bear to show or sell. Is the magic of Cairndonan connected to the malevolent, quasi-mythical Dunkelman? Warrington doesn't miss a beat with this sinister, ghostly tale of some of the darker aspects of the Aetherial world and its denizens' dealings with humanity."

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Midsummer Night" stands at about 415 pages divided into 23 named chapters with an epilogue and a prologue. While a standalone with a definite storyline and ending, "Midsummer Night" is loosely connected with Elfland with some minor characters from there becoming more important ones here, while the action takes place about 16 years later.

The story lines in Elfland and Midsummer Night are also quite different and while in this novel some events from Elfland are alluded to, they are neither crucial nor really spoil that one, though familiarity with the Elfland world building adds depth to Midsummer Night.

"Midsummer Night" is contemporary fantasy at its best and I sure want more Aetherials' tales.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: For the reasons given at the end of the Introduction, I will start with a short overview and then discuss why "Midsummer Night" is the best contemporary fantasy I have read in a while and a top ten fantasy of mine in 2010.

There is indeed the remote estate, the famous sculptor Dame Juliana Flagg who is one of the main two POV's and characters of the novel and her entourage - the red-haired assistant director of her summer class Peta, Colin her young disciple who is infatuated with Dame J., the seemingly sinister Ned, her decades long groundskeeper and his wife Flora who serves as Dame J.'s secretary and housekeeper.

But the main POV of the novel at least for the most part and the person whose eyes we see the action through is a young woman, Gill Sharma, seemingly unconnected to both Dame J. and the art world. As the novel starts, Gill has just arrived from London on a retreat to the estate, to nurse her recent bad accident injuries in solitude and peace - to pay the bills, Dame J. takes lodgers over the summer and teaches art courses also.

Of course Gill is dismayed to find out about the summer camp that Dame J. is conducting and for reasons that are slowly revealed she is quite scared of strangers, especially men, but soon Gill makes friends with the exuberant and irrepressible Peta and together they start exploring the grounds despite Ned's muttered warnings. And so it starts...

Though it should be obvious, I would add that nothing is as it seems, everyone has secrets and ulterior motives for their actions and that is a huge part of the novel's enjoyment. And not to speak of the Aetherials, their appearance and involvement with the estate inhabitants which ultimately power the novel's main thread.

Now let's see why
I found "Midsummer Night" so impressive. On opening the novel, the superb writing style of the author just hooked me and the book was one of those "read me now" ones that you cannot leave until you finish. You may have to put the book down to do other stuff, but you are not going to want to read any other novel until you are done here, maybe reread it at least once to get all its nuances that may escape on a first reading, or to just simply enjoy the tale at leisure once you know where it all goes.

The plotting of the novel is superb with all the aforementioned secrets slowly revealed and putting a different complexion on many things, while the main story progresses unabated too. This seamless integration of "character back story" and forward action is another major strength and "Midsummer Night" just flows with no narrative walls, while looking back one is astounded by how much happens, how many things from the recent or distant past are revealed, all integrated in a tapestry.

The world building - both the Scottish remote estate atmosphere with the strange sculptures Dame J. would not part even as she teeters close to bankruptcy and the Aetherial world where a lot of the "physical" action happens - is excellent too and some of the things that somewhat baffled me in Elfland regarding the latter make more sense here.

Despite being the main POV for most of the novel and for good reasons as we find out, Gill soon is shadowed by the larger than life Dame J. around whom everything revolves. From the Aetherial world, the handsome but - as we pretty much guess on the spot - sinister Rufus is the only one that matches Dame J. in presence and all his apparitions are highlights of the novel.

The memory-less stranger mentioned in the official blurb is indeed one of the motivators of the main thread, but he is more an "object" than a person, more a something than a someone quite a few people want for their own reasons. Add to this the superb cast of secondary characters, Colin, Peta, Ned, Flora and some Aetherials all with their own agenda and secrets and you see why Midsummer Night shines here too.

There is a lot of action too including a dramatic rescue on the slopes of a sort-of volcano (evidently not in Scotland), fights with and without "magic" and more. As contemporary fantasy set at the intersection of our world and the weird Aetherial one, Midsummer Night (A++) is the complete package and as good as such gets.


Anonymous said...

Oh this excites me! I can't wait to get my hands on this one!

Liviu said...

I hope you get it soon and it lives up to expectations; last year there were 4 books I read that I did not expect to: Mortal Coils/Nylund which i liked a lot, Elfland which i loved the writing and liked with the 'soap" issues and all detracting only a bit, Prospero Lost and Madness of angels/Griffin; of the sequels, All that Lives must Die and Prospero in hell were fast reads/drop the series for now, Midnight mayor did not even get there and I have at least 2 copies i think, unclear if/when I will open them, but Midsummer Night just blew me away.

Though it's true that if I were to give odds beforehand to which sequel would be best for me, I think that Midsummer Night would have been that based on writing which is vastly superior to the other three as "literariness" goes, so i need only to care about the story


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