C.S.E. Cooney’s collection Bone Clocks was fantastic – one of my favorite fantasy reads ever. It won a World Fantasy Award, and the titular novella The Bone Swans Of Amandale was nominated for a Nebula. So I was pleased to see Desdemona And The Deep published by Tor: her first longer form publication. I wrote ‘longer form’, and not ‘long form’, as generally I’ve seen Desdemona And The Deep referred to as a ‘novella’ – I guess it says something about the inflation of the fantasy market that a 220-page story can’t just be called a novel.
Anyhow, it’s the third book in the Dark Breakers series. The previous installments The Breaker Queen and The Two Paupers – both about 88 pages – were only published in magazines and as Kindle editions by Fairchild Books, and there’s talk of Tor reissuing them. The stories are set in the same world, but each can be read as stand alone.
That world is a world in three parts: Athe (more or less like regular Earth in a 1920ish setting), Valwode, a magic country in between where Gentry lives, and beneath that, Bana The Bonekingdom, where goblins dwell.
As for the story, this is what the back cover promises: the spoiled daughter of a rich mining family must retrieve the tithe of men her father promised to the world below. On the surface, her world is rife with industrial pollution that ruins the health of poor factory workers while the idle rich indulge themselves in unheard-of luxury. Below are goblins, mysterious kingdoms, and an entirely different hierarchy.
As you instantly see, it ticks a couple of 2019’s boxes: pollution, social justice, inequality. It’s not overtly on the cover, but you can add an explicit transgender story line to that list. I have to say Bone Swans was much more amoral, much less grounded in today’s political debates.
Sadly, Cooney doesn’t really explore these issues – they are important for the general set up of the storyline, but it’s all a black and white affair, no grey at all. Who doesn’t oppose a rich mine boss sacrificing hundreds of lives to find a new oil field? Who doesn’t oppose working conditions leaving people severely maimed? Similarly, the transgender character’s feelings are hardly portrayed – on the contrary, it’s a shallow, flat character that behaves as no real people do: she falls in love instantly, rescinding a regular life for something completely unknown, all because of a character she met just a couple of hours ago.
But of course, these are not real people – these are characters in a 2019 fairy tale. One could argue to cut the fairy tale – as a genre – some slack: it’s supposed to be black and white. It’s supposed to be that way because – from Grimm onward – published fairy tales were meant for children, and children need their moral lessons spelled out to them loud and clear. Pondering upon the difficult childhood of the witch or the carnivorous nature of the wolf would only confuse our toddlers. Yet while Desdemona And The Deep has a YA feel at times, its audience is not children – the language is to difficult for that.
There’s some poetry in Cooney’s language – there was heaps of that in Bone Swans – but it feels a bit overdone here. She goes all out rococo at times, and the prose lacks focus.
She patted her new body all over – thighs smooth as mink, swandown throat, breast covert with baum marten fur, cream and brown and yellow, otter-sleek face, ostrich feathers streaming from her long black hair, bundle of silver fox tails springing from the bottom of her spine.
Not a bad sentence per se, but she does enumerating stuff like this often.
In the Breaker House library, he had been white fire and black flame. A glint of green. A voice, mostly. The sense of being seen. Now he was a tall, resplendent figure, embers sparking from his raiment like emeralds, his clothes some rich and ragged construct of unlikely elements: night-piled velvet, raven’s wing, oil-spill, ebony, jet, shadow, cinder, smoke. His finger, too long and many-jointed, were tipped with talons like smoldering gems, and upon his bow danced a crown of thallium flame. (…) His eyes – the bright shine of copper arsenite, like the satin of her mother’s wedding dress – gazed down at Desdemona from a face that flickered and changed, melted, re-formed, growing new eyes, new ears, many mouths. (…) His curving fingernails flickered like tourmalines.
Obviously Cooney knows it, and revels in it. Early in the book she writes about “Voluptuists”, “a small but strident movement in the art world that emphasized brilliance of palette and brazenness of brushstroke and incorporated phantasmagorical elements married to the mundane. Voluptuist art was a direct reaction against the last generation of Illusionists who were obsessed with turning two-dimensional canvases into something you believed you could walk through. (…) Voluptuists, on the other hand, frolicked in the living guts of any world they could get their hands on, interbraiding realities in an eruption of color and motion.”
Clearly meta-fictional, Cooney sets a high bar for herself. And while her prose is ultimately a matter of taste – I can see people liking it a lot – I think the novel fails at “interbraiding realities”, as other realities are hardly evoked.
The three worlds in the book are sketched at best – the setting in Valwode is limited to one or two rooms only, as is her exploration of Bana The Bonekingdom. There’s no sense of vastness, no sense of other worlds – just another set of rooms beneath a villa. The same goes for the people & creatures populating these worlds: there’s hardly any, and no sense of history either, except for a wee bit of backstory. Okay, this is a short book – so you better make every word count. Cooney instead chooses 3 or 4 or 5 adjectives for every other description, but that doesn’t make the scene more vivid. (Maybe the two other novellas in the series remedy it a bit – but that doesn’t excuse it in this stand alone publication.)
And just as the characters are flat, what happens to them is flat too. There’s never a sense of danger or adventure, as it is pretty clear from the onset that this is the kind of book in which everything magically turns out just as it should turn out for the protagonist. She doesn’t even need to try, things happen to her easily. There’s nothing at stake, never.
We don’t know the miners who are sacrificed, and even if we had known them, felt their emotions, whatever, it still would not have mattered, for we know they’ll be brought back somewhere along those 200 later pages. And although Cooney conjures a real sense of wonder once or twice throughout the story – the Gentry Sovereign particularly – it is never a surprise how.
Cooney was a protege of the late, great Gene Wolfe – her “writing mentor”. Bone Swans felt dangerous, fresh and unpredictable – a bit like Wolfe’s best work. Desdemona And The Deep feels like yet another 2019 title. Granted, it’s a bit more whimsical, and Cooney has a way with words, but it suffers from being too lighthearted & hasty. For a truly long work of great depth about Faerie, try the timeless Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell instead – for a shorter work, do check out The Bone Swans Of Amandale, it’s here, online & free.
Consult the author index for all my other reviews.