Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Eye of Night – Pauline J. Alama

Alama, Pauline - The Eye of Night

Author Ann Agurirre read Pauline Alama’s The Eye of Night earlier this year and loved the book so much she wanted to share the experience. She held a giveaway on her blog, offering five commentators a copy of the book. I was lucky enough to be one of the winners and I have recently finished it. While I don’t think I loved it quite as much as Ann did, I thought this was an excellent fantasy that I would never have read without her giveaway, so I’m very grateful to her.

Seven years ago, Jereth joined the  Tarvon order, seeking some kind of peace after the death of his entire family in a shipwreck. Now he has chosen not to take his final vows and is in the town of St Fieren, hoping for a guiding vision from the sacred pool there. Instead he finds Hwyn, a deformed and battered young woman with a beautiful voice and a quest. He finds himself following Hwyn and her companion, Trenara, to the ends of a world that may be ending itself.

This is epic fantasy at its best, where epic means rich and soaring, rather than long and never-ending. I’m really not sure if I can write something that does justice to this book, as there is so much in it, so much I want to comment on and I’m still not sure if all those pieces and ideas whirling around in my head have settled down into something with some kind of coherence. But I’ll give it a go and we’ll see what happens. There are also a few things I’d like to comment on that are spoilers, so when I get to those I’ll put in a link to my spoiler blog and you can decide if you want to go over and take a look at what I’ve said or not.

The book opens beautifully, with a great hook of an opening line:

I little thought, when I begged shelter at Kelgarran Hall one rainy night, that I should take part in its downfall.

In that single sentence we learn a whole host of things; there is a first person narrator telling the story, he or she is in a position of needing to beg for shelter, condition are not ideal and Kelgarran Hall – whatever and wherever that is – is going to fall by the end of the night. Alama’s prose continues to impress throughout the book. It’s well-written, neither sparse nor over-blown and filled with information that is all there for the reader – but the reader might sometimes have to pay attention to find it.  As the early passages of the book continue, we learn the basics we need to pick up the story. This is a world in difficulties, suffering “Troubles” in its north that are never completely spelled out, but we come to understand them as the companions travel ever further northward. We learn of the religious system – four gods on a World Wheel that keep the world turning. Again, they are not spelled out for us in detail, but we come to understand them as the book progresses.

We also meet the main characters. There is Jereth, a part of him broken by the death of his family, he has failed to find the peace he sought in the Tarvon order and is now searching for a vision to guide him. He is a man of hidden strengths he himself doesn’t yet know and of a fierce and faithful loyalty that, once given, won’t be swayed. Then there is Trenara, beautiful and graceful, but simple of mind, she is the one to attract immediate attention, but it is Hwyn, damaged and deformed who truly captures Jereth and it is her he follows on her quest to the north. Hwyn is a fierce and brave, made strong by her imperfections and yet with a beautiful heart and voice. Also a character is its own way is the Eye of Night, a strange, egg-like artefact that appears to hold life inside it and that Hywn has undertaken to take northwards so that it can hatch into whatever it holds, be that the saving or the doom of the world.

The story unfolds slowly as Hwyn, Jereth and Trenara make their way north. They are well-met and ill-met by the people they meet along the way. In some places they make friends, in others enemies, but always they continue northward towards some kind of ending. I don’t want to spoil the story by detailing much more than this, but while sometimes, reading a book full of travel, I feel like some of it is just here to fill out the pages. This isn’t the case in The Eye of Night, although sometimes it wasn’t until the end of the book that I began to understand the why of things – or at least that there was a why, even if I didn’t fully understand it.

The book if full of themes and a truly wonderful love story that is never sappy or silly, but beautifully inspiring and perfectly part of the story, always there as an underpinning of actions and events, but never taking over to the detriment of the rest of the whole.

This is a book of many themes – as evidenced by the variety that are mentioned on Ann’s blog by different readers (beware – there be spoilers), but for me it was about balance. It was about light needing dark, day needing night, and endings being required for a new beginning. Early on, Hywn says about the Eye of Night:

“Whatever hatches from this egg,” Hwyn said, “will be a child of night. It may be terrible; I may be cursed for releasing it. I fear it as a child fears the dark. But I know this much: it cannot be held back. Like the night, it is necessary.

[…]

Then maybe you can understand,” Hwyn said, “why I’m running headlong into the Troubles; why I have to release the hatchling from the Raven’s Egg, even though I feel it. Why I’ll consent to be a midwife to the Night.

“Childbirth, after all, is a fearful trouble. Women suffer pain in childbirth that would undo strong men. Women often die in childbirth, or labor in vain to bring forth a dead child. But what if some magician had the power to hold back this deadly pain, to keep the troublesome child trapped in the womb? Both mother and child would die, and not alone, but the human race with them. No less with the Troubles in the North. The might cast down from their pride, the dead cast up from their graves: are these the pangs of death, or of birth?”

This need for balance, especially as relates to the ending and beginning of the world, is a recurring idea, which isn’t really surprising considering it makes up a significant part of the plot of the book. What will happen when Hwyn releases whatever is growing in the Eye of Night? Will the world end, or will it be the start of something new? And if it is the beginning of something, what will happen to the old ways and the people who have been living them?

Another major part of the book is its magic. This is something organic, fundamental to people and how they live more than some kind of wielding of spells that is so common to fantasy. And the book is so much the better for it. Hwyn and Jereth both carry some kind of magic and each is vital to the course of their journey and their final fates. Hwyn, desperate for a vision threw herself into the lake shrine of St Fierin and has been a seer ever since, but her sight is vague and sometimes unsure. Jereth has the Gift of Naming; this is a universe where true names are important and Jereth can know the true names of the living and the dead. His is a useful talent as they encounter more ghosts as they travel towards the Troubles, and it will be absolutely necessary to the world’s fate.

The book also contains, woven within it, a beautiful love story. Unlike so many people before, Jereth sees the person inside Hwyn’s damaged shell and finds himself drawn to follow her, sometimes even in spite of himself. At one point he talks about the legend of the firebird:

The Magyans have a legend,” I said, “of a firebird that makes its nest in the heart of a burning mountain. There is only one in all the world, so if you see it once in your life, you can be sure it will not come again. Its plumes, they say, are like the fire at the heart of the world. And some see the firebird and let it pass, holding it in memory, while they live out their lives as before; but maybe afterward everything they see seems dim beside that single fiery vision. Others see it and follow after it; they leave the live they have known and inherit a world of trouble, and hardship, and danger, and wonder, and joy.” I fixed my eyes on Hwyn as I spoke, but I could not tell from her expression what she heard in the story. “Only by journeying into trouble can you find the joy at the heart of the world – if you survive the journey. For some, it is better to stay in the known life. For others, the journey is the only life.”

Hwyn is Jereth’s firebird and he will follow her wherever she takes him, into trouble and hardship and danger, and happily find wonder and joy among them. Their love story develops slowly; the tale of two uncertain people finally finding the courage to be open enough with each other the show the truth of their hearts. Jereth’s declaration to Hwyn – in a dungeon no less – is intense and risky, but worth that risk when Hwyn makes her own declaration in return. And as someone who was never one of the pretty or favoured ones, it’s always nice when the ugly girl gets the boy for her beautiful soul without having to turn into a beauty first.

It’s also nice that the book doesn’t end with the end of the world. Instead, we continue to follow Jereth as he tries to find his way in the new world he and Hwyn have birthed. Some of the loveliest moments are as he discovers the Sea People and begins his new purpose by using his Gift of Naming to call Hwyn back from the sea, the first of the new Sea Born. Yet, for all his own importance in the end of the old world and the developing of the new, Jereth still sees himself as an adjunct to Hwyn and not a hero in his own right. He hurts, he despairs, but always in the end, he picks himself up and he does what needs to be done. What else could be such a fundamental description of a hero? It is easy to read this book and be tricked in the same way he is, to think we are reading the story of Hwyn’s quest, when really, we are reading about two journeys that weave together. Yes, this is the story of Hwyn’s determination to birth the Eye of Night, but it is Jereth’s story too. He is the everyman who finds himself caught up in wonders and doing his share to bring them about.

Sometimes, Jereth’s story tells us, we set ourselves on a path that we think suits us, only to find the path we a truly following is something quite different, even if it takes us to the same places. Jereth leans this as he chooses to follow the Rising God, never understanding his opposite, the Falling God. Yet it turns out, that always, he has been following the calling of the latter, as he says in the very last paragraph of the book, “always falling, never certain, but always in hope” and maybe, in the end, that is what all our lives come down to.

To finish, there are a couple of things I wanted to comment on that contain major spoilers for someone who hasn’t read the book. The last thing I want to do is spoil any of the pleasure of discovering this book page by page for a new reader, so I’ve put my comments over on my spoilers blog. When you’ve finished The Eye of Night, if you want to see what I said, take a look.

The Eye of Night
Pauline J. Alama
9/10

Qualifies for: 100+ Reading Challenge, eBook Reading Challenge

2 comments:

Ann Aguirre said...

What an amazingly lovely review!

Melissa said...

This book sounds really good, I'll have to check it out! Thanks for the review :-)