Two recent books reviewed - K.J. Parker's Blue and Gold and Catherynne Valente's Deathless.
KJ Parker's Blue and Gold (2011) features Salonius, the greatest alchemist who has ever lived. That's according to him - and since he also admits to being the greatest liar, his accomplishments should be taken with a grain of salt. For his patron, Salonius has the wealthy Prince Procas. Procas is an old school friend who's generous to a fault and considerate of all Salonius' needs... as long as Salonius delivers that pesky elixir of eternal life (oh, and also the secret of lead into gold).
The novella follows Salonius' attempts at escape (time and time again). With only a handful of chemicals and bucketloads of chutzpah, he takes on overwhelming odds. However, as fragments of his background are revealed, the reader learns that he's not overly hampered by virtues either. He's a charismatic rogue, but the emphasis is on the rogue. That is, if he can be believed at all.
Sadly, by Parker's standards, Blue and Gold is merely average. This is something I'm extremely reluctant to say, but, is mitigated by the fact that even "average" Parker is better than 95% of everything else in the fantasy category. In Blue and Gold, the promising unreliable narrator shtick is never fully utilised and even Salonius' obvious charm isn't enough to carry a fairly straightforward story with a one-twist, one-liner ending.
Previously, I'd expressed concerns that Parker needed the space of a trilogy to work the traditional magic. Those worries have been dispelled (repeatedly) with works like Purple and Black and "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong". Blue and Gold is, despite the promising set-up, merely an entertainment - and a step behind when it comes to Parker's trademark complexity and emotional engagement. Still, the story delivers on the fun and even Parker can't be ground-breaking all the time.
The story is based on the Russian fairytale of Koschei the Deathless. It follows Marya, an imaginative young woman growing up in early 20th century Russia (with all the trials and tribulations of the time). She's a slight, troubled girl with the ability to perceive (and interact with) the magic that lies beneath the surface of her life. After growing up hungry/poor/lonely, she's swept off her feet by the handsome and terrible Koschei the Deathless, and taken off to be his bride in the Country of Life.
Marya's problems don't end with her new love - as she's caught up in love and Koschei's "war" with Death, she begins to lose her own connection with humanity (both being human and being humane). Everything, as one can now expect from Ms. Valente, is poetic and portentous, lavishly written and deeply saturated in capital-M-Meaning.
Deathless goes down as a book that I can only appreciate rationally, which, with a book like Deathless, doesn't mean I'm appreciating very much of it at all. The story is essentially a folktale and the characters are, accordingly, archetypes (including Marya, who begins as the Lonely Poet and gradually becomes even less likable...). However, neither plot nor character are the selling point or the overall purpose to Deathless. This is a novel of style, and there's a lot to be admired in Ms. Valente's craft. She's adapted her own writing to incorporate the ponderous gravitas of the Russian fairytale tradition. She's clearly done her research and every sentence reads like it has been carefully and lovingly polished by hard-working elves.
In fact, any single episode within Deathless would probably make a short story that I could like. But that's the limit. The cumulative effect of dozens of these episodes - hundreds and thousands of these tiny over-prepared fragments of prose-poetry - is like being beaten to death with an arrangement of dried flowers. Or slow-roasted over an incense bonfire. Deathless takes itself so. very. seriously. without the tiniest break for laughter or joy or self-conscious reflection.
Any book that commits to having a style this distinctive - and to the exclusion of all else - runs the risk of alienating readers. It is a gutsy love it or hate it approach that, in this case, leaves me firmly in the camp of the latter.