Sunday, June 13, 2010
Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey/THE ELVENBANE
Many hundreds of years ago, the human world was taken over by elvenkind, who succeeded in ripping portals from their own destroyed world into the fertile, still-intact human one. The elven lords with their powerful magic subdued the human race, enslaving humans by use of mind-controlling collars and whatever brutal force was necessary. The elves so thoroughly wiped away human civilization that the human slaves don't even remember the names of their own gods. What the elves discovered the hard way is that a child of mixed human and elven blood has a magic so powerful it can overwhelm that of the elvenlords. The elvenlords' greatest fear is the Elvenbane, the prophecied halfblood child who will wage the war that will bring down the elves and free human kind. And so the halfblood is outlawed, and any halfblood baby born destroyed on sight.
But accidents happen. When the favorite concubine of the most powerful elven lord escapes his harem nine months pregnant, she is chased into the desert, where she will surely die. There is no one in the desert who could or would rescue her mixed-blood infant, teach it its powerful magic, raise it to adulthood, and unleash it on the world...is there?
Advance warning: this is part book review, part love story.
Earlier this week, I blogged elsewhere about my recent return to the high fantasy I used to read and love as a kid. The Elvenbane was one I was a little afraid to touch, though. It was the first adult fantasy novel I ever read, when I was in sixth grade and had gotten bored of the book list my teacher had posted for the class. I found it sitting on a shelf in my house, guiltily hid it under my shirt, and crept off to my room with it.
My dad, who has always been an unapologetic science fiction and high fantasy reader (he read me The Lord of the Rings starting when I was four--I remember how disappointed he was when I kept falling asleep during his favorite scenes), had plenty of fat, juicy books with shiny embossed and foiled covers lying around the house. This one happened to have a dragon on it, and a deliciously relatable pre-teen girl. All systems were go.
I stole it and read it cover to cover, then cover to cover again. I wrote a book report for my dismayed English teacher, who tried to steer me back to the Newbery Award Winner route by saying I wasn't going to get any extra credit for reading really long books. I read it again anyway. That summer, I know I read it at least once more, because I went to visit my grandparents, who lived in a Tucson wash. I remember lying on a rock in the desert and reading about Shana's amazing desert upbringing, feeling the sun beating down on me the way it must have beat down on her. I tried to get my family to read it. I succeeded in making all my cousins take on code names for one another from the characters. I won't insult your intelligence by telling you which character name I chose for myself.
Upon revisiting the story as an adult, I noticed a couple interesting things. For one, I wonder if this book would have even been published today as an adult fantasy novel--the protagonist is a fourteen-year-old girl; there is absolutely no sex in it, and not much violence to speak of. Content-wise, there are allusions to the Elven overlords' abusive practices of keeping harems and brainwashing human slaves, but I don't think it's any darker or harder to read than a lot of YA fantasy out there today. Basically, this is an ideal young adult novel, particularly, perhaps, for a pre-teen girl. It's about a misfit girl who saves the world, against all rules and convention, by harnessing her own personal strength.
There were a couple other levels of story that emerged for me as an adult that I missed as a child. I don't want to fill up this editorial with book spoilers, so I will just say that as an adult, it became clear to me that two secondary characters were secretly in love with each other--something that had gone way over my head as a kid. Also, both the strengths and the weaknesses of Norton and Lackey's world-building were more apparent--the richness of the multi-layer history held up to my childish impression, on the one hand. On the other, the fact that everyone spoke the same language bothered me even more than it had bothered me as a kid. The premise is so richly developed that as a kid I didn't miss how rushed some aspects of the plot are. On the other hand, I don't really care.
There is a sad ending to the story of the halfblood, since Andre Norton passed away in 2005. I know this book was intended to be the first in a four-book series (it certainly stands alone, but does leave things open). I read the second and third books, but only once each--I found them lackluster by comparison, since the plot moved away from Shana and onto other things, like elven politics. But the fourth book was never even written. Perhaps that is actually best, since it means for me, the halfblood war ends the way I imagined it, back when I was 11.
So--against my expectations, I have decided that The Elvenbane is exactly as great as it was when I was a kid. Sure, some pieces have tarnished for me, but others have somehow become shinier. I know I'm not supposed to read YA this way, but I admire the morality the authors instilled in the book, the way they empower their reader by empowering their characters, the sensitive best friendships they bury at the heart of the story.
I wonder how many other people out there read and loved this book. Hope you'll happen upon this page and come forward.