Emily is the daughter of a scientist considered… eccentric… by his peers. She also believes that she can communicate with faeries. Jessica is a free spirit confined to a drab world of work and home; she gets caught up with a young man she thinks is a member of the IRA but is in fact something even more dangerous. Enye is an advertiser by day, haunted by a mysterious past she knows very little about. Three women of three very different generations are united by a common talent and a foe that could engulf them before they can understand it…
Ian McDonald is the author of several novels of SF so far into the “hard” end of the spectrum that they come out the other side as practically fantasy. He combines mind-bending ideas with a lush, dreamlike prose that is heavenly to behold. King Of morning, Queen Of Day (1991) was his third novel and his first fantasy, but it’s so firmly rooted in the realm of the quasi-scientific that it could almost be SF.
I want to start my slavering adoration of this novel by referring to its structure first. It’s told in three parts. The first, Emily’s story, is set in Ireland in 1913 and is told through a series of letters, articles and reports on the events of this part of the story. This epistolatory style makes you immediately think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) but, given that it’s the story of a young girl who finds herself developing psychic powers, it does remind you more of Stephen King’s Carrie (1974). It also references a lot of topical ideas of the day, from fairy photographs, magick, poetry (W. B. Yeats features as a minor character), and snobbery from the English.
I say “developing psychic powers” but really, it’s the creature that her powers attract and how it manifests as a reaction to those powers that is the real villain here. It’s a weird psychic force known as the Mygmus and it sends out manifestations of its will, known as Phaguses, to seduce and combat our heroines.
The second part is about Jessica. We guess fairly quickly that she’s Emily’s daughter, but she hasn’t enjoyed the privileged upbringing her mother did. She’s become a lot more streetwise and cynical than you might expect and is, to use an educational phrase, a bit of a handful. Her version of Emily’s psychic gift manifests itself in a way different to Emily’s but, like her mother, in a manner that is keyed to her perception of the world. This section is told in a way that invites comparison to Joyce and Beckett but also evokes the world of 1930s Ireland beautifully.
The final section of the book revolves around Enye, Jessica’s granddaughter. Enye deals with the Mygmus and its Phaguses by going out at night and killing them (I’ll point out here this was published the year before the first iteration of Buffy The Vampire Slayer was released). Enye has other issues, though, and it does sometimes appear that these manifestations of gruesome beasts reflect her psyche as well. This section is soaked in the pop culture of the day, but the ones that stand out most are the references to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1979), because it mixes reality and fantasy in a way that homages that novel and a lot of the other work of Rushdie, much like the other sections pastiche the authors I mentioned there.
But there’s a lot of cultural references across all three sections. They add some depth and colour to the story even if you don’t grasp them all. It’s the same with the “guest” characters: if you don’t know who they are the story remains unchanged but knowledge of who they are and what they represent does enhance your reading. As an example, I knew that W. B. Yeats was a poet at the time of my first reading, but I only knew a few of his works. Fast-forward a few more years and I had a bit more knowledge of Yeats and his role within the, er, esoteric societies of the day, which makes the section of the book he is in a little more interesting and believable: it puts the book firmly into a political and philosophical sphere that it wasn’t in for me previously.
It makes it one of those rare books that you can pick up a new layer to every time you read it. McDonald’s style is ridiculously readable, despite also being literary and dense. I first read it not long after it was published and I found it an amazing read. The story was vivid and told in ways that offered continual variety to the reader, and despite there being only one character who appears in all three sections of the book (and only in a flashback in the third section), it really did feel like you were reading the same story but set across several generations. That character, by the way, is a paranormal investigator by the name of Hannibal Rooke… and with a surname like that, you might be tempted to go looking for other chess references in the story apart from the title. It was set in Ireland, with which I was having a bit of a literary love affair at the time and I liked that it wasn’t a traditional fantasy/horror novel – the genre of “urban fantasy” which this book bears a strong resemblance to, was in its infancy at the time and I really wasn’t a huge fan (and I’m still not, despite having read several excellent examples of the genre over the years). This was a perfect mix of the fantasy I loved as well as being a delicious hint of what the genre could be. Whenever I read it, though, I am reminded mostly of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood because of the relationship between the real and imagined world, but it felt a lot more rooted in the timeframes of the story than that novel (which is also superb, though sadly dated now).
But it’s ridiculously literary as well. At the time of my reading of it, I was grappling with the notion of “readerly” and “writerly” novels. A “readerly” novel is a book that is written to be enjoyed by readers without too much difficulty, while a “writerly” novel is one that is written more for the pleasure of writing. Broadly speaking, most popular fiction is readerly, while a lot of literary fiction is writerly. Even more broadly, if you are reading for the story, you are reading a readerly text, while if you read for what the author is trying to achieve (James Joyce, I’m looking at you), then you are reading a writerly text.
I’m not sure what style McDonald is going for here because he isn’t making life easy for the reader but he isn’t constructing a piece that is focused entirely on its style, either. It’s a great mix for whatever mood you might be in. He does a similar trick in a lot of his other work as well: brasyl (2007), for example, tells a story of alternate worlds in a way that is ridiculously readable but so absolutely soaked in metaphor and symbolism that the reader is carried along in a wave of magical realism.
McDonald has never revisited this book which is both a tragedy and a relief: a tragedy because it is such a wonderful story that you can’t help but want to know what happens next; and a relief because it ends in a fairly comprehensive and final manner with the loose ends tied up neatly enough that any kind of revisitation would have to be genuinely original to not seem like milking the concept. Of course, there are other stories that could be told in this universe: Emily’s parents have a story to tell, especially her absent mother, for example.
But, really, as with so other stories, I’d rather be left wanting more than actually having it.
You can find out more about Ian McDonald at http://zenoagency.com/zenoauthor/mcdonald-ian/