While self-isolating from COVID-19, I was looking for some light reading material of the sort I call “popcorn reading”—entertaining, usually intellectually unchallenging, and by no means even approaching the category of books that leave you in tears or with a heavy heart when you close them. I picked Norwegian author Berit Ellingsen’s short fantasy novel A Tale of Truths, and I largely got what I wanted, plus an extra dose of reality-check I hadn’t been expecting, and a newly rekindled hankering for a very different type of SFF.
We’re starting the story watching an unnamed “elf” watching a coastline and the lifeforms it sustains. Soon, he fashions himself a body so he can interact with the things he perceives, which made me wonder whether this “elf” could be an extraterrestrial being rather than the mainstream fantasy creature we’ve come to expect from post-Tolkienian writers, and which also instantly—and very pleasantly—reminded me of Delany’s The Einstein Intersection, in which aliens have long ago assumed the form of long extinct human beings and at the time the plot is set, have become so accustomed to their bodies that they believe they have to abide by the same physical restrictions as humans.
The first creature the newly physical elf encounters is a cat, who surprises him with her friendly feline reactions. It turns out that they can communicate; the elf recruits her as a sidekick, turning her into a horse—and, as we will see, back into cat form whenever he deems convenient. The narrative voice, though, usually refers to her as “the cat,” and for the most part, she still acts like a cat, which adds a level of comedy: a cat in a horse disguise.
First, they travel, seemingly aimlessly, through rocky landscapes reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. Ellingsen’s writing generally shows that she must harbor a special love for rugged and somewhat ‘painterly’ landscapes. Indeed, in a recent interview, Ellingsen mentions that she refers to her fiction as “landscape fiction." Another small thing I pleasantly noticed was a spark of defamiliarisation (in the sense of Viktor Shklovsky, aimed at startling us from our rote ways of seeing and describing things and refreshing our perspective) when the elf falls asleep while riding through a narrow pass and wakes up to find that the rock walls have now turned into the walls of houses.
Our happy wayfarers have reached the merchant city of Canal, which seems to be constructed very much like Venice, with narrow footpaths over countless bridges and most of the day-to-day traffic being boats on the canals that crisscross the city. On a public square, they find themselves drawn to an impressive display using a big orrery, with planets made of semiprecious stones and a lantern in the sun so that it can be lit with a real flame, and intended to accompany a lecture about the solar system. This is also a good opportunity for the elf to start what is to become a routine of little observations and aphorisms.
“Shh,” he said. “The quiet before things begin is the best part. It really says everything that it is possible to truly say about any subject.” (p. 18)
The inventor and researcher who runs the show turns out to be Dame Logan who, together with her granddaughter and assistant Alexandra, aims to transport the display to Spiral, another town further up the coast. Since Dame Logan doesn’t have a carriage or horses, the elf and the cat offer their services (those of the cat being implied in the elf’s flamboyant promise) in return for some science talk on the way. They end up travelling in a boat that has been converted into a hearse (obtained by a bit of subterfuge, since these vehicles are usually only made for the clergy). Even before they start it becomes clear that the “planets” of the orrery are really priceless gems stolen from the royal family’s vault, and that because of this, there is now a bounty on the scientist’s head.
The journey to Spiral isn’t a long epic fantasy, but it does take the elf, the cat, Dame Logan, and Alexandra through the Forest of Forgetting, an area separating the two cities, which had once been one city under one form of government (p. 40). The forest is constantly growing and turning parts of the cities into more forest (and thus potentially working as a nice metaphor for estrangement). It is described as a haunting place where travellers watch themselves and their companions age fast and lose hope and energy. By sheer luck and a bit of perseverance, our small party of adventurers manages to reach the city of Spiral, built either into or to resemble a giant snail shell, and organized by social class, with workers living on the lowest tier, middle tiers reserved for scientists and soldiers, and the aristocracy residing at the top. According to Dame Logan, who was born there, “[l]egend has it that if a person from the lowest stratum reaches the uppermost plateau, the whole city will crumble” (p. 70). This set up my expectations for at least a little political upheaval, as the description of the stratified city with its concomitant stratified society featuring rigid hierarchies and ossified systems of thought offers many fulcrum points for conflict and indeed revolution. Little did I know at the time that Ellingsen’s point of view is that “politics in literature […] can really put off some readers” and that in her eyes the barely noticeable “little bit of class conflict” in A Tale of Truths is her being “subtle about politics” for that reason, even though she also claims that the society described is heavily influenced by the European Baroque and Rococo eras and by the Japanese Heian and Feudal eras. Unfortunately for me, a reader who loves to detect and analyse the political elements in SFF, she chooses to focus rather heavily on the decadent aesthetics and deliberately disregards the implications for the lower social classes. In the city of Spiral, we are led to believe, everyone gets to eat cake, just maybe of different types and flavours.
There the elf and his travel companions help out a group of actors who are performing the historical play (or so the people of Spiral believe) “Lady Knight and the Sun”—which features Faeries (in fact the Faerie king quite resembles our elf) and mentions the sun being captured and held at the end of a piece of twine at the top of Spiral. You can see that it won’t be easy for Dame Logan to convince the people (and indeed scientists) of Spiral of the concept of a heliocentric model of the solar system.
Chased by palace guards (who were probably summoned by a conservative scientist who regards Dame Logan as a traitor as well as a thief), they flee up the tiers of the spiral city, variously setting fire to a lecture hall, getting arrested and having to break out of a prison cell, losing the display and devising a way to get it back by stealing it a second time, walking through catacombs, and—prepare yourselves for the reality-check—facing an invisible monster that “spread[s] in the form of tiny invisible droplets that land on the hands and face of the next person” (p. 109). What a book to read during a pandemic!
But Ellingsen has got our backs:
“But I implore you,” the elf said. “Protect yourselves against the miasma!” He took out his least favorite scarf, ripped it in two, and handed one part to Dame Logan and the other to Alexandra, then pulled his own silken scarf up over his nose and mouth. “Always have this in front of your nose and mouth, don’t touch your faces, and never lick your hands!” (p. 129)
“Please excuse our masks,” the elf continued. “Our physician claims it may help stop spreading the disease.”
“Really?” asked the Freelord with raised eyebrows. “I shall take note of that and take up on [sic] the habit. We should be doing everything in our power to halt this terrible contagion. I’m sure you know as well as I do it has done a terrible toll on us.” (p. 132)
In the end, they discover a gruesome secret that, all legends and prophecies aside, might very well change the future of the city of Spiral forever—and, as a neat side effect, potentially restore Dame Logan’s reputation as a scientist as well as all her former privileges: the king, it turns out, has been dead for a very long time, and while we get some lurid descriptions of the literal corruption at the top tier (the aristocracy of Spiral keep their dead ancestors in their basements), sadly—again—despite the political potential of the setup, we’re not getting any revelations about how the city has been mismanaged in the meantime and by whose machinations.
It would have actually been fun to read how our heroes uncover more than just decaying corpses (and a virus that, in the end, isn’t even very contagious), and manage to enlighten and liberate the inhabitants of Spiral (maybe even literally crumbling the city in the process?), delivering physical evidence of how the sun myth was constructed and upheld and after its dismantling introducing their own model to the populace. Instead, everything is neatly dissolved in a couple of paragraphs, Dame Logan is reinstated at the university, and the society of Spiral returns to its former status quo, albeit now lacking a king, who can doubtless be replaced quite easily. Tons of poetic justice all around. Which makes me wonder: is it justice? Is it what these characters need? And am I happy with this as a reader? Does the author really expect me to be?
To the character of the cat, she definitely isn’t fair. Throughout all these adventures, the cat has to be very patient, being transformed into whatever the elf needs at the time: first one horse, then two, then at one point even being forced to swap bodies with the elf so that he can conduct some cat business. On the other hand, the cat often notices that the elf isn’t very good at following social conventions and sometimes overlooks the obvious. Their squabbles are usually quite entertaining, sometimes a bit tragicomic.
The world-building often treads a fine line between Jack Vance’s planetary romances and tweeness, but mostly manages to veer just to the side of the benignly exotic. The author’s extreme fondness of lists (e.g. materials that masks are made of on page 29 or the types of ships in the harbour on page 53, to name just two) can get a bit tedious, as in the half-page of kitchen inventory only separated by commas on page 130, but doesn’t take over. And while the world and story are cute and child-friendly, the narrative never feels dumbed down or condescending (which sadly is a widespread problem in fantastic literature, especially in the YA category).
Sometimes, in just a few jarring moments, it feels a bit as if editing could be better: occasionally you stumble across a misplaced word, like “shade” for “shadow” when they are really not interchangeable (p. 53), and “stirring” an omelet with a “ladle” (p. 136) or describing a royal dignitary’s “tapered” uniform trousers as “pantaloons” (p. 125) don’t make for a smooth reading process either. Apart from these very few interruptions to the even flow of the story, A Tale of Truths is a nice romp and a refreshing departure from your run-of-the-mill hero’s journey—if you’re one of the readers that the author had in mind for this sort of book.
I fall into a different category, having been spoiled by excellent SFF which dares to be overtly political and sometimes radically so, as in Orwell, Huxley, Dick, LeGuin, Beukes, Miéville, Okorafor—even Frank Herbert’s Dune series, which deliberately omits descriptions of war, is all about political systems and their development—and eminently readable. In contrast to Ellingsen’s somewhat simplistic view, politics in fiction doesn’t have to be “heavy-handed," making the work “seem outdated,” otherwise this list would grow shorter every year. Instead, recent events in world politics have rekindled a world-wide interest in classics like 1984. While it’s always shocking, disheartening, and occasionally rightfully frightening to see history repeat itself, at least the thought experiments in political SFF literature can give us a different vantage point, enabling us to revisit concepts from various perspectives, and often even empower and uplift the downtrodden, inspire us readers to return to our not so twee real world with ideas of our own on how to make it more bearable for each of us.
Be safe. Wash your hands.