"I am dreaming. I'm dreaming of a city, a white city in the sun by the sea, a city of bells and birdcages, boatswains and ballyhoo, where heart-faced wenches lean bare-breasted from balconies to dry their hair among geraniums and the air is salt and soft and in the harbor sailors swagger from ships that bear cargos [sic] of spices. . . ."
So begins The Book of Flying by Keith Miller, a fantasy in which Pico, a librarian in that city, quests after flight. There, people both winged and wingless intermingle: the wingless live in the shadow of their winged counterparts. Alas for Pico, the romance of his heart is with the winged woman Sisi. Sisi's family's disapproval and her own delight in flying lead her to abandon Pico. He watches for her and writes her poetry, but to no avail.
Despairing, Pico discovers, by accident, a book that survived the city's last burning. It speaks of the mythical city Paunpuam, where the wingless may gain wings, and the perilous journey from which none have returned. Although Paunpuam lies beyond a forest whose depths are more than ordinarily dangerous, Pico begins a journey toward his heart's desire.
As with the better examples of quest fantasy, Pico encounters obstacles that serve as gateways toward his goal. The bold robber queen, his opposite in temperament, teaches him about love and death, not necessarily in that order. A genteel minotaur shares Pico's delight in books, but guards a bridge Pico must cross to enter the forest, his labyrinth. And the scholarly Master Rabbit reveals the potential sterility of books:
". . .Pico read several lines of intricate commentary on the life cycle of a certain parasite of a certain tree, then flipped forward. More of the same. Brown ink clogged with jargon, the delicate drawings, some with a smudging of color across them, each figure numbered.
'Are there no stories?' Pico asked.
'Stories?' The rabbit looked baffled.
'Is there nothing one would read for pleasure, for the joy of reading?'
'My books are not written for entertainment, young traveler, but for edification,' the rabbit said in an admonitory tone. 'Did you think I spent my time scribbling amorous adventures when there was work to be done?'"
Of course, Master Rabbit is not being entirely honest; he too has a story of love lost, one he later reveals to Pico.
All these encounters transform the shy librarian into a more worldly man, and in this lies a different trap. Pico lives for a time among the whores of a mountain city where to leave is to die, to unname oneself. Unfortunately, Pico's growing complacency is echoed by a lull in the narrative. The tale never fully recovers; the few remaining encounters seem rote in contrast with the earlier, more vivid ones. The grotesqueries that await Pico come across as bland, and despite moments of mingled horror and epiphany, Pico appears to be going through the motions of his quest, obligatory page-fillers so he can advance to win his prize.
As befits a librarian's tale, The Book of Flying is a story about tales, the intersection of journey and narrative. Pico's poetry weaves in and out of the narrative at appropriate moments, and he finds companionship in fellow book-lovers and wordwrights. In fact, the mountain city contains a hazard opposite to Master Rabbit's: its inhabitants live passionately and read voraciously—an inversion of Pico's home, where "a grandmother might bring her grandchild to look at a volume of hand-tinted engravings, but they never ask to borrow"—but these inhabitants are flawed by inhumane obsessions. They acknowledge no other cities, nor any books from outside their inbred world. The novelist whom Pico discovers in the mountain city writes of a planet of books, where tales are whispered of "a carnivorous book, a huge tome, its leather dappled gold and black. . . . When this book opened its great covers a reader would be drawn inexorably within, into the pages printed in red ink that never seemed to dry. The unwitting victim would move closer, mesmerized, desperate. . . ." Although it eats readers rather than other books, this tome is indeed carnivorous, for people are the source of Story. And Story, Miller suggests, should concern itself with a world outside itself, with its proper ending. Thus, Pico's lingering in the mountain city, despite its allure, signals a weakening of resolve; it takes tragedy to propel him back to his proper path.
Throughout The Book of Flying, Miller's prose delights with its alliteration, wordplay and teasing rhymes, as in this tale of Pico's: "Somewhere . . . somewhere else lived a boy and a girl beside the sea and as they grew older they grew more transparent. At first blue blood vessels and then bones bloomed beneath the skin but soon they could see the shapes of the world behind their bodies, the shudder of leaves like shadows in the brain, a butterfly's flutter in the mutter of the heart, beetles in the coils of the bowels. . . ." Sometimes, however, the prose trips over itself. In describing a dinner conversation, Miller writes, "A drunkenness brought on by gulped beer on an empty stomach produces raucous sniping, atrocious singing, nausea. But a tizzy induced by impeccable wine slowly sipped during a marvelous meal and burnished by a superb brandy elicits miraculous conversation." This evokes more of a snicker than a miracle. Overall, though, there is pleasure to be found in Miller's willingness to gamble on a well-turned phrase or a sprinkling of humor.
Ironically, The Book of Flying is at its best when it is concerned with the pitfalls of life, despite the author's occasional heavy-handedness, rather than when it deals with the literal subject of flight, for all that delicate line-drawings of feathers drift across the occasional page. It may be that Miller's point is the importance of the journey, the story in the process of being told, the protagonist's hard-earned maturity. Appropriately, Pico's story ends amid books and suggests a greater cycle to which Pico's story belongs, acknowledging itself as meta-narrative; in this, it shows a kinship with Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, a hint of "another story, for another time." Although The Book of Flying is not as satisfying as its first half promises, that, by itself, is satisfying enough.
Yoon Ha Lee entered Cornell University as a history major but emerged with a B.A. in math, and her reading interests are likewise varied. She and her husband are currently attempting to teach their ten-month-old daughter not to eat their books. You can find more work by the author at her website http://pegasus.cityofveils.com, or send her email at email@example.com.