Crossing Over had two things going for it even before I hit the first page: in its UK edition it launches Gollancz's new YA line, and it comes with an unusually long and enthusiastic blurb from Connie Willis. My admiration for Connie Willis is such that I was slightly worried her enthusiasm would be unduly influential on my reading. In the best tradition of worrying about the wrong thing, I had in fact to check that I wasn't being unduly critical of the book because I'd had such high expectations.
Crossing Over is a medievalesque fantasy, narrated by14-year-old Roger, an orphan living with his aunt Jo and her abusive husband Hartah in The Queendom. Roger's life is impoverished in every sense of the word; he's malnourished, lacks any education or training in a skill or trade, and is exploited by the sadistic Hartah. The one ability he has is that, when in pain, he can choose to physically cross over to the country of the Dead. Hartah makes Roger do this in order to contact a recently-deceased person and get enough information to convince their grieving relatives that Hartah has communicated with them for which service they pay, of course. Roger is able to locate the person because the Dead stay in the location of their death and the country of the Dead is essentially geographically equivalent to the normal world. Once the Dead have been there any length of time they become impossible to communicate with, merely sitting calmly in one spot and not responding no matter how loudly Roger yells at them, or how hard he shakes or even hits them. Be that as it may, he generally manages to find communicative Dead apparently old women are particularly chatty, at least relatively speaking. Although this sounds like nothing more than a Victorian séance, Roger doesn't merely contact dead people by a kind of mental projection, but has a physical presence of some sort in the land of the Dead as well as the living world. Hartah, Roger and Jo make a living of a sort in this and other ways, while travelling around to fairs in the rural areas of the country.
After a particularly ruthless scheme of Hartah's goes wrong, Roger is about to be hanged but uses his ability to cross over to convince the widow of a man just killed by Hartah's gang to save him. As she can't bear to keep Roger anywhere near her, she sends him to an old servant of hers who now serves one of the Queen's ladies in the court, where he's to work in the laundry. Needless to say, Roger finds the court overwhelming and confusing. Also as might be expected, he doesn't remain quietly at work in the laundry. The young queen learns that he can cross over and makes him pose as her Fool in order to exploit his ability.
Roger's character and situation often fall into the category of "understandable, but frustrating." He does not know, for instance, what his ability to cross over means, or just how rare it is. Roger is told by the widow who saves him that he could be burned as a witch for crossing over to the land of the Dead, as if it were a known action with a set penalty. However, Roger says he's always found that only country folk believe that some people can cross over, which seems to be verified when we later find that the Queen's consort has long insisted that crossing over is just a country superstition. Who then established the punishment for a crime that's only a superstition? Just as the beliefs or laws regarding witchcraft are never really explained, it is not clear what Roger means when he says, near to the end of the book, that in saying his being able to cross over doesn't make him a witch (p. 305). Most importantly, Roger never gains more than partial knowledge of the nature of the land of the Dead; clearly, readers will have to wait for future volumes for a fuller understanding.
Similarly, it's reasonable that Roger knows little about The Queendom, the world at large, and life in general, but irritating that he doesn't always seem to try to find out more. In some cases this is an understandable consequence of his powerlessness, and his having been actively discouraged from questioning. Yet it's not always clear that his ignorance is an intentional filter between the reader and a fully "built" but as-yet undisclosed world; his ability to interpret what he sees can be quite inconsistent. For instance, consider Roger's first description of Cecilia, one of the queen's ladies: "[Her hair was] mingled cinnamon and copper and nutmeg and bronze more gleaming shades than I could count" (p. 63). On the basis of Cecilia's telling Roger he would look well in a doublet the shade of red his ears have gone, he thinks:
It was incredible. She was flirting with me, as she must have flirted with the prince. Did she flirt with every man then? Apparently so. I was not used to being a man anyone flirted with. I was not used to being a man. I was not used to any of this I, Hartah's unwilling and underfed slave. Her eyes sparkled like diamonds no, like emeralds—no, like . . . (p. 65)
Diamonds and emeralds, cinnamon, copper, nutmeg, and bronze. How has such an unknowledgeable narrator seen all these substances? How is it, in fact, that all these spices and gems are to be found in The Queendom, when so little is heard of the trade routes or countries from which the gems and spices are imported? And how is it that Roger, who has told us that his experience with women has been limited to village girls ignoring or acting disgusted by him, correctly recognises not just that Cecilia is flirting with him, but that this is her usual way of interacting with men? It should require a degree of understanding and sophistication he simply doesn't have.
Equally, I couldn't help but wonder how such an uneducated narrator has developed such a figurative mode of expression. Roger has quite a large vocabulary for someone who has never learned to read, and tends to pile the adjectives on far too thickly for my taste when describing Cecilia. But he can become repetitive: "But she was like a kitten: curious, wide-eyed, playful, completely adorable" (p. 191), and "She was exactly as I had always known her: childish, heedless, sweet-natured, lovely, adorable. . . . Cecilia, my sweet kitten, my love" (p. 233). This is particularly noticeable in descriptions of Cecilia's hair, and finally become distracting. Not long after the scene quoted above he sees candlelight flickering over her hair, "and it shone in so many shades of brown that I couldn't count them: nutmeg, molasses, bronze, cinnamon, almost-but-not-quite-gold" (p. 100). And there's still another: "The hair rippled and shone in the firelight, glinting in a hundred shades of honey, cinnamon, gold, bronze, amber, copper, chestnut" (p. 280).
The tendency to repetitiveness in Roger's narrative isn't limited to Cecilia, and it's perhaps more of a problem that the many descriptions of his crossing over are quite alike: "darkness," "cold," "choking" and similar sentiments are used many times. As the country of the Dead is initially unchanging, the repetiveness of the prose is even more noticeable. However, eventually Roger inadvertently causes change to occur in the land of the Dead and the change spreads to all those who die afterwards, in a very unexpected way. This plot-twist opens up fascinating possibilities and was one of my favourite things about the book, even though the exploration of those possibilities is essentially left for the sequels.
The heavily descriptive prose style, with its detailed depictions of clothing and hair at times gave me the odd feeling that I was reading the screenplay for a BBC costume romp like The Tudors rather than a fantasy novel. And at times matters come close to farcical, as when Roger first sees Queen Caroline (there are two queens, mother and daughter, in a dispute which has spread throughout The Queendom). Roger notes that she felt dangerous, though he isn't sure why.
Her body curved lusciously under a tight green bodice, but so did many others among the ladies. The difference lay in her eyes, black with silver glints, as if something shining were submerged in dark water. The difference lay in the set of her white shoulders, the thrust of her lovely breasts, the very intricacy of her coiffure, black as her eyes, braided and puffed and set with jewels . . . (p. 81)
Is it the angle of breast thrust that makes the difference, one wonders?
On the other hand, sometimes the style is used to very good effect. When the old queen dies (possibly poisoned by Queen Caroline), armed conflict breaks out between the two factions, and Queen Caroline secretly sends for help to a country of which seemingly nothing has been known by anyone else. The arrival of warriors from that country is a visceral scene, and effectively sets up a culture clash between these "savages" and the people of The Queendom. The courtiers' mingled fear and revulsion are nicely offset by the reader's understanding that the "savages" have the superior military technology in the form of guns, of which those in The Queendom have previously been completely unaware. Even here there are niggles, however. Given the intense machinations going on in court over the gaining and retention of power, I found it odd that there wasn't the same degree of international conflict. Although one of the issues between the two queens appears to be that the old queen wants to start a war with another country and Queen Caroline feels it will be an unwinnable war, there's no real sense of a history for this world. I wanted to know what was going on outside this small area, almost as much as I wanted to know what was going on in the country of the Dead, and what Roger's ability to cross into it and influence it really meant.
As the two primary countries depicted are queendoms, one might expect the novel to be some kind of feminist revisioning of the typical medievalesque fantasy. However, this can't be said to be the case merely because rulers are always women, as a simplistic, essentialist explanation for the power structure is given and not challenged. "Women, who create life, must rule. But men, who defend life, must advise. Thus is the balance of the world preserved" (pp. 96-97). Roger's preference for the kitten-like Cecilia over the independent and competent Maggie, a palace cook, is obviously related to his immaturity and throughout one feels that he may eventually grow out of it. I found the story's treatment of the most powerful woman in the book more problematic. Her eventual fate is a punishment traditionally associated with women. Roger, who has possibly actually done what this woman was punished for, feels conflicted about her death but still tells her she did it to herself (p. 320). I finally decided I'd have to see what happens in subsequent books to come to any conclusion about how this incident (and others) should be read.
I thought Roger asked one good question quite close to the end: "Why are differences in rank never to change, when all else has changed in The Queendom, in the world?" (p. 281). But I wanted him to ask the next question. Is there a reason for the existence of those differences in rank, better than "That's just the way things are in medievalesque fantasies"? The indications of what Kendall can deliver for all they come a bit late, there are enough unexpected turns in the story-line to make me want to read the next book make me more impatient with those elements of the book that carry rather an air of being the way they are because "fantasies are just like that."
Hallie O'Donovan lives in County Dublin with two daughters, two dogs, and a precarious stack of books at the end of the bed which will almost definitely take just one or two more.
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