To the city of Masalyar come young Annat and her droopy brother Malchik, in the care of their ailing aunt, Yuste. They've come to be reunited with their long-absent father, Yuda, a family black sheep who ran out on them a dozen years before. The setting for this meeting is (at least initially) a reasonably well-constructed Mittel-Europe, a fantasy alternate in which steam-era technology and magic co-exist in a mostly, but not always, smooth relationship. Jews (Wanderers) rub shoulders with Christians (Doxoi), and Negroes (Darkmen). There are recognisable cultural and historical elements, Sklavan and Franj (Slav and French) languages, for instance, but there are also mysterious elements, such as the Great Cold... a vague past period of, well, cold, that Rydill doesn't seem to feel much need to explain clearly.
Yuda turns out to be a character with so many facets he can dizzy you. He's a Wanderer as are all his family. He's a Senior Guard on the new railways that are spreading out across the plains and forests. He's avowedly homosexual, or more properly bisexual, he's a doctor, and more, he's a Shaman, as is Annat. Shamans, in Rydill's world, aren't toothless old men mumbling over broken sheep bones while they go on spirit journeys, they're firebolt-weilding warriors, who communicate telepathically and perform acts of healing based on an instinctive understanding of cellular biology about seventy to eighty years in advance of their mid-nineteenth century milieu.
The profligacy with which Rydill assigns Yuda roles is characteristic of her storytelling style. The novel takes a fair amount of time to settle down and decide what it wants to be. Awkward family reunion segues into track-pounding travelogue, into frontier-town murder mystery, into faerie-tayle otherworld adventure shot through with medieval elements and some classic themes of Summer/Winter conjoined Deities, banished natural forces, sacrifice and redemptive rebirth...
There is some good writing here, no question of that. A fine eye for dress, behaviour, scene, place... But Rydill doesn't always bother to use it. At critical moments there's a tendency to fall back into a lazy style of declaration. When an author claims that "Nothing could mask the awesome beauty of the place," it is fairly plain that they either aren't able, or can't be bothered, to do the work to descriptively convey that beauty to the reader. In this case it's fairly clearly the second flaw operating.
Rydill's characters are also, too often, a touch undemanding. Annat is simply too good, too lacking in hard edge or dissatisfaction with her bewildering parent, to truly satisfy as a protagonist, while Yuda's interesting ambiguity fairly swiftly fades away into positive heroism under the pressure of events. However it's the villains of the piece who really lack presence. They are well described, but not menacing. They threaten, but fail to be sinister.
Children of the Shaman stumbles in trying to give too much to the reader. It offers us one world, well-realised and reasonably engaging, but then requires us to dive with its characters into a second. Here the early, human-sized threads of the plot are blown outward into a confrontation of cosmological importance, and it isn't a confrontation that Rydill seems able to readily convey to us. Ultimately, the story loses its sense of internal reality and one is left puzzled as to why 400 pages of really quite well-turned prose should turn out to be so stolid and uninspiring.
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© Simeon Shoul 13 July 2002