John Barnes is one of those genre writers I’d heard of, but never happened to read until now. Oddly enough, he’s more well known for his SF work, but the book I stumbled upon, and decided to read, was his foray into the realm of magical adventure.
Not epic fantasy, mind: One For the Morning Glory was intended as the second in a trilogy (of which neither first nor third got written, from what I can tell) it is as far from epic fantasy as can be. Rather, it is a lot like a fairytale, or maybe an existentialist’s version of The Princess Bride, perhaps.
The book is strange in a few ways, including its lexicon: Barnes is clearly playing with language; while normally I agree with how the Turkey City Lexicon damns anyone who tries “calling a rabbit a smeerp,” Barnes does it in such a way that you know he’s not pulling a fast one, and it kind of fits the story somehow for pistols to be called “pismires” and swords are “escrees” and so on. (It just goes to show you that even the best rules can be broken if they’re broken right.)
But more strange is the poignancy of the novel; while there is wit enough, and it’s not wrong to call it “comedic fantasy,” the emotional undertones of the story crept up on me, and I found myself rather moved by parts of it. Despite the characters being rather oddly named — Sir John Slitgizzard stands out, along with The Twisted Man and Psyche — the mysterious companions of the protagonist Prince are not mere plot devices, even though they at times seem quite self-consciously to regard themselves as such. (And they do so more than a few times, commenting to young Prince Amatus about their role in the story, about how things resemble a fairytale, and , roughly, about their relevance to the advancement of the plot.) Such handling could wear thin, and often does in lesser hands, but Barnes uses these quirks to achieve a kind of strange, sadly lovely poetry.
But there is also the glee of the fairytale — of the eerie, nasty goblins, of glimpses of the undead, of exciting battles and impossible loves, and journeys to lands distant and strange. I think it’s the best piece of fantasy writing I’ve read in years, but bear in mind, I don’t read a lot of it… and yet, I feel sure I could recommend it to many people and hear a positive response, just the same.
The first page or so is excerpted in this review (with which I agree), and has enough of the wit and charm of the novel to make it worth recommending… plus, the main fantastical conceit of the tale is all spelled out, right there. Though I’m not sure I’ll be seeking out more by Barnes — Chad Orzel’s review of this book suggests some of it would just turn me off — I’ll give his novel Finity a shot, since I have that on my shelf, and I’m quite impressed with One For the Morning Glory.