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Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn (2005) 279 p.

mothers milk

Book four of the Patrick Melrose novels, and Patrick is now a lawyer in his forties, married with two young children. We’ve come a long way from sexual molestation and heroin abuse, but Patrick is still unhappy; the strains of parenthood are impacting on his marriage to Mary, and he finds himself once again slipping back into alcohol abuse and womanising. Meanwhile, his mother is wasting away from dementia in a retirement home, on the brink of signing away the family home in Provence – the last vestige of the Melrose family fortune – to a New Age charlatan.

I’ve seen others criticise these novels on what seems like kneejerk class envy; the travails of a man trying to stop his mother from giving away his immense inheritance, and so on. To me this entirely misses the point. Nothing makes me envy the very wealthy less than Edward St Aubyn. Pain is pain. Suffering is suffering. Patrick is not, and possibly never will be, a happy man.

This should really be the kind of book I dislike – there’s a lot of exposition and a whole lot of sloshing around inside the characters’ unstable minds. But St Aubyn is such a brilliant writer that he makes the whole thing immensely readable. Even the more egregious stuff is forgivable: Patrick’s unbelievably gifted and eidetic five-year-old son Robert who serves as narrator for good chunks of the novel, or the constant (and predictably English) bashing of American society. St Aubyn has a way of crafting almost anything into great prose. These really are wonderful books.

Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson (2014) 430 p.

unwrapped sky

Rjurik Davidson’s debut novel takes place in a semi-industrial fantasy city, populated by an array of different creatures, magicians, disgruntled factory workers and corpulent elites. New Crobuzon – um, I mean, Caeli-Amur – is on the brink of political revolution, as the injustices of the ruling class can no longer be tolerated by the characters who populate the pages of Iron Council – uh, that is to say, Unwrapped Sky.

I’m always in favour of fantasy branching out from the stale genre of Tolkienesque medieval Europe. But the hand of China Mieville lies heavy on Davidson’s shoulder.

The fundamental core of Unwrapped Sky is political rebellion: the unrestrained power of Caeli-Amur’s political Houses and the attempts by several characters to overthrow them, as part of a band of rebels unimaginatively named “seditionists.” Davidson’s failure to give them any sort of political ideology robs Unwrapped Sky of quite a bit of depth, and in some ways it became symbolic to me of the failure of the novel as a whole. It’s all schisms and strikes and power plays within the seditionist leadership; it reminded me of student politics. Getting excited about that stuff is fine when you’re handing out pamphlets or arguing with other first-years at RMIT, but not so much when transferred onto a fantasy world which needs a bit of weight and depth to it. I cannot bring myself to care about the fate of characters raging against the vaguely-defined tyrannies of some cartoonish fantasy tyrants, especially when those characters are dull in the first place.

Davidson’s prose doesn’t help. Like most fantasy fiction it’s bloated waffling, stilted dialogue and excessive exposition. He never trusts the reader to infer anything, but instead spells out all his characters’ thoughts and feelings and regrets and reflections on every single page – the sort of thing that turns a passable novel into a tedious slog. A decent editor could have cut 150 pages from Unwrapped Sky and greatly improved it. I keep saying this is par for the course in fantasy fiction, because it is, but just once it would be nice to be praising a fantasy author for being concise instead of giving one yet another pass because I don’t expect anything better.

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