Monday, February 13, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, First Semifinal :: Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint vs. Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card

Eyes Like LeavesShadows in Flight
The first semifinal contest in the 2012 Battle of the Books, Winter Bracket pits Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint against Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card. The winner will be the book I most want to continue reading after finishing the first 100 pages.

Eyes Like Leaves: Tachyon trade paperback, February 2012, 313 pages, cover art by Lauren Kelly Small. Eyes Like Leaves got here with wins in the first round over When We Were Executioners by J.M. McDermott and the second round over The Scar by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko.

Eyes Like Leaves is set in a fantasy version of ancient Ireland. The first 50 pages introduced us to the wizard Tarn and his mentor Puretongue, whose magical abilities include shape-shifting. Tarn has been sent to find Carrie, a young woman key somehow to defending the land from the "Icelord," who seeks to undo the longstanding balance with the Summerlord and bring an endless winter. At the end of the first 50 pages, Tarn had to transform into a dragon to defeat the wolves and "stormkin" chasing Carrie. This has utterly exhausted him, and now Carrie and the nomadic family of tinkers that has taken her in must defend themselves while Tarn is incapacitated.

Shadows in Flight: Tor hardcover, January 2012, 237 pages, cover art by John Harris / Macmillan audio, 7 hours, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki and cast. Shadows in Flight reached the second round by defeating Thomas K. Carpenter's Gamers in the first round and Sisterhood of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson in the second round.

Shadows in Flight is the newest entry in the Ender universe. Ender's old friend Bean nears an untimely death from the runaway growth that is a side effect of the genetic manipulation that made him so brilliant. He has traveled on a near-lightspeed spaceship with his three children who share his condition, in hopes that a cure would be found on Earth in their absence, but to no avail. The first 50 pages focused on the terrible stress on their family from the disappointment and isolation. The next 50 pages turn outward, as they spot a huge spacecraft which they believe to be a slow Formic ship, a bugger hive sent into deep space before the war between Formics and humans. They stop to investigate.

The Battle: Asking which of these two books I most want to continue reading is rather academic -- I am going to finish them both, and nobody's going to stop me. But a winner must be declared . . .

Shadows in Flight is smoothly written, with a nice pace and good dialogue and characterization, albeit not quite to the level of Card's finest work, such as Speaker for the Dead and "Unaccompanied Sonata." I think Card made a good choice introducing another ship for Bean and his children to encounter; we needed an additional story element or the family tensions would have become tedious. But I'm not crazy about having the alien craft be a bugger ship. It doesn't add up -- the hive queens can all communicate anywhere telepathically, and Ender's hive queen in Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide was very clear that she was the only one left after the war. More importantly, bringing the Formics back into the story makes this book feel like a rehash of previous volumes.

A synopsis of the plot of Eyes Like Leaves through 100 pages may sound unspectacular, but by his gift with language de Lint is turning it into a most memorable story. For instance, in the section I've just read, Tarn's energy (or "taw") is badly depleted from his battle as a dragon, and Carrie must discover the magical ability she didn't know she had to help him:
She tried to relax, to remember the sensation when Kinn and Fenne had been playing their music, tried to recapture that instant when the music had changed into something different, deeper. Still music, still present, but quiet as an in-held breath, expectant, interwoven with wonder. . . .

She started, drew a quick breath, then it was thick upon her, a magic-filled quickening of her senses, a deep stillness, old and rounded, sharply new.

She focused on Tarn's features and saw his weakness with a piercing insight. It was though she could see through the pale flesh to the spirit inside--a spirit thinned and weakened, bruised and weary. It was her first deepseeing and though she didn't have a name for what she was doing, she understood how it worked. She leaned closer still, cupped Tarn's face in her hands, and breathed his name into the silence.
Through 50 pages, Tarn was already an excellent protagonist and the tinkers were a nice group of side characters; now in these scenes, Carrie emerges as an interesting figure as well. Meanwhile, de Lint also shows us Tarn's state as an exhausted shape-shifter from his point of view:
In the deepest holds of Tarn's taw, he was all the shapes he had ever worn. He was a multitude of configurations that watched each other with eyes of gold and grey and mauve--those that had eyes. They were distanced, one from the other, but in that distancing, there was a sense of elusive oneness, a unity that drifted just beyond remembrance, beyond recognition.

They were each Tarn, but each was unconscious of their former unity.

. . . And those eyes watched, each the other, watched, seeking the memory of that forgotten singleness, watched with eyes familiar, eyes that echoed the struggle to remember, eyes like the autumn leaves of the mythic stonewood tree--gold and grey and mauve.
From this taste of how de Lint conveys his tale, hopefully you can see that my summary--that Carrie discovers her magical ability in order to help Tarn--doesn't do the story justice.

The only fault I found in Eyes Like Leaves through the first two rounds was that the good-versus-evil conflict was lacking nuance. In the latest section, de Lint has addressed that by giving us a glimpse of the tension among the evil forces. They are not blindly following the Icelord, but rather bowing to his power at the moment, while some harbor long-term hopes of overthrowing him. I am interested to see how the dynamics on the bad guys' side play out, and I very much want to watch Carrie's continued development and her interactions with Tarn.


Eyes Like Leaves advances to the championship round, to face either And Blue Skies from Pain by Stina Leicht or Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear. We'll post the winner of that semifinal round tomorrow, then the championship on Thursday.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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