I went into Molly Tanzer‘s most recent outing, The Pleasure Merchant [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads], with delighted anticipation. Molly (disclosure: my friend) is the kind of author who is interviewed in Locus, noted by NPR for her steampunk genderswappery, and publishes whatever she wants. You liked that werewolf short story? Have some incestuous Lovecraftian twins. You liked incestuous Lovecraftian twins? Have a wigmaker’s apprentice. It’s kind of like that with her: if you like her writing, you have to follow where she goes, without too many expectations in terms of precisely what she’ll be writing. Because she writes well, it’s an unmitigated joy, but—baby—if you like More of the Same?—if more of the same makes you feel comfortable?—Molly Tanzer don’t care. (Although I’m perhaps a bit of a liar on this, as word on the street is that she does have a Vermilion sequel forthcoming, so British/Chinese psychopomp Lou Merriwether will ride again.)
The Pleasure Merchant is hard to classify, as reflected by the fairly tentative level of genre-tagging over at Goodreads, and Amazon’s robots are reasonably sure that it’s “genre fiction,” but aren’t quite clear what kind of genre it is. Whatever! It’s an amazing mashup of history, fantasy, horror, and… well, “bawdy” is actually a great way to describe it. Is there sex? Reader, it’s one of those amazing books where there’s copulation, libidinal exultation, and naughty language around every corner, and yet it’s not particularly pornographic: everything on the page serves a purpose beyond titillation, whether advancing plot or revealing character.
This novel takes the Pygmalion story and embeds it in 18th century England, exploring class and gender and medicine along the way. I read it with the kind of eye that one has with historical fiction, curious to learn more of historical norms, practices, events, and culture, along with a well-told story. The Pleasure Merchant does not disappoint, following the aforementioned wigmaker’s apprentice through the turns and reversals of fortune, weaving in and around picaresque set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in Fielding.
I recommend this book wholeheartedly to people who like novels. A particular genre of novel? Not really, although it might not suit prudes very well. To enjoy this book you have to have a taste for living characters inhabiting a pleasing narrative that occurs in well-depicted settings. It has the scope and sprawl that we seek in novels, and the interweaving plots and themes. In a literary world that is overcrowded, featuring so many books that feel virtually write-by-the-numbers, The Pleasure Merchant is a strange and wondrous journey that should delight all readers.
In a rather different thematic vein lies Adam Nevill‘s The Ritual [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads]. I knew that I was in for something other than a monster-and-rituals-in-the-wilderness sort of narrative, but—augh, reader!—the opening half of the book is so compelling I sank into it and found myself developing unwarranted expectations. The parts of this novel set in the up-near-the-Arctic-Circle Scandinavian wilds are gut-wrenchingly tense portrayals of people degenerating in harrowing circumstances. It was like Scott Smith rewrote “The Wendigo” as a novel and gave it to Mary Oliver for a line-edit. Strange and beautiful.
And then, halfway through, the type and pitch of the narrative changes utterly. It goes from one kind of harrowing to another, and this was the point where the pace at which I read slowed considerably, and it never picked up again. I think this is in part because the arc of the narrative follows a more or less standard set of peaks and valleys, and then it hits Norwegian black metal cultists and the needle starts flying all over the place. I knew from the book description that this turn was coming, but when it did, it became (for me) a much different book. My investment waned along with the tension and dread that Nevill so carefully built in the powerful first act. Comments on Goodreads, Amazon, etc. suggest that some readers have a similar experience, though many others didn’t have any problem with this.
I recommend The Ritual to people who are versed in literary horror of the weird stripe looking for a flip-the-script sort of experience. It features notes that will appeal to readers of Algernon Blackwood, James Dickey, William Golding, and perhaps Joseph Payne Brennan. It’s not a book I would offer to someone new to the genre, as I expect that many readers will wind up thrown for a loop without awareness of the themes that it varies, and some knowledge of the subgenres it’s mashing up. That said, I enjoyed it enough to recommend it here, and I urge you to give it a try and come to your own conclusions.