Monday, February 21, 2011

Book Review: Jack o' the Hills by C.S.E. Cooney

"Beware of fairy tales, beware of Jack." That's not a line from Jack o' the Hills but a phrase whispered by a phantasm as I write this review. We hardly associate the two with horror: the former, over the centuries, have been sanitized and moralized while the name Jack has been similarly watered down. Some of modern fantasy, such as Cabinet des Fees or the anthologies of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, have attempted to either re-invent fairy tales or return them to their primal roots. It's a tricky road to traverse and there are a lot of pitfalls. Jack o' the Hills by C.S.E. Cooney isn't horror per se but there's enough material here that makes it unpleasant reading (in a good way). If I were to meet the Jack in the story for example, it's a Sean Connery James Bond moment: I don't know whether he'll seduce me or shoot me. Don't get me wrong though: at the heart of many fairy tales, including this one, is Romance and Cooney writes a compelling narrative that is as passionate and seductive as the mythical fey.

Jack o' the Hills is comprised of two stories, "Stone Shoes" and "Oubliette's Egg". They stand well on their own but together, they are part of a larger narrative. Assessing them individually, "Stone Shoes" and "Oubliette's Egg" both have the same style but I found the former to be slightly tighter and consistent. Right from the beginning, one is immediately drawn to the fairy tale landscape of "Stone Shoes" thanks to Cooney's tone and technique. Arguably it's easier to sustain such a voice due to it being the shorter narrative of the two. "Oubliette's Egg," on the other hand, is where the author gets to be more playful, whether it's the plot twists or crafting complex antagonists. Whereas it's the language that ensnares you in "Stone Shoes," it's the drama and the conflict that keeps you reading "Oubliette's Egg".

Together, however, there is a larger theme that encompasses Cooney's writing. One is her subversion of various fairy tales: you get bits and pieces of it here and there, some elements lurking at the back of your head but it's never fully realized as Jack o' the Hills is Cooney's unique narrative. In a way, that's refreshing as there is this sense of both familiarity and ambiguity.

Another is the didacticism that populates today's fairy tales. Cooney sidesteps the assumed moral imperative and replaces it with amoral characters: they're not evil per se but they're not afraid of committing atrocious acts to accomplish their agenda. The titular Jack is a good example of this. Of course the same could be said of the villains as well: while there is this sense of selfishness in them, they aren't without their redeeming qualities. For example, towards the end of the book, there is a tender moment with Oubliette that simply melts the reader's heart.

There is also how Cooney usurps the traditional concept of love. At the end of the day, Jack o' the Hills is an epic love story and the ending of "Stone Shoes" and "Oubliette's Egg" shows that. But because the characters are amoral, the love they feel becomes motivation to commit dastardly deeds. It's all too easy to generalize this type of love as wanton selfishness but as the narrative progresses, the reader begins to doubt this conclusion. Love in Jack o' the Hills might be destructive but it's also born out of selflessness.

In terms of craft, Cooney is insidious. I use that term because while Jack o' the Hills isn't actually graphic, it insinuates a lot, making the reading experience a lot more vivid than it should be. Most of the action is implied, and this is magnified during the climax of "Oubliette's Egg". Cooney manipulates the details out of us instead of her explicitly stating what happens. It's tricky to use this kind of restraint but Cooney consistently pulls this off.

There are some minor flaws in the book. For example, in "Oubliette's Egg," there is a digression on the sixteenth faerie. It's a wonderful and enjoyable digression but overall, I felt the narrative lost a bit of momentum due to the drastic shift in perspective. Again, this is fairly minor, and there are people I'm sure who would put up a good defense for the inclusion of this scene.

Overall, Jack o' the Hills is a compelling narrative that usurps and appropriates the best elements of fairy tales and warps them to suit Cooney's purpose. It's a precisely-constructed narrative that's dark and Romantic and charming without sacrificing the elements that make it a fantastic fairy tale.

1 comment:

CSECooney said...

Are the authors allowed to sneak up to the comments section and post thank you notes? Is that scandalous?

I shall be scandalous.

Thank you for the very thoughtful review, Mr. Tan!