The Gift, by Patrick O'Leary, is an astonishing novel of and about stories. It takes fairly conventional fantasy premises—departed magic, a sickness upon the land, an evil wizard and the one prophesied to defeat him—and makes something remarkably unconventional out of it. With beautiful prose, haunting images, and complex themes and characters, this is one of the best books I have read recently.
This is a book about stories. All but a few chapters of the novel are narrated by a Teller on a becalmed ship, as the crew waits out the night. Within the Teller's main story are embedded more stories: asides of the Teller, and stories the characters inside the story tell each other, read, or experience. The result is an intricately nested effect that illuminates the world and its characters in a concise, elegant fashion.
For instance, the first nested story the Teller relates summarizes the conflict of the main tale. The listeners hear the dying words of the last wizard, who says that
. . . a man may try to take death from this world. And he may succeed. If he does, everything will spoil. The water, the wind, the earth—everything.
Should all this come to pass, a strange one will be born: a Guardian. The only one who can stop this spoiling. The only one who can bring back the gift of dying. The one you will call Mother Death.
. . . Do you see, my friends, that there is no other way? Death is the price. Magic is the gift.
After the Teller passes on these last words, he is asked, after a long silence, if that is all:
"No. That's just a beginning."
And then, on that sleepless night under the moon, he told them the rest.
The rest is the story of how the evil events foreseen by the last wizard came to pass, and how they affected the two protagonists of the novel: Tim, an adolescent whose parents were murdered, and Simon, a young King cursed with a cure for deafness that made him hear every sound and thought around him. Eventually, they befriend each other and journey to confront the land's evil. This description purposefully leaves out very large elements of the plot: this is neither a book that summarizes well nor a book that should be spoiled. However, the plot is compelling and far from standard quest fantasy.
The Teller's story of Tim and Simon is framed by another story, one that takes place on the boat and displays the other recurring pattern of the novel, the revealed importance of female characters. This story opens with the image of an anonymous woman's body, pulled up in the fishing nets that afternoon and then tossed back: "Strangely, none of the sailors asked where she had come from. In fact, they acted as if none of them had ever seen a woman before." It ends with the tale of the woman being told, a tale that crosses many others. This movement of a woman from an inscrutable object to a story and person of importance is typical of the novel's actions; however, the book's exploration of gender is not didactic, but arises naturally from the world the book is set in.
This world is a vivid and interesting one. Called a "science fantasy" by some, it mixes magic with technology sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic to the characters. Like Steven Brust's Dragaera, it is a world that a reader could easily decide was based on science fiction premises. The mix does not work quite as well as in Brust's novels, as both the science and the fantasy are more overt here (genetic engineering is somehow easier to take in a world with Mafia bosses and smart-aleck sidekicks), but it is not so intrusive as to actively detract from the story. A reader disinclined to mix genres could probably skim past the science fictional references fairly easily.
The lovely prose and characterization would greatly help such a hypothetical reader focus on something other than the world-building. The Gift has wonderful language, particularly in the more fairy tale-like nested stories. Unfortunately, they are generally too long to excerpt in a review; instead, here is a brief comment by the Teller on one of the more memorable early events:
To anyone who'd ever seen a true wizard fly, the counterfeit would have been obvious. The posture was wrong, the attitude and words incorrect. Clearly, this was a different sort of magic. An impersonation. Anyone with a wise eye would have said the stranger was hanging not floating. But wizardry had long since passed into legend.
The characters detailed by this prose are equally noteworthy. Tim and Simon are complex, interesting, and sympathetic protagonists. The minor characters are also sketched with a deft hand. One, encountered in an inn, tells of his meeting with the last dragon:
A vicious grey brute he was! All smoke and ash and scale. Any fool could see he was waiting to die. He had eyes that could look right through you, enormous red coals that steamed when he was angry! And he was angry! Why, one of his claws could rip out the side of a mountain, and—and—one of his nails was as big as a King's guard!
Each character has a distinctive voice and story, displayed with care.
In summary, The Gift is an elegant and interesting mediation on story, power, women, and the price one pays with regard to all of them. Against a slightly odd but intriguing world, well-crafted characters and their stories create a beautifully written and moving novel. I recommend it highly.
%T The Gift %A O'Leary, Patrick %C New York %D 1997 %G 0-312-86403-5 %I Tor %O Trade paper, US$13.95 %P 286pp
Copyright February 21, 1999 by Kate Nepveu. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written.