Recent fantasy novels seem to spend a lot of time describing their magic systems – who can use magic? how does it work? and at what cost to the magic user? C.J. Cherryh’s Rusalka is, in most senses, no exception to this, since these questions are answered quite clearly. That said, Cherryh’s answers have some really interesting things to say about magic.
Rusalka was first published in 1989 (much more detail about this below), and was the first of three books that Cherryh wrote based on pre-Christian Russian mythology. It makes for an unusual flavour for a fantasy novel, since I can only think of one or two other examples in the genre that use the same background. What’s more, Rusalka is essentially a chamber piece, which might be a bit of a surprise for fans of Cherryh’s space operas filled with galactic intrigue. The small scale of the setting really suits the book, however.
Briefly: Sasha and Pyetr are two young Russian lads on the run from their home village, mainly due to Pyetr getting caught up in some intrigue between a rich old man and his young wife. Pyetr is bleeding from a sword wound in the abdomen, and all of his rich young dandy friends have deserted him. Why would a frightened and naive stable boy like Sasha help him?
Simply put, Sasha has always been the odd boy out in the village, due to a reputation for bad luck. As it turns out, this bad rep is due to his unfocused magical powers. After a long and painful trek through some spooky woods, the two young men stumble across a cottage where an old man with wizardly powers lives. Sasha might be able to get help, get some focus, but the old man is caught up in some terrible complications of his own. I won’t spoil the book’s surprises, since there are some great moments in this section.
The main problem proposed by the plot and Rusalka‘s system of magic: those who have magical capacity can affect events and people with… wishes, either consciously or subconsciously. This is at once both simple and deadly. On the best of days, this sounds like a nice ability to have. In the context of family love and despair, revenge from beyond the grave, deadly river monsters, and all the other great stuff that starts happening, wishes take on a different cast.
I loved this section of the book, as you start to get a sense of how screwed up the situation gets, and how quickly it does so, especially when multiple powers and personalities are at work. The cross-currents in one little cottage get rather dizzying. Lots of other fantasy novels have tried to impress me with the scale and scope of their magic systems, but Rusalka is the first book I’ve read in a long time that made me almost physically cringe in response to the implications of what is happening. Wishing is way too easy, and way too easy to mess up. It’s like the monkey’s paw exploded into infinity… not good at all!
As I mentioned, Rusalka was published almost 25 years ago, and I’m reading it now because the author, C.J. Cherryh, has rewritten the book extensively and re-released it as an ebook (she is doing the same for two subsequent books as well). About two years ago here on the Gutter, I wrote about the difference between director’s cuts in the realm of movies and the theoretical equivalent in books, but I didn’t think the book side would happen very often:
Generally speaking, I think books get released in a state that’s pretty close to how their author intended; if that’s not the case, then the author hardly ever gets a chance to correct the situation. If a setting or character becomes popular, a sequel seems to me to be more likely than a re-done version of the original story.
Cherryh’s revamp of the series definitely falls into this category, although it might still be the exception that proves the rule. In any case, it’s a pretty interesting project that would not have had the same reach before ebooks. In the same way that DVDs paved the way for lots of extra features and varying versions, maybe ebooks will let authors revisit books and fix them up again. As for Rusalka, why would Cherryh want to create an author’s cut? From the link above:
Rusalka et al is a set of books once published under identical titles—but different. I wrote these books in a period when I was struggling with family illnesses, and I always wanted to revise them into something better. I’m excited to finally have that opportunity.
Cherryh wrote up a few more details here.
I’ve been keeping my eye on ebook-related developments, since I get the sense that big things have been happening recently, and by big things I mean indie/homebrew/author-run ebook stores like the Closed Circle (the store run by Cherryh along with Jane Fancher and Lynn Abbey). A few other ebook projects to keep an eye on include Rudy Rucker’s Transreal Books and the Book View Cafe collective. Publishing ebooks yourself is not for the faint of heart: Rucker had a series of posts on the topic, and at BVC, Linda Nagata just posted some material about the nuts and bolts of the ebook store itself (and Nagata has all of her books available – I remember immensely enjoying The Bohr Maker, so I think I might revisit her works next). Cherryh has posted lots of material about her struggles with ebook mechanics too, so the process is not without drawbacks.
In another series of items of interest here on the Gutter, I’ve been working my way through a list of authors who keep up worthy blogs. Cherryh was one of the first authors whose blog I ran across, way back when. Some recent posts of interest include an eye-opening overview of submitting manuscripts, and the aforementioned post about fighting with ebook formats. Cherryh includes lots of personal details which not everyone will be interested in… my favourite of this type of post includes this gem: “We have fixed a drain 3 plumbers and the best plumbing supply store in town swore couldn’t be fixed.”