When reality intrudes on fantasy
Review of Rosa and the Veil of Gold by Kim Wilkins.
If I had seen this book in the shop, I wouldn’t have picked it up. That’s a terrible thing to say, and once again, I have learnt not to judge a book by it’s cover. But because I had been given the book, I felt obliged to bump it up on the reading list (curiousity had something to do with it, too, I admit). And I’m terribly glad I did!
Kim Wilkins is not as well-known as she ought to be, at least not in the parts of the northern hemisphere where I hang out. In Australia, where she lives, she has received no less than four Aurealis Awards (although two of them were for the same book, The Infernal, which apparently won for best fantasy and best horror novel in 1998) and one Ditmar. After having read Rosa, I have no problem understanding why.
Rosa and the Veil of Gold is a fantasy story that draws on Russian folktales and on Russian history. Although the tale of how Daniel and Em end up in the folktale world of Skazki and how Daniel’s ex Rosa (and there is still love there, tragically) tries to get the magic necessary to come to the rescue provides the impetus here, this is really the story of how Skazki’s Secret Ambassador desperatly tries to keep the two worlds together. And he uses the Russian tsars and tsarevnas of all times to get what he wants.
What’s so brilliant about this book is that it subverts my expectations of what fantasy is, simply by taking things seriously. Daniel and Em have a miserable time in Skazki, cold, wet, and hungry; at no point do they go ”Oh, we’re in a different world! Let’s have a great adventure.” (Daniel is more likely to go ”Not good, not good, not good!” – but then he knows the old Russian tales better than I did.) Rosa tries the old pick-up-some-magic-before-saving-the-day routine and fails. It’s terrible and hopeless but never depressing.
There is love, but not of the kind you expect, either. Occasional sex, but no romance – well, there is, but not in relation to sex, well, not often. Instead, this is the fantasy book that has caused more vicarious agony the any other – and I hope I will have forgotten that particular scene when next I visit the dentist! And when there is violence, it is never clinical, never heroic, and surprisingly un-graphic.
And then there’s the ending. Like the rest of the story, it elegantly turned my expectations upside down. The eucatastrophy is here, but it is nothing at all like what Tolkien had in mind; I am not even certain whether it is a happy ending or not – it probably isn’t, not in the traditional sense. But it is definitely true to the story and the characters. And still, like all epic fantasies (and Wilkins has written a nicely epic work), the world hangs in the balance, a time abyss opens up, everything is finally up to the protagonist – who does the opposite of what I hoped, wanted, and, yes, expected.
I recommend Rosa and the Veil of Gold to anyone who wants to read a fantasy story that plays with genre conventions without making fun of them. Wilkins shows us that it’s time to stop working the same old patterns over and over again – there is a Cauldron of Story out there with a lot more in it than we think. And to paraphrase H. P. Lovecraft: if everything else is as realistic as can be, we can buy the monsters, too.
And, of course, afterwards I got much more from the cover than before. That figures.