Something rich and strange: Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine

This was only my second read of Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine, and I don’t have all that much coherent to say about it except “Wow,” and “You want to read it!”

The child imagined the wind slipping and sliding down the dunes at Avanue. She imagined the dunes as some kind of geometrical slope, at thirty-five degrees, like this one, but the mother kept talking and the mind picture changed with each sentence, like the shape of the wind.

“It’s an amazing landscape there. It’s all billowy and soft, like a puffy quilt. Or maybe like the body of some great voluptuous fat person turning over in bed, the covers falling off, the mounds of flesh shifting gently and sensually. You know, you can memorize the patterns and then a big wind-storm comes and when you go out the next day everything is different. The skyline is different. The shoreline is different. The sand has turned over in its sleep. While you slept.”

Let’s try that again: Wow! You want to read it!

(“Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?” Harriet Vane asks Lord Peter Wimsey in Gaudy Night. I have to reply with him: “So easily that, to tell the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober.”)

Soberly, however, Black Wine was published in 1997. It won the Crawford Award for best first fantasy novel, the Tiptree Award for best book that makes you think about gender, the Aurora Award for best book in English by a Canadian, and was third in the Locus Poll for best first novel. From which you’d gather that it’s a first fantasy novel, it’s good, and it makes you think about gender, all of which is correct so far as it goes, but doesn’t get you much further.

This is another book like Random Acts of Senseless Violence that I’d expect to be a classic that everyone has read, and yet which seems to have been read only by a small group of passionate enthusiasts. I don’t even own a copy myself, and have read it (twice!) because of the kindness of my next-door neighbour Rene Walling.

It’s fantasy, but it might just as well be science fiction. There are some small insignificant magic gifts. There are some prophetic cards which seem to work. It’s another planet, anyway, a whole planet with as many cultures and climate zones as you’d expect, and a moon that rotates. There’s some technology, airships, medical imaging, but it’s unevenly distributed. There doesn’t seem to have been an industrial revolution, most of what you see is handmade. They know about genes, but children are as often conceived between two same-sex partners as two opposite sex ones. Against this world we have a story of travel towards and away from, of  mothers and daughters, quest and escape, horizons and enclosures.

This is a difficult book to focus on, unexpectedly hard-edged where fantasy is often fuzzy, disconcertingly fuzzy in places where you expect it to be solid.

There’s an immense richness of world and character, and of story arising out of the intersection of the two. We see four very different cultures close up, the culture of the Remarkable Mountains, of the Dark Islands, of Avanue and of the Trader Town. They’re all at different stages technologically and socially, the way things are in the real world. They do things differently. They have different languages and different patterns of behaviour. Nobody could confuse them. Names especially are edgy things, and central. Every culture has their own naming custom, from the names the slaves give each other in their silent language of touch and gesture to the people of Avanue who are all called Minh.

The novel is built from the intertwined stories of a mother and daughter who come from different places. It’s not told sequentially. You have to fit it together as you read. There were things I didn’t understand the first time I read it, and the odds are there are still things I don’t understand. I can see re-reading it fifty times and still be finding new things in it. It’s a book that happens almost as much in your head as on the page, which is rare and wonderful. This is a story where trying my trick of figuring out what would happen in the second half and where the beats would fall would have got me nowhere. I couldn’t even have guessed the plot.

It’s beautifully written at all levels. The language is precise  yet lapidary—literally. The words are like stones, sometimes sharp and sometimes jewel-bright, and all of them essentially placed in the structure of the novel. The words are sometimes frank and shocking, but that’s right, so is what they’re saying:

Near them two students in green tunics were struggling with a fallen bicycle, trying to straighten the handlebars. Essa saw that they needed it because one student was wounded in the leg and could not walk. She averted her eyes as if from an intimate act.

Essa pulled the hand of the trader, whose palm was slimy with hot sweat. If the smell of death, something she thought was a cliche which is not, had not been filling the square his and her fear would have been palpable. Essa could only feel grateful for the camouflage as they started to run.

She heard a ragged officious shout behind them. They turned, still running but ready to dodge, thinking they were the target. The two young soldiers were beating the two students. The boy who had given Essa directions raised the club he had unhooked from his belt and brought it down on the skull of the wounded student, Her long hair seemed to shatter into a spray of black and glittering red.

It’s demotic language, but not demotic in the way Monette’s Melusine books are; indeed it’s not really like anything else at all. If I had to compare it to anything it would be to Silverberg’s Lord Valentines Castle, but with much more depth.

It’s a great pity it isn’t in print, I’d love to be able to share it with people.


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