Representing Rachel Pollack’s first original genre novel since Godmother Night in 1996—a World Fantasy Award winner in its day, and a classic now, by all accounts—the release of The Child Eater is bound to be a big deal in certain circles. How her returning readers respond to it remains to be seen; this was my first of her works, I’m afraid… but not likely my last.
Based on a pair of tales from The Tarot of Perfection, Pollack’s last collection, The Child Eater tells two separate yet connected stories. Separate in that the boys we follow are worlds apart, and divided in time, too; connected, though neither knows it, by the parts they’re fated to play in the downfall of the eponymous monster: an immortal man wicked in the ways you’d expect, not least because of the innocents he eats.
Matyas, when we meet him, is a slave to his parents, the proprietors of The Hungry Squirrel, a “dismal wood building on a dismal road that ran from the sea to the capital. Most of the inn’s business came from travellers on their way from the port to the city, or the other way around. Sometimes, with the wealthier ones in their private carriages, Matyas saw the faces screw up in distaste, and then they would sigh, knowing they had no choice.” Likewise dissatisfied with his lot in life, he follows one such weary wanderer to a forest far from his home, where he sees something he can hardly believe: the man—a magician, he must be—shooting the shit with a head on a stick.
For many moons, Matyas has dreamed of flying high in the sky, and in that moment, he knows where he must go if he’s to have the slightest chance of determining his own destiny: to the Wizard’s Academy in the distant city. Without delay, he runs away—from the only home he has ever known to wait at the gates of the place where Masters such as Medun are made.
He waits quite a while, hoping someone will see something in him. Someone does, namely Veil: an impossibly powerful old lady who lives in a tower apart from all the other wizards. After Matyas accidentally shows his aptitude, she takes him on as an apprentice and teaches him some terrific tricks. This isn’t enough for him, however:
He began to think about Veil, more and more, it seemed, as the weeks went by. At first it was with anger: anger at all the tricks she’d play on him, all the humiliations. Anger at her using him like a slave. Anger at her secrets. Most of all he just thought over and over how she pretended to teach him but kept back the one thing, the only thing he really needed from her. Veil knew all the magic there was to know, whatever she pretended when he asked her. […] Flying existed, and so Veil had to know about it. When she said she didn’t, she was lying.
Things will come to a head between the Master and her apprentice eventually, and when they do, the world—this one and that, perhaps—will hang in the balance.
In the interim, we’re with the Wisdoms, Jack and his young son Simon, in a tale that takes place in the present day. Like his father, Simon strives to be “more normal than normal,” for so the family motto goes… unfortunately, the fact of it is, he isn’t. Sometimes, he sees things that aren’t real—like his mother, though she’s been dead for a decade. And if he listens closely, he can hear people in his immediate vicinity thinking. Last but not least, he dreams, and his are dark dreams indeed:
There were people who changed into wild dogs when moonlight touched their skin. There were trees where men with burning faces hung upside down. Sometimes he dreamed of a stone tower in some old city. There were magnificent buildings all around it, with grand columns and statues of winged lions, but the tower looked lumpy and crude even as it stood over them. And yet, at the beginning of the dream at least, Simon liked to look at it, he felt both excited and peaceful at the same time. There was just something about it—it clearly was just dull stone, but somehow it seemed made out of stories, stories hidden all up and down the walls.
And so it is—made of stories, I mean. The tales of Veil. Not that Simon knows this. Not that he’ll ever meet Matyas or his aforementioned Master. But the boys are bound together somehow. And at the centre of this eternal enigma? A cannibal, of course:
Some say the Child Eater will indeed live for ever, unstoppable, devouring child after child, for after all, the Spell of Extension is a poison at the heart of the world. But some say that a single child will destroy him. The Child of Eternity.
Narratively, The Child Eater does a decent job of keeping readers on the edge of their seats. There’s a lot of plot—two full books worth, in truth—that said, it only rarely seems rushed. Markedly more often moments are prolonged to the point of pedantry. I don’t know that these slow motion sequences are necessary in any sense—to the overall story, its several settings, or its collective cast of characters—but the novel’s doubled structure is sufficient to take the weight whenever one or the other half of the entire starts to sag, in that there’s always something involving going on.
My only major complaint about the book has to do with Matyas. In stark contrast to Simon, an innocent if ever there was one, the Master-in-the-making is simply insufferable. He’s ungrateful, and frequently hateful. He’s entitled, arrogant and heartless. He’s horrid to everyone who treats him with decency, from his childhood sweetheart to the old crone who cares for him later. He fantasises about attacking that latter, in fact, wanting “to leap at her and knock her down for everything she was hiding from him, everything she denied him.” There came a point in the proceedings when I caught myself wishing the child eater would have Matyas for starters. Alas…
Pollack’s novel so much more going for it than it has going against it, however, including some genuinely horrific imagery—half-eaten infant fingers, anyone?—made all the more macabre by moments of real sweetness; the whole is bolstered when it touches on the Tarot in passages that play to the author’s ongoing interest in the divinatory deck; meanwhile elements of the setting of Matyas’ sections especially reminded me of Stephen King’s classic fantasy, The Eyes of the Dragon.
The Child Eater is too long for most mere mortals to read in an evening, but if I could have, I would have. Despite its issues, Rachel Pollack’s new book represents the rousing return of a significant figure to the speculative fiction fold, and I for one wish her a very warm welcome.
The Child Eater is available now from Jo Fletcher Books.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.