Sunday, October 28, 2012
Book Review: THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD
PANTHEON BOOKS – @PantheonBooks
AUTHOR: Mark Z. Danielewski
STITCHING: Atelier Z – Regina Gonzales, Claire Kohne, Michele Reverte
ISBN: 978-0-307-90772-1; hardcover (October 2012)
288pp, B&W and Color, $26.00 US, $31.00 CAN
Born in 1966, Mark Z. Danielewski is a novelist and postmodern writer. His debut novel, House of Leaves (2000), was released to some critical acclaim. In 2005, he released The Fifty Year Sword, an illustrated novella, in two limited editions.
Now, the trade edition of The Fifty Year Sword arrives, published in hardcover by Pantheon Books. There are more than 60 pages of illustrations in this edition, but this art isn’t drawn. The illustrations are stitched, rather than drawn. This stitching was executed by Mark Z. Danielewski and three seamstresses: Regina Gonzales, Claire Kohne, and Michele Reverte.
The Fifty Year Sword is set in Upshur County, East Texas, on a cold, windy night. Readers follow the story through Chintana, a local seamstress recently abandoned by her husband, Pravat. Chintana’s activity for the evening is a party thrown by 112-year-old Mose Dettledown, a peculiar woman known for her odd gatherings and get-togethers. This evening, however, Chintana finds herself the guardian of five orphans: two girls – Inieda and Micit, and three boys – Ezade, Sithiss, and Tarff.
This rambunctious quintet is captivated by a strange, shadowy storyteller, perhaps an uninvited guest to the party, who spins a tale of vengeance. He tells them of strange lands (The Valley of Salt and The Forest of Falling Notes) and strange people (The Man with No Arms). Of particular interest is the long black box that the storyteller set before Chintana and the children. As midnight approaches, Chintana and the children prepare to get a full glimpse of the storyteller, his secrets, and the thing in his black box.
The Fifty Year Sword is a novella written in verse. I can’t say that I was happy to discover that fact after I received a review copy from Pantheon. After I read a few pages, however, I started to enjoy the book. Pantheon describes The Fifty Year Sword as “a ghost story for grownup readers.” To me, this is a children’s story and dark fairytale told in a grown-up’s voice with adult idioms, metaphors, symbolism, etc. It’s like Neil Gaiman with splashes of Edgar Allen Poe and Rudyard Kipling.
The most enjoyable thing about The Fifty Year Sword is that’s Danielewski strings his words together in a visually evocative manner. I imagine the world of this novella as sparse, even barren, but I bet that what is on the landscapes and in the environments is unique. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much, in terms of setting, to make a place magical, wonderful, and different.
I think that being written in verse sometimes does not work for the story. It can be awkward in the way it presents some things. The Fifty Year Sword is flawed in some ways, but it still does what good fantasy does. It takes you places filled with magic, mystery, wonder, and even danger.
Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux