Sunday, June 15, 2014

Hydrhaga - Kim ten Tusscher

Like in the English language world, Fantasy is a bit of a niche market in the Netherlands. The Dutch language market, with some 23 million first language speakers, is nowhere near large enough to support full time Fantasy writers. As a result, very few works of Fantasy originally written in Dutch are published in what would be considered a professional fashion in the English language world. The obvious answer for authors with ambitions of making a living as a writer is to get their works translated, with the English language as the big prize. Unfortunately that market isn't very open to translations. With so many native speakers clamouring for attention, shouldering the additional cost of a translation simply isn't worth the effort for a book that is not certain to sell. So what do you do to get a foot in the door? Have the translation done yourself. Thomas Olde Heuvelt has recently tried this approach and it has gotten him two spots on the Hugo Award shortlist. For some, it may be worth trying.

Getting a Fantasy novel in Dutch published is not impossible however. In the area between self publishing and traditional publishing quite a lot is happening in the Netherlands. One of the publishers operating in this area is Uitgeverij Zilverspoor. They have an editorial process, art direction and a nice website but with print runs more likely to be in the hundreds than thousands and a persistent lack of their books showing up in the brick and mortar book stores, it is unlikely any of the people involved are actually making a living this way. That doesn't seem to dampen their ambition though. Recently they launched a new imprint, Alter Ego Press, which publishes English language books. So far the number of titles is limited but I think it is an initiative worth watching.

One of the authors who had her books translated is Kim ten Tusscher. Her Dutch bibliography currently contains five novels, two of which have been translated into English. The author kindly provided me with review copies of the English language editions. The first one is Hydrhaga, a standalone Fantasy first published in Dutch in 2008. The translation was done by Judit Coppens, a name I haven't come across before. To get a feel for the translation I also read the fourteen page sample of the Dutch edition of Hydrhaga provided on the author's website. It looks like this new English edition also included a bit of rewriting. It is not a one on one translation of the text on Ten Tusscher's website. From what I can tell the translation has been done by someone with a knowledge of the English language that far exceeds mine. The prose is not stunning but it does do justice to Ten Tusscher's writing.

The story's main character is a young woman by the name of Lumea (moon symbolism is a motif in this novel) on a journey towards the mysterious city of Hydrhaga. Drawn by the promise of a carefree life, freed of the traditional role her society is trying to force her into, Lumea arrives in the city of Omnesia (which indeed seems to have forgotten part of its history). Nobody is willing to help her get to her final destination however, until she meets the mysterious Elion. Together they manage to find her destination, but things turn out to be quite different from what Lumea imagined. The city hides a secret that will quickly turn Lumea's hopes and dreams sour.

In this novel, Ten Tusscher is looking for the strong female lead that seems to defy so many authors in epic fantasy. In a way she finds her too. Lumea grows throughout the novel. She is barely mature and somewhat naive early on in the novel, but gains confidence and maturity as the story progresses. She is, all things considered, an interesting character. What I did have issues with, is the fact that her motivations mostly revealed to the reader long after her actions. The reason why Lumea left home for instance, doesn't come up until the halfway point of the novel and even then it is only partly explained. How she managed to convince her parents to let their barely adult daughter go on a journey to a far away city that doesn't appear on any map on her own, is almost entirely glossed over.

What bothered me most about Lumea is the apparent contradiction between her adherence to the traditional religious beliefs of her people, her sadness at the disappearance of traditional cultural values,  and resistance to being placed in the traditional role of women in her culture. What her culture deems to be her place in society may not stem from its religion but usually these things are interlinked. On the one hand she is one of the few of her generation who sticks to the bond with the land and the connection to nature, on the other, she is something of a revolutionary. Not that these two things are mutually exclusive but Ten Tusscher doesn't manage to unify them in Lumea. Too often she swings from conservative to liberal views or from a pacifist attitude to determined to swing a sword. At times it made me feel that Lumea's character development was driven by the needs of the plot, rather than an attempt by the author to create a complex character.

The worldbuilding is in Hydrhaga is curious as well. It presents the reader with a strange mix of technological development. On the one hand there are airships and submarines, but riding on horseback is still the way to get around on land. Force fields and robotics have been developed but gunpowder or any other form of explosives are absent and fighting is done with swords. It is as if the novel can't quite decide whether it wants to be pseudo-medieval fantasy, steampunk or something else entirely. A clear sense of what is technically possible or an explanation for some strange omissions is lacking. In terms of worldbuilding, the novel is messy.

After finishing the novel I didn't feel like I had read a book that is going to storm the bestsellers lists. Hydrhaga feels like a very organically written piece. The need to find out what comes next and to get to the end of the story overshadow the structure of the tale and the consistency of the world and its characters. Especially later on in the book there is a sense of urgency in the writing that will make the reader want to keep going until the final page is turned. Readers looking for this kind of tale could do worse than pick up this novel. For the more reflective reader, Hydrhaga is less successful. The more reflective reader will see the cracks in this novel however. There is no doubt about the enthusiasm Ten Tusscher shows for writing and the Fantasy genre in particular, but there is some room for improvement in terms of structure, plotting and characterization. I'll be looking at her second novel, Bound in Darkness, in a few weeks time. It'll be interesting to see how she develops.

Book Details
Title: Hydrhaga
Author: Kim ten Tusscher
Publisher: Alter Ego Press
Pages: 206
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-94-907-6737-2
First published: 2008

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