Sunday, December 13, 2015

Reigers vlucht - Sophie Lucas

Despite all my resolve to pick up a Dutch language fantasy or science fiction novel every now and then, Reigers vlucht (literally: Heron's flight) is only the third this year. The other two were both written by An Janssens. Reigers vlucht was published in 2012 and I got it fairly soon after publication. It then lingered on the to read list for three years until I finally picked it up last week. It is a début novel and as far as I can tell, no other novels have been published since by Lucas. I do hope Lucas gets back into writing. Reigers vlucht is not a masterwork but it does show potential. It would be a waste to stop after just one novel.

A war with Yamatan has drained the Yuan empire to the point where the old emperor feels he has to reach a lasting peace agreement. A delegation of Yamatan nobles arrives at court to seal the peace with a wedding. The unfortunate bride is the emperor's daughter Mei Lin. She doesn't fancy the Yamatan prince she is supposed to wed and seeks her brother's aid. When one of her brother's servants, a boy named Cang Lu, informs her of a conspiracy that threatens to destabilize the empire, her life changes radically. Where once she was radically opposed to the marriage, now Yamatan might be her only chance at survival.

Reigers vlucht is a secondary world fantasy clearly inspired by various eastern cultures. The Yuan by imperial China, the Yamatan by Japan, probably before the Edo period. Throughout the novel there are references to other cultures in that part of the world but they are mostly background. I haven't been able to tie any of the events in the novel to a historical conflict. Technologically speaking, it would have to be sometime in the sixteenth century, since one of the plot developments revolves around the effect of the introduction of gunpowder on warfare. Interestingly enough it is the Yamatan military that employs these new weapons first in the novel. In Yuan the stuff appears to be unknown. A strange reversal of history.

It may not be a full-blown historical fantasy but Lucas borrows extensively from customs of both Japanese and Chinese culture. Clothing, court life, weapons, drinks, rituals and social structures are all in some  way or another taken from Chinese and Japanese culture. The endless drinking of tea (which the author refers to as Cha) and rice wine (mijiu or sake), the ritual suicide for disgraced warriors seppuku, fireworks, kimonos, the list is endless. Lucas obviously has a strong interest in eastern cultures but after finishing the book I did get the feeling the way she presented them Reigers vlucht was a bit selective. Where many of the elements are clearly recognizable even to the western reader, there were some strange omissions as well. The importance of poetry for instance, or the convoluted politics at the Chinese imperial court. From someone who has lived there her entire life, and someone who is obviously well educated, Mei Lin seems very naive about such things. Somehow the two cultures at the centre of the narrative never really coalesce into a coherent social structure.

The story is told in fairly short chapters that keep the story moving at a reasonably fast pace. Lucas presents the bulk of the story from the point of view of Mei Lin. She is a feisty seventeen-year-old who, especially early on in the novel seems to think the world revolves around her. It is a trait she doesn't entirely shed over the course of the novel. Being away from court does teach her a few things though. Sacrifice in particular is a theme in this novel. To compensate for Mei Lin's limited understanding of the world Lucas employs a number of secondary points of view. The most important of these is Cang Lu (a nickname meaning heron). It must have been a surprise for many readers that the character who gave the novel its name gets so little screen time.

With most of the plot revolving around court intrigue and warfare, the novel is quite light on magic. Cang Lu is at the centre of what little magic the book contains however. I'm not quite sure what to call it but in effect he sees the future. Or possible futures at least. It is a talent he doesn't master in the early stages of the story. As the novel progresses, he gains more control and starts basing his decisions on what he sees. His actions turn out to be critical to the eventual climax of the novel, something the observant reader will see coming for a while. Cang Lu is, in most ways, a more interesting character than Mei Lin. He is damaged, fragile in a way and hopelessly in love. He has a much more interesting backstory than the pampered Mei Lin. With so little attention being paid to a character that turns out to be very important to the  plot I can't help but feel the novel is a bit unbalanced.

All things considered Reigers vlucht is a flawed début. It's a pleasant read in some respects. The pacing is good, the story flows well and Lucas times her big reveals and climax of the story well enough to make it a satisfying read in that respect. The characters and her use of the different points of view are not as well balanced though and I also felt that the cultures she depicts  are a bit too much a collection of interesting customs and folklore rather than a reflection of a culture as a whole. It is not a début that sends shock waves through the genre or even the Dutch language corner of it, but it is a solid novel. One that I enjoyed reading. Lucas missed a few opportunities to make it a more memorable read, but with a little more experience she could well produce a truly memorable book in the future. It is not a perfect novel but certainly a promising one.

Book Details
Title: Reigers Vlucht
Author: Sophie Lucas
Publisher: De Boekerij
Pages: 480
Year: 2012
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-225-6022-8
First published: 2012

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