Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Gypsy

It's the fifth Thursday of the month, so I'm taking a dip back into the 1990s with this one. Many thanks to Longshanks for giving it to me years ago and to Misanthrope for reminding me to read it again. 

Rating: 4.5 stars
Length: Compact (272 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: July 1992 from Tor Books
Premise: The Gypsy is trying to remember what he was supposed to do before his memories were taken. Stepovich is trying to get the Gypsy's arrest record to make sense, but the man's knife won't quite leave him alone. Both of them, along with all those they love, are about to be attacked by the Fair Lady's schemes. Detective drama meets mythology meets a deep love for music, and it all works.
Warnings: mild gore, non-graphic attempted rape
Recommendation: Read this one and be patient with it, savoring the prose and soaking in every detail. It's cryptic and dreamlike and more than a bit odd, so not the best if you want action scenes, but it's beautiful in a way that very few novels are.

What makes this one a treat for the mind and senses:

The story begins with the onomatopoeia of a tambourine and a short rambling passage about music and dancing before taking a step sideways into the real world of a man stumbling into a bar and being unsure of his own name. This Gypsy is soon arrested for a crime he did not commit, but neither the arresting officers nor the cell that holds him are as solid as he had expected. He needs to be free in order to accomplish a task that he has forgotten, the Lady set against him has taken his memories, and his brothers have been unable to find him for years. Stepovich, the elder of the arresting officers, finds himself drawn to the stranger and in unplanned possession of his knife. He's restless after the retirement of his old partner and dislikes the new one, can't settle down to the reality of living as a divorced husband away from his family, and can't quite let this case go. It's great to see a protagonist who is so flawed without trying to occupy dramatic antihero territory-- he got too caught up in his job and then devolved into drinking too much and all but stalking his wife to get her to take him back, so now he lives alone with the consequences.

Right from the start, the story tugs at normal ideas of backstory; what one character sees in the moment is not what another sees, but both realities are valid. This works with particular deftness in one conversation between Stepovich and the Gypsy. It's presented from each character's perspective in short separate sections, with Stepovich mostly getting silence or cryptic statements while the Gypsy negotiates calmly with an old Wolf who has the power to kill him but has chosen not to. The authors do a beautiful job of layering non-magical events with mythological reality and slowly drawing them closer together to expose these characters to the dangers and joys of both worlds. The three brothers are most comfortable in the world of myth-- the Dove (the Gypsy, Csucscari, Cigany-- he has so many names) took a journey many years ago from one world to another, and his brothers, the Owl and the Raven, took so long trying to follow him that they lost his trail. The older brothers each play an instrument, a tambourine or a fiddle, and have specific magical gifts. They're each powerful alone, with the Gypsy holding the most because he is a Taltos (a shaman-esque figure common in Hungarian mythology). The Coachman is similarly at home in their world and more as well; he drives a coach that isn't strictly physical and that he can't always find to take people on the rides that they most desire, even through time. He brought the brothers across the realms but doesn't particularly like their risk-taking, so he's an independent ally, and his love for his horses is so vivid in the prose that you can almost touch them.

Elements of detective fiction provide the grounding for the non-magical part of the story, and they work well, especially when Stepovich mentally grumbles about paperwork and infamous petty criminals and the annoyance of being stuck in the squad car with someone chatty. The story really shines, however, when the mythological and fairy tale-based elements come out to play. It's obvious that the authors have a love for the rituals and riddles that underpin most fairy tales. When the Fair Lady curses the brothers and the Coachman with cryptic curses like "crushed by a horse with five legs and gored by a bull with three horns," the fates sound odd and traditional in her realm but come true in unexpectedly concrete ways out in the real world. Her methods and attacks shine, creating a dreamlike rhythm that tugs the realities even closer together. She understands the nature of both worlds well enough  to use spells and deputies to bridge the gap, and that makes her a villain of rare talent. She can be furious, or be outsmarted by tricks that hadn't occurred to her, but the sacrifices it takes to defeat her help cement the impression that she could have taken the world without this precise collection of people to stop her. Little details about each character show up in unexpected ways during the final showdown, and it's elegant in a way that makes each word count more.

Music threads its way through the text in an almost audible fashion, and the way it sounds is inseparable from the way it works as magic. The prose shines when the characters hear fiddle music that helps them break out of a spell, or tambourine music that echoes a heartbeat, and music is at the heart of the assault on the Fair Lady. The authors have an ear for rhythm, which is perfect for the tambourine and for the dance, and wrapping music into their fighting opens the confrontation on an oddly joyful note and ends it in elegant catharsis as the tambourine mirrors a dying heartbeat. Magic as whole here works not with ritual and elaborate equipment, but in layers of reality-- an object is more than an object when it's applied in the correct way. Some of the objects are elegant, like a traditional knife or a scarf woven by a dead woman, and some are nothing more than a lock of hair or a mediocre pizza. The focus on flexibility helps wrap magic undetected in the day-to-day world, especially when words or the mere memory of what music sounded like years ago can summon help or create a shield against danger.

The red pen:

There's very little to complain about, but a few of the secondary characters are executed with less grace than the rest of the story. Laurie, Stepovich's young teenage daughter, really shines in some scenes once she's involved in the magical side of things but seems a little lopsided at first. Her best friend Chrissy has gotten involved with Sue, an older teenage girl who serves as a servant of the Lady and is addicted to hard drugs. Laurie is still living half in childhood, but the way she worries about not having a best friend anymore, or about what people will think of her for still having stuffed animals, feels a little stiff. Once she gets caught up in trying to be an adult before she's ready, her characterization seems to revolve around stock questions of peer pressure and teenage sexuality in a way that takes the edge off of her personality and makes it a touch harder to care about her later. The two friends have even less depth and we never hear what happens to them in the epilogue the way we do for most of the other characters-- they've gone further down the path than Laurie has and can't be fully saved, and that takes any suspense out of their small arcs.

Timmy, the murderer whose actions help to frame the Gypsy, comes off more as convenient to the plot than as a consistent threat. He and the Gypsy were both involved in a New Orleans murder in 1935-- the Gypsy is still alive because he's partly immortal, but Timmy is never fully explained. He's supposed to have died in the past and is currently an unhinged servant of the Lady, but it's unclear how his life was stretched for so long or exactly when he started serving her. He gets a few good scenes, most notably the flashback that shows him as a half-unhinged child, but something about the way he's written and balanced keeps him from braiding into the mythological fabric the way the rest of the characters do. He's been in the Lady's service from the moment that he appears, but he never slides into the archaic language or detached relationship with reality; his psychopathic ramblings could belong in almost any typical crime drama, and the unusual construction of the book makes that all the more disappointing.

On the whole, The Gypsy just isn't like anything else, and the prose reads like music heard in a dream rather than a coherent story....which inexplicably manages to make the whole thing work better. It falls down ever so slightly on presenting a few of the mortals as well-rounded people, but for the most part the cast of humans and immortals feels balanced because no single person can hold the necessary skills of both worlds. Regardless of talents or lack thereof, these people are kind and unbalanced and drunkards and impulsive, enough so to give them that spark of life. This book definitely improves with rereading, and it's unusual enough to make it a shame that the authors haven't collaborated again.

Prospects: This one is a stand-alone, sadly but fittingly-- a sequel would just mess it up. Brust wrote one called The Sun, The Moon, and the Stars before this that also features the three brothers and some of their adventures; it's not as strong a piece of work, but it's especially worth reading if you have artistic aspirations.

Misanthrope's take, when asked what to read after this book, was "something terrible, as part of the acknowledgement that you will never again read something as good as Gypsy." And while I agree to an extent, there's only so long you can spend thinking that the rest of literature is cold and bleak before you drink yourself to death in an unpoetic gutter from sorrow.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~The flexibility in magical workings based on everyday objects also shows up in A Madness of Angels, which has the added bonus of another protagonist who can't quite put his past together.
~For yet another protagonist with a blurred past and purpose, try O'Malley's The Rook. It's a lot more hard-nosed and doesn't have much in the way of fairy tales or poetry to it, but Myfanwy's way of unraveling what's going on elicits some of the same frustration that whatever you read next is going to suffer by comparison.

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