Monday, December 31, 2012

100 Books #125 - Charles Palliser's QUINCUNX

I suppose we could regard Charles Palliser's Quincunx as final proof that for every genre or great genre master of fiction, however obscure or archaic, there is not only someone who will attempt a pastiche of it/him, but sometimes there is even one who is very, very good at it. Charles Palliser is one of these, an otaku's otaku in the realm of... the nineteenth century social novel?

I didn't know there could be such a thing. Did you?

For Quincunx* is a Dickensian pastiche of the very highest order, though it goes Dickens one better, or at least earlier, by setting itself in Britain's late Regency (and therefore pre-Victorian by a good bit) period. And perhaps it takes the Dickens to 11 at the very least, both in terms of legal/inheritance wrangling as plot driver and of risible degrees and numbers of coincidences at least in that Dickens' and Palliser's Londons have hilariously small populations.

And there is still more to keep the 21st century reader chuckling, for about halfway through, when a certain heraldry puzzle assumes paramount importance, the penny drops and one realizes she is in fact reading a high quality prose version of a hidden object game. All that is missing is the frustrating experience of "breaking" the cursor by mis-clicking on too many objects, but then again, that could be substituted for by our young hero's continually narrowly escaping yet another assassination attempt -- or only sort of escaping, continually forced as he is to more or less respawn as the penniless, near-helpless, delerious, paranoid, starving waif that he is for most of the novel.

And why is this so? Because, as I said, property inheritance and greed are the great drivers of the plot. An ancient francophone family (lots of glorious surnames feature in this story: Umphraville, Palphramond, Mompesson!) whose possession of a profitable estate dates back, apparently, to the time of William the Conqueror and whose bloodline includes Plantagenet ancestry, fell on hard times a few generations before our hero (John Mellamphy, he who answers to oh so many other names as he grows up) was born has been shadow-fighting over different versions of the patriarch's will in addition to publicly battling it out in the Court of Chancery (shades of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, eh wot?). Depending on what document finally surfaces and is approved, one family could be turned off the estate in favor of, well, several others.

The plot is intricate and small details matter; like in playing a hidden object game, we have to scrutinize every scene with care, somewhat hampered by our guide through all of this, John of the Many Surnames, from whom Secrets Have Been Kept and whose life is perpetually both endangered and protected by different interests, depending on which will from which they would benefit.

All this and all the Dickensian social justice hand-wringing you could ask for, as we spend time with body snatchers, dishonest bankers and lawyers, out-and-out bandit gangs, "down below men" who make their living salvaging coins and other valuables that have fallen into the sewers, starving Victorian garment workers, and, every once in a while, the gentry living high and betting too much on cards and horses. Like you do.

If that sounds like something you might enjoy, you'll enjoy the hell out of this book. I did, even though I snickered a lot. Hey, snickering is good.

*And I absolutely wound up reading this one now because of Aliette de Bodard, whose Obsidian and Blood Aztec godpunk trilogy employs the visual device and term of "quincunx" - a five-fold cross, more or less - and every time I came across the term, I remembered that my mother had presented me with a battered but still nice hardcover edition of Quincunx and it was still the substantial base of my small but formidable tower of dead tree TBR. Brains are funny old things.

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