Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Satyrday, by Steven Bauer

They say you can’t go back: I was twelve years old, and the cover (they have a saying about that too) was exotic-looking enough to scream deep and unexpected meaning from the squeaky library carousel. As I remember it, a sleek typeface against a solid gray background, one letter evolving below into a silhouette, a faun emerging from a crack or from behind a door, evil and alluring, coaxing hidden thoughts with his pipes. Not an accurate impression of the book itself, as it turned out, but when I got to the message, it still seemed a significant statement, some touchstone to reveal that uneasy but beautiful union between primitiveness and humanity. Not so much a question of why are we here, but why should I care? At twelve, I was needing that sort of fable. (A couple months later, I was all over Lord of the Rings, discovered in similarly epic circumstances stuffed on a shelf in my aunt's old bookcase, which made a more indelible impression, for better or worse.)

Those of you with young children are probably aware that there is a fantasy movie about birds currently in the theaters, the latest disposable CGI masterpiece, presented with a gloriously extraneous dimension. I didn't need to worry that they were destroying the cherished childhood pleasure, as it's based on a young adult series, which is probably light enough to adapt to film easily. (There is, parenthetically, also a rule about heavily apostrophed names in this sort of literature. Ga'Hoole is in the title? Bad sign.) But I ordered Satyrday anyway, to see if it still held any magic.

I don't find I have a lot to say about it anymore. There were several things I liked about it, but they were showing promise sorts of things, and it's got to be telling is that I read the book with my editor's hat fitting much more comfortably than my reader's (not that I have ever been an editor, but I've read advice-for-new-writers obsessively at times, and dabbled in a slush pile for a couple months, enough to learn why some of those things are advised). It's a sort of short semi-mythic story of a boy raised by a satyr, both gone off to free the moon from an imperious giant owl, and find out the child's own origins. Along the way they meet with a fox, who is also a nymph, and a raven traitor to the owl's cause of bringin' on the dark. All of the birds made for creative scenery and enjoyable points of view, and as a general rule, he anthopomorphized the various animals cleverly and affectionately. This was less true for the characters with actual anthropic attributes, unfortunately. The dynamic between the faun and the sometimes-nymph had some potential, but it would have been better served if he (Mathew, the satyr) were shown to be more lusty, and she (Vera, the fox) more flirtatious, or if the boy Derin were awake to any sexual tension, if he served as some frustrated counterpoint to their half-animal drama, but then again, it's hard to get a reasonable sense of "animal-ness" when every creature speaks and reasons.

The dialogue between the protagonists tended to be brief and at times cryptic, and even if the kid was suffering the horrors of adolescence, we still needed to have the fundamental relationships and tensions evoked more solidly in the early going. Steven Bauer was a published poet before he knocked off his first novel, and there is some meter to the lines, and some pleasing use of words, but if some scenes were well-served by the sparse style (an idiot falling in love), other times the prose also felt like it needed to be let loose and flow (when describing the scenery, maybe). I found several of the scenes to be evocative, but not like when I was a kid. The ending had just the dollop of irony needed to make it interesting.

There are a handful of authors that like to play with mythology who can write outside of the clear constraints of real settings and occupy some sort of metafictional "storyworld" space, and some of those stories have ended up as favorites. There can be an advantage to leaving explanatory details unstated in something like this, but I found myself more annoyed than usual with the unanswered obvious questions, and maybe I needed the world to be more strongly established as something outside, some winking presence of the author perhaps, to get me to ignore those details. If there are no people, then where the hell is the wine, leather, gauze, etc (not to mention the authorial metaphors) coming from? And where are the rest of the animals? If there's one owl, three hawks, two weasels, three hundred fish, and a hundred thousand ravens, then the food chain and the local genetics are seriously fucked up. How big is the world, why can they walk across it in a week, and what's with the familiar Norse-etymologized weekdays, Christain names, and Latin taxonomy? There's a rule among slush pile readers--one of the top ten things they tell aspiring fantasists-- to just leave the goddamn Adam and Eve story on the table. It's not as original and meaningful outside of your head, and they have to read about a hundred of them a day. Satyrday might get away with it in a squeaker, and if we confine it to the YA bin or the fantasy ghetto, it comes off better than similar books, and even if it didn't live up to my memory, I'm going to leave it on the pile of books my kids might like.


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