The excavation of German SFF continues! Wherein Nikki discovers and reads German SFF authors and tells you all about them so you can feel worldly and well-read and informed, even when the books have not been translated into English…
Kai Meyers is a name I should have heard. The cover flap of my copy of Die Seiten der Welt calls him “one of the most important German fantasy authors” and goes on to tell of his 50 novels, the 30 languages they have been translated into, and the films and graphic novels and audio books that have been made of them. Fifty fucking novels and not one German geek has recommended him to me when I have asked about German SFF. Then again, I don’t generally recommend Tad Williams or Robert Jordan or any of the other white dudely SFF authors of similar fame, having never read any of their books.
I first heard of Kai Meyers on a poster at the local chain bookstore announcing a reading he would be doing from his 2014 book Die Seiten der Welt (which has not been translated into English, but which would probably be called The Pages of the World if it was). I couldn’t make the reading, and instead wrote to the publisher (FJB) asking for a review copy to ease my pain and initiate me into the writing of this Meyers guy. If you would like to see a writer who has mastered the vampire look for his author photo, visit the Seiten der Welt website and see for yourself.
Seiten der Welt sounded exciting because it sounded like a lit fetish story: magical books, magicians who use books to do magic, labyrinthine libraries, and books worth killing for. The more German SFF I read, the more I realize that the lit fetish/magical book story is a market that German authors seem to have cornered (see: The Neverending Story by Michael Ende and Inkheart by Cornelia Funke), and Meyers’ take on the classic theme starts out in the same vein as its predecessors. Oh look, a rich white girl with a dead mother lives with her father in a mansion with lots of servants and a dark and terrifying library. Oh look the girl and her father can do magic involving books. At least the last three lit fetish books I have read have contained exactly this combination of characters, setting, and privilege. Here the book wizards are called Bibliomants, and the little girl can’t come fully into her magical power until her “soul book” finds her.
I would have been bored with such blatant repetition of tropes if it weren’t for a handful of truly wonderful, imaginative inventions and a delicious first paragraph designed to immediately snare book fetishists everywhere which, of course, is about the smell of books (translation mine):
“As she walked up the library stairs, Furia could already smell the stories: the best smell in the world.
“New books smelled like printer’s ink, like glue, like anticipation. Old books carried the scent of adventure, both their own and those they contained. Good books exuded an aroma that carried everything, including a hint of magic.”
Soon afterward Furia, our young female narrator, sneaks into the dark library to check on a book and we begin to see what Meyers’ imagination can do. Small origami birds populate the library, a magical species introduced to eat the dust mites that would otherwise damage the books. A sentient hive mind of letters swarm like swift ants, communicating with Furia by forming themselves into words. And at the end of the scene we meet our first villain and the arch-enemy of books everywhere: a vicious mold creature intent on destroying the library books and any humans who come near it. Last but not least we see the coolest magical book of all literature: a diary that allows Furia to communicate with someone 200 years in the past by writing on the pages with a special pen. Neat.
Furia, her little brother (who has no book magic, but is deathly afraid of clowns and dresses like one in hopes of escaping their notice when they come for him), and her father are hiding out in their lonely mansion—their ancestors got the entire family thrown out of the (secret) Bibliomant government—in hopes of avoiding the assassination that extinguished the rest of the line. But of course, and I bet you know what’s coming, all that is about to change. Cue dramatic music, escape, kidnap, peril, and adventure.
Furia is intelligent. She sees through the bullshit adults are constantly shoveling, but she also doesn’t react by going emo and doing the stupidest thing you could imagine, like some boy heroes we are all well acquainted with. She doesn’t always make the right choice, but she is a three-dimensional character with all the failings and strengths you would expect of one. I didn’t really like her, but that wasn’t really a problem.
All three of the story’s villains (though some are more friendly and less villainy than the others) are all women, which I appreciated despite the fact that I had a hard time remembering which was which. Meyers attempted to make them distinct by associating each with a specific color. One wore only red. One wore all white. One had…oh wait, fuck, see, this is where I get confused, I can’t remember if one wore white and had black hair or one wore black and had…I don’t know.
When the villains’ plans shake up Furia’s life, she finds herself a fugitive in the city of Libropolis, a place made of and for book magic, populated only by bookstores and publishers and Bilbiomants. It is a pretty cool place except for the ghettos, ghettos which are populated by fictional characters who have been forced out of their books as a side effect of Bilbliomantic magic and who are treated like second class citizens (a theme I would be strongly reminded of when reading The Fictional Man by Al Ewing). A few more characters are introduced, the bad guys give chase, unlikely friendships are forged, etc, etc.
While trope use continues lightly, the further you get into the book, the more evident it becomes that Meyer’s use of tropes was a trick and that the point of all this is that most people have a hell of a lot more depth than you might expect. Especially when you are a reader who has been lured into expecting tropes and easy black-and-white-outlined answers. Nice move, Meyers, nice move, though I did occasionally wish you’d done it in a couple hundred fewer pages.
The leisurely pace suited the gradual but strong build up of characterization, but also tended to drag between the introduction of some strange new living book species, spell, or creatures. And hey, there were some interesting discussions about the morality of a revolution done in the name of the people without the consent of all of the people. The further into the book I got, the more intellectual reasons I found to stay.
Still, I am conflicted at what I found out visiting the book’s website this morning: a sequel to Seiten der Welt is coming out in June 2015 (Die Seiten der Welt: Nachtland). I had been relieved at the thought that this was a one-off book, that I wasn’t getting involved with another series whose follow-ups I would feel at least partially obliged to read.
Meyers gets massive points for imaginative invention and the subversion of tropes as well as for inventing some sweet book-ish magic, but a quicker pace would have suited the action. I was surprised to see this shelved in the YA section of the bookstore recently as I think it would do just as well among adults.
Four out of seven fighting beaked books.
Where I got it: Sent to me for review by the publisher.