Tansy Rayner Roberts
Creature Court trilogy, Book 1
ISBN: 978 0 7322 8943 0
Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce, June 2010
I must admit straight up that I am a friend of Roberts’, but I’ve been a fan of her work for much longer than I have known her. I got a copy of her first book (Splashdance Silver) years ago and was hooked by the easy, fast-paced style, the sly characterisation and the slightly map-cap plot. Her later short stories have shown the same elements, but they have also got darker and, well, somewhat unpleasant, in a great-to-read kind of way. This first book of the Creature Court trilogy follows that trend. By the end of the first section, catastrophes of various shapes and sizes have overtaken most of the major characters, and that’s just 82 pages in. The thing about Roberts is that her style is deceptive: descriptions of clothes and setting are so lovingly detailed and not scary that when a nasty thing happens it feels totally unexpected. And she doesn’t hesitate to use those finely-honed descriptions for fights, injuries, and other nastiness.
Power and Majesty is set in Aufleur, a city that is in some ways like those in our world, but is in other ways totally other. It’s a richly imagined urban fantasy, and the city itself is largely inspired by Rome, both in its geography and in its festival calendar. Aside from the people who service them, I don’t quite understand how anyone gets anything done in Aufleur, given the sheer number of all-day festivals that seem to occur. The city is almost a character itself, getting lavish description and some awesome maps that would only be better if they were bigger. The characters are certainly not stay-at-home types, and they run around (and over, and under) the city at a sometimes-alarming speed.
Much of the plot revolves around these festivals, not least because the main character is a dressmaker who makes festival-appropriate costumes. She, Velody, arrives in Aufleur seeking an apprenticeship. Skip forward seven years and it’s finished, and she has settled into city life. (I for one don’t mind missing yet another half-book of a torturous apprenticeship.) The dawn of one particular festival, however, changes everything, and brings her into contact with the Creature Court. The rest of the novel explores how Velody deals with the discovery of the Court and why they exist – the fact that they are fighting a war with the sky (sounds weird, amazingly makes sense in the book) with seriously catastrophic consequences should they lose. There are no dull moments, but neither is it completely action-packed; there are moments of peace, and times of reflection, discussion, and companionship. However, none of these moments seems simply to be about allowing the characters (or the author) breathing space before the next adventure. Rather, they are integral moments of character- and plot-development, not to mention a better reflection of reality than a non-stop-adventure could ever be.
I really liked Velody, the main character. She is the sort of gutsy female character that has become almost a stereotype for urban fantasy, but Roberts provides more character development than just “violent” and more backstory than “tortured”. The book is, essentially, a coming-of-age for Velody, as she learns about herself and her world, and her place in it. She’s helped in this first and foremost by two female friends, and I think this is where Roberts does some really interesting things. At first glance, this trio could have ominous overtones of Nancy Drew or other girly groupings. But each of the girls has a definite personality – and not a stereotyped one – and their friendship is marked by the loyalty, attitudes, and friction that such bonding really can bring. I also really like that Velody is a dressmaker: it’s very feminine, which is a nice juxtaposition to the way some women in urban fantasies appear to be typecast as men-with-boobs. It’s also a neat contrast to some of what Velody is confronted with throughout the book. At the same time, her work is time- and energy-intensive, and Roberts shows that, which means that rather than a character who apparently worked all day and then fights all night, what we get is again closer to reality.
Aside from Velody and her friends, the main characters are those of the Creature Court, and I think they’re the most entertaining aspect of the entire novel. Roberts provides a really fascinating take on magic – animor, as she terms it – and it’s neither mostly harmless nor entirely destructive. Magic is power, and this is a more realistic take on power than some fantasies allow themselves. There are people who will take advantage of power no matter what situation they find themselves in, and having magic is no different. On the other hand, there are people who are destroyed by power, and people who refuse power, and people who make the best of what might be a bad deal with it too. All of these types are shown in Power and Majesty. Throughout the whole book, there are no characters who are completely irredeemable, but none who are completely innocent either. Once again, much like real life.
Urban fantasy sometimes swings between two extremes: on the one hand, the unrelenting, gritty, seedy side of life; on the other, and more rarely, the light-hearted fluffy side where few things go badly wrong and anyway they can be fixed. Roberts walks a line that I guess ought to be described, yet again, as realistic. Some horrible things happen to good characters, and there is no suggestion that this can or should be passed over. But there’s also no suggestion that one bad experience is the end of the world, that obsessing over it is the right thing to do, or that it will be defining experience of an entire life. And as well as the nastiness, there are some wonderful, joyful moments – of friendship, and fashion, and even love. It has just the right balance to make reading the awful bits seem (mostly) worthwhile.
One thing about Power and Majesty gave me pause. When I heard that Roberts was going with some invented words for this series, I felt ambivalent at best. Often, this can be the sort of thing that puts me right off, or makes an otherwise great book less memorable: there are few authors, in my experience, who manage to make their vocabulary not sound totally artificial. Fake slang or profanity are particularly problematic. Interestingly, Roberts has largely chosen to replace ordinary words, like nox for night or demmes for girls, rather than inventing new swear words. Most of these words, appropriately enough, have Latin or Italian overtones, which do add to the tone of the city and its atmosphere. Overall, I think Roberts does get away with her inventions. There are a few occasions that felt a bit clunky, but not many.
If the next two books fulfil the promise of Power and Majesty, the Creature Court looks set to win a definite place in my heart. More importantly, it sets out new directions for urban fantasy in its construction of magic and in its genuinely ensemble cast that I think and hope will have implications for the whole genre. I’m looking forward to what explanation Roberts provides for the skywar, and finding out whether the action moves away from Aufleur (there’s a whole world out there, proven by the maps, and there are even foreigners in the city!). More than anything, I am looking forward to the development of Velody as a character, although I just know that it’s not going to be all satin and roses and smiley faces.