Thursday, December 1, 2011

Culture and language in The Fallen Queen by Jane Kindred

I met up with agent Sara Megibow (I almost typed "angel," and while she's lovely, you'll see why that's funny in a second) at World Fantasy Convention a few weeks ago, and while she and I were talking about my interest in language and culture in fantasy, she handed me an ARC. "You might like this," she said. She was right.

The book in question is Jane Kindred's newly released novel, The Fallen Queen. While I won't attempt to review the whole book, I'll tell you what I thought was fun and fascinating about it. Kindred has taken Heaven and turned it into a mirror of Tsarist Russia - and she also taken the main character, an angel, on a trip into Earthly Russia, complete with Russian language and tapochki slippers.

Very careful attention is paid to creating parallel levels of reality in this book. Not only is the geography of Heaven carefully analogized to the geography of Russia (the river Neva in Russia=the river Neba in Heaven), but Heaven isn't just a bin full of angels. It's carefully divided into layers of angels characterized by different elements (fire, water, earth, air), who don't necessarily understand each other. Those who appear human are the Host of the Fourth Choir, while the Ophanim and Seraphim each have supernatural behaviors and qualities that make them distinct. What's even more fun is that the powers of the angels and demons are relative to where one stands in the layers, and which layer one happens to be occupying at the time. Demons are those of mixed blood and "impure"  behaviors, keeping the spirit of angel versus demon and also setting up a rather deft allegory related to race and to purity of blood.

I got a special kick out of the way the Russian was used. I don't speak any Russian, but I sure want to now that I've read it! The language never interfered with story comprehension, but the author used it with finesse. For one thing, the angel doesn't speak Russian when she first arrives in Russia, and she has no Heavenly power that grants her language skill. For this, Kindred gets a cheer from me! I'm willing to grant that the angel Anazakia will have some ability to pick it up quickly, and this is used to advantage. It's great, because when she first arrives, the things she doesn't understand are related in Russian, so if you really don't understand Russian, you understand precisely the same things she does, i.e. not much. If you do understand Russian, no doubt you'll get a lovely little sense of confidentiality with the author. The use of Russian goes down as the book progresses and Anazakia understands more, but it is still retained for flavor in a lot of contexts.

One last issue I'd like to mention is that this book engages with questions of virtue, vice, and sexual taboo behavior in a really interesting way, by juxtaposing the behavior of humans, demons and angels, and setting Anazakia's fall - and the attendant changes in her own choices - against that. While there were a few places where I felt the author's views intruding, the overall treatment of the topic I felt was very good, and readers may find it tittillating in some places, appalling in others, and overall quite thought-provoking.

I'd like to thank Sara Megibow again for handing me the ARC. It's really fun when I can discover a book that is both enjoyable and engaging on multiple different levels.