Saturday, June 12, 2010

Power corrupts... except when its my power (Books - The Ropemaker by Peter Dickinson)

Peter Dickinson's The Ropemaker was the recommendation of a colleague who enjoys YA fantasy and since I too am an occasional fan, I decided to try it on for size. Written in 2001, it is now out of print so I decided to keep my eye out for likely bookstores on my recent Midwestern tour figuring that, in New York City bookshop stocks of a printing would be gone through quickly as demand is high but in a more out of the way place, it would take longer for a shop to sell out. My logic was rewarded. In the one independent bookstore in Charleston, West Virginia, there sitting on the shelf of the Young Adult section was a lone copy of The Ropemaker.

I wish I could say that I felt my patient search had been rewarded, but my reaction to this book was lukewarm. It offered me neither the commercial appeal, good characters, adequate writing and excitement of the Harry Potter books nor the higher brow adventure of His Dark Materials. The Ropemaker concerns Tilja, a girl in a family of magical women, with no powers of her own who must go on an expedition on whose outcome the very future of humanity depends. Needless to say, she find that her own powers, though different from those she sees in others, are far from useless, meets a young boy her age, and grows up along the way. The book is peppered with a lot of quasi-spiritual platitudes about what people were meant to do or descriptions of what I guess I would call intuition:
Her thoughts, if you could call them thoughts, were a muddle of astonishment and grief...

She couldn't possibly see the faint tracks they had so far been following, but her feet seemed to know the way.
Evidently learning ones magical powers involves a lot of experiences in which thought is insufficient and indeed in which individual body parts sometimes know a great deal more than our intellect. This was a recurrent refrain.

I read this book as an allusion to the idea that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. An elderly ruler with lots of power (magic) attempts to keep order by regulating the use of magic with officials called Watchers, who themselves must have a lots of power to regulate the power of others. Consequently, the populace lives subjugated by fear and a hierarchy of petty bureaucrats with lesser power do what they can to feel on top of those below them by making threats and exacting bribes.

Tiljia's most important lesson is to learn of the alluring influence of power:
With a shock she realized that she was experiencing something she had never imagined, a sense of absolute power. All these people, even a great lord of the Empire, even the Emperor himself, were under her control. They could move, or not, as she chose. The thought was oddly frightening. If you had the power you wanted to use it. This must be what magicians were like, all the time.
This is the strongest part of the novel, though I found its execution pedantic and obvious. Perhaps I would have been a more forgiving reader at 12 - 15 years old, but generally I find that when a writer writes up to young readers instead of down, they rise to the occasion. The pacing of The Ropemaker was lugubrious, characters were sketched in generalities rather than specifics, and the narrative was bloated. I wish I could say I enjoyed the book more but this one was not a winner for me. Regardless, I thank my friend for the recommendation. I always like trying out books smart people like, even when I don't. Dickinson has won a number of awards, so others obvious don't share my opinion. Anyone else out there who has read something of his they enjoyed?

1 comment:

Criticlasm said...

I just want to know how you think Charleston is the mid-west. ;)

People from Ohio say they're in the Midwest, and maybe they were in the 18th century, but from my vantage point, they're the East.

I guess it all depends on where you sit.

I read Sherman Alexie's YA novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian and blogged about it here:

Just excellent. I hear this one is great, too.