07 November 2004

"Life in Stone" by Tim Pratt

I've wanted an excuse to write about Tim Pratt for some time, and now I've got one: his new story "Life in Stone" at Lenox Avenue (the whole issue is interesting, actually, including a marvelously self-negating story by Paul Tremblay).

Tim is a talented writer whose work seems more accomplished with each new publication. "Life in Stone" is particularly effective, because it manages to simultaneously embrace and subvert the conventions of heroic fantasy. It is a brutal adventure story that undermines and questions its own brutality and moves the adventure to the background. It begins with this sentence:
After ascending seventy-two flights of iron stairs, creeping past tentacled sentinels lurking in pools filled with black water, and silently dispatching wizened old warriors armed with glaives and morningstars that proved a close match for his pistols and poisoned glass knives, Mr. Zealand at last stumbled into the uppermost room of Archibald Grace's invisible tower.
"Ugh," you say. "Not another corpse-laden tale of questing killers." Not, indeed. Mr. Zealand's zeal is not new, and his age is getting to him:
He'd lost all illusions about his career. He was neither avenging angel nor cinematic assassin; he was simply a man who'd spent a lot of years killing people for money. This job was more of the same, despite certain baroque complications and supernatural curlicues.
He is cast in the narrative role of a hero, and we're tempted as readers to regard him as such, but again and again this temptation is challenged both explicitly and implicitly. The story is not so much about his quest or his killings as it is about how he comes to deal with his realization of his own brutality, and where that realization leads. By the end, we realize the story is making a morality play, and though the ending may be somewhat predictable, it is, nonetheless effective -- the character is drawn so deftly that the conclusion is better described as inevitable than predictable. And there is nothing predictable about how we get to the end, because Mr. Zealand is an impulsive man in a modern world of old wonders.

The character of Archibald Grace, a senile man who has hired Zealand to end his immortality for him, reminded me of the sad immortal Struldbruggs in Gulliver's Travels, who suffer all the infirmities of old age, but are incapable of dying, though they desperately desire it. Archibald Grace is merely losing his mind, not his body, but he could have been a far more pitiful character than he is. The complexity he displays comes from his juxtaposition with the third major character in the story, Hannah, his estranged daughter. We never find out what caused the estrangement, and though she spends much of the story as a victim of both Zealand and her father, by the end she has risen above her victimhood just as Zealand has risen above his brutality, and they stand together in the end as flawed and wounded humans -- not heroes or incarnations of evil, not villains or victims, but mature people who are about to cast fantasies aside and deal with reality as best they can. The story is both an epic and an example of psychological realism, and it gives fine proof of the fresh thought innovation can bring to old modes of storytelling that have sunken under the weight of their own cliches. It succeeds as both a fantasy story and as a character study, providing pleasures of plot, theme, and emotion that few readers, I expect, could resist.

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