Top critical review
11 people found this helpful
on 3 October 2005
'Tolkien meets Barbarella' was a thought that crossed my mind after wading through a couple of hundred pages of this lot. There is a very Tolkienish map in the inside cover, and none other than Sauron himself was actually a Maia - (I wonder how well Adams had been remembering his Silmarillion). Powers other than human do not actually figure in this book until it suddenly hoists itself on to a startlingly higher level with the penultimate scene in the Streels of Urtah, but we have had to get through 1000 pages and more before we reach that.
Airport-bookstall doorstoppers of books about Fabled Imaginary Empires always run a risk of self-parody, particularly when they contain a generous lacing of fleshly detail about vile slave-masters and their able-bodied retinues, and I find myself genuinely sorry that Adams saw fit to squander his great talent on a pot-boiler like this. Many of his familiar virtues are still here, to be sure. He has real and exceptional gifts for natural description for one thing, he does very well with giving individuality to a very crowded cast of characters, and he is a born storyteller. Nevertheless he lets his storytelling ability run away with him here. The plot is held together in a very competent way, but really the book could have been half as long as it is, or even, (heaven forfend), twice as long. There is no real reason, other than the limits on human stamina and longevity, why this succession of tableaux might not have gone on to infinity. However the basic trouble with this book is the lack of a sense of humour. Adams takes himself desperately seriously - he would hardly have been flattered by the comparison, but I honestly felt myself starting to think at times that Clark Ashton Smith, who is delightfully tongue-in-cheek whatever his shortcomings, handles lost-empire scenarios like these better in his lightweight way. In particular Adams seems to imagine he has particular insights into how women think and feel. Without trying to assess him in detail over this, which would just be falling into the same trap myself, I suggest some scepticism may be in order regarding the astonishing adaptability of a 15/16-year-old girl subjected to a major series of what we would these days think of as emotional traumas, to say nothing of implications that women secretly like the gross erotic proclivities of even the most grotesque and loathsome males such as the High Councillor, a kind of proto Mr Creosote. It's not precisely prurient (Adams is too solemn for that) but the mentality is pretty unattractive all the same.
The quality of the writing is good, although too much of it is of the formulaic kind that one expects in books like this from less distinguished hands -
'What is it, Harpax?'
'My lord, a messenger from the Sacred Queen; one of her attendants'.
'Admit her' -
and similar tosh throughout. One feature of Adams's style that has definitely deteriorated also is his fondness for inventing his own names for places and people, together with an imaginary vocabulary, in unknown tongues. The seagull talking in a Norwegian accent and the mouse in an Italian accent in Watership Down were delightful, as were the names of the rabbits and the special terms they used. The predecessor of this particular book is, of course, Shardik, and he carries the process further in that, but still quite successfully I thought. In Maia it is starting to be ridiculous, only the author doesn't realise. Maia's friend Occula is made to talk in some accent that appears to consist mainly of dropping the final g in present participles: Maia herself talks in an amorphous country-girl patois: plants and birds sometimes have their proper names and sometimes phony names: there are rude parts of the body called tairth and zard; the expletive commonly deleted in modern English is inscrutably substituted by 'basting'; and I wonder whether Adams knew that there actually is such a word as 'prion'. By at least page 500 I had got well and truly tired of the tedious half-hearted charade, all the way from Airtha to zard.
The book is definitely over-long for me, but others may have more staying-power, and I finished it for all that. Nevertheless Adams is not just some pulp author - there are real flashes of what he can do at his best even here. The characterisation of Queen Fornis is vivid and memorable for one. For another, any reader of Shardik will surely recall the evocative and tantalising reference to the sinister Streels. I had seen somewhere that they feature in Maia too, and from page 750 if not earlier it was only the hope of coming to that bit that was keeping me going. I got there by about page 1010 or so, but it was a terrific episode, and not just as a relief from its context. Another of Adams's endearing little foibles is showing off his Greek untranslated. There are a couple of lines of tragedy at the start of The Girl in a Swing, and there are two passages here, one translated and one not. It doesn't seem to me that I'm spoiling anything by revealing that the untranslated excerpt means
'To be healthy is the best thing for mortal man,
And second to be comely in form.
Third is just simply to be wealthy,
And fourth to come of age with one's dear ones'.
I suppose I enjoyed the book a little despite myself, but after all the display of languages I think it can be fairly characterised, with due regard for decorum, by the two members of the call-sign alphabet that I have taken for my caption.