Firstly, James Blaylock is one of my favorite relatively "unknown" authors. Secondly, I think The Elfin Ship is one of his best books. I first found it in the mid-nineties and loved it then. I don't generally read something more then once, but this book and several others that Blaylock has written I have reread maybe three or four times over the last 15 years. Blaylock with friend and sometimes co-author Tim Powers have created, to my mind, one of the most interesting characters in modern fiction "William Ashbless." See the Wikipedia entry on William Ashbless for more about this character.
The Elfin Ship, like much of Blaylock's work, is hard to describe. Imagine if your best friend were a devoted foodie with a good sense of humor and irony and was thrown into an absolutely wild and crazy adventure. Blaylock's characters often seem to dwell in an "uncanny valley" in that they are both realistic, you have probably met people very like them in your everyday reality, yet also exist in an imaginary world. Even set in fantasy the concerns of the protagonist in Elfin Ship are getting Christmas toys for the kids in the village, keeping good trade relations with the people down river, wondering what the elves are searching for in their airship and what the sinister looking dwarf wants with his uncles old watch. It comes across simultaneously as something that could be almost happening in our world while at the same time wildly different.
The "heroes" in this book (as in most of Blaylock's works) are not muscle-bound combatants ready to take on dragons and rescue kingdoms at the drop of a helmet. Instead they are ordinary, if eccentric, people thrust into the middle of extraordinary events. I would almost say "Hobbit-like" but Blaylock doesn't categorize good and evil as clearly as Tolkien or many other fantasy authors do. Though set in a magical world, there is little spell slinging or slashing swords in the Elfin Ship series. Instead characters often take a more subtle approach relying upon their wits, friends and subterfuge. Blaylock obviously draws a lot of inspiration from the fantasy genre yet the atmosphere he creates doesn't "feel" like fantasy. Heroism in Blaylock's work comes reluctantly. His protagonists are genuinely frightened (and rightly so) of the antagonists, but they aren't going to let fear stop them. Instead of outright violent confrontation his protagonists will often take a more oblique approach to defeating the antagonists. Battle in Blaylock's world feels more like a muddled vision drawn from "Zen and the Art of War" and often leaves me wondering how much of that is a reflection of the eccentric nature of the protagonists and how much is actually intended to psych the antagonists out.
The characters put me in mind of some odd relative who has spent a lot of their life travelling the world and whose house is now filled with things brought back from the ends of the earth. Bizarre curios saved from certain destruction by the "such and such" revolution or pulled from the clutching hands of ol' dictator "what's his name" and should probably be in a museum or on a Hollywood film set.
Blaylock's villains are also often interesting in a sinister way. The come across as being almost uncomfortably "real" in that they are not so much bent on world domination but instead searching for personal gain, such as immortality or the ability to bend time, through nefarious schemes. They put me in mind of a once decent person who has made some very poor life decisions and is now walking down a dark path on which the ends always justify the means. Not blameless, but perhaps not inherently evil either.
Blaylock's writing is descriptive but fast paced enough that he doesn't bog down in detail. The style of his prose puts me in mind of Kenneth Gram's "Wind and the Willows" where description was so wonderfully interwoven with action.
I don't think Blaylock's work is for everyone. He defiantly crosses many genres. His works, including The Elfin Ship could be categorized as humor, mild horror, fantasy or maybe even satire. His heroes and villains are complex. It seems like his writing inspirations come from 19th century literature mixed in with modern fantasy themes and a real appreciation for both the mundane and the weird. I think for some readers Blaylock's work may come across as "messy." But, for me, Blaylock's books, and particularly The Elfin Ship, are wonderful balances between those various muses.
At this point I have loaned The Elfin Ship to so many friends I had to get a second copy as the first became too dog-eared for use. Even for my friends who don't really read much The Elfin Ship proved memorable. As one friend said to me last week, perhaps some 5 years after reading the book: "I liked the part where they slept late and stopped to have a good lunch just before they snuck into the sorcerers hideout." How can anyone not like a story where the heroes take such a common sense approach to putting an end to evil?