Tuesday, September 02, 2008

World Fantasy Award Nominee: Illyria

Elizabeth Hand
PS Publishing: 2007
Nominated for the 2008 World Fantasy Award: Novella

Elizabeth Hand has left me somewhat breathless and speechless. Illyria is that good. I’ve spent a bit too long staring at the screen trying to figure out what, exactly, to write. I was tempted to just take a picture of me holding up a copy of Illyria and with my eyes wide, pointing at it and calling that my review. But then I remembered I read a PDF of Illyria and didn’t have a physical copy to gape at.

Illyria blends adolescence with growing up with family with young love with high school with theatre with Shakespeare with magic and crams it all into a mix of emotions and straight narration that everything feels natural and right, even the awkwardness of love and lust. Elizabeth Hand puts so much into this story that it would be easy for a lesser writer to mess it all up and try to do too much. Somehow, and I’m not sure I can explain this, Illyria feels understated. Everything in the story washes over the reader, but not so that any single line or quote can demonstrate exactly what it is that makes Illyria so special.

Outside of a slightly stilted too descriptive opening, Illyria rings with the earnest sense of youth that powered Dead Poets Society. The comparison may not be fully appropriate as we are comparing a novella to a feature length film, but this is a certain air to the movie, which if the film ever hit you, is clear and understandable and relatable. Illyria has that same special “something”.

This is all vague and incomplete, but writing about Illyria is difficult. I could tell you that the story is about Madeline Tierney, a young woman in love with her cousin Rogan, a scion (Madeline) of a once famous theatre family which has since abandoned the theatre as if it were unclean. I could tell you that the story is about the relationship between Madeline and Rogan as they grow, about the influence of the their and Madeline’s Aunt Kate. I could tell you all this, and more, but it would not serve to get across the quiet grace of Illyria, the still-small voice that gets under the skin and whispers to the reader.

There is a part of me that wishes Illyria ended on page 111 with “True, I never flamed out. And I never shone, not even for a moment, the way my cousin had.” as a closing line because it is such a perfect ending line at an appropriate place, but Elizabeth Hand brings the story full circle. It’s a good ending, a complete ending. Perhaps even a right ending. The beauty of Illyria is not in the ending, though. It’s in the journey, in those places readers wish they could escape into and stay there in a frozen moment.

Reading copy provided courtesy of PS Publishing.


Andy Wolverton said...

Illyria has been on my "To Buy" list for quite some time; I guess I should break down and order it. Earlier in the year I read Hand's Generation Loss and thought it was excellent. And her short fiction is stunning. I'm not sure why she's not talked about more. She's certainly a treasure.

Joe said...

Pretty sure this is the first Hand I've read, but I'll be looking for more.