Wednesday, October 29, 2008

World Fantasy Award Nominee: The Servants

The Servants
Michael Marshall Smith
Nominated for the 2008 World Fantasy Award: Novel

The Servants begins simply enough. Mark is an eleven year old boy adjusting to a move from London to Brighton, and adjusting to his mother’s new husband, a man she had only known for nine months before marrying. This last fact is not completely accurate, but it is the truth as Mark knows it. He spends his days sniping at David, his new stepfather, and skateboarding (poorly). Mark feels alienated, as if David were attempting to take his mother away from him. Mark’s mother is sick and the impression Mark has is that David refuses to let his mother go see a doctor or even go out to eat, that David is controlling their lives. Mark is an eleven year old boy.

Eventually Mark meets the old lady who lives downstairs in what is something of a basement apartment. She invites him in for tea and tells Mark a bit of the history of the house and how it used to be a manor with servants and down this locked hallway here, come take a look, is the old servants quarters – where they used to live and where they used to work. The servants quarters is dusty and unused. For lack of anything better to do Mark returns to the old lady’s apartment, chats with her and drinks tea, and when she falls asleep Mark explores the servants quarters. When he explores Mark finds…not quite ghosts and not quite echoes, but something still living and working down there even though nothing is actually down there.

There are two storylines running through The Servants: the family story, and the supernatural story regarding the titular servants. The strange thing is that despite the fact that there is something supernatural going on under the house, the supernatural element is completely besides the point. It doesn’t matter, and in fact, it is utterly superfluous to the real story of The Servants and that is Mark learning to accept David and his mother’s new relationship and grow up a bit. The story of The Servants is not exactly a coming-of-age tale, but that’s the territory this short novel is veering. The problem is that the 200 page novel is a good 20 to 50 pages too long as it is (or too short, it could go either way). Oh, The Servants reads easy enough but because the supernatural stuff is pointless to the real story, the supernatural element pulls the reader out of the story and is a distraction to the family drama. Yes, this novel is nominated for the World Fantasy Award, but this is a family-drama with the fantasy tacked on with a hammer.

The main gripe here is that Michael Marshall Smith attempts to combine the two narrative elements in the conclusion and the moment Mark begins what is obviously the final actions of the supernatural element of the novel, it is more than obvious how this will impact the family drama aspect to the novel even though they are in no way connected up to this point. It is as if Smith looked at his manuscript and realized: “Shit, what the hell am I doing here? Combine, combine! Must end the novel and tie up all the loose ends”. I realized what Smith was about to do and it offended me as a reader. While the author never set up the reader to expect one sort of novel, the conclusion felt like a betrayal. I have a thing about spoiling the ending to a novel, but I do want to talk about it, so I’ll be happy to complain in the comments if anyone really cares. But, the bottom line is that the way the two storylines came together and how the novel resolved itself made me call “bullshit" on the author. It was an absolute cop out on the story and made the ending become mystical bullshit. Deus ex machina. This phrase may (or may not) be overused, but I think this is a perfect example of it. The resolution to The Servants came out of left field and was in no way foreshadowed earlier in the novel as something that was even possible.

It’s crap (the ending). Pure and simple. I question whether the nominating committee finished the novel when they bestowed a World Fantasy Award nomination on it.

It may be worth noting that Emma Bull had a more positive reaction to the novel, though she hasn't said a thing about the ending. While not the only thing, or even the most important thing, a really bad ending can absolutely ruin a book.


Greyweather said...

I don't think the author ever bothered to explain the old woman's presence in amongst the mystical BS either.

Joe said...

I think that one was covered, at least to my satisfaction. Just an old tenant that no owner cared enough to kick out.

Or, she was just playing the role of spirit guide and there was no good reason for her to be there. Either one works for me.