Fantasy Friday: One for the Morning Glory

February 12, 2010 at 12:00 am Leave a comment

“King Boniface had always liked the Royal Witch. She was kind-hearted and laid curses that were easy to lift, and set quests anyone could complete. She–along with gunpowder, the printing press, and perspective drawing–had almost removed the fear of magic from the Kingdom.”

One for the Morning Glory by John Barnes was a surprise in a few ways. First, I had never heard of it and thus was surprised to find and read it. Second, once I had started reading it, I was surprised that so good a book had passed unnoticed in innumerable other libraries and had never been brought to my attention. And third, once I finished the book, I was surprised at what a dark turn it took somewhere about three-fourths of the way in and how the ending was purportedly happy but was also quite sudden and left many things unexplained.

Morning Glory tells the story of a prince who, at a very young age, accidentally drinks a full glass of the Wine of the Gods and one of half of his body disappears (not in a gory way, just it’s not there). He grows up literally half a person and adventures with his friends, loves, and Companions eventually ensue. The first three-fourths of this book was a delightful coming-of-age story about the Prince’s youthful misadventures (for those of your vampire people out there, yes, there are some even in this novel) with his true blue friends. The last fourth suddenly turned into war narrative as the country is invaded, the capital city is vanquished by the evil Waldo (heretofore a far-off enemy only sporadically mentioned and never truly discussed), and, basically, all hell breaks loose. Simultaneously, Barnes seems to lose his footing as an author and the book subsequently piddles out in a rather disappointingly slapdash happy ending.

This book is difficult for me to review because I absolutely adored the first part so much and then was so put-off by the second. Since the part I loved did, in fairness, take up much more of the book than the part I didn’t, I’ll focus on the good stuff: the book was marketed as a mix between The Princess Bride and The Once and Future King, which is pretty dead-on. It combines the whimsy and humor of The Princess Bride with the slight seriousness (in the second part) of Arthurian legend, taking more than a hint from T.H. White about how to best handle this kind of material. Furthermore, I thought the story itself was wonderfully original. It built on the classic trope of a young man (often a prince) having to go on a quest or find himself and added new layers to the story that were both interesting and enjoyable, most notably in the introduction of the prince’s four mysterious Companions, who each have more to offer than they initially reveal and who mean far more to Prince’s future than anyone guesses.

My more serious qualms about the book were the ending (written as if by a different person with a completely new tone) and the absolutely vast plot holes scattered throughout the book. Interestingly, Barnes chose to explain away these holes by portraying the narrator as some kind of researcher coming centuries later who is forced to piece together the story and how he thinks things went down from various chronicles and memoirs preserved through the years. I found this an interesting device to use when dealing with a fantastical Medieval alternate reality (you know my frustrations with the lack of source for Medieval history books!), but I also found it slightly unconvincing. Barnes vacillated between his narrator being omniscient and limited in a way that made his claim to be basing the story on found sources less believable. The Princess Bride used this device far better and more consistently and Barnes seems to be aiming for something similar and then missing by a little bit. At the very least, his constant allusions to the source material are quite humorous, so that worked well for him.

On the whole, this is a book worth getting from the library or a friend. Or perhaps buying and ripping out the last chapters, rewriting them satisfactorily for yourself, and re-pasting them into the binding. I’m admittedly sorely tempted myself.

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Entry filed under: Fairy Tale Friday, Fantasy. Tags: , , , , .

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