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Wednesday 29 January 2003

Post-Potter Irony for the Grown-Up Set

  • The Luck of Madonna 13
    The Last Nevergate Chronicles, Book 1
    by E.T. Ellison
    (Wynderry Press, 2002)1

  • Reviewed by David Soyka

Here's something that flew in well off the radar that deserves a lot more attention than whatever latest Tolkien/Rowling mishmash of combative dwarves, dark wizards, and young apprentices fated to save the world from evil currently being featured at your all-media entertainment emporium chain. The Luck of Madonna 13 is published by an upstart small press outfit whose first-time author, E.T. Ellison, represents its entire current inventory, which perhaps explains why you may not have heard of it. While a high-quality, autographed and numbered (up to 2434, the year the story takes place) first print "collector's edition" can be ordered directly from Wynderry Press ( as well as Amazon, you're not likely to stumble across a copy while browsing the book stacks of your local bookseller (though it would get excellent placement next to that other Ellison fellow). Which is probably just as well considering that the novel's prologue, while of some amusement, isn't exactly a page-turner; someone glancing through the first few pages would not be blamed for reinserting the book back on the shelf with all the other fat fantasy blockbuster wannabes.

So if, as I'm about to heartily recommend, you thrust this into the eager hands of adolescent Harry Potter aficionados grown jaded with celluloid ersatz while waiting insatiably for the next volume in the franchise, tell them to skip the opening "Genesis." The rest of you — because this isn't just a kids book and, unlike the Potter books, has an adult sensibility for sophisticated irony — can start there and well-appreciate it as a satire of pedantic business and academic prose; while this particular burlesque is suffused throughout the novel,2 it is not as nearly prolonged as it is in the prologue.3

Here's how the actual story begins:

"Hair the color of dusty emeralds sprayed from under the silver-blue sheen of the prayer helmet. A supplicant wore the helmet. Fear swung in this supplicant's heart, like a freshly hung corpse on a gallows; her thoughts danced to the burning rubber smell of looming fate. And Lucky Madonna remained mute as ever. Still, the supplicant sought some mystical signal of encouragement. And wondered: is there such a thing as being too lucky? Duh, rattled an answer from her surly repository of rhetorical answers to rhetorical questions."

Close reading reveals that though we might be in some familiar territory, we're not quite in Kansas anymore. For one thing, there's the anti-religious sentiment: "Lucky Madonna remained mute as ever." Here's an object of otherworldly worship that doesn't return the favor. Indeed, the luck of Madonna 13 of the title is really no such thing; Ellison satirizes the entire notion of luck, beginning with the main character who is "lucky" enough to be selected for a rite that has seemingly fatal consequences. Similarly, Ellison debunks the whole idea of wizardry and supernatural forces that seem that way only to those who don't understand their underlying scientific principles.

Nor, as it turns out, are we talking about the venerated mother of god incarnate, but rather a more secular series of sequential clones of the "Like a Virgin" pop star, herself a study in cultural irony. Then there's the striking imagery of fear swinging like not just like a swinging corpse, but a freshly hung one (meaning the borderline to the "undiscovered country" has just been crossed, the precise metaphorical status of our soon-to-be-introduced heroine). All of which gets subverted by the last sentence in which the teenage colloquialism of "Duh" has somehow managed to survive into the 25th century. And is there such a thing as a "rhetorical answer"? If a rhetorical question is that which poses its own answer, is a rhetorical answer that which poses its own question?4 And how, exactly, does "Duh" do that?

Such ironic commentary permeates the novel.5 But it also provides a most excellent variation of the classical fantasy trope of the coming-of-age quest. Which is where our frustrated Potter fans come in, albeit those who are by now the age of Harry in at least the third book. In an annual ritual, our heroine, the spunky 16 year old Glendyl Fenderwell,6 is selected to leave her cloistered community to seek the Last Nevergate, a sort of mystical transporter. The only problem is, the last 249 candidates never returned and nobody is really expecting her to, either. But, it would be a short novel indeed if Glendyl were just going to be swallowed up by some dragon (though there is a dragon of peculiar manufacture here). Her adventures lead to revelations that reality is unlike anything those from her sequestered existence can even begin to perceive. In other words, we have a kid who is discovering that the adult world is not all it is made out to be and that, furthermore, neither are the adults who pretend they actually know what is going on.

Which is why this novel is a natural for adolescents on the cusp of discovering the same thing. What's more, the irony rises to a level of sophistication beyond the trite stuff that passes for it in most pop culture.7 It's certainly poking fun at the genre when the character on the brink of a momentous decision excuses herself because she has to go to the bathroom first. But there's also something that reminds us that even when life reaches mythic proportions, in the final analysis we're only human.8

I don't want to give the impression, however, that this is "just" a YA novel, as if that makes it unworthy of adult attention. Indeed, most young adults won't get the aforementioned parody of academic prose.9 Nor will many of them get the reference to ZZ Top.10 For that matter, they may not even be sure who Louise Veronica Ciccone is.11

There are some things that don't quite work for readers at any age level. One gimmick is that the reader can go to to pick up additional background information, sort of like footnotes on a grander scale, with a promise of an "interactive experience." The supposed synergy between print and electronic text is something that has been talked about for years, but rarely realized, and this is yet another in a long line of failed examples. You can certainly read the novel straight through without consulting the web references and not be at a loss for it. In fact, if you do consult the site every time the book indicates you should, you might wonder why you stopped reading a rip-roaring good tale to look up unimportant stuff.

Also, one tradition Ellison doesn't subvert is that of the fantasy epic of continuing sequels. This is Book One of the Last Nevergate Chronicles, and though I'm looking forward to future installments, for once I'd like to read a book that actually ends on the last page, rather than hanging on the proverbial cliff.

But, all and all, this is, as they say, a story for all ages (well, maybe not for younger ages, who aren't going to get parts of it, particularly the sexual innuendo). Better put, this is a story for all those people hip enough to "get it" — namely that reality is a pretty strange place, no matter how people try to make sense of it in ways that actually causes more problems than solves.

1. Complete with footnotes.

2. One example is the use of footnotes to provide "historical" background to the story, which also serves to poke fun at Tolkien's hefty appendices of background and linguistic notes of interest only to the "fan"-atic. Here's an example: "For the technically disinclined, the development of HESSOL (Holometric Extensible Solid State Output Language) software in the 2060s provided a standardized system for the automated description and delivery of complex molecular fabrication/assembly instructions for Daimler-TRW Fabrax Nanobuildtm systems. Few would argue that it spawned the greatest spurt of creative economic activity since the first 'dotcom' spike at the turn of the millennium."

3. The author himself seems aware of this problem. In a note he says: "A poorly kept secret is that next to footnotes, the poor appendix is the most undervisited portion of a novel. Seeking to avoid this fate, the section called Genesis in this book — even though it might properly fit in the appendix definition — insisted on being first in line merely because of chronological precedence. You can pander to it be reading it prior to Chapter one. Or not. You're the boss."

4. And is what I just said a rhetorical question, or a rhetorical answer?

5. Not to mention the book jacket blurb, e.g., "Usually you will read here about how may New York Times bestsellers the author has written and how many awards are weighing down his or her mantle. Even more usually, this crucial blurb is written by the publisher's PR people, who are selected for their special skill in tantalizing honest bookstore browsers. Sadly, the Wyndberry Press blurbists were on lunch break... so the Chronicler himself was grudgingly pressed into service. I can guarantee you that they will never, ever let that happen again."

6. Note the last name; there a few automotive references, particularly to classic cars, for what purpose I'm not sure beyond that the author evidently has some interest them.

7. It is somewhat disconcerting, for example, particularly in a movie that is anything but trite, that Peter Jackson and crew feel compelled to pander to contemporary standards by portraying Gimli as a comic foil, and to have Legolas greet the thought-for-dead Aragorn with the remark, "You're late," a standard sci-fi/action flick cliché totally alien to Tolkien.

8. I may also be guilty of being too much of an English major here; the fact is that it is a funny scene, and that should be achievement enough.

9. Though after awhile the footnoting does become a bit tiresome as a joke that has perhaps gone on longer that it should.

10. The ostensible villain (or perhaps anti-villain) not only sports the long red beard that characterizes the front men of ZZ Top, but wears cheap sunglasses as he plays guitar in a tribute band.

11. Not necessarily a bad thing.

David Soyka is a freelance writer whose essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Nova Express, SF Site, and other publications. His website is at

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