How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, K. Eason (DAW 978-1-75641-529-7, $26.00, 416pp, hc) October 2019.
Crash one genre into another unexpectedly, and the resulting explosion might be hard to diagnose. In How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, K. Eason has elected to cross fairy tales with science fiction (“Princess Leia meets The Princess Bride,” one summary promises), and, indeed, the result is a mixed bag. Eason uses long-out-of-fashion writing techniques to forge the novel, and while it doesn’t follow that those techniques are unappealing, they prove difficult to get used to. Little pockets of originality and imagination make the book a fun read, even if the story often feels inert and the characters have limited room to grow.
This book is plotted with snarled strategy and counterstrategy, like a perpetual chess game played for power and wealth. That makes sense, as it leverages royalty politics (think European history pre-19th century) to tell a fairy tale set in outer space. Rory Thorne is the princess of a ruling family whose fortunes are usurped by Vernor Moss, a corrupt official from another planet. She is exiled to a space station, imprisoned, and then forced into a wedding with an easily manipulated prince. None of these actions are what they seem, though. Rory has feminist ideals and fighting moves, the feeble prince has a bunch of clones running around, and Moss’s son becomes a magical ally. Small moves drive the book: Rory loses one of her advisers to detention, and the other to an escape attempt, and these events occupy dozens of pages. Eason surrounds every occurrence in the novel with multiple characters’ thoughts and feelings, and she narrates the repercussions of those occurrences on still more characters. The plot inches along through personal reactions rather than energetic scenes.
If this were a character study, these choices might enhance the book’s quality. But only Rory’s character has real complexity. Rupert, her kingdom’s Vizier, and Grytt, her “body-maid” (part maid-in-waiting, part bodyguard), form the other two sides of the triangle that dominates most conversation in the novel. Alas, their inner conflicts remain one-dimensional, their reactions to Rory predictable and repetitive. Rory herself compels, because she must square a series of contradictory fairy gifts (given at her naming ceremony, as happens in so many fairy tales), such as kindness and toughness. The fairy gift that drives a lot of the character conflict in the book is Rory’s ability to detect lies, which Eason sets up on the page in an inventive, useful way, as when Rory meets Moss for the first time:
He squeezed her hand gently. “I am so very pleased to
make your acquaintance, your Highness, and to have you
here on my station.”
The line breaks and italics indicate where Rory knows what the speaker is thinking but not saying. A similar innovative mechanic is a plant, the magical Kreshti fern, which appears in a variety of scenes and acts as a visible mood ring, turning different colors to broadcast the feelings of its owner. These are fun ways to tell the novel’s emotional story.
However, Eason’s narration is unusually overdetermined and wordy. For example: “Grytt was not often surprised, either by circumstance or by human behavior. But when she encountered Jaed Moss lurking in a side corridor, out of which he came more quickly than prudence might indicate, she was surprised in both senses.” The authorial voice has a real personality in How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, though it doesn’t play metatextual games like William Goldman (aka S. Morganstern) does. Such narration feels foreign to the modern reader, difficult to sort out, but it’s actually a very old kind of novel-writing, most popular before the mid-19th century. It’s an inspired choice to write the novel this way, because framing 21st- century feminist values and science fictional language with a 200-year-old literary technique makes this book read like no other on the shelf. However, it’s also a somewhat tough sell. The novel bogs down in paragraph after paragraph of inside-the-head analysis, rather than clipping along in scenes the reader may interpret for herself. Readers must be willing to fall into the pillowy narration Eason has written, rather than be pushed to the edges of their seats. Not every reader will be interested in this kind of passivity.
In whatever way the reader receives the book, everything Eason does is deliberate, and her choices are so infrequently used in today’s literary landscape that they feel fresh and intriguing. Fairytale fans will find much to love in Eason’s choices, particularly the way that Rory resists her predetermined role in life: “If I’d been born a boy, I would get a say. And that’s crap, Messer Rupert.” How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse not-so-stealthily overturns the patriarchal undercurrent of most fairy tales, which is a delight to read. However, Eason needs more practice at this rare mix of genres before her work hits the right balance between style and substance. This novel is the first in a series, which means, most likely, better work to come.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.
This review and more like it in the October 2019 issue of Locus.
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