I am an ardent fan of audiobooks; there’s nothing like listening to a really good mystery or to a Jeeves and Wooster book read by someone who knows what’s what. I’ll also listen to books I would never read, just as I’ll get some things on my e-reader and religiously buy other books in physical print. (Do you do these things or am I quietly insane?)
My most recent audiobook was Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg; I had read some of her books (on my kindle) before this, and man. They were fantastic: a trilogy that starts with The Paper Magician; it was an excellent blend of magic done in a new way, nuanced by just enough emotion. More importantly, I believed everything that happened, all the decisions that were made.
This most recent book – most recent to me, anyway – I wasn’t as impressed by. The arc of the book went from comfort to MISERY MISERY MISERY, to tense to homey at the end – heavy on the misery and the heavy. The main character is brutalized, used, and deeply unhappy for most of the story, though of course she got a version of what she wanted in the end.
I did like the emotional maturity of the book, though it was hard to get through it. I’m used to books with a certain bar for suffering: we never see that suffering ‘on camera’ in a romance novel; the closest we get is a battered hero, back home and dealing with PTSD. So…maybe this story is normal on an emotional level, and my standards are…warped.
I bought the book because it promised to use fairy tales in a new way: the heroine, Maire, is able to bake emotions and states of mind into pastries. There’s a chocolate cake with love, for example. Others have hope, empathy, strength, wisdom, et cetera. However, she gets kidnapped when her village is sacked and is made to produce confections for nefarious ends: one cake to make someone bigger, another to make someone smaller; a gingerbread house; a living gingerbread boy. These are the parts of the story I loved best, as it showed what this strange ability could really do when pushed. It showed what Maire could do when pushed.
But then the whole business got muddled. Maire begins to really question where her abilities come from, why she can do what she can do: the thread of fairy tales gets dropped the moment she fails to finish one of these strange desserts for a client. Instead, we are placed in the middle of a struggle between gods and the creators of new worlds, about what happens when someone oversteps their natural bounds. What I would have liked was if the author stuck with one or the other of these lines of thought: either one is a great book, but having both clouds everything. That’s the hard part about trying to write a Big Novel: often, you are actually writing about a whole passel of things at once, when established Big Novels tend to be quite simple at the very core.
I’m going to listen to this book again, I think – I have obsessively listened to every audiobook I have ever owned, starting with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but notwithstanding this particular habit, I’m not sure if I have gotten everything out of this story that there is to understand. Much like turning back to the first page of a mystery and reading it again, knowing exactly where the story will lead will likely change how I see it. Will the magnitude of the suffering be the same? Will it feel as bifurcated? Maybe. We’ll see.