When I was younger, I think I would have loved Delia Sherman’s The Porcelain Dove. It absolutely captures the feel of another, more fairy-tale time. The aura of porcelain and flowers and stories, parties and wealth permeates the book. The little girl is the one who discovers how to use the magic, and carries out the quest. The happy ending is just what I would have liked, and the only part of the book that would have made me sad would have been what happened to the birds.
Reading it as an adult — wow, it looks different. I can’t help seeing it now as a mordant commentary — on human nature, on magic, on the sort of little girls who would have enjoyed it in that unreflective manner.
The aura of aristocratic luxury is still there, but doesn’t cover up the stultifying boredom of being too rich to need to do anything, the almost desperate searching for hobbies, and the colossal cluelessness of having boredom be your biggest problem while starvation, death and disease plague the families a mile away.
The magic is still there, but it doesn’t really matter. The aristos treat their magic as they treat the peasants starving in the village; it is an unregarded collection, its reality ignored and its potential unsuspected.
The aristos of this novel fritter their time through one act of thoughtlessness after another, like a catalog of the revolution’s grievances or an unsympathetic account of well-to-do modern life. Reading about these people was like watching the world’s nastiest reality TV stars picnic on a railway track; I felt I ought to say something that would get them out of the way of the hurtling train, but failing that I wished it would just hit them already and get it over with.
And when it did hit, there were still pages and pages to go, the most horrific misbehavior yet to be revealed, and the happy ending I would have loved as a little girl … the ‘happy ending’ all the characters wanted … the ‘happy ending’ most of us would ask for, given the choice … well, it makes me think. Which I guess is a better thing to say about a book than anything I would have said as a child.
I classify this as a ‘magic doesn’t make you any different’ book, like Grossman’s The Magicians. It’s made me wonder whether there are any books out there in which magic enlightens people and changes them for the better? I can’t think of any offhand, except perhaps A Stranger in Olondria, but I’d love recommendations.