Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mary Sue and the Super Friends v. The Ugly Americans

The Rose Labyrinth
By Titania Hardie
Atria Books (Simon & Schuster)
448 pages
September 1, 2009

The Elizabethan world had an eclectic mix of inhabitants: politicians, theologians, poets and playwrights, explorers and glamorous old sea dogs like Raleigh and Drake. But the population also included an extraordinary array of spirits - fairies, demons, witches, ghosts, sprites - both good and ill: and conjurers to talk to them. It was totally within the fabric of their world for Spenser's great epic poem to be about a fairy queen and for Hamlet's troubles to be set in motion by the ghost. This fascinating blend of the physical and the ethereal worlds owed as much to a philosophy of occult thought at the most intellectual level as it did to a tradition of superstitions and folkloric influences.

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

The Elizabethan Era was a subject of great interest for me in college, beginning with my reading of Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's flawed but fascinating work The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, a Marxist history book tracing the development of populist revolutionary movements from Renaissance England to the Caribbean to the American Revolution. It inspired my final research paper for the Renaissance Utopia senior seminar, where we also studied the various visionaries of the era, the religious and social upheaval that influenced them, and the uneasy collision of the medieval past and the dawning capitalist, scientific, and global future. So needless to say, I was eager to read Titania Hardie's 978-1615521630, an international bestseller from Britain released in the US by Simon & Schuster on September 1. Hardie imagines a long-buried conspiracy, involving politics and metaphysics, linking the tumultuous time of William Shakespeare and John Dee with the post-9/11 twenty-first century. For publicity purposes, The Rose Labyrinth has been compared to The Da Vinci Code. The similarities are there, but the two novels are really quite different.

Lucy King is a beautiful London-based television producer in her early 30s who contacted a parasite while on assignment in Colombia. The infection ravaged her heart so badly she needed a transplant. Meanwhile, her surgeon Alex Stafford's brother, William, has become deeply embroiled in a centuries-old puzzle set into motion four centuries ago by Queen Elizabeth's great astrologer and man of letters, John Dee. Will is mysteriously (and suspiciously) killed and his heart goes to Lucy, who begins a relationship with the handsome, reserved Alex following her successful operation. But her new heart possesses a "cellular memory" of its own, binding her very essence to that of Will's in a living example of Dee's theories on the reconciliation of opposites (the male and the female), the embrace of the foreign and unknown, and the unity of disparate elements (i.e. competing religious dogmas) at the highest level of paradise. Lucy and Alex's resumption of Will's quest brings them into conflict with a powerful group of American evangelicals obsessed with the Apocalypse. Dee allegedly spoke to angels, and they may have given him the exact date of the Rapture. Add that to the hot topic of religious terrorism, and an overall message of religious tolerance and the perils of religious bigotry emerges amidst a fast-paced physical and intellectual race for the long-buried papers of John Dee.

The Rose Labyrinth is also interactive: included in the back is a series of clues (puzzles, poetry fragments, word games, etc), most of which do not appear in the story itself. This gives the reader the opportunity to figure things out themselves and possibly solve the mystery before Lucy and Alex do. I didn't use them, but they do make fun supplemental reading. But even without referring to the clues, the reader is still inundated with historical trivia and verbal expositions on philosophical and metaphysical concepts. Now on the one hand, it's some pretty fascinating stuff; yet it also gives the dialogue an unnatural "lecture" feel. I read other reviews criticizing Hardie for this, but I think it's more a standard convention of the "religious/historical conspiracy" genre (i.e. The Da Vinci Code, The Historian, Sign of the Cross, The Lucifer Gospel, The Overseer). These books, by their very nature, are dependent on rapid intellectual discovery and the author's arrangement of history to form a cohesive narrative. Throw in some bad guys who represent the religious status quo and voilà!

Dialogue excepted, Hardie's writing is a huge improvement over that of Dan Brown. Will's death experience is extremely well done, as is a surreal Hell-themed party on the Thames, when a boatful of Elizabethan aristocrats is seen gliding out of the fog. I found myself, as with Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, thinking that this is what The Da Vinci Code should have been.

However. . .

And here I become indignant.

First off: the protagonist. Like her creator, she's an Australian living in London. Her name Lucy or Lucia, means "light," which turns out to be very important, as is her last name of King. She has a glamorous television job that takes her all over the world. Her gorgeous doctor with the smart, adorable little boy falls in love with her. She's absolutely brilliant and surprisingly knowledgeable about various eclectic subjects ranging everywhere from Classical mythology to the many uses of the number 34. She sometimes acts as a mouthpiece for Titania Hardie's views on religion and politics (as do other characters - more on this next). She finds herself personally implicated in a conspiracy set into motion centuries ago by the intellectual luminaries of Elizabethan England. She's effortlessly self-sacrificing. She rallies everyone's spirits. Her heart transplant, though a vital aspect of the plot, is hardly a handicap but is instead a metaphysical device that links her across time and space to her beloved's dead brother so deeply and so intricately that her new heart becomes such a part of her that she may never need anti-rejection meds ever again! She gets to meet Shakespeare.

According to the Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test, Lucy scores 32, which indicates a potentially redeemable, but nevertheless undeniable, Mary Sue. On another Mary Sue test, however, Lucy scores a 57, which marks her as not only a Mary Sue, but an Über-Sue. But really, all the good guys here are fundamentally flawless. Calvin is obviously meant to be morally ambiguous, but he still somehow changes his ways after somehow falling in love with Sián, even though she is, as everyone admits, a rather shallow and unstable woman. Like I said, Hardie is great when it comes to atmosphere, physical description, and setting the scene. Still, her characterization and dialogue need some real work, particularly the villains. Behold:

"Gentlemen, here we are at last at the awe-inspiring Megiddo, the site of more than twenty civilizations over ten thousand years, piled on atop the other. From the time of Alexander through the blessed Crusades, and even down to Napoleon, men have fought and wept over this land. Ours will be the last layer - for this is designated Armageddon, the place for the cataclysmic battle of the Revelation, the site of the future victory of our Lord."

"Well, that's just why we should pay no mind at all to this silly talk on global warming, FTW!" The taller of the two men, with a huge girth and immense gray eyes, laughed. His strong Texan drawl spoke of merriment and would have been charming in any other context.

FW nodded solemnly. . . "It is from here that Jesus will come on the clouds of glory, to call us home. This two-hundred-mile-long valley will be three feet deep in blood by the time He finishes His great work." He squeezed their arms again from behind, wanting them to be a palpable part of his joy. "Just envision this beautiful Valley of Jezreel awash with the blood of what my people have calculated must be more than two billion people! And we will be with Him!"

MWA-HAHAHA! Eeeexcellent.

No seriously, that scene is awful. From the clichéd "evil villain" posturing (was Emperor Palpatine there too?) to the awkward, tacked-on global warming remark and the rich Texan stereotype, it reads like a liberal Democrat's caricature of the Republican party. Which brings me to a real problem I had with The Rose Labyrinth: Titania's soapbox tendency and its violation of the "show, don't tell" rule. The novel's themes were already apparent from the characters' intellectual discourse on radical Elizabethan thought and how it reacted to the era's religious warfare and persecution. We didn't need moralistic, self-congratulatory speeches like this:
"Simon, and Grace, and Calvin, I now realize, [that] you and I, and everyone like us, should shout from the rooftops about these people's terrifying influence on politics, and laws, and the freedom of our choices. No single religion has a monopoly on bigoted fundamentalism. In Revelation, Jesus is the hero with a 'sword in his mouth' - and I hope we can mount a very effective counteroffensive with our own words."
Or this:
"Their ideas are totally self-serving. The Rapture philosophy demands a consistently negative, chauvinistic, apocalyptic reading of Old Testament prophecy. . . But as Simon's been telling you, they have credulous ears in high places in my country now, and a president [Bush] who freely admits his belief in it all. We must find a way to stop them, quarantine their influence, or they'll have a devastating effect not only on the future of Christianity, but on all efforts toward religious harmony in the world."
I remember one of my English professors in college telling us about how she saw Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine in Switzerland. "I just sat there and got madder and madder," she said, "because it confirmed Europe's worst stereotypes about Americans - that we're all provincial right-wing gun nuts." In all honesty, I became so infuriated by Hardie's portrayal of Americans as ultra-conservative Christian whack jobs that I had to put the book down for a day. Sounds silly, I know, but until about 3/4 of the way through of this European bestseller, every American character is a villainous zealot (including Calvin, initially, and after that he's still iffy).

Furthermore, for someone so concerned with tolerance, Hardie's overall treatment of conservative American Christians seems to fall short of her own ideals. I mean, if The Rose Labyrinth is an honest depiction of her political views, she is seriously afraid of them. Apparently there is a Vast Conspiracy in the US Government. Evangelicals have friends in high places and they mean business! They want TEH APOKALIPS NAO!1!!1! Sounds alarming, but really, that's actually a pretty common rhetorical device in demagoguery: claim a particular movement you dislike has way too much power and that it plans on destroying America As We Know It. According to Bill O'Reilly, there is a relentless army of "secular progressives" out there, in ur skoolz, brainwashin ur kidz. In ur kortz, bein "activist judges." OMG! WAR ON CHRISTMAS! And according to Glenn Beck . . . nah, I'll leave that one alone.

So how 'bout them Islamofascists?


Sorry about that. But I felt it had to be said.

Snarky as I got, I have to say that, as indicated by the first part of this review, I did enjoy some parts of The Rose Labyrinth. I also had significant problems with it. I do recommend it - it's absolutely fascinating and full of great information - but I'm not saying it's a totally awesome book. I'd say three out of five stars.

Also recommended: Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, about the search for Dracula, both vampire and real historical figure. It's actually way better than The Rose Labyrinth. And anyone interested in the roots of America's unique brand of Protestant Christianity is advised to check out Nathan O. Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity.


Emily said...

Haha, you're hilarious! I found your rant highly enjoyable. I suppose, in a way, it's encouraging to know that even the lefty European community with whose politics I agree is capable of graceless, transparent propaganda.

E. L. Fay said...

Thanks a ton! This review is the reason my blog was so neglected this week: I really struggled with it. I liked some aspects of the book, but the blatant political stuff absolutely infuriated me. At the same time, however, I didn't want to be too much of a whiny bitch.

Confession time: I'm a moderate Republican. I watch Fox News. I actually like The O'Reilly Factor, even though Bill goes way over the top sometimes. You really need to watch shows like that with a critical mind.

The main villain of The Rose Labyrinth is clearly based on Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson - there's an allusion to Falwell's infamous 9/11 remark about gays, feminists, etc, and he's connected to a college clearly based on Liberty University. But the Christian Right isn't even a viable force in American politics anymore. James Dobson of Focus on the Family has admitted that they have lost pretty much every major battle in the so-called "culture war." Falwell is DEAD, and Robertson is a doddering, senile dinosaur. As one Amazon reviewer ingeniously put it: The Rose Labyrinth puts '80s villains in a twenty-first century setting.

So why all the fear?

Titania Hardie's husband is actually an American. I didn't want to bring that up in the review, though, because I didn't want to drag her personal life into it.

Emily said...

I think viewing/reading with a critical mind is so important in any branch of the political spectrum, and often people across the board just don't want to hear it. I really despise Michael Moore's body of work even though I generally agree with his politics, because I feel like he makes genuine points in disingenuous ways, and that rubs me the wrong way, big time.

And whatever the politics, how awkwardly-written are those scenes you cited? Very awkwardly written.

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