Olde English quaintness ala Connie Willis (4/5)
From August 24, 2011
Richard Cowper is well known for... well, nothing really. I happened to pick up his novel Profundis one year ago. I found his writing to be witty, charming, and well-educated. I took a shot at reading The Road to Corlay because of these characteristics in Cowper's writing. Taking one look at the cover of my edition (Pocket, 1979), it looks like a fantasy novel through-and-through. But on the rear cover of the book, an antenna can be seen in the prow of the boat. An odd addition, but my expectations remained aloft even though fantasy isn't my forte.
Rear cover synopsis:
"On the Eve of the Fourth Millennium a slowly-building civilization, struggling out of the rubble of the Drowning, was crushed beneath the scepter of a powerful and repressive Church. But on the Eve of the Fourth Millennium the sound of a magical pipe was heard, and the air was filled with songs of freedom and enlightenment. And on the Eve of the Fourth Millennium the Boy appeared, bringing the gift of sacrilege, a harbinger of the future, heralding the arrival of the White Bird of Dawning. It is the coming of a New Age... A glorious future bearing the presents of the past!"
The 239-page book begins with a 62-page prologue called "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" which is actually a short story by itself and is included in some editions of The Road to Corlay. A quarter of the book brings the reader up to speed about the history of the region where the novel is set: around the Bristol, Southampton, and Exeter region of south England. However, the time of the plot is set around the year 3000 after the earth had been flooded, so the bucolic landlocked English setting is actually a bucolic seaside setting. The prologue/short story is a mini-saga of a man who is a minstrel of sorts and a boy with a lute (ah, but no ordinary lute, you see). With this lute, the boy is able to charm animals (salmon jump to him and dogs cower in obedience) but can also be made to sooth the minds of humans. This special trait becomes known to the wider Kingdom and his following is called heresy by Falconry Church. Their death is demanded.
After the prologue ends, the reader witnesses the aftermath of the decree one decade later (≈ 3010 A.D.), where the boy's lute-fingering has become legendary and now a following called the Kinship of the White Bird is wide-spread but still secret. From this point on, two stories emerge: one involving a man found at sea and his recuperation at a family's cottage where a young woman possesses the gift of mind-reading and clairvoyance (which is called the huesh). The second story is set around 1970 during an experiment in which Michael Carver falls into coma but still exhibits mental patterns of social interaction. This observation infers that he has made contact with another mind in the future. Like Connie Willis's Doomsday Book where a physical person travels BACK in time, in The Road to Corlay the mentality of a person is transposed into someone in the FUTURE... both highlighting the quaint English countryside.
So yes, for the most part this novel contains very un-SF-like elements. For a seasoned SF reader like myself, the inclusion of mind-reading, Middle English language, and kinships are irking. Cowper keeps in lively with a grand search for the heretics, quests for artifacts, and the appearance of new characters always adding extra dimension to the plot. The climax and conclusion of both story lines were somewhat solemn but still radiated a sense of completion.
Little did I know that there are two sequels to The Road to Corlay: (2) A Dream of Kinship and (3) A Tapestry of Time. Hopefully, if I'm able to get my paws on these, a link between the two plot lines would become clearer and a more resolute conclusion could be made. For something different and intelligent, The Road to Corlay is notable even for an astute SF connoisseur such as myself.