Ill-made Mute Cecilia Dart-Thornton
Hardcover - 560 pages (21 September, 2001)
Macmillan; ISBN: 0333907531
Review by John Berlyne
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(SFRevu thanks the SF-Site for allowing us to repost this review - Ern)
Australian fantasy is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with on the international stage. Though the continent has long been producing quality works of genre fiction, it is only lately that Australian fantasy is really being given a big push overseas and readers are certainly better off for it. The quality of Cecilia Dart-Thornton's debut novel, The Ill-Made Mute puts her on a par not only with her Australian contemporaries such as Sara Douglass and Garth Nix, but also with the big names further afield. This is a very accomplished first novel. Though it employs a number of common fantasy tropes, Dart-Thornton displays a confidence and mastery over her material that is extremely impressive.
A foundling with no name, no memories and no voice awakes in the lowest servant's quarters of a grand palace. Horribly disfigured, the foundling ekes out an existence at the bottom of the food chain, but shows talent and application in menial work that allows exploration of other levels of the palace. Wit and opportunism eventually bring about an opportunity for escape. Early on Dart-Thornton imbues her story with two themes that become prevalent throughout. By handicapping her protagonist with a hideous outward appearance and also (initially at least) no adequate way to express thought or feeling and by counterbalancing this with a narrative that shows this protagonist to be inquisitive and bright, the reader is (willingly) snared and the story brims with pathos throughout (though this is never allowed to become sentimental). Alongside this, the structure of this novel is broken down into ten chapters, and each varies in terms of setting - chapter one is set in a Gormanghast-like great palace, chapter two aboard a wind-ship, three in a forest etc, - and Dart-Thornton is at home in all of these, displaying a brilliant eye for both detail and atmosphere.
The language of this novel is rich and erudite and more than once I found myself reaching for my dictionary (how nice to see words like "subfusc," "aumbries," and "panegyrics" come up) but what is perhaps most impressive in this first book of The Bitterbynde is the bedrock of myth and folklore employed by Dart-Thornton and upon which she builds her fantasy. (In the back of her book she openly acknowledges her inspirations and influences.) This land of Erith, is inhabited by wights of both seelie (good) and unseelie (ill) natures and these are more than just stories told to children. They are a very real part of the fabric of the place and if you go down to the woods in Erith today, you're sure of big surprise! The cautionary nature of fairy tale is present all through this novel and when our protagonist is adrift in the forest, you get a sense of how vast and how dangerous this wilderness is - a clear parallel to the Australian outback. Only under the guidance of an experienced Ranger can there be any hope of survival in the wilds.
For all her deft turns of phrase - and there is some beautiful use of language in this work - it is a plot point that snagged my attention in The Ill-Made Mute. I can't really say too much about it without giving it away (the reviewer's eternal dilemma!) but I will say that I didn't quite buy the climactic moment of realization that our protagonist undergoes. It boils down to the old argument of nature versus nurture and I would have gone with it a lot easier had CDT laid some subtle clues along the way.
I don't feel it hugely necessary to give you a detailed plot run down here - partly because this book is more than just a summery of the events it describes, but also because it seems more fitting that you get the events from reading the book rather than reading a review. Besides this, The Ill-Made Mute is very much open ended and so little of the plot is actually concluded by the end of the book. It is highly enjoyable read though and this is a very talented new writer. I look forward to book two very much.