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Under in the Mere by Catherynne M. Valente
Edited by Alan DeNiro, Kristin Livdahl & Christopher Barzak
Cover Artist: James A. Owen & Jeremy Owen
Review by Benjamin Wald
Rabid Transit Press Trade Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780981743714
Date: 01 December 2009

Links: Rabid Transit Press / Show Official Info /

I began Under in the Mere filled with anticipation. I had read some of Catherynne M. Valente's work before, and been entranced by her gorgeous, lush, powerful prose style and carefully drawn and deeply fascinating characters. I also enjoy tales of King Arthur. While not a true aficionado (to my shame my copy of The Mists of Avalon rests unread on my shelf), I have a deep respect for the power of the Arthurian saga, and it presents highly promising source material. Unfortunately, Under in the Mere never quite crystallized for me, leaving me with the occasional memorable paragraph or turn of phrase that will stay with me but no lasting impression as a whole.

The book is split into short chapters, each dealing with and narrated by a character from the Arthurian Saga. These range from the familiar, such as Lancelot and Mordred, to the slightly more obscure, like the brothers Balin and Balan, who I at least had never heard of before. A significant absence is Arthur himself, and his absence is the center around which the other stories revolve. Valente has taken some creative liberties with the source material in order to emphasize certain themes. In certain cases this is quite successful. In others, such as the replacement of Avalon with California, the alteration seemed confusing and pointless, at least to my eye.

The focus of each chapter is on the characters inner world. In fact, each chapter is composed almost exclusively of recollections of past events and the characters thoughts, regrets, or inner conflicts regarding these events. This is both a strength and a flaw with the work. On the one hand, Valente provides some fascinating interpretations of the inner lives of the familiar characters. In some cases, particularly that of Mordred, this reinterpretation can provide an entirely new view into a character long thought familiar. On the other hand, the fact that the story is told entirely in recollection and introspection makes for a somewhat static book, with not much sense of movement even as the reader can trace the course of events of the familiar Arthurian tale taking place.

The prose has all of Valente's characteristic density and beauty, but in this case that very beauty and density served as a barrier to my enjoyment of the story. The language was so baroque at times as to render the events narrated almost incomprehensible, and this despite my at least passing familiarity with the Arthurian legend from which the plot is drawn. To someone unfamiliar with the story I suspect the plot would be absolutely opaque. While the prose was undeniably beautiful, the sentence by sentence elegance failed to add up at the paragraph level, leaving me with a jumble of pretty images that never formed a story.

This is not to say that there is nothing worthwhile in the book. Some of the stories are quite powerful. Bedivere's story, in particular, is a haunting examination of remorse, cruelty, and the corrosive power of guilt. Much of the writing is worth savoring, and there is some original light cast on some very well worn source material. But as a whole, I never managed to immerse myself in the story, and even at just 140 pages it sometimes felt a little long. While it might be worth a look to die-hard fans of the Arthurian tradition, or those with a particularly high tolerance for lengthy character introspection, on the whole this book fails to live up to my previous experiences with Cathrynne M. Valente's work.

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