Across the Wall is a short story collection by Garth Nix that contains, among other things, a novella that continues the Old Kingdom Series. [Here are my reviews of Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen, the previous books in the series.]
I had read “Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case” – the Old Kingdom novella – before that, but I never read the rest of the stories, so my re-read of the series seemed like the perfect opportunity to catch up with the entire book. The stories in in offer a wide variety of stiles – from a choose your own adventure spoof to mythology re-tellings, from a war story to a speech Nix did – and all come with a short introdcution and explanation of the circumstances by the author. I really enjoyed the entire collection, some things more than others, but none not at all.
After the jump I’ll talk about each of the stories separately.
Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case
Since the events of Abhorsen, Nicholas has been trying to return to the Old Kingdom, but so far he hasn’t been able to get a visa. Now his uncle has arranged for him to go to a ball at Dorrance Hall, close to the Wall. But as it turns out, that is just a pretense – in fact, there is an intelligence organisation at Dorrance Hall tasked with understanding the Old Kingdom – and with trying to find out what Nicholas knows. But as Nick soon discovers, they are not only dangerous in their methods but also irresponsible in what magic they bring to Ancelstierre.
I really enjoyed this novella, especially reading it so closely after I read Abhorsen. Seeing how Nick struggles with the events and how nothing is just alright was at once painful and important – it just showed the impact of what happened. I also really loved that the budding romance between Nick and Lirael was explored just a little bit more. And the idea of the Ancelstierrian secret service and how they deal with the Old Kingdom explores a really interesting facet of the world that was unexamined so far. Wonderful addition.
Under the Lake
Under the Lake is a re-imagining of the Lady of the Lake of the Arthurian legend, telling not only her story anew, but also the story of Excalibur and its scabbard and the grail.
I like re-imaginings and re-tellings but I know very little of the original legend, so I might not appreciate it in its entirety. In any case I really liked the calm writing style that felt like it pulled you under the lake where the Lady is wating and the origin stories did make a whole lot of sense.
Two brothers, caught in a war, have to take shelter in a bomb cellar, only accompanied by the younger’s stuffed animal, Charlie Rabbit.
The story gave me the goosebumps and I bawled my eyes out while I read it. It is so sad and so good. It really hammers home not only how awful war is, but how awful it is in particular for children.
From the Lighthouse
A ship comes to the island of Lisden, and the man disembarking tells them that he has bought Lisden. It’s not the first time that somebody has been tricked like this – Lisden is completely autonomous and only belongs to her inhabitants. But they have their very own way of dealing with would-be owners.
This story was a little weird, but in an excellent way. I wanted to explore Lisden more – and I hope that Nix will get around to writing more in that world, as he suggests in the introduction to the story.
Rowan regularly visits his grandfather in the old people’s home that he lives in, but today he comes bearing bad news: Rowan’s father is trying to sell a piece of land that the family has owned for a long time. But his grandfather will have none of that – that hill is special, not to be sold and belongs to him anyway.
In the introduction Nix mentions that he had tried to write a story with Aboriginal mythical elements, but that he was warned that he would be appropriating something with that that isn’t his, so he re-worked it. And I thought that it did feel like something was missing from the story. It felt too simple, albeit still enjoyable, and maybe Nix should have constructed the story completely differently to make it work better. But as I said, it’s still nice to read.
Every once in a while, the Lightning Bringer comes to town and takes away a girl that will turn up dead – struck down by lightning – just a short while later. And somehow the narrator is the only one to be able to see it. Probably because he could harness the same power if he wanted to.
Lightning Bringer was probably the story I liked least in the anthology. It wasn’t such a bad read. But it was certainly an issue for me that the women in the story pretty much lost all their willpower the second they were introduced to the story and that it’s all about the guy (not) being able to save them. And that they were only described in terms of their physical attractiveness. I’m used to better by Nix.
Down to the Scum Quarter
Down to the Scum Quarter is a Choose Your Own Adventure spoof: your girlfriend has been kidnapped and it is your job to find her again, preferably before the party she wanted to go to starts.
I like CYOA stuff and this one really is hilarious, both with the story iself and on the meta level – including entries that can’t actually be reached and references to other stories by the same publisher. I had a lot of fun with it.
Another re-telling of the Arthurian legend, Heart’s Desire looks at the relationship between Merlin and Nimue, as Merlin shares the secret of being a mage with her.
It’s a sad story Nix tells here, and I feel like it would have been even more effective if it had been told from Nimue’s perspective instead of Merlin’s. But in any case, I enjoyed it.
Hansel’s Eyes is a re-telling of Hansel and Gretel, set in a modern city.
I loved this version of Hansel and Gretel. It translates the horror elements of the original into a modern setting and gives the whole thing a fresh spin. I especially loved the witch and her cat, Lazarus. Completely creepy.
Hope Chest is a SciFi Western with a touch of Hitler: A baby shows up in Denilburg, a little girl with a big trunk that can’t be opened and only the information that she is Alice May Susan and that she will take care of the people who take care of her. When a new politician sweeps the nation years later and Alice May’s trunk suddenly opens, the time has come.
I’m usually not much of a Western fan, but I did like this story. It felt very original, despite being very much rooted in tradition. Mostly for its SciFi elements and Alice May and the sadness of the ending.
My Really Epic New Fantasy Series
This is a print of a speech Nix did that pokes fun at a few of epic fantasy’s most pervasive conventions and stereotypes.
Nix knows what he’s talking about and from one genre lover to another, his speech is spot-on, yet not without affection for the genre itself. I grinned more than once.
A gardener has lost his wife, but he plants the most beautiful roses for her – roses that the king keeps demanding for himself.
Three Roses is a fairy tale, both in content and structure and a really sweet and nice one at that.
It’s difficult to sum up this story, it’s short, fairy-tale-y, lyrical and a little unclear – and all the better for it. So I won’t say more about it except that it does make for a good ending.
Summarizing: great collection!