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Loving the Living Land

March 27, 2012

It feels a little silly to review a book here that’s not (yet) been translated into English – but there are some books I simply can’t not review, and Feenlicht [Fairy Light] and Magierlicht [Magicians’ Light], the two parts of Die Sturmjäger von Aradon [The Storm Hunters of Aradon] by Jenny-Mai Nuyen are such books (and you should all be campaigning to have them translated.)

I remember, years ago, when my bookseller acquaintance recommended the author to me, she said something along the lines of, “She’s still so young, and already writes so well – we can expect great things from her.”

To be honest, I didn’t see what she meant, then – but that says more about me as a reader than about Jenny-Mai Nuyen* as an author. At the time, I was still gobbling up books pretty much indiscriminately. I find myself doing that less and less now, especially since I’ve started reviewing every book I read. I think knowing I’m going to do that makes me read differently, and I find more and more I want to say.

Since this book hasn’t been translated, I guess I should give you some idea of the plot before I dive into reviewing it. Oh dear… I already have such a hard time with my own synopsis for my NaNoWriMo profile…

Just not fair – Jenny-Mai Nuyen is not only a great writer, she can draw, too!

I said in a recent post that what draws me to reading Fantasy is not the action and heroics, but the quiet sort of magic, the forests and the possibility of fairies. This is a big part of why The Storm Hunters of Aradon appeals to me so much: In this world, magic is not based on human powers, but on a natural element called lirium.

Lirium is present in everything that lives, but also in the earth, the water and the air, animating the very land itself. The Living Land is a dangerous place to live, where mountains move, rivers change their course on a whim, and the ground might suddenly open up and swallow you.

And yet – there is such a beauty and majesty to it! Oh, to live in a world where the trees do not just seem to move and whisper without a breath of wind, they actually do! In a world where streams leap up like living things and hills rise and fall like waves!

But humans would not be humans if they’d simply accept the danger of living in such a world. Instead, they’ve learned to harness the power of lirium to do magic. The magicians of Aradon have expanded their influence over most of the known world, and everything from lamps to flying ships is now lirium-powered.

However, the constant “harvesting” of lirium is not without cost: where lirium is gone, the land is dying out, is no longer shifting and changing, only dead rock and earth… a good thing for humans, who can now live there safely, but also a sad thing, a loss of beauty and magic.

And now, lirium is beginning to run low…

The parallel to our own world, to the shrinking reserves of fossil fuels and to the wars fought over oil might seem heavy-handed, but I don’t mind. Jenny-Mai Nuyen and I are just about a year apart in age, and I can imagine she feels the same frustration I do, that the older generation are just postponing the problem by trying to find more oil, no matter what the cost to the environment, instead of really looking for solutions, for alternatives to the fossil fuels so much of our civilisation relies on.

Hel, the main character of The Storm Hunters of Aradon, feels the same frustration. Having been raised as the foster daughter of a storm hunter captain, on one of the flying ships that hunt lirium storms to “harvest” the precious substance, she sees the problem more clearly than most, sees how the land is dying out and how it’s getting harder and harder to fill their ship’s stores.

When her ship crashes in the desert, and she is the only survivor, Hel is rescued by a strange boy named Mercurin. Together, they make it back to civilisation, and the magicians make Hel join the group sent to hunt down the demon who might be responsible for the destruction of several flying ships and the death of their crews, and who is now destroying villages, killing everything from the people and cattle to the trees and grass – a demon from the Old Realm, the only country not yet under the magicians’ influence, where the living land isn’t exploited by storm hunters, but revered and controlled by druids.

Hel can’t help thinking of Mercurin, with his strange language, mysterious habits and even more mysterious powers – but also of his kindness and his smile, and the fact that he saved her life.

Mercurin, meanwhile, is similarly torn between his duty to eradicate humankind before they utterly destroy the Living Land, and his wish to keep Hel safe…

There is more to the plot than just this Romeo-and-Juliet-ish theme, of course. There’s war, and rebellion, and either side doing evil in the name of doing good.

That’s another thing I really liked (and not just about this book, but also about Jenny-Mai Nuyen’s other books that I (re)read recently enough to remember them) – the lack of a clear “right” and “wrong”. Because nothing is ever really that black and white… everyone feels justified in what they do, even if it seems evil to other people.

And the language – there were so many sentences that were simply beautiful – but of course, now I can’t find a single one of them to quote.

I half-remember the first metaphor that jumped out at me, something like, “the branches rattled in the wind like the bones of abandoned and starved children.” A somewhat morbid example, maybe, but I really liked it. But no matter how long I looked, I could not find it – I’d think I’d imagined it, except that I simply do not come up with sentences like that myself.

It is a little humbling to think that Jenny-Mai Nuyen is a year younger than me, and already has seven books published, and writes so beautifully, and what am I? A mediocre story-scribbler who never gets anything finished. (But then again, I bet I know more about plants than she does.)

I usually compare books to food, but I can’t think of a meal that would fit here. Rather, after all the other books I’ve read, which all seem a little repetitive in their magic systems and worlds, like eating one opulent meal after another, The Storm Hunters of Aradon was like stepping out of a crowded room and taking a deep breath of fresh, clean air, or like a drink of cold, clear water out of a mountain spring. Told so seemingly lightly, without being weighed down with a lot of intrigue and backstory, giving no more than is necessary, and just hinting at Old Realm culture and language, like the fleeting scent of flowers on the breeze, and so refreshing in the differentness of its world.

Oh, I could babble on and on, but let’s leave it at this: if you an read German, you should read these books, and if you can’t, you should campaign for them to be translated.


* My one problem with Jenny-Mai Nuyen is that I don’t quite know what to call her. She’s my age, actually a little younger, and I’m still young enough that calling her by her last name feels weird. But I’m also not a person who calls people by their first names uninvitedly. I know a lot of Harry Potter fans refer to J.K. Rowling as “Jo”, but I’ve never done that, and probably never will. The one exception to this rule is Tad Williams, but I know he prefers it that way.

And anyway her name is really Nguyen, but apparently people are unable to pronounce that, so (according to Wikipedia, anyway) her publisher recommended she change it to Nuyen.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2012 01:04

    I would feel ridiculous referring to J.K. Rowling as “Jo”. I really wish these books were in English because they do sound like something I’d really enjoy. Maybe I can start learning German now and be able to read them in 10 years!


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