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Lifelode

July 16, 2013
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I’ve been dilatory in my reading through the run of The Music Man and the end of the academic year. I have just-started books lying all over my living room and bedside table.

Yesterday I took the afternoon and finished the one at the top of my bedside table stack, which was Lifelode, with the wonderful inscription I got from its author, Jo Walton, at the end of May. Lifelode is one of her earlier novels; I picked it up at the bookstore where she was doing a signing because it was the only one of hers I hadn’t yet read.

It’s very interestingly told, all in present tense and about an extended family who live in a manor house and look after the safety and well-being of the village around; the setting feels vaguely medieval, and when danger comes they fight with swords and bows, in addition to magic, which is called “yeya.” Much of it is told from the point of view of the woman who keeps house for the family, Taveth. Keeping house is her “lifelode,” or calling. The danger comes in the form of a grandmother who had left the house long ago to pursue her lifelode and has now returned, wielding great power and teaching the most talented children to develop and control their yeya.

The world is and isn’t like our own. I enjoyed the way the manor house, called Applekirk, was described in detail, and then it was revealed that “all the doors of the house are aware—they open when asked and close behind. They can speak, though they seldom do, and they have a very limited and specialized vocabulary dealing largely with insides, outsides, and variations of passage through.” First I enjoyed it because the description is added on to the description of the rest of the house so matter-of-factly, and second, of course, because it reminds me of the sentient doors in the Heart of Gold (Douglas Adams).

We are introduced to the world through the eyes of a curious young man, Jankin, who has traveled to Applekirk to do his research as a scholar. He enjoys everything, even his fellow travelers: “they tell him about towns they have seen and people they have met, and he takes it all in with the same keen interest he turns on whatever falls under his eye.”

The story is always revealed in the most mundane way. The moment when the grandmother’s, Hanethe’s, secret is revealed is while Taveth is preparing dinner. The lord, Ferrand, is trying to find out how the manor has gotten caught up in a dispute between his grandmother and a god named Agdisdis, asking Hanethe:

“What was the change Agdisdis wanted to make?”
“She wanted all children to be born only within marriage,” Hanethe says.
“….Taveth continues to stir the pan, looking at the golden circles of carrot and the egg-coated grains of rice….
“It’s the change that’s hard to explain,” Hanethe says. “And how I stopped her. There are things nobody would understand, things I didn’t want to say….in the East it isn’t possible to be yourself—to be rendsome—to keep yourself separate. Nobody can.”
“But you were there?” Ferrand says questioningly. “And now you’re here. You must have kept yourself separate somehow.”
“Only the gods can,” Taveth says, stirring….
“I was a god,” Hanethe says, smiling bitterly….
“The goddess Hanethe?” Ferrand asks, blankly, but Taveth has understood better.
“Part of a god?”

As the struggle of Hanethe to keep herself separate from the rest of the god Agdisdis becomes clear to the family and the reader, the everyday needs of the family remain their primary concern, and so the process of searching for answers, the desire for a god’s-eye view, remains secondary to the satisfaction of providing enough food during the siege of the manor house and looking out for the safety of its children.

There are interesting relationships within the extended family—familiar and yet not-quite-familiar, like the talking doors–and some of the attacks on their safety come through pulls on the complicated knots of those relationships. The parents have hopes and dreams for their children, although, again, the talents of the children and the way the parents imagine their futures are very different from anything in our world.

The way the fantastic is revealed in the familiar and the domestic is the charm of this novel. However scattered your life may feel, reading about how Applekirk defends itself will give you the same kind of satisfied feeling it gave me, as if you could be doing something bigger than it seems by going about your daily tasks–finishing a book, boiling potatoes and corn, and calling everyone in to the table.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2013 6:52 pm

    I always like the specificity in Jo Walton’s books. Like the door thing with their particular vocabulary — that’s the kind of cool, particular detail that I like a lot. She does it in Among Others too, with the small ways the magic works. It’s excellent.

    • July 18, 2013 8:12 am

      Yes, the specifics are always evocative. Some that I enjoyed but didn’t describe from this book are about how one of the characters dresses.

  2. Jenny permalink
    July 17, 2013 2:23 pm

    I think familiar-but-not-quite-familiar books are my favorite sort, however that is achieved: like the Melendy books when I was a child that were so like my own childhood and yet quite unlike in some ways, or the utterly recognizable children in the Edward Eager books who did magical things. I’ve grown up to love that slight tectonic shift in grownup books, too.

    • July 18, 2013 8:17 am

      I’m pretty sure Walton absorbed the Melendy books, along with Edward Eager and E. Nesbit, as a child, and they might have had some influence on her how she learned to put her own touch to the verisimilitude of her fictional worlds.

      • Jo Walton permalink
        July 19, 2013 2:26 am

        Actually I never heard of the Melendy books until I was grown up. I read the first one a year or two ago and was too old for it. Eager and Nesbit, yes.

        • July 19, 2013 7:01 am

          Interesting! It’s unfortunate that a person can be too old to read some children’s books for the first time.

  3. July 18, 2013 9:04 am

    Oh this sounds like fun. I’ve not read Jo Walton yet but I am beginning to understand why so many people like her books!

    • July 18, 2013 10:24 am

      This one would be a place to start, although I think my favorite is Tooth and Claw because I love it when conventions become literal.

  4. July 23, 2013 4:13 pm

    I think I like the sound of this more than Among Others! Something about the house (and it sounds a bit gothic even if it’s actually not).

    • July 28, 2013 5:18 pm

      The way the inhabitants use their magic (“yeya”) to do household tasks is one of the fun parts.

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