Friday, 25 October 2013

Mistification by Kaaron Warren

Mistification by Kaaron Warren is a strange book. I'm not sure what I was expecting — perhaps to be scarred for life as with Slights — but it's not really like any of Warren's other books/stories (that I've read so far). I'm including the blurb, but with the caveat that it's a bit misleading.
Marvo is a stage magician. His magic is real.

Marvo grows up without knowing his parents, without knowing his heritage, without knowing much about life.
The magicians have always been with us, since the beginning of civilisation. They fill our heads with the mist, keeping us from witnessing the stark reality of existence. But are things so bad that Marvo will bring it down on all of us, forever?

Marvo begins to understand those around him, and his place in the world; he discovers that his remarkable powers can be put to good, or to evil.

He only has to choose...
The misleading thing is that yes, Mistification is Marvo's story. It is, more or less, his life story. But it's also a book about stories. Marvo is driven to understanding the world and people and magic, and he searches for understanding by searching for stories. The book is interspersed with stories that the people he meets throughout his life tell him. Don't get me wrong though, this is not a thinly veiled short story collection. The stories Marvo gathers are short and in a way more like parables (although not in any biblical sense!). For me this made Mistification a difficult book to consume quickly, much like I find anthologies difficult to read straight through. I ended up reading it over the course of several weeks, with breaks to read other books in between. I don't feel that lessened the experience for me, as it might have with another book.

The setting was a bit odd (not in a bad way). Mostly it felt sort of generically non-specific and a bit Australian. If it weren't for a few references to the UK and America being not Marvo's home, I would've guessed it was vaguely British (although he does travel a lot). In fact, the opening put me in mind of somewhere perhaps South American, when a revolution or military coup (or something) had Marvo and his grandmother confined to a large family house. In the end, I could only conclude that Mistification is set nowhere or anywhere.

From a subgenre perspective, Mistification defies classification. It's not horrific in the same way as other Warren books and stories I've read have been, but it's still a bit eerie. Nothing terribly horrible happened (well, not to the main characters anyway), but it was far from a cheery tale. And there was magic, it could've been magical realism if not for the way the existence of magic was stressed. It's also quite literary — character, not plot, driven — and that might not be for everyone. I think it's a book that will be enjoyed much more by people who can appreciate the writing rather than demanding an action-based plot. I liked it, but it's not the kind of book I want to read every day.

One last thing I want to mention is the depth of research on folklore and folk-healing and so forth that evidently went into Mistification. There are five appendices (not required reading to enjoy the novel!) which add background information and small details to the story. And there are footnotes which also add little titbits. (Well, they were endnotes in the ebook edition, formatted quite well from a navigational point of view, but perhaps they're footnotes in the print version? Let me know in the comments if you have a print copy, I'm curious!) Both of these I think made the book easier to dip in and out of. And I'm dying to know how many of the folk-healing and little history snippets were "real". This is another aspect which I enjoyed because it fit well with the style of the book.

Mistification was an interesting read. Rather different to most of the books I read (and review on this blog). I think it has to be approached with a certain mindset to be appreciated (a conclusion drawn from skimming through some unfortunate goodreads reviews) and it's not going to be a book for everyone. People after a fast-paced plot-driven adventure need not apply. But if a more ponderous read is what you're in the mood for, and if my comments above have piqued your interest or if you really love to read stories about the nature of stories, then this is the book for you.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2011, Angry Robot
Series: No.
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Angry Robot store
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Horror Reading Challenge

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