You Should Read: Elizabeth Hand’s ILLYRIA (plus a note about why I do book reviews)

These book reviews I post when the mood strikes me aren’t in a category called “Books I’ve Read” or “Book Reviews” – they’re in a category called “Books I Recommend”. That’s because I read quite a lot of stories and collections and novels, but the ones I talk about here are the ones I think you should be reading too. I don’t review everything, and if I can’t find something worth suggesting you go out and pay actual cashy money for your own copy of the work, then I won’t mention it. Nothing good comes from me tearing apart the work of other writers, and if you’re looking for a bad book I’m sure you can find one on your own. That doesn’t mean I won’t point out where I think a story could have been better, because I’m honest like that, but it’ll be a story or a collection that is has other pieces which are lovely and moving and will expand your idea of what writing can be. If that wasn’t true, I wouldn’t mention the work at all.

I’m not a book blogger. I am a writer, and a reader, and sometimes I write about the things I’ve read.

I started working through the big pile of books that I brought home from Readercon 22, and the first one to be finished is Elizabeth Hand‘s ILLYRIA.

This book is a perfect example of what I think of when I say “magic realism”.

This slim volume is a little risqué but not overly so. “In this enchanting fantasy with a romance far more taboo than the current spate of paranormal pairings, Madeline and Rogan are 14-year-old first cousins and deeply in love,” Publisher’s Weekly said, and that’s true, though I don’t know if I’d have labeled it a “fantasy”. There is one, singular, magical thing about the story, a tiny magic object which everyone who sees it acknowledges shouldn’t exist. The magic isn’t an integral part of the universe, it falls outside of the rules that everyone and everything else must abide by. It’s almost the opposite of a fantasy, in which we enter the world of the amazing, where horses have wings and can fly or the seventh son of a seventh son has mystical powers. In those worlds, something may be unusual (how often do you get a seventh son of a seventh son anyway?) but it isn’t impossible. Magic is built into the framework of the universe and the laws of reality allow for that.

In a magic realism story, the laws of the universe are pretty much the same as our own, and the one magical thing is regarded by nearly everyone as something that shouldn’t be. In ILLYRIA, the story follows a young woman who realizes her fiercely loyal and erotic love for her cousin can’t withstand the changes they both face as they grow up. It’s about family, lust, heritage, drug addiction, the lure of fame and the disappointment of never quite getting all the fame you wanted. It’s a story that would still be lush in description and thick with rich language even if the little bit of magic didn’t exist. Hand’s novel an excellent reminder that we should be great writers no matter what the topic, and that putting in magical elements doesn’t excuse bad prose. Too often I’ve seen authors throw in a unicorn, zombie, or vampire, and then think they don’t have to work so hard at the craft at writing, but I’d recommend this book as a refresher course in how to do both.

Illyria, Elizabeth Hand. Viking, $15.99 (144p) ISBN 978-0-670-01212-1

2 thoughts on “You Should Read: Elizabeth Hand’s ILLYRIA (plus a note about why I do book reviews)

  1. Good review. I’m not really one for unicorns, goblins and the like, but i do like magic in a real world setting. Elizabeth Hands’ story sounds very interesting. I especially like the idea of people not wanting to acknowledge that a magical item exists, as i should imagine that’s how most people would react when faced with something so unusual as to dismiss it. And your correct about prose. Too often i have read what would be termed as ‘Urban fantasy’ only to find that the author has been so intent on describing fantastical events that the rest of the writing has suffered. Putting this book on my to read list. Thanks for the recommendation.

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