by D.M. Cornish
700 pages, Putnam Juvenile
Review by SF Winser
D.M. Cornish is an Australian illustrator turned YA/JF author. Thank goodness he has, because if he’d stayed just drawing we’d have missed out on all this talent.
In the Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy (I’m told it’s called ‘The Foundling’s Tale’ in North America), Cornish has done what is - quite frankly – one of the finest bits of world-building since Tolkien.
In this final novel, our protagonist Rossamund, the orphan-foundling (A boy, despite the girl’s name), is gradually uncovering that some supernatural allies have been keeping secrets from him. He has also finally become the Factotum (man-Friday) of the monster-slayer Europe, aka, Europa, Duchess in Waiting of Naimes, aka, The Brandon Rose. In this novel the poor foundling of book 1, who turned border-guard (or Lamplighter) in book 2, has fled the collapsing structure of the Lamplighters to become a right-hand servant and fellow-fighter to the noble-born travelling warrior.
Now a few words about Europe. Europe is quite possibly one of the most interesting characters in children’s fiction. A fierce, combative heiress who kills monsters – good and bad – in an act that is a mixture of heroism, self interest and rebellion. In the first book she uses her power of creating electricity to shock Rossamund, a small boy, into unconsciousness for annoying her. She has almost no natural maternal attributes, but ends up the closest thing to a mother-figure in the books.
She is the second major character of the trilogy. And, in many ways, more sympathetic, more interesting and more likable than even the rather earnestly lovable Rossamund – who, by virtue of being a young innocent, sometimes gets dragged around the plot by the other characters. One should not read these books expecting a story about Rossamund. These books are very much about how Rossamund and Europe, together, grow into their roles, find solace in each other and come to terms with finding out that the world they live in is not as black-and-white as they always felt it.
There are wonderful themes on the idea of ‘monster’ throughout these books. The Half-Continent is populated by a range of horrible and grotesque creatures who are desperately trying to bring about the extinction of humanity. Anyone who consorts with monsters is considered a traitor – a sedorner – and summarily executed. The monsters are often terrifying and those who fight them – like Europe – live short, famous and well-paid lives. There are even a few Lovecraftian ‘False Gods’ and many bogeymen. There are creatures of mythic proportions that almost resonate on the page with power.
But there are also friendly-seeming things. Some of which are still dangerous and full of power. Even the monsters are not all easily pinned down.
On top of all this, Cornish the illustrator has managed (with help, I’m sure) to put together books that feel like old classics in the hand, have wonderfully relevant end papers and are full of delicious illustrations, maps and diagrams. There are printed ‘ex libris’ pieces from relevant Half-Continent libraries. There are old-fashioned ribbon bookmarks embedded in the spine. These are the types of books where I can imagine children sitting in a patch of sunlight, poring over the open pages for hours, reading, re-reading and memorising trade-routes and slang.
There are a couple of problems. Some of the threads of certain characters are left hanging or are solved too abruptly. Rossamund, as I said before, feels like he is reacting to the decisions of other characters more than he is causing the plot to move forward. And at the conclusion of the trilogy his own story feels like it is only half-way finished – in fact, Rossamund pretty much says this himself in the text. But, as I said, this trilogy is more about how he and Europe interact with and change each other rather than just being about Rossamund himself, and that part of the story is concluded with some satisfaction. I still would have liked to have known more about Threnody (Rossamund’s closest companion/enemy/friend in book 2) or have had the fall of Lamplighter’s enemies to happen a bit more on-page rather than in reports, since they’d been such a big part of book 2.
But these are quibbles. These are big, ambitious books that reward those willing to put in the work. Great for smart kids or adults after a bit of clever fantasy. They're full of great language, interesting characters and wonderful world building.
Cornish's Half Continent has a full and rich geography and sociology. Even, if reports are to be believed, some future-history. From what I've been told, this future is so well worked out that the Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy could rightly be called Historical Fiction for his own created world. Costumes. Weapons. Calenders. Measurements. Astronomy. Entertainment. Chemistry. Medicine. Mythology. Technology. Politics. All have heavily worked-out past (and future) histories.
The best description for this fantasy subgenre is ‘Steampunk’ (and I have actually had this discussion via blog-tag with Cornish after I cited him in an essay about Steampunk. He had never considered MBT Steampunk – but it’s a world full of retro-tech science, surgery, chemistry and magic so it fits my personal definition). The setting is a sort of corrupt Georgian naval-empire in a world full of monsters and doesn’t quite fit the typical, Victoriana Steampunk stereotype that is overused in the genre, but it is full of mad-scientists, weird technology and magical creatures: there’s no other term that fits as well.
But above all this is the language.
Cornish is not, as far as I’m aware, a Tolkienesque linguist. He hasn’t invented entire languages. He HAS managed to create a world with a true linguistic history and flavour. There are language-trends that affect ‘current’ word usages. There is a reason the last major part of all three MBT books is taken up with an extensive glossary. Cornish invents new words that work within his world’s history and sociology on almost every page. This glossary of invented terms isn’t a new trend in fantasy but it’s almost never done so seamlessly. Many fantasy authors write in English, scattered with a few new terms and phrases. Cornish doesn’t write books in English. He writes as though he is writing in the language of The Half Continent—which just happens to have some major similarities to English. It’s an immersive approach. Some books use rich language, some use stark, or elegant; Cornish writes almost like his books are a chocolate cake full of rare and exotic spices. Exotic to us, but from a land where he is a native, so he can pepper his creations with these flourishes with flair and grace.
These language trends and invented terms aren’t the Irish/Gaelic/Germanic rip-offs of typical fantasy, either. Cornish builds words from Latin, Germanic, French, Old English, modern English, what appears to be street-cant and probably a few other influences I haven’t spotted. The language is a sprawling, Gothic melange that feels almost Dickensian. As a librarian I often get asked to recommend books for younger young-adults who are highly-advanced readers but aren’t ready for too many adult-level concepts. Cornish is top of my list for his challenging language.
But I'm quite happy to admit that I get a bit into them myself.