Spirit: or, The Princess of Bois Dormant by Gwyneth Jones
Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
26 January 2009
On 28 August 1844, Le Journal des Débats began the serial publication of a new work by the most prolific writer in French literature, Alexandre Dumas. Dumas was at the height of his powers. 1844 had already seen the publication of his greatest popular success, The Three Musketeers, but the new novel would come close to rivalling that success. It was a long book, well over 1,000 pages in my Penguin edition, though abridged editions are probably more common, which may be why it is now often considered a book for children. It is, indeed, a novel of constant and colourful adventure, but there is a darker theme running below the vivacious surface, for it is first and foremost a novel of betrayal and revenge. As such, of course, it was following a well-worn path, but Dumas managed to imbue the story with something fresh and haunting that made The Count of Monte Cristo lodge in the popular imagination. I remember the Irish comedian Dave Allen, years ago, presenting a series of sketches clearly based on the iconic moment when, after years of solitary imprisonment, Edmond Dantès digs through the wall of his cell and encounters the Abbé Faria, without ever needing to explain where the images came from.
The Count of Monte Cristo has already had an unlikely effect upon science fiction, in that Alfred Bester used it as the structural model for The Stars My Destination (Tiger! Tiger!), though he cut out practically the whole of the early portion of the novel. Gully Foyle is actually imprisoned twice, once shipwrecked in space (spurring his quest for revenge) and once in caves that resemble the Chateau d'If, and his escapes provide two treasures: wealth, and the ability to "jaunte" in space. The remainder of the novel is devoted to his quest for revenge in an extravagant, colourfully imagined future society that provides one of the precursors of cyberpunk.
Now, another extravagant space opera has taken The Count of Monte Cristo as its model, this time sticking somewhat more closely to Dumas's structure. Rather more than half of what is actually a long novel (though not even half the length of the original) is given over to the events leading up to imprisonment and the 20 years in a lonely cell; the revenge story, which should be the dramatic climax of the book, feels perfunctory by comparison. But I will come to that later.
Spirit forms a sort of sequel to Jones's Aleutian trilogy (White Queen, 1991; North Wind, 1994; and Phoenix Café, 1997), but the complex responses to being colonised explored in the earlier work are all but absent here. The colonists have left Earth, leaving behind a political structure of emperors and pretenders and warlords and endless petty wars that seems to owe more than a little to post-Soviet Central Asia—indeed, practically all of the early part of the novel is set in Baykonur, now one of the great cities of Earth because it serves as our gateway to the stars. In fact, in certain respects being colonised for around 300 years seems to have been good for our backwater planet. The Buonarotti Device, the means of travelling through space whose invention proved instrumental in the struggle for freedom in the trilogy, has given Earth access to the half-dozen inhabited worlds, and humans now seem to be far bigger players in the great game of interspatial politics than the Aleutians.
Not that this is at all obvious from the grubby little wars and narrow feudalistic society we come to know on Earth. Our Edmond Dantès is Gwibiwr (the name suggests a Celtic origin, perhaps some association with Guinevere, but racial origins seem confused in this post-Aleutian world, and since most of the big players have names suggesting an Oriental background maybe we should see this as marking her out as an Outsider), commonly known as Bibi, who is captured by the warlord General Yu when her family of rebels is wiped out. The General's wife, Lady Nef, saves the little girl from her husband's sexual attentions by taking Bibi into her own household, where she works her way up through a complex hierarchical social structure, eventually becoming a sort of social worker, an occupation that allows us to see rather more of the underbelly of this stagnant world order than we do of its leadership. This means that when we do, in the latter parts of the novel, see the top layers of society almost exclusively, they seem rather vapid when compared to this grittier and more interesting early section.
Meanwhile, off-stage and explained through passing references and oblique asides, we come to understand that General Yu has backed the wrong side in some global power play, and the family is living under a cloud, though Lady Nef has used her own powerful connections to ensure that nothing too bad has happened. Then one of Bibi's social work cases leads her to discover an illicit hoard of Buonarotti coffins in the crypt of an old church. Since it is forbidden to use the Buonarotti Devices on Earth itself, Bibi's discovery lays bare a vast and frightening conspiracy, though the nature of the conspiracy is never exactly made clear.
At first, it seems to presage an upturn in the family fortunes, since General Yu is chosen to lead a delicate diplomatic mission to Sigurt's World, and Bibi is assigned one of the few places on the mission (though it means leaving behind her new fiancé). Right from the start, however, things do not go according to plan. On Sigurt's World they find themselves in the brutal and backwards kingdom of Myotis, where antagonism between the two groups grows into open warfare. A pitched battle is fought, many of Bibi's friends are killed, and she is spared only because the Myot prince has taken her for his wife. She has a son who is taken away from her at birth, then for a long period of time is kept in seclusion in the castle while providing fresh blood for her child (the Myots drink each other's blood as their staple diet). At last it looks as if she is to be released, but instead she is taken to a prison moon where, after being raped by the guards, she is thrown into an underground cell.
The account of the long imprisonment that follows (20 years, the same span that Dantès endured) illustrates how closely Jones is adhering to her model, with one significant difference: the sex of her protagonist. Throughout the novel there is an acute awareness of the way sex dictates social roles, positions in the hierarchy, individual power, and much else. Now it means that, unlike Dantès, she does not spend her imprisonment alone, because the rape results in her giving birth to a girl, who does not grow to adolescence throughout the long years of their joint incarceration, who will die in the moment of Bibi's escape, who will be given no name other than "Dirt" because she is the embodiment of Bibi's abject situation, but whose presence keeps Bibi sane and whose size and quick wit will provide essential help at several key junctures. Together, these two dig their way through the cell wall and reach another solitary prisoner, but this "Abbé Faria" is known to us already: Lady Nef. Her freedom has been bargained away by General Yu in exchange for his own advancement, setting him at the heart of the network of betrayals soon to be avenged. Like the Abbé, Lady Nef provides her younger companion with purpose, self-knowledge, wealth and, with her own death, the opportunity for escape.
At this point, in The Count of Monte Cristo, an immensely wealthy stranger appears in French high society and proceeds to use the greed and other flaws of his enemies to bring them down one by one. So, in Spirit, an immensely wealthy woman, known as the Princess of Bois Dormant, appears in the high society of Speranza, the artificial city that is the hub of all the known worlds. But here the faithfulness of the copy to its original begins to waver. For a start, the way that Dumas accelerated both the action and the tension throughout this portion of his novel is largely absent from Spirit, and the occasional adventures inserted into the story seem largely artificial additions, not really part of the overall plot. Secondly, this world of the incredibly rich is drawn with no real conviction, and is more like a hasty sketch of a contemporary suburb than a detailed insight into a setting of unimaginable power, wealth, and technology. The intense and gritty reality that is the hallmark of all the settings in this novel until the moment Bibi escapes her prison is replaced with something vague and half-hearted. Thirdly, with the exception of General Yu and his power-hungry concubine, it is not always clear who Bibi's enemies are or why they should be targeted, nor is the machinery of Bibi's revenge at all obvious, indeed several of them seem to be brought down more by happenstance than by any deliberate manipulation on Bibi's part. Rather than a fairly straightforward revenge plot, such as Dumas wrote, Jones seems increasingly, in this last section, to be stretching for something transcendent and mystical, but without ever quite grasping it firmly enough to make it work within the plot she is constructing.
Finally, and I think what lies behind most of these discontents, there is an extra character: D"fydd (note that, without the two alien apostrophes, this is another Welsh name). He is Bibi's Myot son, though he doesn't know this until the end, and more of this final section of the novel is given over to her relationship with him than to the supposed plot. Yet this relationship contains no surprises or revelations that might make it more important as story or as insight than Dumas's original. It says something about Bibi as mother, but Bibi has herself changed; the clever, hesitant, powerless Bibi has become the clever, confident, and powerful Princess. In other words the sexual politics of the story have had to change, and in changing the story has lost much of its fire. Jones even has to introduce a couple of maltreated young women as potential girlfriends for D"fydd and his companion just to keep that aspect of the novel in play, and the artifice of the introduction shows only too clearly.
Spirit is, I think, possibly the best thing Gwyneth Jones has written since the original Aleutian trilogy. But it is a novel whose strength wanes the longer it goes on. If she had stayed closer to the colour and drama of the original, it might have ended up being even better.