The Fecund's Melancholy Daughter by Brent Hayward
Reviewed by Matt Hilliard
19 August 2011
Near the beginning of Brent Hayward's The Fecund's Melancholy Daughter, a brilliant meteor appears above the crumbling city of Nowy Solum. Those living in the city interpret this as an omen foretelling great changes, perhaps even the return of their long absent gods. The reader, with the benefit of having read the novel's opening scene, will guess that this is, in fact, a spaceship reentering the atmosphere. The novel blends fantasy and science fiction in a way that makes both the characters and the reader correct.
Recognizing an omen is one thing, translating it into a course of action is another. The chatelaine, hereditary ruler of the city, goes on a rare walk outside her palace and sees a beautiful teenage girl named Octavia on the side of the road. That light in the sky meant the world is changing, she reasons, and this meeting has the feeling of fate. She orders her servants to take the girl with them when they return to the palace. This is something of a scandal, for Octavia is a "kholic" and therefore outcast, but the chatelaine ignores her servants' protests. None of them notice Octavia's twin brother Nahid, though he was standing next to her the whole time. Seeing his sister capriciously taken to the palace is the last straw for Nahid after a lifetime of discrimination and prejudice. In Nowy Solum, the blood of newborn children is tested, and if there is too much black bile (melancholia) they are taken from their families and put into ghettos, their faces tattooed to mark them as fit for only menial and degrading labor. Nahid's passionate anger attracts a "hemo" (normal blood) girl to his cause, and together they sneak into the palace and steal one of the chatelaine's "pets," a winged, talking baby. This, in turn, causes the chatelaine to send Octavia down to the palace dungeons to give the residue of a dream to the legendary monster imprisoned there, the fecund of the title.
Despite being the subject of many rumors, few have ever spoken with the fecund, but the reader knows her already. The fecund is simultaneously a swamp monster several times larger than a human, a fertility-aspected minor deity, a very intelligent if absent-minded and overly loquacious conversationalist, and the novel's narrator. The story is told in third person, and the fecund is a character in the story, but a few sections near the beginning make it clear this is a story told by the fecund as well. The fecund's exact abilities and even her appearance are never made clear, save for one power that has made her useful to the rulers of Nowy Solum for generations: when fed with the residue of a dream, she becomes pregnant and eventually gives birth to that dream made flesh.
The foregoing is just one thread out of many that make up the plot, but this is a novel that stubbornly resists summarization. The chatelaine, Nahid, and Octavia are all viewpoint characters, but there are many more besides, including a city mother with a newborn child about to be tested for black bile, a boy born without limbs who receives a vision from the gods that causes him to journey to Nowy Solum, and even characters who live far enough away they've never heard of the city, such as two who live in the branches of a tree so large they think it's the entire world. This is not a long novel, so this breadth of characters necessarily comes at the expense of depth. The prose covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time by leaving much about the setting and plot to allusion and inference as the narrative skips from one character to another, never lingering with anyone for long. The fecund, in her capacity as narrator rather than character, explains this mosaic approach early in the novel: "What I'm trying to say is that there's more to a story than events taking place in one location, to one person. You need to look at everything, at the same time, in the entire universe. Look at every person, every creature. Turn over every rock. See? In one glistening instant, plucked from the stream of time as it passes by: countless episodes, from a myriad of human lives, all vital, all entangled in a shared moment" (p. 21). It is to this standard that the novel aspires, and as a portrait of its strange world it is a striking success. Despite the complexity of the setting, the prose never becomes didactic, and unlike many modern attempts at avoiding exposition, neologisms aren't used as a crutch. That's not to say there aren't a few, like kholic and hemo, but mostly the text achieves its economy through clear and concise prose. The book still requires some acclimation, for the plot is intricate and the setting unusual, but the writing itself is remarkably accessible.
Whether the novel is successful at doing justice to its characters and ideas is another question, and here the results are uneven. The characters given the most time are interesting and even affecting, but many of the large cast are never more than simple types used to illuminate the setting, plot, and ideas. The most prominent fantastic element, the existence of kholics and the story's exploration of the city's prejudice against them, feels obvious at best. As is so often the case when speculative fiction attempts to engage with prejudice, genre is more a hindrance than a help. The people of Nowy Solum believe the unbalanced humours of kholics make them sullen, lazy, and prone to rages. I say "people" because the kholics believe this as well, and the kholic characters we meet seem to conform to the stereotype. And while this could all be the product of social forces, there's no evidence for this in the text. Kholics really do have blood that is visibly black, after all, unlike the people in our world who in previous eras were diagnosed with melancholia. There's nothing wrong with positing a secondary world in which the targets of prejudice really do have innate differences, but as an investigation into the origins and furtherance of prejudice, stories like this obscure more than they illuminate.
Thankfully, there's a lot more on the novel's mind than hemo/kholic relations. The other major fantastic element, the fecund, is a fascinating and unique creation. When she's trying to be scary, the fecund's size, teeth, claws, and intellect make her quite intimidating. But she never maintains such an attitude for long, and soon enough she's rambling along on some sort of rant, sounding more like a crotchety old woman than a monster. She can move very fast, but would much rather lounge given the choice. Somehow her dungeon cell is full of the murky water and insects one would expect in the swamp that is presumably her native habitat. It's easy to identify her as a sort of nature spirit, especially since the gods worshiped by the novel's humans turn out to be what the reader will immediately recognize as intelligent spaceships who wouldn't be at all out of place in an Iain M. Banks novel. Too ignorant to understand what they are, humans worship the spaceships and act as their servants and priests. Meanwhile, although the fecund has powers that make her the closest thing in the novel to an actual god, no one worships or serves her. Instead, she's a tool for the city's rulers, used as though she were a machine.
The people of Nowy Solum have lived in a mundane world for generations. As far as anyone outside the palace knows, the fecund is just a rumor, and only villages hugely distant from Nowy Solum retain any contact with the gods. But the flash in the sky really does herald change, and over the course of the novel both the gods and those they have possessed or otherwise influenced approach the city. This pattern, in which the fantastic has been gone so long that its existence begins to be questioned but now once again encroaches upon the mundane world, is a familiar one in the fantasy genre. But this rediscovery of the divine does not bring with it wonder or enlightenment, but instead chaos.
In the view of the storyteller, human nature makes this inevitable. I say storyteller because while Brent Hayward wrote the novel, the fecund is telling the story. In one of her brief narratorial asides early in the novel, the fecund provides her assessment of humans: "And you're tiny things—mere mortals, as they say—subjected, from day one, to a host of calamities and infirmities. The list is endless. Pride, envy, desire, ambition. Plagues, insecurity. Raging disease. Loss. Factions and hatred among your own people! Ignorance and war. You humans fascinate me" (pp.15-16). There are no positive attributes among her little list, and sure enough there are few enough among the story's characters. Taken together, the many viewpoint characters seem at first to be a broad sample: young and old, rich and poor, from Nowy Solum and from small villages. But few of these people have much in the way of kindness and none possess wisdom, nor do any of them seem likely to have been considered well-adjusted even by the standards of their own cultures prior to the tumultuous events of the novel.
Above all they are, as the fecund says, tiny things in a very big world. When the chatelaine meets Octavia at the beginning of the novel, she ascribes it to destiny, but she does not live in a divinely ordered world where good is destined to triumph over evil. It's not even a world where the powerful dominate the weak, as Nahid thinks when he decides to strike a blow against the oppression of kholics by sneaking into the palace. Each character and institution that at first seems powerful is sooner or later revealed to be impotent. The chatelaine and her father technically rule Nowy Solum, but the whole city knows they cannot even rule themselves. Unwilling or perhaps even psychologically unable to govern, the chatelaine has given herself over to the pursuit of physical pleasure, while her father has sequestered himself in the name of scientific inquiry, but neither of them ever find any satisfaction in these pursuits, and all the while the city crumbles around them. The religious bureaucracy that governs in their name is too weak to restrain the hatred of zealots and ultimately proves incapable of reconciling what it wants to believe about the gods with the gods themselves. Even their gods turn out to be vain and foolish, squabbling pointlessly among themselves, and for all their technological sophistication they prove to be disastrously dependent on the ignorant humans who worship them.
In a world that is forever beyond their understanding, the most any of these characters can hope for is that they learn to recognize this fact before they destroy themselves through their futile efforts at exerting control. As a character arc, this is more pragmatic than it is satisfying. The Fecund's Melancholy Daughter is a very effective piece of storytelling, but the story it tells is an unconventional one. Some readers may be disappointed by the relatively brief time in the spotlight the fragmentary narrative gives each of the many viewpoint characters, and others may wish there was a little more room in its mosaic for positive parts of the human experience like joy and love, but those willing to engage with the novel on its terms will find this to be an intriguing and well-written fantasy from a very promising author.