Guardian's Key, Anne Logston, Ace Books, 1996, ISBN 0-441-00327-3, 310pp, paperback.
To date Anne Logston has labored in the great American Fantasy Mill, grinding out pleasant fantasies about a female version of that stock D&D character, The Thief. There are some nice touches but her work has been well within the boundaries of modern formula fantasy. Guardian's Key is a much more ambitious work.
Personally, this is a very satisfying book. I had discovered her quite by accident and, for obscure reasons, added her to my list of authors that I read. Apparently my subconscious believed that she, like Ursula LeGuin, had a potential that was not blatantly visible in her first works. It is gratifying to see that she has written a book that, in my opinion, justifies that faith.
Modern formula fantasy tills a wellworked soil in which domesticated adventure fiction is cultivated and the wild wood of faerie is well shut out. The names drawn from Faerie remain, elves and dragons, ghosts and magic, but what those names label in formula fantasy is processed cheese product. Compare if you will, Piers Anthony's Xanth and Dunsany's The King Of Elfland's Daughter.
Guardian's Key lies in the marches between Fantasy Land and Faerie. In Fantasy Land magic is an alternate universe technology in which machines are replaced by spells and software manuals are replaced by grimoires. Enchantment is not to be found there save only by happenstance.
Guardian's Key is nominally set in that stock world of formula fantasy wherein medievalism and magery are intermingled. However that world is only a frame; the real story take place in the Crystal Keep.
The Crystal Keep is an enclosed self-contained world. Such places are important; they offer uncontaminated realities. Kafka dealt in such worlds, essences of incomprehensible interaction with bureaucratic juggernauts. Borges and Escher dealt in paradox, strange worlds twisted back on themselves.
The Crystal Keep is a house of many worlds. There is a long (but not infinite) hall with doors off it, each door opening onto a little private world. The visitor is given a golden key which unlocks the doors into these worlds; without a key one is trapped in the hall or in one of the private worlds. If you like, you can think of the hall as literature and the rooms as individual books. [Obligatory symbolism alert.]
The protagonist, Dara, is a young woman who loves and is loved by a local prince. If Dara had her family talent as a mage she would have sufficient station that they might wed. Alas, there is a mysterious curse on her such that she lacks that talent so she sets out on a quest to the Crystal Keep where it is said that wishes may be granted by the Oracle of the Keep. After some small difficulties she gains access to the Crystal Keep and the real story begins.
Dara is met upon entry by Lord Vanian, keeper of the Keep. She learns that the Oracle of the Keep does not grant wishes; it will answer one (and only one) question. Lord Vanian can grant her wish. She names it and he asks her price, what will she pay him for having her wish granted? Equal value given for value received is the iron law of the Keep. She does not know so that becomes her quest - to find the Oracle to ask what the price of her wish is. She sets out with her key to search the Keep for the Oracle. In the course of doing so she acquires a comic sidekick, solves mysteries, is raped by Lord Vanian, learns undesirable truths, meets people who help her, finds wonders, and nurses Lord Vanian back to health after he is wounded while saving her life. In the end she makes a shocking discovery and then she and Vanian settle down happily ever after. So much for the plot.
Each of us carries the child we were in our heart, a child who felt and thought in ways that we as adults no longer do. Fantasy, real fantasy, speaks to that child and to those elements of human experience that are outside the mundane. Enchantment is real; it is part of the human experience; and it has its varieties. Timelessness and disconnection are, in their own way, as real as the burning heart and gritty reality and the mundane. Faerie is not really elsewhere and otherwhen; it is to be found in the human heart but the gate to the path therein swings on rusty hinges. Fantasy is an oil that eases the opening of that gate.
One of the themes of fantasy is literalism; names have power and magic. Words are taken literally as law. Literalism is part of the child's view of the world; it is one of the ways fairy tales unite the child and the adult. The shocking ending [read the book, no spoiler here] relies on literalism in just the way that fairy tales do. Guardian's Key is not a child's tale however; Dara's final gift to Vanian - that she will teach him how to peel turnips - is not one that would occur in a fairy tale.
What about the Elven hall under the hill? We are shown one - Kelara's garden wherein the creator of the Keep exists timelessly in an eternal song - but we do not truly experience it; timeless enchantment is difficult to deal with in words. However the Keep itself is an Elven hall under the hill. Both manifestly and subtly we see how the residents are bent and shaped to its reality. This is a love story but it is also a transition point between one timeless reality and another. One can foresee that Lord Vanion's timeless boredom is only to be replaced by timeless love and domesticity.
The love story is a bodice ripper fantasy. Vanion is that archetype of bodice ripper romances, strong, dark, brooding, and irresistably drawn to Dara. She initially despises and fears him and is raped by him [by deceit and magic rather than force]. Hate turns to love all unknowing as he saves her life and she in turn saves him and nurses him to health. If you can't abide the bodice ripper formula don't read the book.
Fantasy is not for everyone. Those who are hopelessly wedded to mimetic fiction need not stop here. Those whose preference in fantasy are trilogies stocked with characters drawn from the D&D game manuals will find this work puzzling. In the jargon of the oenophiles this work is neither a LaFitte Rothschild nor a wine cooler. Rather is a provincial wine, unpretentious but filled with surprising excellencies that the lover of true fantasy can savor.
This page was updated and moved October 17, 2008