The Ill-Made Mute

by Cecilia Dart-Thornton

Cover image

Series: The Bitterbynde #1
Publisher: Warner Aspect
Copyright: 2001
Printing: April 2002
ISBN: 0-446-61080-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 557

Buy at Powell's Books

The Ill-Made Mute opens with a classic amnesia scenario that lasts longer than most. The protagonist is a a blank slate, a nameless, sexless creature fleeing for unknown reasons and falling into horrible disfigurement and unconsciousness. Even after rescue, the mute is without a name far into the book, laboring as a servant, abused, and watching. At times, one can forget there is a viewpoint character at all. It's one of the most comprehensive uses of the viewpoint character as a self-insertion point for the reader that I've seen, letting the background become the main focus.

There's quite a lot of background, even after the protagonist develops more of an independent character. Dart-Thornton is lavish in her world-building. The story opens in a vast castle reaching more than fifty stories up to serve as a landing point for flying horses and airships. The lower floors are teaming with servants attending to the nobles who live in the heights. Dart-Thornton takes her time showing their culture and stories, introducing the business of the castle, and painting a picture of a world that lives in the skies. She builds up the mythology of peril and strangeness of the forests that the sky routes avoid, and then once the story finally leaves the castle, is even more lavish in their description. Huge amounts of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish mythology populate the book's forests and wilds and serve as endless perils, allies, and vistas for its protagonists.

I always roll my eyes when I see fantasy novels compared to Tolkien, but I can understand what some reviewers were getting at here, as a matter of style rather than necessarily entertainment value or literary merit. Dart-Thornton isn't as good at creating a sense of history as Tolkien was, but she uses a similar approach: snippets of song, legendary tales told around fires, layers of history, and a sense that most of the problems the characters encounter are just the current manifestation of something that's been going on for centuries. She also bases her world on native British mythology in ways that are similar to Tolkien's use of Nordic, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon mythology. Unfortunately, she tries a bit too hard, and the story bogs down with the weight of story-telling and lavish background description.

The weight of description isn't helped by Dart-Thornton's love of lists. The following passage is sadly typical:

The Caermelor Road had threaded its way through farmlands, past garths and granges, crofts and byres, alongside hedged meadows where cattle pondered or shepherds with crosiers followed their flocks, past pitch-roofed haystacks, ponds teaming with ducks, tilled patches of worts in leafy rows, and burgeoning fields of einkorn, emmer, and spelt where hoop-backed reapers toiled, by vinyards glutted with overflow of clammy juice and moss-trunked orchards already ravished, the last windfalls rotting on the ground, their sweet decay choired by sucking insects. It had passed from these tamed lands to rolling country, where trees stood in lines or clustered in holts and spinneys. Stained copper, auburn, xanthe, crimson, and bronze, their leaves fled down lightly in glimmering showers, to form deep-piled carpets.

At an abstract level, I appreciate the command of vocabulary, but I rarely got more than a few lines into one of those paragraphs before my eyes glazed over, I got lost in the commas, and I started skimming. It's too many obscure words in one place, too much lavish description, excessive nested parallel structure, and too much to swallow in one bite. When the book is rife with passages like this, it creates similar problems as the science fiction nemesis of wads of exposition. In isolation, these paragraphs often form beautiful word-pictures, but the technique only works in small doses for me. (If you drank in every word, though, I expect you'd love this book.)

As you might have guessed, the largest problem I had with this book was the pacing. After we're introduced to the mute, it takes a hundred pages for any significant plot action to start, and from then on this is a road novel. Plot developments are frequently set aside for another bout of description, or for the resolution or avoidance of perils that are ancillary to the overall story. The center of the book, chapters five and six, are the highlight, and when I reached them I had hope that the story would finally take off. They're still leisurely, but full of character development, interesting puzzles, a fun interpersonal dynamic, and a wonderful feeling of age. Alas, from chapter seven through the end of the book, the pace drops of drastically again and even the climax is meandering. Looking back from the end of the book, it's sad how much of the interesting plot is packed into the 140 pages of the center chapters.

By the end, and despite some annoying and undefended love-at-first-sight nonsense, the mute has developed into an interesting character who is more than just a window for the reader to look into the world. I did grow attached to at least that one character, enough that I'm curious about the rest of the story. But I must admit it's hard to face the prospect of an even longer second book in a trilogy that's unlikely to pick up the pace.

If you want a lavishly described other-world fantasy built on a rich mulch of British folk mythology, you could do worse. But I'd only look for this book if you're in the mood for lots and lots of words.

Followed by The Lady of Sorrows.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-11-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21