Brother Kings

[Review of "The Scrolls of Nef" by Gary Glickman, Hand to Hand Publishing]


 (1374 words)


                  Despite the hype around the publication of  Gary Glickman's "The Scrolls of Nef" (Hand to Hand Press—Topanga, CA), the actual information offered to the press has been ambiguous at best. The mystery as well as the hype had me skeptical, but the novel's innate charms quickly infused my imagination, and I happily forgot the politics of publishing and film options.

                  In any aesthetic environment—but perhaps especially in today's violence-obsessed culture—this novel is a discovery, a reviewer's delight: a complex, elegant wonder, a combination of epic origin story,  heroic fantasy, treatise on love, time and literature, told with the intimacy of a realist comedy of manners. Those archetypal story patterns balance among several styles, voices, plots, characters, and worlds that are simultaneously archaic and contemporary. And the reader is constantly made to feel that such worlds exist, though no such worlds exactly exist—exactly the novelist's task. The work of Ursula LeGuin comes immediately to mind, surely one of the author's influences, and Marion Zimmer Bradley—The Scrolls of Nef is sort of an Earth Sea meets Left Hand of Darkness meets Avalon.

                  Epic in scope, and weighing in at 565 pages, nonetheless it is a compelling, quick read, the kind of vivid pleasure-dream one hopes will not end soon.  In proper old-fashioned style, the first "scroll" is a brief Prologue, explaining the discovery of the lost library of ancient Nef, after an earthquake "cracked open" the wall of lava that had protected the scrolls for 3,000 years. The prologue-writer's great-uncle's great uncle, we are told, had supervised the discovery and the translation of the scrolls a century earlier.

At once we are plunged into the great uncle's childhood, a pre-modern patriarchal kingdom resembling medieval Europe, but with a mythical ancient history of high-technology. The kingdom of Ruhal (draw-bridges, horse-drawn carriages, cross-bows, burning arrows) is being invaded and attacked by a Fundamentalist Empire called "The Godlians," and I don't know if the Godlians are supposed to be an actual religion, but they are scary heretic-burning Monotheist extremists who want things done their own way.

The two young princes of the invaded kingdom are separated and cast into diverse fortunes: the narrator-prince Orland into southern exile with his mother and sister; the warrior-prince elder brother Talland into hiding out among the threatened indigenous people of his northern kingdom, the Celebrants.

                  Thus begins "Part One" of Nef, entitled, "Spellbinder." It is a daring title, risking a critic's defiance, but the double-meaning of the title is deserved. The book, like its characters, weaves a spell. Orland, the young narrator, apprentices to his great uncle Mordec, a prince of Nef, who is also a wise elder and an old romantic, whose lover had been a priest of the old ways—a 'spell-binder.'  Such inter-generational attention to detail is part of the spell of the novel, that, like any  accomplished art, succeeds in bringing to life the beauty of wisdom passed down through generations, in all its complex dimensions. When successful—and I believe this novel 'succeeds' in this sense— the complexities cohere organically into one driving story. That, as Great Uncle Mordec of Nef might say, is the artist's magic.

                  To sum up an epic, then:

                  Naive prince Orland has his Bildungsroman coming of age in his mother's sophisticated ancient culture, on the island of Nef. It is a culture completely foreign to him, ever on the verge of collapse, threatened by the same fundamentalist empire that here seeks to eradicate the scrolls and impose their own version of the past—a plot sometimes honing surprisingly close to contemporary politics. Along the way, Orland writes his imagined version of  the story of his crown-prince brother, who has stayed behind in Ruhal to fight the Godlians. It is the brothers' alternating stories, eventually intertwining, that make up the branches of the plot.

"Pirates of Nef," the Second Part of the novel, recounts the narrator-hero's exodus from Nef  by sailing ship, escaping with a precious cargo of banned scrolls that the Godlians would like to destroy. He takes with him his beloved, a celebrant refugee named Rabjam, and the young woman they have saved from the bridal slave-auction. The trio disguise themselves as itinerant musicians, succeeding at last in finding safe harbor for the scrolls.  It is a lovely image, the heroes disguised as a kind of ancient rock-band, and allows for the introduction of lyrics ancient and modernized, supposedly translations of even more ancient lyrics. The idea allows for the inclusion of many of these 'translations,' and it is to the author's credit that they hold up so well as ancient lyrics, translated several times into the current fluent translation, in this case, English:

When I'm with you,

The clouds are spirits reaching up

To touch the highest place in heaven.

When I'm with you,

The colors spill down from the sky,

They paint the waves,

I don't know why I never saw these things before

in color. And if there's nothing more,

When I am with you, that'll be okay—

Those colors—with me.



 It seems a tight-rope walk each time, to credibly bridge cultural and epochal differences in aesthetics, reminding readers that all archetypal lyrics and stories are translations from long ago imaginations, even when they re-appear through contemporary imaginations. Here the English translations of the lyrics are so beautiful they create a longing in the reader to know the "original language" versions—another neat novelist's trick. (Tolkien, of course, created an actual language to further blur the lines of history and fiction; but his poems, too, are all 'translations.') (PS: There is an iBooks version of the novel, with full-color illustrations, links to videos and maps of Nef and surrounding environs, and, in the Full Version, wonderful settings of the charactersÕ songs by The Dream Brothers.)

Meanwhile, in the North, the older brother Talland nearly marries the Godlian Questioner's vicious daughter, waking up just in time. Later he earns his own moral education among the mountain-top healer-women, half-crazed healers considered to be witches. It is one of the pleasures of this book that what might easily fall into clichˇ constantly evades clichˇ by its balance of detail and nuance. Thus again and again it resonates with archetypal energy: these are real woman, but it is also easy to see how they might be perceived as witches; any reader might think so, were they not in the spell of the narrator, whose vision is loving and wise, but also unsentimental, spare, and self-aware: the narrator knows he himself was arrogant, thoughtless, dense in his youth. The king is a story-book king, but he is also a tired old man with a mistress, and then with a young wife who abandons him. Even the most unpleasant character in the novel, the arch-villain, "Virdurshk," has his legitimate motivation and complex life (he is handsome and mild), all too credible in his venality and viciousness.

"King of the Celebrants," the third and final section of the scrolls, recounts the narrator's return to his native country to fight the Godlians—with only song and story, evidently— and join again with his warrior brother.  Really, though, the brief third part and epilogue is a sweeping, quick magic act, a pulling together of many characters and many decades. The narrator is an old king now, dictating to his own great-nephew, teaching him his stories and his songs, writing out one last 'scroll.' Orland has, in effect, become the great-uncle, the old man who was his own great-uncle and great teacher. The precious scrolls of Nef have been saved, translated, dispersed; we are reading them. The ancient songs and stories have been translated, memorized, sung, the voice of the great ancient poet, "Hazell," resonates again through the land.

 The unknowable past, in other words, can speak to us, as close to us as our own present-moment's imagination.  Our present moment will of course one day be a relic for a future reader. That is a message and gift that literature can deliver—that the best literature does deliver— perhaps most eloquently of all the arts.