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Elizabeth Hand – Illyria

November 26, 2014

88. Illyria by Elizabeth Hand (2010)

Length: 144 pages
Genre: Young Adult General Fiction

Started: 18 October 2014
Finished: 21 October 2014

Where did it come from? BookMooch.
Why do I have it? Ana’s fault!
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 11 June 2011.

All the world’s a stage,
but the space you create on
stage isn’t all real.

Summary: Rogan and Maddy are two of the youngest members of the wealthy Tierney family, first cousins descended from a famous actress. They’re closer than cousins normally are: Maddy is in love with Rogan, and is convinced that he’s the only one who understands her, and vice-versa… with the possible exception of their typically aloof Aunt Kate, who encourages the children in their love of performance while attempting to distance Maddy from her emotional attachment to Rogan. While Maddy and Rogan are alone together in Rogan’s room, they discover a mysterious and magical fairy theater hidden in the wall of the old house, and soon thereafter they both get parts in their school’s production of Twelfth Night. But can the fragile world they’ve created for themselves ever last?

Review: There were a lot of things I liked about this book (and one fairly major thing I didn’t), but unfortunately, those things never entirely gelled into a cohesive story. I appreciate that this book is slim – only 144 pages – and self-contained. However, I think it could have been fleshed out a little more to give some of the elements a little more depth, a little more explanation, and make them fit in together a little more coherently. There are a lot of things that are never quite explained – what the heck is going on with the magical mini theater, for one, and what’s the nature of the Tierny family “gift”, and what’s the deal with Aunt Kate – who is vaguely hinted at being somehow magical, but never more than that. And while I can respect that maybe Hand didn’t want to over explain everything, that that wasn’t the point of the story, that it would take away from the magic of the space she’s created, I do feel like it needed at least some explanations – or at least, more overt links between the story elements. As it is, there’s so much unexplained that the story feels somewhat unfinished, as though I’d accidentally wound up with a first draft. (And, to be fair, I did read an ARC version, so the final published book may have had some of these issues addressed. That would have had to have been a major re-write, though; more than is typical from ARC to finished product.)

But the good thing, the thing that saved it, was the writing. The prose most emphatically does not feel like a first draft. The prose is polished and smooth and lyrical and capable of conjuring these magic spaces – inside the wall, inside the theater, inside Maddy’s head – in a very short space. I also really liked Hand’s viewpoint on the difference between talent and ability, and the demands and costs and realities of each, and thought that there were a number of beautifully worded passages exploring those distinctions. I was really impressed by Hand’s wordsmanship, and that kept me immersed in the story even when things weren’t quite making sense, and even through the parts that would have made me put down a less-beautifully-written book.

And that is quite an accomplishment, because: Cousincest. No. Gross. (And technically, since their fathers are identical twins, it’s genetically equivalent to half-sibling incest.) I have a real problem with books that hold up incestuous relationships as being romantic or sweet (see: On Fire’s Wings and City of Glass), and this book definitely wants us to feel that Maddy and Rogan are a case of star-crossed love, and that Rogan’s family are jerks for interfering with the cousins sleeping together, but: I don’t buy it, at all. I do not get romance from cousincest, as much as this book wants me to, and Rogan’s siblings were 100% in the right. So that was a major factor working against my enjoyment of this book, and it really is entirely down to Hand’s prose that kept me from putting it down in the first 30 pages. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It’s gorgeously written and fast, but the plot doesn’t quite click, plus: cousincest. So I can’t really recommend this one whole-heartedly, but I’m definitely interested in checking out some of Hand’s other (hopefully less incest-y) books.

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Other Reviews: Capricious Reader, Page247, Things Mean a Lot, Waking Brain Cells, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
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First Line: Rogan and I were cousins; our fathers were identical twins.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 18: “Not just me: I could see other members of the congregation shift uncomfortably in their pews, Tierny great-uncles and -aunts and the Connells’ grandparents all staring fixedly at their missalettes until old Monsignor Burke sang the Recessional in his quavering voice, and the Mass was ended.” – a shortened form of a missal published periodically for congregational use

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2014 8:02 pm

    Yeah, Illyria didn’t fully work for me either. It’s been a consistent problem I’ve had with Elizabeth Hand’s books: There are always aspects of them that I think are very lovely, but the books don’t pull together for me, in the end. Plus, yeah, cousincest. Ew.

    • December 7, 2014 6:48 pm

      I’ve never read – nor heard, actually – about any of her other books, but that’s a shame that they all have the similar not quite coming together issue.

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