Eccentric Circles – Rebecca Lickiss

This sounded like a fun idea. Fairies at the bottom of the garden, taken to a new level. It has a great tag-line: “The doctors said Piper Dickerson’s grandmother died of old age. The elf said it was murder.” That’s all kinds of good – a very short encapsulation of how it all starts. But unfortunately the book was kind of a mess, and, while a quick and easy read, not much fun at all.

Eccentric is what it says on the front cover, and eccentric is what Lickiss makes every effort to provide. However, the full extent of the characters’ unconventionality is dressing oddly and giving children twee names – oh, and collecting and reading books of more than two genres and to what onlookers consider excess. The main character, Piper Pied (who spends a considerable amount of first-person narrative space complaining about her and her brother’s and cousins’ god-awful name and musing about why none of them change them), is not very eccentric – she is the black sheep of normalcy in a peculiar family, which can be a great angle, done well. (It’s fairly obvious, I think, what the next sentence might be, if I wanted to write it.) True eccentricity, either in the characters or the writing or the plot, would have been a major asset.

To hop on one of my usual hobby-horses, there are a great many Chekhov’s Guns scattered throughout this book which are never fired, or which misfire. The whole extended family has nothing to do with anything, but merely wander on and offstage randomly, never affecting the plot in the least. Piper inherits her great-grandmother’s house, lock, stock, and bookshelves, and everyone tells her what a wonderful place it will be for her to work on her writing, because she’s renowned in her family as a writer.  She thinks all the time about writing – but she doesn’t write. She makes one token attempt at a story, more of an exercise, really, which didn’t seem to have much effort put into it, and for the rest of the time we spend with her we get to hear about the thrills of cleaning and working at a bookstore. The attempt to use her vast writing ability in the book’s denouement was forced and ineffectual, and made that one story we hear about feel like “See? Look! She does write!” The elf’s wanderings into the human world accomplish nothing but the well-worn attempt at humor in having all the women gaping at him (though no one seems to care he’s dressed like a Renaissance Faire escapee. At least no one says “He looks like a Renaissance Faire escapee” as someone usually does in such situations: a small blessing).

The description of the book, at least the way I read it, implies that the grandmother’s murder is a puzzle which will be solved by going through her books and papers. That would have been interesting. That doesn’t happen. Far from going through papers, bundle after bundle is put out as trash (I kept expecting someone to slap their forehead and run after a garbage truck), and while the books are organized it does not seem that Piper opens any of them. She is encouraged to look for one manuscript which will provide all the answers, and the place where she eventually finds it is, I thought, purely idiotic; I had to flip back a page or two (into a scene that was a misplaced and unsuccessful attempt at pure farce) to double check how she discovered the hiding place, and yes, there was eye-rolling.

The romance element of the plot is thoroughly unconvincing, even to Piper, and feels like an afterthought hastily grafted in. It’s out of character, as far as we are informed: Piper proceeds from almost involuntary ogling combined with exasperation and mortification that he’s such a nitwit and so readily admits to being an elf straight to … True Love. It’s a bit much to swallow.

Not to mention the fact that, based on the internal logic of the book, there doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that the elf will still be the same person years or months or even days from now. There seems to be the possibility that his personality and appearance, and in fact all of Fairy, is vulnerable to the passing trends of current fantasy novels – or, even more likely, some of Piper’s own writing, if she ever gets it in gear.  This is disturbing in many ways, not least because the denizens of Fairy are supposed to be real, but have no control over what attributes or memories or even faces they might wake up with tomorrow. I believe it’s meant to be funny that the dwarf sighs about how little he likes mining, but has to anyway because that’s what fantasy dwarves do, and the elf feels he should sing and isn’t very good at it (shouldn’t he be, if the dwarf is unwillingly good at dwarf things?), and about how the wizard has to pretend to hate women because that’s the mold he’s supposed to fit though deep down he likes them. (Where is the author getting that wizards should be misogynistic?) It’s not funny. It’s painful. Towards the beginning, Aelvarim expresses gratitude for Tolkien having given the world an attractive fantasy elf archetype that others have all but set in concrete – which is mildly offensive, because that creature bears no resemblance to Tolkien. Tolkien’s elves were rather a lot more than the physicality of pointed ears and beauty – which, here, is reduced to prettiness. And that’s just about all this “elf” consists of.

The climax … I feel like I have to go back and check to see if I skimmed over something, because, thinking about it, I have no idea why (or how, for that matter) the Big Bad killed the grandmother. It makes no sense as part of the book’s world and rules. I was going to add that, again, it was out of character, but then again there was very little character building for most of the population of the book. In any event, there were three possibilities given as the bad guy, no more and no less. I kept hoping that one of those eccentric family members might be implicated, but that remained an unfired gun.

My assumption (geometry class having been a long time ago) was that the title, besides referring to the so-eccentric Pied/Dickerson family, was a play on “concentric circles”. But it apparently isn’t; the actual definition makes some sense, I think, given the conception of how the mundane world and Fairy converge, but given that not a soul in the book is indicated as having the least mathematical aptitude, the title is another grafted-on oddity.

Added to the mild frustration existing with the idea and the plot and the characters is a mild frustration with the editing. There are random, commas all throughout, and some odd and awkward moments in which a character answers a question that was never asked. And, finally, it’s a terrible shame when a publisher pays so little attention to the manuscript that the main character’s name is gotten wrong on the book’s back cover. “Piper Dickerson” is how she appears there. But Grandma was a Dickerson. Piper is a Pied. How very sad.

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