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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Book Review: In the Lion's Mouth by Michael Flynn

(Note:  This review was originally intended for publication, but certain professional and personal obligations prevented its completion.  My apologies for its lateness, but I could not sit on this version any longer.  Thanks to Abigail Nussbaum and others who viewed it in earlier incarnations.)

Michael F. Flynn's In the Lion's Mouth is a space opera of the new variety, which is to say that it takes a genre that once stood for oversimplified adventure, sometimes of the Campbellian mode and redolent of the pulps, and infuses it with political intrigue and sociological awareness.  The planets that make up the novel's empire have ceased to be spaces only of conquest, adventure, and wonder, and become contained worlds connected by a common but divergent history.  This is not to suggest that Flynn's novel has abandoned the tropes of the adventure story, but that it brings a rigorous examination of the conditions of the empire in which that adventure occurs.  In the Lion's Mouth is compelling not because of its adventure elements, but because it is at once an
exploration of the inner workings of its network of worlds and an almost satirical play on the conventions of the old, pulpy space opera.
In the Lion’s Mouth alternates between two stages of Ravn Olafsdottr’s journeys through the labyrinth of the Lion’s Mouth, the bureau that oversees an exceedingly efficient class of assassins known as the Shadows, which has begun splintering into competing factions.  The frame narrative concerns her attempts to convince a rival organization, the Hounds, to put their cards on the table of the civil war raging within the Lion’s Mouth.  This narrative also forms a clever stage upon which Ravn can demonstrate her manipulative talents as she relates another tale through flashback.  That second strand concerns an intimate of the one Hounds:  husband and father Donovan buigh.  Donovan, a former Shadow who had his mind split into multiple personalities by an as-yet-unknown agent, was, we learn, kidnapped by Ravn to fulfill, willingly or otherwise, a purpose in the war.  As the frame narrative cuts into Donovan’s story, we also learn that Ravn is up to much more than truce and explanation.  Rather, she’s up to something vaguely sinister.

Flynn uses this structure to tell two unique tales of intrigue, both deeply political and both productive of an edge-of-your-seat reading experience that always has a surprise in store – even on the last page.  The frame narrative, far from being merely a stage for Flynn’s "story time," has a hidden agenda of its own, which Ravn and the Hounds eventually unearth.  As Ravn remarks, in the heavy accent of Confederal, before embarking on the first piece of Donovan’s story:  "This will be a tell to tangle your strings, oon my word; but I will give it to you in my oon way and reveal things in their oon time.  Life is art, and must be artfully told, in noble deeds and fleshed in colors bold" (28).  Here one might find Flynn’s satirical play on space opera, forming an astonishing tale of Donovan’s and the Shadows’ extraordinary feats in the Lion’s Mouth through Ravn’s (admitted) flawed retelling of the events:
"Tell me," [Bridget, the Hound] says, "how you can know the thoughts of Donovan buigh, when I doubt even he knows them so well?"
The Confederal [Ravn] smiles.  "You must grant me two things.  The first is many weeks of conversation between us, in which he may have revealed his mind to me."
"That would be quite a revelation as I understand things.  And second?"
"And second, you must grant me some poetic license."  (53-54)
Should we take Ravn’s words as gospel, as Donovan’s daughter believes we should ("I think she tells the truth.  The Donovan she describes is a man I recognize.  If she has embellished his thoughts, she has not done so falsely" (55)), even if she fills in the gaps with her own "poetic" imaginings?  Or are the embellishments meant to distract us from the signs that something is amiss?  For Ravn, it seems, the myth is a means to an end, not the property of a particular body politic to retell the story of history.  In other words, the tropes of traditional space opera – the empire, the grand adventures, the loose attachments to actual mythological forms – are exposed by Ravn for their farcical nature:  they are little more than devices of empire, broadly speaking.  And for Ravn, that means it’s a device than can be retooled for different purposes, even to work against the established structures of power.

In a way, In the Lion’s Mouth as new space opera is a response to Darko Suvin’s assertion that space opera is sub-literature – a literary form which has more in common with the elements of myth and fairy tales than with the literature of cognitive estrangement, inside of which he places science fiction.  Flynn, whether intending to or not, sets the stage for an internally rigorous re-imagining of the space opera (though certainly he is not alone in this endeavor).  This rigor is evident in a number of elements, but for the sake of space, I will only briefly discuss two:  language and the world.

While dialects are not new to science fiction, Flynn puts language to a particular use:  manipulation.  Ravn’s centrality in the narrative, as already mentioned, provides an ambiguous reading of events, but so too does her language.  The consistency with which Flynn elaborates on Ravn’s accent is eventually made questionable by her intentional slippages:  “It is a rhetorical trick, this abrupt dropping of the hooting accent, but no less effective for that.  It freights her pronouncement with greater significance” (26).  If it isn’t clear by the 26th page that Ravn is a questionable figure, then the numerous slippages of language to follow and her dubious alliances should do the trick.  As much as the text is a performance, so too are the characters who are playing in it.  But Flynn never fully reveals the game.

Within Flynn’s future space, language rests on a solid foundation.  From the opening pages, we are shown the degree to which Flynn has built his world:  a map roughly showing the layout of worlds provides the scope of things to come.  While many of these worlds are not part of the narrative, the ones that are provide the illusion of completeness.  One illuminating scene in this regard draws upon the clichéd history of the bar as a staging area for men (or women) of ill repute.  The chapter opens with two sections which tell us the history of Yuts’ga (the world where the various pieces of the Shadow puzzle have begun to assemble).  The first of these explains the ancient history of Yuts’ga – where it got its name, who settled there, and what those settlers found when they set up shop (208-209).  The second narrows the historical scope to Cambertown (209-210), and finally, in the next section, to the Mountain Dragon Inn, where we are introduced to Domino Tight, one of the many Shadows elaborated upon in Ravn’s tale (210-212).  It is here that Flynn gives us a breakdown of the complex inner workings of the Shadows-in-action:  who the Shadows command (their “flocks”), how they operate, and so on (213-226).  While this is not the only scene that shows us the Shadows-at-work (one of the other interesting scenes is an official duel between two Shadows), it is a scene which illuminates the rigor with which Flynn has created his world.  These are fully realized elements which exist within the familiar spaces of the adventure, but also seem to bring something new to the mix.  But In the Lion’s Mouth is not just an exploration of the internal machinations of empire; it is also an adventure which twists the old into something with the appearance of the new.  Flynn manipulates the old, reductive network of worlds made loosely into belongings of empire or spaces to be explored and conquered by its agents into one with the pieces tenuously placed on the board while its interiors pull themselves apart.

In the Lion’s Mouth, however, does suffer from a sense of overdevelopment.  Seasoned readers of Flynn’s universe will likely recognize many of the features which seemed alien to me.  While the novel can be read, as the publicist suggested, independently of the rest of the series, I would suggest starting from the beginning.  Where the beginning begins depends on whether you believe his Firestar cycle (Firestar, Rogue Star, Lodestar, and Falling Stars) should be read before The Spiral Arm series (The January Dancer, Up Jim River, and In the Lion’s Mouth) – this is apparently a center of mild debate.  Then again, Flynn apparently has a tendency to tie “worlds” together.

In any case, so much of In the Lion’s Mouth gave me the impression that no matter how closely I read, I would always be missing out on something, like an "in" joke.  There is an extensive universe attached to this novel, one which Flynn only touches with the tips of his writer’s toes.  I don’t want to suggest that Flynn’s novel is unreadable, however; the truth is that even with the alienation, the novel never ceases to entertain.  But I can’t help feeling that the full reading experience for In the Lion’s Mouth demands familiarity with the rest of Flynn’s universe.

And yet, despite that need for familiarity and the lofty praise of Flynn’s neo space opera, the ultimate measure of a novel’s value is in its ability to entertain.  In the Lion’s Mouth never falters on that front.  At once a political thriller and a high-tech war story, Flynn’s novel does nearly everything right.  The experience is immersive, the plotting relentless in its forward motion, its secrets desirable, and its action – and attending developments – enormously exciting.  If this is the new space opera, insofar as such a thing exists, then science fiction is definitely on the right track.

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