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The Lost Child by Sarah Ash (Orion Millennium, 9.99, 344 pages, trade paperback, published 16 March 1998. Mass market paperback published 21 September 1998.)

Sarah Ash writes beautifully, even when describing ugliness, of which there is plenty in The Lost Child. Not least of all there are scenes of racism and purges that are more harrowing - because of their subtlety, their restraint, their scarcely audible purrs of menace - than anything to be found in most epic fantasy. I have made the following point elsewhere and so will not labour it here as well, but in this reviewer's opinion women are currently writing more enjoyable and varied fantasy than men. Please note: I do not say better fantasy; simply more entertaining from this male's perspective. Sarah Ash is one of the most interesting fantasists working in England; her work is elegant, classy, and yet (perhaps, by now, needless to say) she pulls few punches. There has always been something luxurious and languid about Ash's prose, and this new piece, in that respect, is no different. It is probably her most accomplished novel to date.

In a fantasy realm that seems closer to medieval France than to anything else, a tailor named Rahab finds a dead child one night. His world, of course, is transformed. Ash's skills do not lie in descriptions of quests, fortunately; her characters, in the main, make well-delineated mental journeys instead. There is a place in the fantasy genre for everyone, but I found the pages that involved Rahab's life after the discovery every bit as charged as I would have on reading about a battlefield massacre. Rahab is a soulful, tormented man; he is haunted by the memory of having let go of his brother's hand when they were fleeing their birthplace... Rahab is of a race known as the Tsiyonim; they lost their holy city centuries earlier and now must wander the world in search of a place that might want their company. How did they lose their city? By allowing the connection with their deity to be altered. And they are abused wherever they go.

A man is suspected of murdering the child, and before his capture he hands Rahab a shell. Plot hook: this sort of shell is extremely important to the Tsiyonim people; indeed, only a few are said to exist. The book's evil authority is Captain Jaufre d'Orbiel, who has been dabbling in certain necromantic arts, praying up to the gods that the Tsiyonim worship. Predictably, he is out of his depth fairly soon; and he gives the order for the Tsiyonim Quarter of the city to be razed. Orbiel soon wants to blame Rahab for the child's death. While Rahab is attending a fitting in the chambers of a woman named Lia, a fire is started in the city: "What use were fire buckets against fire in a city tinder-dry in high summer? The Quarter would burn like a torch - and he would be forced to watch, powerless to save his people, his adopted family..." Lia also has a shell, inside which are "precious stones that gave off a cold, clear light, like the rippling of cloud-covered water". Rahab explains that Lia is in possession of part "of a Tsiyonim Guardian Amulet." Lia has not been told of her heritage. Invoking astral forces, Rahab starts a rain storm.

The Captain is a fierce opponent to make, however, and a man not without his own inner demons and bad dreams. Rahab and Lia are pursued, eventually, to a city called Tifereth., which will, with luck, be a good place for them to stay. As Rahab hopes, Tifereth might be a place of harmony; and the rhetorical question he poses is: "What better place to find a long-lost brother?" Orbiel, meanwhile, is criticised for the way that some of the Tsiyonim have been incarcerated:

"The air was faintly fetid, tainted with the smell of unwashed bodies confined too close together too long.
"The Tsiyonim lay wrapped in their cloaks and blankets. A baby started to cry fitfully; the mother tried to hush it, rocking it in her arms. An elderly woman coughed in her sleep; a mucusy, wheezing cough."

These last two paragraphs are interesting for two reasons. The first is that in context these paragraphs (and others like them) prove that Ash is adroit at making a little say a lot. And the second is that there are many paragraphs and scenes in The Lost Child that put the reader in mind of any number of examples of holocaust literature. In this book as much as in her two previous novels, Ash is clearly on the side of the underdog. But the matter is more complicated than that. I happen to know, because I have spoken with her on the subject, that there are themes in The Lost Child that have a personal resonance and relevance to the author. She told me the following in conversation: "This is the first time that I've put something from my own personal background in a fantasy context - which is to do with being part of a religion, and yet not part of it. Especially when you see the orthodox side of the religion behaving in a way that you find fundamentally alien." Everywhere one turns in The Lost Child, there are possible allusions to Jews and Judaism, and the novel is interesting in this respect alone.

Some books, as we all know, have tunes. Introducing John Shirley's Heatseeker, William Gibson makes reference to the fact that he can hear the guitars and the wall of sound in Shirley's prose; elsewhere, for example in some of Rudy Rucker's work, we can hear his beloved Ramones punk-ish rock. But a writer need not be working in the science fiction genre to have a soundtrack; personally, I am of the opinion that Sarah Ash's books have tunes as well - and not, by any means, thrashing guitars. Her prose is composed on the piano, in a sense; something uplifting, ginger, soft, elegiac. Something brooding. Possibly falsely, I got the impression that The Lost Child was worked on slowly, fussily, with a high degree of attention to detail; the sentences are polished and refined. And it is not a book that one can skip through; it will require a reader's dedication. But ignore the pity of how Orion have packaged the book - with Ash's blessing, for all I know. Her Moths to a Flame and Songspinners were notable for their unusual covers (and titles, for that matter), compared to which the initial impression one gets on receiving The Lost Child might be lukewarm. But cover art is subjective, and The Lost Child is intelligent fantasy, for the discerning reader bored with dungeons and runes and elves. Read on.

Review by David Mathew.

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© David Mathew 16 May 1998