Regina's Song by David and Leigh Eddings
(Del Rey, $26.95, 424 pages, hardback; July 1 2002.)
The Eddingses normally write the kind of fantasy I run a mile from -- epic high fantasies that it's a surprise to find are merely multi-volume rather than, as they seem, endless. This novel, however, promises something very different: a contemporary urban fantasy based on the incredible psychological bonding between identical twins. In fact, it proves to be a serial-killer thriller of sorts; the faint smidgen of fantasy present could as easily be omitted because it has no real relevance to the plot and is confined to perhaps half a dozen scattered paragraphs.
A few years ago the twins Renata and Regina were going home from a teen party when one of them was raped and murdered; the other, when found, was gibbering incoherently in the twins' own private cryptolalia. The two girls were so identical and so inseparable that even their parents had difficulty telling them apart, so it's difficult for anyone to know which is the one now confined to an asylum; the footprints taken just after their birth, the checking of which might have revealed the survivor's identity, have been lost by the hospital concerned. (No, there is no sinister reason for the loss: it's just plotting-friendly happenstance.) However, it's assumed from observing the girl that it was the marginally more dominant of the pair, Regina, who died.
What jolts the presumed Renata out of her craziness is a visit from the quasi-cousin, quasi-elder brother Mark, son of the twins' parents' best friends. Indeed, she blossoms so much in Mark's presence that soon she is deemed well enough to have a trial period outside the asylum living with her aunt in Seattle and auditing classes at the university where Mark is both part-time teacher and student. Things seem to go pretty well, except that she has occasional "bad days" when apparently nightmares jerk her back temporarily into madness.
Meanwhile, Seattle is being plagued by the activities of a serial killer called the Seattle Slasher, who gruesomely eviscerates small-time criminals and suspected rapists, sadistically keeping them alive as long as possible during the proceedings. It takes Mark about two hundred pages longer than it takes the reader to realize that, wowee zowee, there's a correlation between Renata's "bad days" and the murders -- i.e., Renata has a "bad day" immediately following the night of one of the murders. Mark takes to following her at nights, and finally catches her not quite in the act but just slightly too late.
However, DNA testing shows that her final victim was the guy who raped and murdered her sister, so that's all right then.
With the connivance of a middle-ranking police officer and a "sensible" judge, not to mention the assistant DA and the injection of large amounts of Daddy's cash, it is ensured that Renata suffers none of that nasty embarrassing media coverage poor folks can expect, avoids the ghastly dahling fate of psychiatric institutionalization, and has a happy ending of sorts in a secret nunnery the Catholic Church has established precisely to cater for such eventualities.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that another of the characters is our old pal The Incredibly Stupid Senior Police Detective.
There's the feeling throughout this book that the Eddingses have read a lot of Charles De Lint books. I would recommend this to any aspiring writer of urban fantasies, but De Lint does have his minor flaws. One of these, almost eradicated from his more recent books, is the too-frequent lapsing into tweeness. In De Lint à la Eddingses, there may be an occasional lapse out of cutesy tweeness, but it's pretty hard to find. The good-guy and -gal characters are just so goddam lovable, especially in their cutesy banter, that any sane reader very soon has the frantic urge to do a Seattle Slasher job on them. Take this:
"Hugging doesn't have anything to do with that [sex]," Twink replied. "Every house should have an official hugger -- no questions, no comments, just hugs. A few good hugs can take away acres of lonesome. The people with the notepads don't understand that. They talk and talk and talk, and it doesn't do any good at all. What we really need is hugs." She sighed then. "Nobody in the world of normies is ever going to understand the world of buggies, but you don't have to understand. A hug lets us know that it's not really important to you that we're crazy, and that you like us all the same...."
One can almost forgive Renata -- universally called "Twink" or "Twinkie" -- for this, because after all she's a recovering mental patient, and it's understandably not at all uncommon for people during this stage of recuperation to be sometimes pretty nauseating in their efforts to re-establish their identity in the world and their social relationships. But in this book everybody's at it! As you'll imagine, after 424 pages of this sort of stuff you may find your home's supply of brown paper bags substantially depleted. Worst offender of all is Mark ("Markie", as Twinkie calls him, when not referring to her psychiatrist as "Docky-poo"); as he's the book's narrator, the reader has no real escape.
What also becomes evident from fairly early on is that the Eddingses deploy a fairly limited vocabulary. Someone once devised the game of Clench Racing, whose simple rules were that each contestant took a Stephen Donaldson book at random, and the winner was the first person to find the word "clench"; games of Clench Racing, according to the lore, typically lasted just a few seconds. With this book one could play Grumpy Racing, Shifting Your Load Racing, Hitting the Bricks Racing, Low Crimes And Misdemeanours Racing, Barn Burner Racing and many others. The point of mentioning some of these is that they're jocular terms used by all the characters, whatever their station in life; no one says "losing her marbles" when they could say "shifting her load". It's as if the Eddingses cannot think of replacement equivalents for any of these slang expressions, even though, of course, in real life people use a wide diversity of phrasings for (in this instance) having a mental relapse. Perhaps what is being pointed to here is really a more deep-seated problem: that all of the characters, being drawn on paper tissue-thin, are effectively interchangeable.
Such limitations of writing become especially apparent in the case of Twinkie's class paper. She has been auditing Mark's writing class, and he's assigned the students the task of writing a 500-word essay on "What I Did On My Holidays". Twinkie doesn't have to write this essay but she does, and it's reproduced in full (pages 111-12). One might be reasonably pleased with it if one's ten-year-old produced, but Mark's reaction on reading this short piece by a university student is other:
"Jesus!" I said, gently putting the paper down. Damn! This girl could really write!
This reader rubbed his eyes in incredulity. It's a mug's game, of course, for any writer to present a piece of writing purportedly done by one of her/his characters and then describe it as a work of genius, but if one has to do it then it's an elementary precaution to do one's best to make sure that the piece in question is at least not too terribly lame. One has to conclude that the Eddingses believe Twinkie's essay does exemplify fine writing. Well ... roll over, Molesworth.
One more lesson in vocabulary from the Eddingses is revealing. We are told that the "delly" in the expression "delly-belly" is a corruption of "delicate". Oops. In fact, the expression is of course more properly spelled "Delhi belly", and derives from the problems the colonials and the army had with the local food and water during the British occupation of India. It says on the back flap here that David Eddings was once "a college English teacher" but this is hard to credit -- not because of the ignorance of a UK-English expression but because of the lack of rigour in checking it out before pontificating about it.
So much for the writing: what of the plot? I must confess that I'd hoped for something of the nature of Thomas Tryon's fine novel The Other (1971), in which the identity confusion between twins leaves room for the reader to make a whole passel of misinterpretations, so that the result is a fantasticated text describing events that are not in themselves especially fantasticated. As you'll have guessed, what I read fell far short of that. But let's leave that aside, and let's leave aside also the plot's seeming justification of torture-murder as a perfectly reasonable means of punishment. Let's just accept the somewhat plodding, predictable plot for what it is.
Doing so doesn't help much, because the plot even on its own terms is terminally rickety. Two examples must suffice. Renata's psychiatrist decides that this seriously ill patient may have at least a trial period out of the sanitarium living with her aunt -- fair enough. But what reputable psychiatrist would agree to this trial being not in a family home but in the home of a single woman who works nights as a cop and sleeps much of the day, so that the patient is left on her own much of the time?
Second, towards the end of the book a bunch of Mark's chums (who're not mentioned above, but they're there all through the book providing lashings of cutesy badinage to test the strongest stomach) decide to use an elaborate ploy to make it impossible for the flocks of media vultures camping outside the sanitarium to follow as Renata is transferred to the secret nunnery. You really don't want to know all the details of the byzantine machinations involved, but an important element is that the local cops will be bribed to cut off the vehicles of the pursuing journos and impose upon their drivers a mandatory "random" breath test. Yup, that's sure to stop 'em in their tracks -- and we're told that indeed it does. A wonderfully brilliant idea, that one! Unfortunately, it's beforehand been mentioned in the text that some of the media companies concerned have helicopters ... something forgotten by the Eddingses (and by their editor) in the eagerness to show how clever are these bright young banter-swapping things.
Poor characterization, bad writing, plot holes, a highly rebarbative narrative and dialogue style ... one hunts desperately for something charitable to say about this book. I quite honestly wish that I could find something. I suppose it's reasonably fluent. Even though the mystery turns out to be anything but, the promise of some spectacular volte-face resolution of a mystery does keep one turning the pages -- rather in the same way that a few decades ago one might keep reading a Jacqueline Suzanne novel in the ill placed belief that sometime soon it surely must get better...
Well, the typography's quite nice...
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© John Grant 23 August 2002