The Child Eater, by Rachel Pollack (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014)
Rachel Pollack has been off my radar for far too long, and this novel (or two braided novellas that eventually combine) is a welcome return.
In alternate chapters we are in a kind of fantasyland with a boy called Matyas who wants to learn the magic that will give him the secret of flight, and in the present day, with Jack Wisdom, who falls in love with and marries Rebecca, a woman who we the readers know to be some sort of supernatural selkie-like being (her apparent ability to communicate with squirrels is a clue). They have a son, Simon, and the relationship falls apart when Jack comes across his wife holding their baby son above the flames of a fire. We the readers have heard of such folk-tale motifs before, but all Jack can do is assume that there is something appalling going on. Left to bring Simon up on his own, Jack does his best, but when Simon begins to show signs of being able to mind-read, what can he do? Meanwhile, back in fantasyland, Matyas runs away from his father’s inn to a kind of college for wizards, where he becomes servant to the enigmatic Veil and, in running errands for her, learns something about magic, and more about the history of wizardry in this world.
Each story reflects the other, leading up to the identity of the eponymous “Child Eater”, who appears in Jack/Simon’s world as something like a serial-killer out of a Steven King novel. Pollack’s tone, however, is both lighter and closer to fantasy archetypes than King (a kind of Tarot pack plays a significant part in linking the two narratives together and there are, throughout, clever little nods to what Tolkien dubbed the “cauldron of story”) and she is particularly strong with character. Matyas is ambitious, determined, and though not evil neither is he particularly nice. Jack is caring, but not particularly astute. The two seem to complement each other in the same way as their stories echo and intertwine. When Simon falls into the hands of Dr Reina, who offers to cure his mental troubles, there is great danger, but by then each side of the story is beginning to leak into the other, and we get why this is a novel rather than two novellas.
Far too much fantasy now is by-numbers. This isn’t. It’s one of the best fantasies I’ve read in a long while and I can’t understand why people haven’t been enthusing about it to me. Very cleverly done, with a sense of wit and invention that make you realise what you’ve been missing in fantasy.