Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Ambergate is Patricia Elliott’s follow-up to her Gothic fantasy novel Murkmere. Not quite a sequel in the traditional sense, this story centres on one of the minor characters in the first book and continues an exploration of the rule of the decadent Protectorate, against which the story is set. The brutish Protector lords it over an alternative nineteenth century England. This is a theocratic state, and the religion that dominates the lives of the people is based around the Table of Significance, which defines wild birds as messengers of the gods. Birds as portents, as symbols of authority, and even as truly magical beings appear throughout Ambergate. This allows the author to reference iconography as diverse as the ballet Swan Lake and the emblems of Nazi Germany/Imperial Rome, and to work both rustic folk law and elaborate political intrigue into the telling.
Constructed around a series of reflections, the central characters form and reform their attachments in various unlikely configurations; Erland and Scuff, Nate and Leah, Leah and Erland, Nate and Scuff. "Home"- familiar but dull, is set against "the journey" - frightening but liberating. The capital city serves as a kind of "anti-home", claustrophobic and oppressive and yet still fraught with danger and insecurity.
Scuff's mission in part three of the novel, when she takes on the unlikely role of potential assassin, has shades of Hamlet in the prevarication she shows when faced with honouring a vow made under duress. This theme of the reluctant hunter is itself a reflection of Corporal Chance's pursuit of Scuff, which forms a running counterpoint to the first-person narration throughout. Chance is constantly on the point of having Scuff arrested, but always fails to act decisively for reasons he cannot understand. To the reader, however, it is clear that Chance sees himself in Scuff, a fellow orphan and street child, and he can no more bear to turn her in than he can ever abandon his pursuit of her. For ultimately Ambergate is a story about the search for self. As the nameless Scuff is told - “Everyone has a name...But some have to find it for themselves.”
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