The Cup of the World
Phaedra, only daughter of the Warden of Trant, has always had her own way; but when Prince Septimus asks for her hand, she knows she will be forced to marry. Desperate, she begs help from a man she has met in dreams since she was nine years old. He helps her escape her father’s castle–and turns out to be Ulfin, march-count of Tarceny. Overcome by love, they marry almost instantly, incurring the wrath of Phaedra’s father and the King. But as war overtakes the kingdom, Phaedra gradually begins to realize that there are older and darker powers at work.
I started reading The Cup of the World because its title was evocative and because the blurb promised that “this is one of those books which hides within itself a secret, a story deeper than it is possible to convey from this blurb or from the cover” (which, incidentally, is absolutely gorgeous). And for a long time, that was the only reason I kept reading. The book has a very leisurely pace–there’s not much suspense for a long time–and I wasn’t really able to connect with the main character. Alas, when I got to the great secret, it wasn’t the Matrix-style, everything-you-know-is-a-lie sort of secret that I’d been expecting. But expectations aside, it was a pretty satisfying secret: the author is extremely good at submerging deep enough you in Phaedra’s point of view that you don’t figure out what’s wrong until she does. And the build-up (not to mention the secret itself) is extremely creepy.
In fact, if there’s one strength that this book has, it’s atmosphere. Dickinson creates a world with a much more authentically medieval feel than most fantasy. It’s also a world with ominous shadows lying long across it; not only does Dickinson effectively convey the slow realization of nameless horrors approaching, but he is able to reveal them without any feeling of anti-climax. The book is also quite good on a sentence-by-sentence, albeit sometimes a little long on description. On the whole, while it didn’t work as well for me as it might for some other people, I’d be quite willing to recommend it.
Morally, the book is actually fairly good. It opens with Phaedra sneaking in to watch a witch trial, and I thought, “Oh no, this is going to be another book with nice witches unjustly persecuted by the Christian-anologues.” (You can argue that imaginary religions patterned on Christianity don’t necessarily say anything about it, and that Christian have unjustly persecuted people. But seeing your religion used a pattern for evil gets tired after the first 6,032 times, and unless the book has significant other strengths, I usually put it down in annoyance.) To my surprise, Dickinson has a fairly nuanced view of religion–there are both good and bad people in it, and while the book doesn’t exactly come down on whether or not it’s true, devout people are treated respectfully. I would quibble with his worldbuilding–it doesn’t make sense for his Christian-anologues to celebrate Easter when they have nothing remotely similar to the Incarnation–but that’s not a moral complaint. Furthermore, while it’s pretty murky on the subject for a long time, the book eventually does make a distinction between lawful and unlawful power, upholding such good old-fashioned principles as Thou Shalt Not Make A Bargain With The Devil Or Any Reasonable Fascimile Thereof.