Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Yesterday's Dreams (Vivisphere, 2001)
My first impression of this book was that the author was trying to imitate Charles de Lint but lacked deft prose, easy characterization, and a strong sense of the wider world. However, I find I have to take back that description: Ms. Ackley-McPhail claims to have never read Charles de Lint.
Yesterday's Dreams is the first book of a projected trilogy. The story follows Kara O'Keefe, a young violinist and music teacher. In the wake of her father's bout with cancer, the family is deep in debt and Kara chooses to pawn her antique violin.
However, in all of New York City, she walks into Yesterday's Dreams, the one pawn shop owned by a Sidhe, and also the same pawn shop her grandfather went to when he was a young immigrant in need of money. This non-coincidence is possibly caused by Kara's own power stirring, possibly caused by Maggie's oath to guard the O'Keefes through thick and thin, or possibly still something more, the stirrings of fate. For another of her own kind has come to Maggie, warning her that it may be time to return to Ireland, because the final battle for the soul of their country is coming; and Kara's own father, Patrick, also has a role in that war.
In the meantime, a disembodied spirit older than the Sidhe takes over the body of a homeless man, whose weakened state leaves him open to the possession. Unfortunately for the spirit, the body is also psychically crippled, except for a trained ability to recognize objects of power, and several mystic talents learned from books in spite of his handicap. The possessed man, Lucien Blank, fixates on those objects, collecting them. He's drawn to the fiddle, but stopped by the Sidhe's power protecting the pawn shop. The spirit's own interest, however, is in Kara's half-wakened and uncontrolled power, which it presumes will be malleable, and in the destruction of the Sidhe. And so both Lucien and the spirit begin gathering their weapons.
There is practically no setting to the book outside of Yesterday's Dreams, the pawn store. One gets the impression that New York City could be a few blocks long if it weren't for the need to use a subway, and that Ireland is the most important nation on all the earth. While other worlds, like Tir na nOg, do exist, the rest of our own world does not. Ireland is the only place from which the Sidhe or similar beings come, the only place that really matters in the final war. While there is a tiny nod to the fact that the enemy's powers originated in Greece, it is obvious that they care nothing for their own homeland and everything for a tiny isle far from their own empire. Yet the story takes place in New York City, a cosmopolitan area if ever there was one. Even a few throwaway lines might have worked to establish that while the current focus is here, there is an outside world. Yes, the story has a focus, but it shouldn't be blinkered. This is the world through the wrong end of a telescope.
Another problem is the dialect. The Irish brogue is written out phonetically and continuously. Rather than immersing me more deeply into the Eire-ness of the story, this distanced me. The brogue was more extreme than the accents and turns of phrase I've encountered from real Irish. It became artificial.
This, unfortunately, goes with the overall use of language. The prose is purple, maybe even fuschia. Ms. Ackley-McPhail tries hard to be poetic in every single phrase, yet she lacks any ear for rhythm or the sound of the words, or even clarity, for that matter. Take the first line of the book, for instance: "Dark, angry clouds hung low in the sky, thrown into stark relief by the periodic flashes of lightning that harshly lit the horizon." Opening the book to a random page, I found this: "With fear and determination battling across his face, the people on the platform stepped aside to clear his path." These are not unusual samples. They are typical.
The story itself is predictable but promising I quite liked the motif of the family violin and its sacrifice as the starting point to achieving a bigger legacy but the methods of telling it are, at best, weak. Kara is a well-drawn character; easily cowed, and prone to make mistakes; very much her own person. Tony, the half-willing pawn of the henchman of the main villain, is an even better figure. However, they are surrounded by two-dimensional figures, mere sketches.
Whole scenes involve one character usually Kara or her father in solitude, thinking about events, about decisions or revelations they have to make. All too often, as they meet another character and begin that revelatory conversation, with all its anticipated emotional impact, and not-incidental importance to the plot, the scene closes. The conversation is skipped, and the next scene opens either with the very last few words exchanged, or worse, with a character alone again, being introspective about the conversation that was just had. In virtually every case, skipping the introspection and revealing the information through direct dealings with another character would have been an improvement on the pace of the novel and the appeal of the scene. It would also make the characters themselves better drawn, as dialogue can reveal facets of every person involved, and introspection can only reveal details about one.
Flashbacks abound, even for minor characters, usually involving scenes of high drama. Yet these active scenes seem jarring, in the wake of the continuous introspection of characters in the present. They too might be more revealing of character if they were not separate scenes, but given as dialogue with another person. As for current-day action, it's there, but slow and understated. This isn't an action story, so this isn't as bad a weak point as the constant "solo character thinking about things she should confess to the other characters any day now and will offstage" routine, but it does seem as if little happens for the number of pages covered. Worse, the action is often coloured by melodrama, with characters constantly fainting from exertion or shock, things that seem as if they should be easy taking dire effort only to have things that should be hard come across as all too easy. Maggie exhausts her magic and herself on a single project before any actual threat has been made and a barely- trained Kara breaks through a whole series of spells, one after the other, with less than half the effort.
And, naturally, as the beginning of a trilogy a trilogy, that is, for which the second and third books are not even finished, never mind sold there is no conclusion to the book.
Yet, for everything that annoyed me or worse about this book, there was a thread that rang true. I can see an editor picking up this draft, and saying, yes, we'll work with you to get the story out from under this rubble. You have a talent we can hone. It belongs to the world, and the world should see it ... in one more draft or two.
I cannot envision it as what it is, though ... a published work.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail's homepage is at www.sidhenadaire.com.