Lord Dunsany, The Charwoman's Shadow (Del Rey, 1999)
The Charwoman's Shadow follows a chivalrous lad by the name of Ramon Alonzo Matthew-Mark-Luke-John, in his apprenticeship at the behest of his father under a master of the Black Arts, that he might acquire the knowledge of transforming base metals into gold. This apprenticeship is initiated by Gonsalvo, the Lord of the Tower and Rocky Forest, to acquire a dowry that he might marry off his daughter Mirandola. The story is set at the end of the Golden Age in Spain, an age when those who practice such magic are feared to the same extent that priests are revered. Ramon soon finds himself at the mercy of his diabolical master.
This Del Rey Impact edition opens with quotations from Arthur C. Clarke, Andre Norton, H. P. Lovecraft, and W. B. Yeats (to name but a few), singing the praises of this novel. Yet as I began reading The Charwoman's Shadow, I found myself taken aback by what I felt were somewhat simplistic clichéd characters, an unexpected observation. Unexpected, because Peter S. Beagle's introduction promises that to read this book is "to begin learning the true nature of enchantment from a master." Determined to learn this true nature of enchantment, I pressed on.
By the midpoint of the book, I lost interest entirely, or so I thought, upon reaching the point where Ramon encounters the charwoman of the book's title, a sullen hag named Dockweed whose shadow has been taken from her by the black magician in exchange for a kind of immortality. Ramon naively promises to restore her shadow. At this point, feeling as if the book lacked substance, I set it aside and moved on to other works.
Months later, I realized that the half-lit imaginary Spain which Dunsany brought to life in my mind never faded over time. It was like a song you can't get out of your head until you hear it once again. I decided to return to the Charwoman's pages, starting from the beginning.
Very quickly I realized that my original objections were unfounded. These characters appear as clichés only because so many other authors' works have been derivative. These are the originals from which lesser characters have been cast. By the time I had reached the place where at first I had set the book aside, I had become attuned to the style and flow unique to Lord Dunsany, and was firmly under his spell.
This second reading revealed a depth in the novel that I had missed on first reading. With matters of the heart, theories of the shadow self, and the historical conflict between science and religion now lurking in the corners of my mind as I read, I found an exquisitely crafted world of language, flavoured with a humor I had initially missed entirely. By the time I reached the poignant and fascinating end, I found myself wanting to savour every sentence.
So read this book, read it with care, and if at first you find the language daunting, or slow, or the words used strangely archaic, stop. Set it down for a moment, cast your mind back across what you've read, and allow it to settle. Read it a chapter at a time, nibble at it, let it take you away to a world only Lord Dunsany can illumine. As promised in Mr. Beagle's introduction, true enchantment does await within.