Literary master evokes classic fantasy tale
by Rob Neufeld
Let’s say you’re going to a book fair, and a guy with a long grey beard and glittering eye stops you at the entrance. He points to worn and rebound books he’s laid out on a table: Gulliver’s Travels; The Story of Sir Launcelot; The Three Musketeers.
And as he detains you, seven wives with seven sacks push past excitedly.
“Hold off! Unhand me,” you tell the grey-beard loon, and you follow the crowd to a stage where a hologram of a unicorn is nuzzling a girl dressed up like an orphan.
“Hey,” you hear someone near you tell his companion, “are you going to the ‘How to Make a Million on a Fantasy’ workshop?” “You bet!” she says. “I already have a winner about a nerd messiah who’s captured inside a video game by hackers with a grudge against reality.”
You decide to head to the sidelines, where in the shadows, you find an author who speaks in birdsong and a toad with a very old stamp album. “This is the stuff!” you think, and then you see, smiling upon the whole spectacle, Fred Chappell—“Ol’ Fred,” his sign says.
“Sir Chappell!” you say. “Are you not the writer of award-winning poetry, literature, and literary criticism, not to mention a quartet of novels set in mythologized Haywood County? What are you doing here among the soap-sellers?”
“You forget,” he says with a mixture of combativeness and humility, “that, in my youth, I was a dark fantasy brewmeister; and that I’ve written many a sardonic and silly verse about politicians and cats.”
I take a look at his latest production, “A Shadow of All Light,” a fantasy novel that seems to combine Miguel Cervantes, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Puss in Boots. I do more than take a look; I read all 400 pages.
The humor, inventiveness, and suspense are top-notch, and the concept is as sly as Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire. In the fictional world of Tardocco—a kind of Renaissance Italian city—shadows are valuable commodities as they lend subtlety and depth to any product or enterprise; and can be stripped from their possessors by trained professionals.
Chappell presents his new book at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, Asheville, 7 p.m., Fri., Apr. 15 (254-6734); Fountainhead Bookstore, Hendersonville, 7 p.m., Thurs., May 12 (697-1870); City Lights Bookstore, Sylva, 6:30 p.m., Fri., May 13 (586-9499); Great Expectations Books, Rutherfordton, Sat., May 14 (286-9616); and other N.C. locations.
“A Shadow of All Light” has the charm and richness of an old classic, plus many of the features of today’s blockbusters, though, it should be noted, it bows out at the end from contention for pop sensation.
First, there are the relationships.
Chappell’s young hero, Falco, is a kid who leaves his grim, dirt-farming dad to devote himself to Master Astolfo, a renowned shadow-stealer. Despite Falco's impressive development, he never quite loses the piece of him who is a clod.
Sent to Countess Triana’s chateau to steal a diamond that Astolfo thinks is related to the lady’s sickening, Falco submits to Astolfo’s preparations.
“This is but feeble armory,” Falco complains, looking at the blades provided him. “If you bear more weaponry,” Astolfo says, “you shall go clacking about like a pelican.”
Draped in multi-colored shadows reputed to act as camouflage, Falco discovers, when guards apprehend him, that he looks like a harlequin. (Astolfo had meant him to serve as a distraction.) “Is he not the very paragon of ijjits?” the head guard remarks, and notes that Falco’s height requires some trimming to make him suitable to the role.
“I vowed,” Falco confides, “that if ever I enlisted in a guard troop, I would choose one whose leader did not fancy himself a humorist.”
The third hand
Adding to the fun is Astolfo’s senior assistant, Mutano, whose relationship to Falco evolves from tormenter to competitor to ally. Subplots are the substance, not the window dressing, of great fiction. The suspense is the skeleton.
At one point, Mutano tries to recapture his voice from a cat, into which an adversary had placed it (voices, like shadows, can be transplanted). He latches onto the wrong attribute, however, and ends up speaking “Cattish,” which gives him some advantages; for cats play a big role in this novel, as in other Chappell arenas.
The cat with Mutano’s voice, by the way, “would say nothing at all,” Astolfo knows, “lest it reveal some of the secrets of its mysterious race.”
That’s like the ritual cats undergo in Chappell’s book of poems, “Familiars.” “Do you vow by existence One,” the initiation begins, “Never to utter the secret name/ Of any feline wild or tame/ Either in earnest of in fun?”
“A Shadow All of Light” is thoroughly entertaining. And yet, after moving through four amazingly strange cases in Part One; and an expedition and a moral conflict in Part Two, it progresses in the third and final part to a climactic, career-capping exploit that puts the genius in the bottle without having given it full space to grow.
The culminating conflict is as much of a farce as a crisis. The things we learn about shadows—including how they can sometimes have independent wills; and can be eaten by certain rare plants—do not lead to the kind of disasters that such uncontrollable potentialities suggest.
Mutano and Falco seem to retire with Astolfo. Given Chappell’s tale-telling virtuosity and ability to reflect on a score of things in the process, it would have been nice for the story to have ended with mysteries still lurking, and more cases to follow.