There is a lake of marvels. A lake of water lilies that glow with the color of dawn. For generations Kai’s people have harvested these lilies, dependent upon them for the precious medicines they provide.
But now a flock of enchanted cranes has come to steal and poison the harvest. The lilies are dying. Kai’s people are in peril. A mysterious young man from the city thinks he might have a solution. Kai must work with him to solve the mystery of the cranes, and it will take all her courage, love, strength, and wisdom to do what she must to save both the lilies and her people.
The language of myth is third person. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Ramayana, the Legend of the White Snake; there are of course exceptions, though largely within other third person myths (think of Odysseus’ recounting of his voyage in the Odyssey). The myth-teller is divorced from the myth by this device; it lends authority and distance. Lately though, there is a movement to make myth more personal, and more immediate; in The Lilies of Dawn, Vanessa Fogg shows her allegiance to this movement.
The Lilies of Dawn does it excellently, too. A slim volume, 60 pages of story, takes in a whole cosmology, but never paints it in detail; this isn’t an attempt at a classification of the system of deities and heavens, but a specific story, told from amongst many, with stories very clearly spinning off it and into it. Fogg suggests the world in which this tale takes place with rough strokes of the pen, rather than detailed sketches; calls to mind associations with the scent of the lily, rather than a full scientific sketch of one. This is myth in a truer sense than many mythic retellings we see now, clearly part of a set of stories rather than a story independent of others, and that lends it a richness and strength that Fogg capitalises on beautifully.
It helps, of course, that Fogg’s writing is beautiful, and lyrical; that is, The Lilies of Dawn has a flowing quality in its prose, like liquid running over one, cleansing and cooling, a kind of gentle current that simultaneously allows one to relax into it whilst still pulling one along with it. It’s an impressive feat; the craftsmanship is such that one doesn’t notice it for itself until the end of the story, when its strength to carry one through becomes suddenly apparent, and the loss of its beauty at the end slightly wrenching.
That’s important, because the characters Fogg creates don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Kai, our voice and protagonist, is someone we’ve met before, all too many times; the frustrated younger sibling trapped by duty, feeling they’re failing in it, and over their head. Indeed, none of the characters of The Lilies of Dawn are novel; their mythic and cultural resonance is obvious but does not successfully lend them character, only archetype, that could have done with a much greater attention paid to individual interiority. Instead we’re left with a cast acting out a myth because a myth is to be acted out, bereft of true reasons of their own.
Of course, we essentially come to myths for the story, that is to say the plot, of them, and that is why we return to them and retell them time and again; what is to be said of the plot of The Lilies of Dawn? It isn’t a subtle thing, with twists and turns that the reader doesn’t expect; it takes a fairly standard route from start to finish, with minor embellishments, but does it well, which is a skill all too often neglected. Hints aren’t dropped without thought, but the conclusion is inevitable and foreshadowed excellently; the inevitable trajectory of the story is finely wrought, and well carried out.
In the end, does the strength of plot and the sheer beauty of the language outweigh the simplicity of the characters? Well, The Lilies of Dawn is myth, and myth often has simplistic characters, and less well done plots; rarely does it have language so beautifully tuned as Fogg produced here, though.
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