“The Queen takes great delight in fashion, both for herself and those around her.”
This review contains spoilers.
Midnight Never Come, the first novel in Marie Brennan’s Other Series (Brennan is currently in vogue, or what passes for it in SFF circles, for her Natural History of Dragons series), is a historical fantasy novel which sees Queen Elizabeth I making a pact with Invidiana, a faerie queene who proceeds to prop up Elizabeth’s power through various nefarious means which also happen to serve her own interests. The novel’s protagonist, Lady Lune, a disgraced courtier at Invidiana’s Onyx Court, is sent, as a Last Chance at Redemption, to spy on the mortal court, while Michael Deven, a mortal gentleman at Elizabeth’s court, investigates the “hidden player” (Invidiana, though he doesn’t know it) in English politics which is making power relations go a bit skiffy.
Unlike a lot of historical fiction, Midnight Never Come does manage to pin down not only period detail but period preoccupations, the kinds of discourse and ways of seeing the world that were flying around in the later years of Elizabeth’s reign. Midnight Never Come, like many authentically Elizabethan texts, plays extensively with various forms of artifice, with surfaces and symbols and disguises: Lady Lune disguising herself as a mortal woman, the title’s reference to Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, the endlessly mirrored and highly decorated surfaces of the Onyx Court, the debts Deven runs up trying to dress the part of court gentleman. (See also the novel’s other obvious intertext, Spenser’s magisterial Faerie Queene, which asks the reader to thread a treacherous path through a land which is both allegorical and fictional, both itself and something else.) The courts of both of Brennan’s queens are places where the excessive, overweening praise of courtiers (“I have achieved that which most men hardly dream of – to stand, however briefly, in your Grace’s radiant presence”) acts as a shared fantasy, a matter of form which is both true and false: “She [Elizabeth] knows exactly what our praise is worth…By our words, we make her larger than life. And that serves her purposes very well.” I appreciated Brennan’s understanding of that quite subtle point; in that respect at least, Midnight Never Come felt like it was in conversation with authentically Elizabethan pieces like Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, perhaps the apotheosis of the literature of artifice.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel that Brennan takes this interest in surfaces, in form, in artifice, far enough. Where her Elizabethan intertexts are complex and difficult things, slipping between surface and depth, confusing form and function, medium and message, Midnight Never Come has this depressingly modern (and unoriginal) drive towards duality, towards black-and-white, constantly reaching for an underlying “reality”. There’s a thudding literalness to her As-Above-So-Below conception of the two courts: the Onyx Court is a shadow of the mortal one, with Invidiana as Elizabeth’s dark double. The fairy court, essentially, literalises the symbolism of the mortal court, because, ultimately, that’s what fairies are: literalised metaphors for natural forces, for important places, for social concepts like monarchy. The novel seems to be asking: what would Elizabeth’s court look like if all the things her courtiers said about her were really true? Which, one can’t help but feel, misses the point somewhat: for Elizabeth’s contemporaries, the praise of the court was really true; and it also really wasn’t. It’s here that Brennan’s research stops informing the ideological basis of the text, with the result that the novel fails pretty comprehensively to engage meaningfully with questions of symbol and reality, as when Deven, finding that his beloved Anne Montrose is actually Lady Lune, a fairy, in disguise, decides that he must then have loved Lune all along, because, I don’t know, love has x-ray vision or something. It feels like a cop-out, a dodge, an avoidance of the possibilities of superficiality.
I realise that I may be holding the novel to slightly unfair standards, since The Faerie Queene and Astrophil and Stella and Doctor Faustus are all masterpieces (surviving 400 years of history will do that to you) and not alternate history fantasy novels, but Brennan’s implicit namechecking of these works inevitably brings up the comparison, possibly making the novel seem less than it actually is.
But I do have one legitimate bone to pick with the novel, which is is troubling coding of artifice and femininity. Its constant search for truth, the Real behind the Symbol, inevitably constructs artifice as Bad; when we read about Queen Elizabeth’s much maligned self-image, the make-up she uses to maintain the myth of the everlastingly young Virgin Queen, we’re supposed to feel pity, I think, to see her as shallow, trapped in her own image, disguising her true self; we almost never read it as her own courtiers would have done, as an image that is a source of power, a shared fantasy that is both true and false at the same time. Similarly, we are supposed to pity Invidiana for trying to hide the curse that makes her Old and Ugly, neatly illustrating the double standards with which Western society treats women: being Old and Ugly is bad, a punishment, but hiding that you are Old and Ugly is also bad and pathetic. What’s a woman to do?
It also turns out, to add insult to injury, that essentially all the problems in the book are caused by Invidiana’s turning away from her True Love, a man and a mortal (and thus the Real to the faerie queene’s Symbol). And the damage that she has done can only be undone when Lune makes an alliance with, oh yes, a man and a mortal. Brennan’s women, although they are queens, are also artificial, unstable things, challenging to an order built upon truth and simplicity; her men are straightforward, true, just, restorers of that social order.
It feels, to conclude, like Midnight Never Come was on its way to something interesting, but gave up halfway there and decided to do what everyone else was doing. It feels like a waste of research and of an excellent premise; like so many things, it needed just a little more, to become what it could have been.