[The Cup of the World by John Dickinson, Corgi, 2005, ISBN: 0-552-54886-3]
The Cup of the World is the first novel from John Dickinson. I picked it up within a month of its trade paperback release from the 3-for-2 table at the bookshop in the Heathrow Airport departures lounge. Don’t let that discourage you, though. And don’t be misled by its publication under the Corgi imprint, which is published by Random House Children’s Books. It’s no more or less a children’s or young adult’s book than anything else you’d find on the general SF and fantasy shelves.
The book is presented as a straightforward fantasy of the non-Tolkien-via-Dragonlance variety (by which I mean, no one has pointy ears or green skin) and in many respects it is. However, Dickinson delivers enough originality and subtlety with the familiar tropes of the genre to make it distinctive.
Briefly: The Cup of the World tells the story of Phaedra, naïve teenage daughter of a principle lord of the Kingdom, and her rebellious relationship with Ulfin, lord of a strange and reviled noble house, and the politicking and calamity that surrounds and arises from it. It is the treacherous, self-serving, and morally ambiguous motives of all of Dickinson’s characters that give this straightforward-seeming plot its legs. And, along with the novelty of the world building, it is the characters which distinguish it from many of the formula fantasies that crowd the bookshop shelves.
On those familiar tropes, first, The Cup of the World does have the obligatory evil, immortal, and apparently overwhelmingly powerful (but with a convenient Achilles heel) shadow lord. Dare I be pretentious enough to say: the obligatory anthropomorphization of a Jungian archetypal shadow? I guess I just was. In some respects, given the very human flaws of the rest of Dickinson’s characters, it is disappointing that the author has retained the stock puppet master as the ultimate source of every nasty thing that happens in the plot. On the other hand, this reviewer’s Jungian gag isn’t as silly as it sounds. Dickinson’s puppet master is much more the devious, fallible, cheating, bargaining Lucifer than the faceless, implacable Enemy—and more interesting for it. What the author has done is taken the fantasy genre’s shadow archetype—still immediately recognizable as such—and flavored it with the pettiness of his puppet master’s original human nature. The nature of this shadow means that, even with his influence, the wicked acts of those who treat with him are acts of free will.
Similarly, the mythology, witchcraft, and magical artifacts (notably the Cup itself) that Dickinson presents for the book’s indigenous Hillfolk are both novel and immediately accessible. His witchcraft or “undercraft” and the culture that underpins it, though the latter is barely sketched, have an authenticity often lacking from pop-Celtic accounts of faerie. The lack of information about Hillfolk culture and the non-human beings that serve the puppet master can be frustrating. However, this is a function of Dickinson’s narrative POV (which I’ll come to in a moment) and his avoidance, for the most part, of blatantly expositional characters or info-dump monologues.
One oddity that warrants mention is the presence of a Christian church in an invented world, complete with a Bishop, Lent, confession, and the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Umbriel, and Raphael. This demands explanation, as the reader is immediately given to wonder whether Wulfrum’s folk really have just come from “across the sea” or from further afield, as with Katherine Kerr’s misplaced Deverry Celts. Unfortunately, unlike the other mysteries Dickinson sets up in the early chapters, there is no resolution of this anomaly. Perhaps you have to buy the sequel. (And there is a sequel—The Widow and the King—out in hardcover already. One hopes it isn’t the first of ten.)
Once again, Dickinson sets up an immediately recognizable scenario: the gulf in understanding between a church and a “witch” culture, and the persecution of the latter by the former. And again, he subverts the stereotype by refusing to demonize either side. The atrocities that occur in the name of both causes are pinned inescapably on the human practitioners, not the causes themselves. Dickinson allows no one to hide behind his ideals.
To his credit, the author sticks rigorously with his single chosen POV (Phaedra’s)—where other writers might cheat a bit to show some blood and biffo. In the first half of the book, at least, this can be frustrating, as every battle and tragic death (and there’s a pile of ‘em) happens off stage. Those wishing to read about the bloody mayhem wreaked by the big guy in the posing pouch and furry boots had best shop elsewhere. There’s only one mano a mano duel described blow-by-blow in the whole book. The slaking of bloodthirsty fantasies is not Dickinson’s purpose.
The strict single POV also means that several promising characters (Phaedra’s father Ambrose, the traitor Aud, the Bishop of Jent and the Princes Barius and Septimus) get too little to do. Similarly, most of the supporting cast that remain within Phaedra’s vicinity are interesting (the murderer who saves her son, for example) but have too little to say for themselves to be fully drawn. Again, while this can be frustrating, it demonstrates, I think, how strictly Dickinson has immersed himself in Phaedra’s character. Her self-absorption and her perceptiveness (or lack) of the motives of other players strictly limit the information that is made available to the reader. If the characters and the world around her are not fully drawn, it is because they are not fully drawn in Phaedra’s mind.
Further on the positive side, while there are “good” people (Aud, the knight Adam diManey, and Martin the priest), Dickinson doesn’t resort to any purer-than-the-driven-snow characters to balance his shadow lord. No one comes out of this story smelling like roses, not even Phaedra. And no one (other than Mr. Archetype) ends up completely on the nose, either. And even the puppet master comes off as Hitler-the-human rather than Hitler-the-devil. The resolution of the story is neither tidy nor a clear victory of good over evil. Rather, the climax emerges messily out of the very human misperceptions and wrong-headed actions of all the principal players.
I was tempted to say that the nuanced nature of Dickinson’s characters removes The Cup of the World even further from the YA market than most. To do so would be patronizing to younger readers. It might be more accurate to say that Dickinson is one of those writers who highlights that some stock fantasies, be they YA or adult, don’t deliver the authentically flawed, human characters that perhaps they should.
Dickinson’s prose does seem to struggle occasionally in the first half of the book, and sometimes borders on twee. Occasionally, the language creaks under the burden of the author’s apparent haste to get past the squishy bits. For example, he tends to overuse the device of repetition: “But most wonderful of all was this drift, drift drift on the edge of sleep in the arms of the man she loved.” That said, I didn’t notice anything so cringeworthy in the second half. Having finished the book and seen Phaedra’s character grow, I am inclined to wonder whether these choices of language aren’t another facet of the author’s character building; whether Dickinson hasn’t chosen his words very carefully to reflect his heroine’s maturity (or lack thereof) at different stages of the story. Certainly, both Phaedra and Dickinson’s prose have a harder edge in the latter chapters.
This reviewer must confess to being probably less perceptive than other readers. Through the first half of the book, I grew increasingly frustrated at the author’s insistence on keeping the reader isolated from the action. It was only when Phaedra started taking control of her situation that I realized her feelings for the first half of the book were meant to be loneliness, claustrophobia, and frustration—and these were exactly the feelings that Dickinson had managed to convey.
By the end of the book, it must be said, the strict POV is successful. It is unfortunate, particularly given that this is a first novel, that some readers might be deterred by the oppressiveness of the first half. Dickinson has followed the pattern of many of C.J. Cherryh’s works (I have all of them, Ms. Cherryh, and I love them to bits), where bugger-all seems to happen for the first couple of hundred pages and then the sh**storm from Hell breaks loose and you can’t put it down. The early frustrations are fully recompensed by the end.
It is an ending that quite blatantly sets up book two, but the reader who (like me) has a pathological aversion to sequels, can finish it feeling satisfied that one has read a complete story. The Cup of the World isn’t a book this reviewer would normally pick off the shelf, but I’m glad I did. For readers who like their fantasy to deliver something a little different and maybe a little more human: if you find it, be it in the fantasy shelves, the children’s section or the bargain bin (especially the bargain bin), give it a go.