Fifth Business

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. Copyright 1970. Fiction. ISBN 0141186151.

Fifth Business

Story:

Dunstan Ramsay, retiring from his long-held position as a history professor of Colborne College, writes a letter to the headmaster, wishing to set a few matters straight. The entire book is told in the form of this letter. What follows is a strange account of a life that encompasses war, saints, illusions, and unintended consequences that leads up to the ultimate question of, “Who killed Boy Staunton?”

Style and Plot:

Although it is called a mystery, if you consider the book as a standalone, then the term can only be applied in the loosest sense. This book is about the life of Dunstan Ramsay and the people he encounters in it, which is part of a set-up to the aforementioned question that the entire trilogy encompasses. If you go into the book expecting a crime thriller, you will be sorely disappointed.

The style Fifth Business is written in is unlike most books. The reader is being told a story, rather than being part of it, but Robertson Davies’ command of the written word does not leave the reader feeling disjointed and separate from the story. Imagine listening to your grandfather recounting tales, and you will come close to the feel of Fifth Business. The book cannot accurately be described as suspenseful, but it is absolutely engaging and compelling. Davies has created in Ramsay a straight-forward and wry professor with a tale so fascinating it hardly needs embellishment.

Perhaps the best criticism that can be applied to Fifth Business is that Davies tends to pay much attention to detail, which means long descriptions of things that don’t seem to have any relevance to the plot. Even here, though, Davies turns this into a success, as the details are often interesting in and of themselves. Davies also has a talent for making things that seem innocuous or unworthy of notice take on an entire new meaning in the light of a later passage, making this a book to read through several times.

Characterization:

Fifth Business: (n) Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business. (Definition found in the first pages of Fifth Business.)

This term and its definition must be kept in mind as you read Davies’ novel, as it relates to nearly every aspect and issue brought up, but especially to the character of Dunstan (once Dunstable) Ramsay. Shrewd yet compassionate, and strangely down-to-earth considering his life-long calling of chasing myths, legends, saints, and folklore, Ramsay is our unassuming protagonist. He speaks with a directness born of his Scottish heritage and upbringing and, as far as we know, tells no lies to save face for himself or anyone else.  There is nothing obviously notable about Ramsay, but that is what makes him the perfect vehicle for the concept of fifth business. Although his achievements are typically understated and perhaps not particularly glamorous, the effects that he has on the people and events that surround him are immense and innumerable. What is truly incredible about this character, however, are the layers upon layers that Davies heaps on him. Where most well-rounded protagonists are three-dimensional, Ramsay could claim six or seven well within reason.

Reserve a special spot on your bookcase for the demure, yet enveloping, Fifth Business. 5 out of 5 stars.

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Mortal Gods

Mortal Gods, by Bonnie Quinn. Copyright 2012. Fiction. ISBN 9781484917749.

Mortal Gods

Story:

In the modern era, a small and scattered group of people found they have –for reasons unknown—the ability to reshape reality simply by willing it so. They took the names of the mythological gods for themselves, and refused to answer to the rules and structures of mortal society.

For almost twenty years now, the mortals and gods have lived in relative peace, with a small handful of gods attempting to keep some measure of order among themselves. Among them is Loki, once a woman, now a genderless creation of its own with no ties to its past life, no obligations, and no sense of consequences. When a series of strange events point towards divine power, the trickster god is tasked with investigating the source, and a web of conspiracy quickly develops between groups of gods and mortals, all striving to dictate how humanity will progress. Loki is caught in the middle and irrevocably involved, as it has been named by the Oracle as the one who will be the catalyst that leaves the world forever changed.

Style and Plot:

Before reading this book, one should understand that it was self-published, which means that there are several formatting and grammatical errors throughout the text. However, if you look past those (and there aren’t so many that this is impossible), the story itself is well written and more than makes up for them.

“On Monday, I infuriated a god named Anteilis.” This is the first line of Mortal Gods, depositing us directly into the mind of Loki, a god who is attempting to find out who set fire to her Yggdrasil and caused several other events that she’s getting blamed for (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll be referring to Loki as “her” throughout the review, although the character is technically genderless). True to its beginning, the book remains fast-paced, but never feels rushed. The story portrays how people react when faced with sudden nigh unlimited power and immortality. Some thrive. Some hide. Some go insane. As you read the story through Loki’s twisted eyes, you can’t help but be pulled into this world where suddenly the fundamental laws of reality no longer apply.

The book has two major plots to it: the mortal attempts to get on the same ground as the gods (and the repercussions of those attempts), and the development of Loki as a catalyst. While both seem equally important throughout the story, the ending definitely does not treat them as such: the climax gives most of the attention to one, while giving the other a nod or two. This may feel a bit unsatisfying, but the loose ends of both conflicts are tied up, and it does prompt discussion on which one was supposed to be the point of the book. Mortal Gods asks several questions of the reader that demand to be considered. Is it possible for an immortal to retain their humanity, or should that even be attempted? When you’ve put yourself beyond mortal restraints, what is there left to restrain you? Everyone’s heard of “with great power comes great responsibility,” but how much of it is actually someone’s responsibility, and how much is their right? This is not just a book for mythology lovers, this is also a book for people who love the what-ifs.

Characterization:

Our main character is obviously Loki, a woman who has taken her name from the Norse god of mischief, and she has the wicked sense of humor and devil-may-care attitude to match it. She was quick to take to the power of a god and revels in it, but she’s also often plagued by questions about where her responsibility lies. It’s not easy to throw off the life and society that one has been born into, of course, and so Loki struggles to understand exactly what her role is in the world. She makes every effort to live up to her name, becoming the god of mischief and dualities in every way possible: remaking herself into something physically genderless, taking a neutral (but hardly uninvolved) stance on everything, and seeing many things with a clarity that others lack. It’s ironic, then, that she’s often also indecisive and uncertain. Quinn does an excellent job of maintaining Loki’s unpredictability, allowing the reader to understand her, but holding back just enough to maintain an element of surprise.

The element of surprise.

The element of surprise.

It’s stated that there are 48 gods in the modern pantheon, but probably only half of them are ever mentioned, and of those, only a handful are focused on in any depth. Some gods chose to take the names of mythological characters, such as Morrigan or Cupid, while others chose to make up their own names, such as Quif, Kingfisher, or Etci (not the god of online handmade marketplaces), and one unfortunate Tim. Although several gods are spoken of in the book, Quinn has managed to give them all distinct personalities and backstories without spending too much time on them or making them all blur together, so even a god whose been mentioned once is easily remembered. A strong cast is one of the most important parts of a book, and Quinn has pulled it off well.

Mortal Gods is psychological, hysterical, and evocative, and not one to be passed up. 4 out of 5 stars.

It’s important to note that the author, Bonnie Quinn, wrote and posted Mortal Gods one chapter at a time on a public art website, before taking it down when it was finished and putting it through edits. It was in progress before the Marvel movie Thor came out in theaters, which means that it unfortunately has another major character with the same name sucking up all of the attention. However, do not read this book with the picture of Marvel’s Loki in your head. The two characters are extremely different, despite being from the same namesake, and thinking of one while reading/watching the other is unfair to either of them.

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