The Choir Boats by Daniel A. Rabuzzi
The Choir Boats is set in an alternate 1812 London in which famous fictional characters exist alongside historical personages. As the novel begins, we meet a small cadre of Londoners who are all dissatisfied with their lives in one way or another, and their interest is piqued when they learn of the fantasy world of Yount, where they may be able to find their hearts’ desires.
A common device in fantasy literature is the misdirection spell. A sorcerer casts this on a person or object, and while it doesn’t technically become invisible, people’s eyes just slide away. You try to look, and suddenly feel a mysterious compulsion to look somewhere else. My experience with The Choir Boats was much like I imagine such a spell might manifest. I would settle into my chair and try to read, and five pages later, my attention would slide away from the book. I’d feel the urge to go read something else, or take a nap, or wash the dishes. My mind simply wouldn’t stick with the novel.
The reasons why I couldn’t get into The Choir Boats have been equally elusive. I hate writing vague reviews, though, so I’ll try to put my finger on it.
Daniel Rabuzzi peoples his tale with interesting characters, and provides them with intriguing backstories. That’s not the issue. I think it’s the prose. It’s not that the prose is bad. Intellectually, I can tell that it’s carefully constructed, emulating the dense style that was popular in the nineteenth century. I think my trouble with The Choir Boats is a combination of the density of the prose and the way Rabuzzi tends to enumerate every real and fictional London landmark his story brushes against:
Tuesday came, January 14th, the feast day of St. Fiona, so all the shops had a dried nettle hung above the door in memory of her martyrdom. Barnabas and Sanford stepped out into a raw, sunless day. Barnabas admired the dolphin door knocker as he closed the door behind him, and wondered if the pale blue window trim wouldn’t want refreshing come spring. From the McDoon comptoir in Mincing Lane, they walked towards the Piebald Swan in Wapping. All the life of the City of London thronged about them, a raucous river of buying and selling in the world’s greatest port. Their house was nestled in the heart of the City, surrounded by the counting houses of friends and rivals such as Chicksey, Veneering & Stobbles just round the corner, Matchett & Frew in Crosby Square and others in Austin Friars and Pope’s Head Alley. The pales of their immediate world were the Bank of England and Royal Exchange on Threadneedle Street, the East India House on Leadenhall Street, the Baltic Coffeehouse near St. Mary-Axe, the Victualling Office on Tower Hill. On a stroll, Barnabas was apt to swell with pride at these edifices to trade, and expatiate on Great Britain’s imperia pelagi, its oceanic empire, but the intensity of today’s mission left him no time for such amplitude. The Purser awaited, and Yount beyond him. The key in his vest-pocket bounced with every stride.
Passages like these left me a little dizzy, and a little left out. I don’t feel like I’m traveling through London with Barnabas; I feel like I’m bumbling around getting hopelessly lost. The Choir Boats gave me the impression that I needed to be better-read and better-traveled to truly understand it. It’s being sold as a young adult novel, but I’m over thirty and I feel like Rabuzzi is talking over my head. That, and there’s a certain “stuffiness” to the narrative that made me feel distant from it. The only times I felt truly immersed were during Maggie’s scenes. Maggie is a math genius who also happens to be a destitute black girl. Every time she appears on the scene, the story blazes to life until we leave her point of view.
That said, The Choir Boats has garnered rave reviews from several bloggers whose opinions I trust. I rarely disagree with Fantasy Book Critic’s Liviu Suciu about books, so I’ll direct you to his review; he loved the novel and found in it all the qualities I missed.
Longing for Yount — (2009-2012) Young adult Publisher: What would you give to make good on the sins of your past? For merchant Barnabas McDoon, the answer is: everything. When emissaries from a world called Yount offer Barnabas a chance to redeem himself, he accepts their price — to voyage to Yount with the key that only he can use to unlock the door to their prison. But bleak forces seek to stop him: Yount’s jailer, a once-human wizard who craves his own salvation, kidnaps Barnabas’s nephew. A fallen angel — a monstrous owl with eyes of fire — will unleash Hell if Yount is freed. And, meanwhile, Barnabas’ niece, Sally, and a mysterious pauper named Maggie seek with dream-songs to wake the sleeping goddess who may be the only hope for Yount and Earth alike.
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