With Jerlayne, Lynn Abbey makes an earnest attempt to affect a change of pace, combining elements of high mythic fantasy with what I suppose she imagines to be gritty realism. The result gives the term "mixed bag" a whole new lease on life, and amounts to certainly one of the stranger fantasy novels to be released in recent memory.
It begins promisingly enough. While the whole thing is generally hampered by Abbey's trademark deadly prose (which tends to flow with the consistency of molasses mixed with extra chunky peanut butter), the novel's setup is more interesting than anything Abbey has written in years. Jerlayne is a young elfin woman living in the realm of Faerie, which is separated from our own mortal realm only by the thinnest veil of magic. In addition to elves, Faerie is home to goblins, dwarves, dragons, all manner of immortal mythical beasties, but all of whom are actually borne of elfin mothers. These scyldrin commonly change into one of these myriad forms several years after their birth, but most go on to continue to live and work in whichever of the many elfin homesteads they were born.
Elfin men frequently travel through the veil into the mortal realm in order to forage for the goods they will need to build their homesteads (and they seem to have a disproportionate habit of getting mugged and killed doing so). Ages ago, Faerie was nearly destroyed by a horrible plague, the blooddeath, caused when iron was brought back, a metal deadly to elves. Yet a cure was found when Elmeene, Jerlayne's mother, discovered a way to "shape" the iron and wrest control over its deadly magic. Now, the realm of Faerie is in revival, and it has become the custom for young elfin women who are coming of age to "shape a chain." Jerlayne manages her first shaping with even greater success than her mother had, and earns the right to choose a husband and found her own homestead.
In the novel's first 150 or so pages, patient readers are rewarded by some very good sequences detailing the early years at Sunrise, the homestead of Jerlayne and her husband Aulaudin. Jerlayne is troubled by the fact that all of her offspring are transforming into non-elfin scyldrin. Her youngest daughter, Evoni, has been a total disaster, changing into a siren, an almost indiscriminately dangerous creature powerful enough to damage the very landscape of Faerie itself. (Her transformation causes a small sea to form near Sunrise where there were once fertile pastures — a neat touch.) Distraught over this tragedy and her subsequent estrangement from Aulaudin, Jerlayne retreats to her mother's homestead where she learns an alarming (to us as well) secret from Elmeene: apparently the only way elfin women can bear elfin children that won't change is by traveling into the mortal realm and mating with mortal men!
No sooner does Abbey hit you with this head-scratching revelation, than the book goes swiftly south and never recovers. Not only does Abbey decline to explain why this fact is so, let alone how elfin women have managed to keep it a secret from their menfolk for millennia, but her actual depiction of the whole thing bizarrely defies both logic and taste. Jerlayne is taken by her mother into the mortal realm in order to find a meaningless quick lay so that she will get pregnant with her first truly elfin child. For reasons that are not altogether clear they choose to go to some grungy urban hellhole, something seemingly akin to the seediest sections of the Bronx or Detroit. They dress in hookerish clothes and go to a sleazy bar. Immediately you want to know why they didn't go somewhere nice, like Beverly Hills or the French Riviera. Mostly your brain is just plain reeling from the jarring transition into this dark world. Abbey's vision of reality is a world populated almost entirely by trash-talking lowlifes who wander rain-soaked grimy streets and don't seem to do anything for a living. Abbey drops f-bombs as liberally as Quentin Tarantino, and seems to be reveling in the way nonstop profanity might be startling her readers, who don't often see that kind of language in fantasy novels. But then it all just gets weird and ultimately silly, as a conflict between the magic of Faerie and the dreaded science of the mortal realm arises. Yet I have a feeling that most readers won't make it that far. The book becomes as tryingly dull as Siege of Shadows, its 500 pages dragging on like 5,000.
I want to give Lynn Abbey a chance, I really do, but her recent work has gotten so dreary that the only conclusion I can reach is that perhaps she's just no good anymore and never will be. But who knows? When and if her next novel hits the streets, I may very well try to open my mind and see if Abbey can, at last, work some storytelling magic. But please, DAW, no Jerlayne sequels.