Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Birdwing by Rafe Martin

Title: Birdwing
Author: Rafe Martin
Publication Date: 2005
Number of Pages: 359 (but the font is fairly big)
Purchase: AmazonBarnes & NobleebayAbe BooksThe Book DepositoryPowell's Books

What Goodreads has to say:

A boy marked by physical difference--one arm is an enchanted wing--finds his strength and purpose in this stirring fantasy. A Washington Post Best Kids Book of 2005 and Book Sense Winter Pick.

Once upon a time, a girl rescued her seven brothers from a spell that had turned them into swans. But one boy, Ardwin, was left with the scar of the spell's last gasp: one arm remained a wing. And while Ardwin yearned to find a place in his father's kingdom, the wing whispered to him of open sky and rushing wind. Marked by difference, Ardwin sets out to discover who he is: bird or boy, crippled or sound, cursed or blessed. But followed by the cold eye of a sorceress and with war rumbling at his kingdom's borders, Ardwin's path may lead him not to enlightenment, but into unimaginable danger.

What I have to say:

The premise of this book is brilliant - it's why I wanted to read it. Doesn't every child who hears the Grimm's fairy tale of the Six Swans wonder about that one brother who is left with a wing at the end? His name is Ardwin, and this is his story. It probably should have been told a long time ago, but no matter; It's told now.

Birdwing was a well-written story, with likeable characters - Ardin (Birdwing) is especially sympathetic, and I enjoyed watching his character arc unfold. The language at times is beautiful, and the atmosphere feels otherworldly and mythic, but still human enough to be relevant. 

In fact, I find that if I stop thinking of Birdwing as simply a novel, and think of it instead as a fairy tale or myth, it's better. That's not to say the story was bad, but I do think it has a few flaws if you take it as a modern novel, and if that's what you're expecting, I think you'll find a sweet, thoughtful story, but you might be a little disappointed.  

In fact, the description of Ardwin towards the end of the book - as a young prince with one swan wing, a lion skin vest and worn traveling cloak, carrying an old heavy sword and a spear slung over his shoulder, with a lion's tooth hanging around his neck - is a good symbol for the style and setting of the story. The young man looks almost barbaric, but in a grand and mythic way. And his figure represents the weaving together of the human and faery worlds that is such a prominent part of the book and, in fact, of Ardwin himself.

I particularly enjoyed Ardwin's discussion with his sister, Rose Red, the heroine of the Six Swans story, who - quite literally - never really has a chance to share her side of the story in the fairy tale. Birdwing gives a voice to those characters in the fairy tale who have never been allowed to share why they acted the way they did and what the experience did to them. The characters in Birdwing are, in the typographical sense, heroes, heroines, and villains, but in this story they are human, and allowed to share their motivations, desires, and emotions. And it's about time.

Illustration by P. J. Lynch

Someone on Goodreads commented that the story of Birdwing feels very disjointed; and I think they're right. That may have been part of the reason I wasn't engrossed in the story. I wanted to finish it, and I wanted to find out what happened to Ardwin and how he resolved his dilemma, but it was more a general interest and desire to finish the book than a glued-to-my-seat level of engrossment. 

I think I might have enjoyed this book more if I had read it when I was younger, and C. S. Lewis would probably have something earth-shattering and brilliant to say about that, but as it is, I enjoyed Birdwing

The story is alternately sweet, funny, sad, and mythic. 

A few of my favorite moments: the description of Ardwin, mentioned above, in the second half of the tale; the moment I realized that the story was, to a certain extent, a Frankenstein adaptation, and the description of the madness of King Ulfius. And I have to say just a little about that last one. Though crazy Ulfius only appears in a couple short chapters, the way the author showed his madness was chilling and brilliant. I love a villain that makes me shiver, especially when he's totally deranged and there's no negotiating with him; it raises the stakes, and a good story should generally have high stakes, or we won't be invested. 

So maybe the ending was a little anti-climactic, from this standpoint, but then again, it was the perfect ending to a fairy tale, and, to tell the truth, an epic battle scene fighting a deranged king who's trying to cut the hero's arm off didn't really match the style of the rest of the story anyway, so it made sense that the impending climax of the book was resolved in the end in a way that was pretty clean and eucatastrophic*.

In the end, Birdwing finds its greatest success in doing what it set out to do from the moment of the story's conception: the tale is an exploration and attempt to understand, as the author puts it, "the wing we all have" - why we have it, and how we can live with it.

I leave you with one share-worthy quote from Ardwin Birdwing himself: 

Ardwin said to the children, "Do you still have the feathers I gave you?" 
"Yes," said Annie and the others.  
"Good. Keep them. One day - who can say when, but when the time is right - a wind will come and it will lift you where you need to go. For now, prepare," he continued. "Learn all you can. Study maps and books, music and stories. Grow strong. You will have wings, not like mine, but your own. Those feathers are the sign."

*See Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories" or my post on the Tolkien Reader.

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