Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Devil's Lair

David Wisehart's epic fantasy is a stunning tour de force -- David Mitchell meets Umberto Eco. The author tells his story of a group of pilgrims in the 14th century who retrace Dante's descent into the Inferno with verve and a truly astonishing command of language.

It's not only that he explores the vast reaches of the English vocabulary but that every description or action is conveyed in a highly disciplined prose and laser-precise diction. Wisehart loves words and the reader revels in the language that compels one to follow William of Ockham, Giovanni Boccaccio, Nadja and Marco da Roma, the last Knight Templar into the bowels of Hell and the fate that awaits them there. The history -- Ockham, Boccaccio, Petrarch are all real historical figures along with assorted churchmen who appear -- and the fantasy are rendered with equal authority.

Wisehart finds words you had no idea existed. His writing is well-suited to e-books because you can highlight a word and find its definition if you so desire (a word of warning, the dictionary function does not have many of the words in this book and you need to use the Google or Wikipedia functions to track them down). Or you can save yourself the trouble and simply enjoy the novelty. You may never have encountered the word "costrel" before but when the character unplugs its stopper and takes a drink from it, you can easily conclude it is a pouch for carrying liquids.

In the first half of the book, as the pilgrims set out on their quest, the surreal horror of the Black Death becomes nauseatingly real, as the bubonic plague drives whole towns to despair and sends Ockham and his band into Hell to recover the Holy Grail and thus rescue the world from this calamity. The plague is almost by definition allegorical, and these early chapters resemble Andrzej Szczypiorski's Mass for Arras in their portrayal of a world gone mad.

Then in the second half, the fantastical visions of Dante's nine circles of the Inferno are recreated in compressed prose. The creatures, the damned, the devil himself parade by in dizzying succession as the pilgrims make their way to their goal. They see the famous, including some surprising residents of Hell thought to be in heaven, and friends and relatives from their own pasts. They cope with dangers and vicissitudes as they pursue their goal. Here Wisehart matches Tolkien and the darker Rowling in the boldness of his images.

If anything, you find yourself wishing the prose was a little less compressed and intense, that the suspense and sense of menace were somewhat more drawn out. But the quick succession of events and phantasmagorical images immerse you in what truly becomes an epic.

In the midst of all this, Wisehart's little band of characters keeps the reader's sympathy as much as Frodo or Harry Potter. Ockham is the excommunicated logician who can attain salvation through faith. Boccaccio is the worldly poet who gives up everything to follow his friends. Nadja is prone to epileptic seizures that bring on heavenly visions -- or are they demonic temptations, or just delusions? And Marco finds qualities of heroism he had no idea he possessed.

Wisehart has written verse plays -- something of a lost art -- and it's not by accident that poets are major figures in this epic. There is some verse, but much of the prose, too, is darkly lyrical. This is an accomplished work that demonstrates conclusively, if anyone still doubted it, that independent authors can produce literature on a par with the best that mainstream publishers put out and propel to bestsellerdom.

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