on saturday, since i was trying to rest-and-heat painful cramps out of my right shoulder muscle, i had a lot of time to read. i finished roy porter’s english society in the 18th century and steve cash’s the meq. i’ve read articles by porter before and excerpts from his books but not a full text and it was great — he’s a little addicted to cheesy wordplay, but it was kind of cute, and it was a great survey of exactly what the title says: english society in the 18th century. tah-dah. no surprises here, folks. i don’t know enough about the subject to know if what he was saying was revolutionary or so ordinary that it caused no surprise whatsoever, but it was amusing, quick to read, and could absolutely have yielded more to closer inspection which i think is always a good thing in an academic text.
the meq, on the other hand, isn’t an academic text about anything. (mild spoilers follow; nothing that will ruin the ending, i promise). it’s steve cash’s first novel; his second, the inevitable sequel to the meq is coming out sometime this spring/summer. the basic conceit of the book is that there are people, called the meq, living on the earth who are functionally immortal. this sounds great — until you realise that their immortality switches on, so to speak, at age 12 and they don’t age past 12 unless they decide to re-enter time in order to have children which they only do after they have met their “ameq” — roughly translated, “soulmate.” (tangential question: how many fantasy/sci-fi novels are there out there that somehow have a concept akin to “one person for one person”? you meet your “perfect mate” or you never get a long-term relationship? why is this?) the period until the ameq is found is called the “itxaron” (i may be spelling that wrongly) or “wait.”
i’m not sure where cash got the words he uses in this; most of the meq are meant to be from the basque area of northern spain/southern france, so i’m not sure if he adapted/adopted portuguese, basque, or possibly provencal french. some characters speak what is recognizably portuguese or french, interspersed with english, obviously, but the words that pertain specifically to the meq didn’t ring any bells with me. they’re evocative, though, and do a pretty good job at distancing the meq from the humans they live alongside.
the narrative character, zianno or “z” as he insists on being called, loses his parents just after his first 12th birthday and knows nothing about the meq or about his place in the hierarchy of this scattered society. obviously, he turns out to be important; there’s a quest, people to be found, objects to be found, villains to be bested, questions to be answered, and so forth. it’s a fairly straightforward hero’s journey.
as a first novel, it’s pretty good. there are at least two historical and one plot-related “howlers” as harriet vane calls them, but they’re forgivable given the enthusiasm and verve which cash brings to his story. (i won’t point them out in the interest of not ruining things for you. suffice it to say, if you notice them, you notice them; if you don’t, you don’t.) it wanders a little; in the middle chapters i couldn’t help wishing that there had been a kindly editor on hand to suggest that maybe, just maybe, some of this could be condensed somehow. and cash did occasionally give in to the temptation of the “if only we had known then what we would shortly discover…” trick which i find hellaciously irritating. it’s one of stephen king’s little pet foibles and sometimes — just sometimes, mind you — it works out all right. lovecraft used it to good effect and there’s the odd stephen king novel — it, for example — where it doesn’t drive me up the wall but mostly it just seems like sloppy storytelling. it’s like telling the reader something but not really.
since the story takes place over the last decade or so of the 19th century and ends just after the first world war, cash occasionally has real people enter the action — mostly very briefly — and real-world events continually impinge, aid, or retard the action of the story. the novel ends amid the upheaval of the armistice and the opening days of the influenza epidemic at the end of the teens. cash does a great job of evoking the ‘flu epidemic, making it particularly horrific when it becomes clear that the ‘flu may not necessarily be a respector of meq immortality.
there are some great characters — solomon birnbaum and carolina covington spring straight to mind as two favorites, as do ray and sailor, two of the other meq z falls in with over the course of the novel. the villain, too, is a wonderful, cruel, vicious invention and i thoroughly look forward to seeing more of him in the second novel. there are a few characters that come across as stock figures, inserted to make a plot point move more smoothly or to ease a particular transitional moment, but for the most part, cash avoids this kind of cardboardy characterization.
there are some things that i wish he had addressed in more detail: for example, all of the meq — some of whom were thousands of years old and still, apparently, 12 — lived closely with humans…but none of them expressed any real jealousy, sorrow, or pain at watching human friends age, marry, divorce, get sick, die, or whatever. but perhaps these are problems that cash was deliberately saving for his second book when z would be less preoccupied with finding his feet, so to speak, as a meq and could turn his mind to more abstract ideas.
edit: i take it back because i am an idiot. the meq was published in 2005; time dancers, the second volume, was published in 2006. perhaps he has the third volume coming out this year…? i have no idea. anyway. yes, go forth and read those two lovely complete volumes and just totally ignore me, really.