In my search for The Great Fantasy Novel, I had to ask myself a lot of questions. First, what authors were writing at a technical level that I thought was appropriate for the award? From there, what novels were fantasies, and which were representative of the fantasy genre? For example, Audrey Niffinegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife is a wonderful novel about the love story between a woman who lives time normally and a man who is constantly traveling between times. The writing is impeccable and deeply moving. While it has fantastical elements, it’s not truly representative of the fantasy genre and is usually shelved in the general fiction section of libraries and bookstores. Of the titles I was left with, it came down to a choice between traditional fantasies and fantasies that buck the system. In the end, I went for the rebellious and innovative rather than the epitome of everything fantasy has built toward for nearly forty years.
Alex Bledsoe is still something of a newcomer to the fantasy field, with his debut published in 2007. With 2011’s The Hum and the Shiver, he quickly earned his place as a bright new star. Set in the modern day Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, the book follows the story of Bronwyn Hyatt as she returns home after a tour of duty in Iraq. She’s injured, suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and hasn’t been home since she ran away years before. She’s also a First Daughter of the Tufa, a fey people who have been living in Cloud County for as long as anyone can remember. Over the years, members of the race have drifted away to live among their neighboring humans, and now the community is in danger of extinction. Bronwyn is one of the last pure-blooded women left, and her family and neighbors have expectations of her that she is unsure she wants to live up to.
One of the things that struck me about The Hum and the Shiver within the first ten pages was its placement during the War on Terror. There are a lot of urban and contemporary fantasies out there right now, but little of it is dealing directly with the armed conflicts that have been raging in Iraq and Afghanistan for over ten years. The big urban fantasies, while being set in the present day, have almost totally ignored the war. Though Bronwyn is not in a conflict zone during the events of the book, and Bledsoe doesn’t talk a lot about her time overseas, she instead represents the story about how hard it is for soldiers to come home. Her friends and colleagues have died around her, and she herself has been deeply injured while journeying through hell and back. She’s given a hero’s parade home by the military, deposited with ceremony on her parents’ front doorstep, and then abandoned to civilian life. This aspect of the story rang true for me with my experiences seeing soldiers come home and the personal costs the war has exacted from them. The War on Terror will be known as my generation’s war, and due to its unpopularity and political divisiveness, we aren’t talking about it in literature. There are a few exceptions, but by and large it’s missing from our artistic landscapes. People go to war for as many reasons as there are people. What do we truly accomplish by refusing to speak to any of them?
Within the tale of Bronwyn acclimating to civilian life again is the story of the Tufa. They provide the rest of the themes of the novel, as well as its fantasy element. Most obvious is the theme of music. Like their long-time neighbors, the Tufa are a deeply musical people. Their magic even depends on the music they make, so much so that if a Tufa loses his music, in many ways he becomes merely human and is seen as more disabled than if he had become a quadriplegic. The book is entitled The Hum and the Shiver for a reason: it’s for the hum of an instrument making sound and the shiver it can create inside you as you awaken to listen to it, to dance to it, to sing with it with your whole being. Rather than just being a way to access magic, to cast spells, or to effect a change, for the Tufa music is the magic. It is a part of them. Not a way of life but an integral component of their very existence. This approach to music is not only fairly unique in the genre, but also helps to anchor the Tufa to their place in the American landscape. The Appalachian Mountains are filled with the descendants of Scots-Irish settlers who were highly isolated on mountains and in valleys for the better part of two hundred years. They kept their musical traditions intact during that time, using music to tell their stories as well as to entertain. To this day, there are very few places in America where there are a higher number of musicians, regardless of caliber. The Tufa reflect that.
Layered underneath is the fear of the Tufa being consumed by modern global culture. Their children see the outside world on their television sets. They see all the places they can go, all the things they can do, and all the things they can acquire. Too many of their children go exploring, and too few of them come back to settle down and marry among their own kind. This has endangered not only Tufa culture, but the people themselves. The community has responded by pushing the outside world away rather than simply ignoring it as it has in the past. The Tufa are hanging on to their young people more firmly, and are not accepting of those like Bronwyn who choose a different path. This is true of many smaller cultures that are being inundated with an idealized version of American life via movies, television, and the Internet. Even within our own country, there is a push back against the homogenization caused by our media and economy.
Finally, The Hum and the Shiver is exquisitely written. The Tufa hide from the world, and Bledsoe allows them to hide from the reader, even as we follow Bronwyn into their most cherished places. By the end of the book, we have been introduced to the Tufa, but we do not know them. Though Bledsoe sets up each plot point thoroughly, he gives nothing away as Bronwyn moves forward in her healing process so that each one comes as a wonderful surprise without causing confusion. The prose lives up to the evocativeness of the title, leaving behind a book that is as magical as it is musical and completely lacking in traditional fantasy clichés while using a few familiar elements to ground it in the genre.
The Hum and the Shiver is a rare example of the fantasy genre. It’s perfectly placed during the early twenty-first century in a small community in Tennessee struggling to survive into the next generation. The fears, hopes, and motivations of each character ring true to that scenario, as do the challenges they face. The writing is impeccable; so much so that this book has remained clear in my head years after I read it. I can still close my eyes and travel back to the barn where the Tufa hold music competitions and dance under the moon.
This article is part of our search for “The Great Fantasy Novel.” For more information on this project or to nominate your own favorite fantasy novel, please take a look at the introduction article. Do you agree or disagree with this nomination? Let us know in the comments below!