September 27, 2007


Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. By James Gurney. Andrews McMeel. $29.95.

Ilario: The Stone Golem—A Story of the First History, Book Two. By Mary Gentle. Eos. $14.95.

      James Gurney’s tales of Dinotopia are unending feasts for the eyes, even if the underlying stories tend to be rather thin. Gurney’s newest book, Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, actually has some clever writing here and there: “Bix, my faithful ally, was a diminutive Protoceratops, the size of a sheep and the color of a musk mallow, with a fearless heart, a creaky voice, and an old-style kindliness, like a parrot raised in the company of Presbyterians.” But even the more-interesting portions of the narrative take a back seat to the magnificently realized portraits of intelligent dinosaurs living and interacting with human beings. One of the extraordinary things about Gurney’s oil paintings is the way he painstakingly shows the faces and bodies of the humans, bringing out their personalities and peculiarities expertly through form and expression – and then applies exactly the same techniques to the dinosaurs. The result is a visualization of equals, drawing readers inexorably into the isolated island world of Dinotopia with a believability that the entirely fantastic plots of the stories could not otherwise achieve. Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara is a very handsome book, of coffee-table size and with an included “Traveler’s Map of Dinotopia” from the “Global Geographic Society” that provides additional background for the story. The pictures are full of surprises. One, for example, appears to show a large and fearsomely clawed dinosaur threatening a man and a much smaller dinosaur – but the caption reads, “Bix admires the claws of Henriette, the Therizinosaurus.” The dinosaurs’ anatomy is beautifully rendered, the colors are gorgeous in indoor and outdoor scenes alike, and the book is such a visual pleasure that it is tempting just to look at it without reading it. There is a story, though, about a journey from the more-familiar realm of Waterfall City to the land called Chandara, which has been cut off from contact with the rest of Dinotopia for many years. The delights and hazards of travel get their full due here – with an approach somewhat reminiscent of Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires – while the maps and carefully painted scenes sweep the reader into a story whose impossibility does not deter Gurney from making it seem plausible.

      The second and concluding book of the adventures of Ilario is a fantasy, too, but Mary Gentle makes no particular attempt to render it realistic – she makes it clear that this is an alternative history. The first book of this pair, Ilario: The Lion’s Eye, detailed the early adventures of the sexually dual-nature Ilario, a would-be artist who seems male but is so fully female that he/she becomes pregnant and, at the end of that book, gives birth. The second book, Ilario: The Stone Golem, gets more deeply into court intrigue and political machinations, with the golem of the title being created in Carthage as a weapon – and painted by Ilario so he can show it to those living elsewhere. The alternative world here is being as unalterably changed by one Master Gutenberg as the real world was; and the various plots and counterplots are nothing special. The book deserves a (+++) rating for its strong style, for Gentle’s success in making Ilario an interesting character and far more than the mere King’s Freak he becomes for a time, and for involving Ilario in family issues that prove as complex and troubling as matters of state. Ilario’s hermaphroditic nature is more than a curiosity: it is crucial to the plot and the eventual resolution of the tale. Ilario proves to be, to those around him, very much a special case, not only in sexuality but also in law. The overall structure of Gentle’s story, though, is less special than its central character.

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