Today's Book Review

Elizabeth Hand
144pp. Viking Juvenile. 9780670012121

Elizabeth Hand writes about dreamers and artists like nobody else; her books perfectly capture that fine line between madness and genius, between brilliance and destruction. Hand loves the big questions, agilely exploring what it takes to both make art and survive in a world that does not love artists. What happens to the people who can't walk that fine line, who cross over into a place without anchors or safety or solace? To people whose fires, to employ an oft-abused cliché, burn too bright? Though her oeuvre spans the wildly fantastic and the relatively ordinary, characters often appear and reappear throughout her books as different incarnations of the same person, to the extent that sometimes reading a new book of hers feels like meeting up with an old friend. Taken as a body, her work is some of the finest writing in existence on sex and madness and death and punk. And, above all else, love. The obvious next step: writing about teenagers.

Illyria's story is simple enough: Maddy and Rogan are cousins, best friends, and each other's first love. Their love of the theater sets them apart from their large, disorderly family--all descendants of a famous actress, but only Rogan, Maddy, and their mysterious Aunt Kate have the fiery passion for the stage that drives them toward making lives as performers. When Rogan and Maddy are cast in their school's production of Twelfth Night, they are forced to face their vastly differing gifts, and make choices that will determine the course of both their lives. Hand is as brilliant here as she's ever been--the novel won the 2008 World Fantasy Award, and for good reason--but her descriptions of the fever dream of first love are close to perfect. Elizabeth Hand writes as magically about Shakespeare as she does about punk (fitting, right? Someone, somewhere, has probably made a great case for old Will as the direct antecedent to the Sex Pistols), moving this gorgeous, tiny novel to a devastatingly bittersweet and well-earned ending. Read this back-to-back with Just Kids and thank the universe for giving us writers this brave and this gifted.

ALSO AN IMPORTANT APLOGY: Idiot Rejectionist somehow TOTALLY mixed up the publication date and thought Illyria came out in 2009, which is why we left it off our 2010 best-books list, which is in fact an INEXCUSABLE ERROR. It was published in the US in 2010 by Viking.

ALSO, a SPECIAL BONUS: Illyria features a number of really great Shakespeare in-jokes. (We recognized them not due to any particular scholarship on our part, but because we have read Pamela Dean's Tam Lin so many times we have sections of it memorized. But anyway, if you like that sort of thing, which we do, you will be made quite happy.)