It’s not fair. This whole story is massively unfair.
I picked up Jim Farris’ Muse, and upon reading the opening, thought, “Uh oh, another egocentric story about a Raymond Chandler wannabe having a detective adventure. Bleargh.” You see, the first paragraph said:
“I suppose it had to happen, eventually. My muse was gone, and my work had come to a standstill. It was all Sharon’s fault, of course. The night she left, she killed my muse.”
Muse skates *this* close to the edge of a typical noir detective novel without falling into the trope. Ever. In fact, just as you’re expecting something cliché, BAM, your expectation is turned on its little head, with grace and wit, and something potentially boring as hell becomes a minute, fascinating gem of fiction.
You think you’ve got a wannabe PI living in San Francisco, but then you have a real PI–who lives in our future, not the past or a sentimental retro present filled with cartoon cutout bad-guys and sexy dames. As if that weren’t bad enough, you then think, “Then what’s this muse crap?” And lo and behold, the muse is literally a devastatingly cute, intelligent winged being that sits on his shoulder like the tiny Egyptian Goddess of Smart. Really and truly. And just when you think it’s just degenerated into cutsie-poo boring modern fantasy achieved with handwaving pseudo technology–you are shown how it is that such a being is created, by science, and why. With real science. And for whom she is created.
See? Unfair! All these expectations of mediocrity, shattered! And you think, “Aww, she’s sweet,” but then you are slapped in the face with the reality belonging to a day-old person, self aware, and yet programmed for a purpose. They have “quirks” that some muse owners make a game of discovering. “Oh, this is gonna be bad, then,” you might think, because clearly this has to be a dystopian take on the slavery of the poor, oppressed genetically manipulated creatures.
Nope, Muse never slides into self-pity. Liz, the newly-created muse of private investigator Alan Donovan (man, he’s even Irish) is fully aware of the brutality of her necessarily short life, and that of all her predecessors with Alan and all the other people who have muses. But hey, our lives are always too short. She and Alan are very alone and self-sufficient–together. We explore this unique relationship–so classical and yet so fresh–through their feelings and actions, in their own words, as they come to understand each other and themselves better.
There is of course, a mystery which includes Tongs, gun-toting bad guys, and near-death and mucho dinero at stake. But instead of letting stereotypes do the work, you get a tightly-plotted mystery kept fresh by both its novel twists and very personal views of both Alan and Liz. Instead of the usual unrequited love-boohoo, you get love explored in an adult but modest fashion–an emotionally adult fashion. How can two beings belong together and yet never be together? A muse is often a feminine character or real being–not a love interest, but someone who inspires love, someone unreachable. And here’s more disappointment: instead of the one-note unrequited love and misery, you come to understand what it is to be a muse: created to bond to a human who is godlike in comparison. This is so curious, because after all, weren’t muses goddesses at one time? Your expectations have just been upended once again.
More unfairness ensues: we get charming characters that we enjoy getting to know, set in a believable future, with sensible tech–some would call it mildly dystopian, but Farris helps us find hope and love even there. And I want to know what happens next to Alan and Liz! Yet more unfairness, because by the end of the novel, I was ready for more, a lot more. I didn’t want it to stop.
And dammitall, now I want a muse of my own! A cute 15-cm lady with a mousie head, soft white fur, angel wings, and a lion’s tail. Someone to watch over me, you know? To advise. To love me unconditionally. Wouldn’t you?
Alan does solve the one overtly dangerous mystery very handily, but not without a struggle. And in fact, it’s Liz who solves the bigger mystery, that of her predecessor’s death. Yeah, we know how…but not exactly why. Not the real reason. So I was prepared for disappointment–and was massively disappointed in not being at all disappointed. And I was utterly charmed.
This little story is a real gift. Now, go read it. You will have been very unfair to yourself if you miss this one.