I recently revisited what I consider to be one of the most critically underappreciated works in modern fantasy fiction, Sheri S Tepper’s Marianne Trilogy (Marianne, the Magus and the Manticore; Marianne, the Madam and the Momentary Gods; Marianne, the Matchbox and the Malachite Mouse). Never released in hardcover, and long out of print, this luminous and dream-drenched narrative seems to be sadly unknown, even among devotees of Tepper’s more popular work.
The trilogy centers around Marianne, who begins the books as a shy and bookish graduate student living under the thumb of her sinister half brother. The details of the plot, however are secondary to the series’ most distinctive traits: A multifaceted heroine, a slyly feminist viewpoint, and a an ever-shifting setting that guides the reader through a seemingly endless series of richly imagined, psychologically rich dream worlds.
Although Marianne, the title character, is nominally the same person in all three books, she is also, in some sense, a new person in each book, since at the end of the first and second books she travels back in time, and relives her life in a different way starting from infancy. Thus, the Marianne of the first book is an orphaned survivor of abuse, who discovers deeply hidden internal reserves of strength and power. The Marianne of the second book is the pampered child of wealthy immigrants, who grows up in the shadow of magical events, a profound and continual sense of deja vu, and the occasional intrusions of a ghostly and morally ambiguous version of her former self. Finally, the Marianne of the third book represents a more confident and psychologically stable integration of her two earlier selves.
Whimsy and feminism are not concepts often found in close companionship, but Tepper’s combination of the two gives the series extra spark and edge. Much of the dynamic of the first two books revolves around Marianne’s relationship with her mentor, lover and would-be savior, Makr Avehl, who spends much of the first book trying to rescue Marianne, only to find out at the end that she is in no real need of his assistance. The feminist subtext is sharpened in the second book when Makr Avehl consciously attempts to cast himself as a knight in shining armor, only to end up the butt of the joke as a parody Prince Charming in a revisionist fairy tale. Interestingly enough it is only in the third book, where Marianne is finally a figure of strength and confidence, that Makr Avehl is finally allowed to save the day for real. Perhaps Marianne is finally strong enough to enjoy being rescued? Be that as it may, the book does not completely abandon its feminism, featuring as it does an extended episode in a mythical matriarchy in which the men campaign for male rights and male liberation while secretly longing to be dominated by strong (and bloodthirsty) women.
While the characters and their relationships are quite different in each book, the overall structure remains constant, as each features Marianne becoming trapped in a series of nightmarish false worlds, from which she must escape despite suffering from a dreamlike amnesia. It is in this series of settings that Tepper’s imaginative gift is on fullest display, as she paints portraits of fascist bureaucracies, libraries with no exits, infinitely tall towers built of mud, people trapped inside posters, mechanical monsters, and cats and chickens that hunt human beings for sport. Few other authors have ever better captured the combined magic and menace of the dreamworld, with its bizarre juxtapositions that somehow make perfect psychological sense.
These books are all but impossible to obtain, and only at high cost, but if you’re a fan of this type of literature it will be worth it, I consider them a must read.