Triptych, by J.M. Frey

Please note that this review may include spoilers. As a general rule I do not share the SF/F community’s aversion to that sort of thing (it quite frankly gets in the way of a critic being able to give a full and honest assessment), so I’m not going to be careful about it. This is your one and only warning.

TriptychIf you’re into media—any kind of media, be it books, music, film, whatever—there is a term you will eventually hear thrown around: crossover success. A crossover success is when a work or artist from one genre, say, a rapper, achieves success with the fans of another genre, like indie rockers, or even better, with mainstream audiences. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling are massive examples from the book world. Before King, horror had largely been relegated to the third tier of the genre fiction ghetto (although to be fair, aside from the big names it still sort of is), and Rowling probably did more to mainstream fantasy and kid-lit than anyone since C.S. Lewis. Most crossover successes are not that big, but they are pretty special things.

So with that in mind, I’m going to tell you two true things about Triptych. The first and most important thing is that it’s a wonderful, complex novel in the traditions of Ursula K. Le Guin and Phyllis Gotlieb (the latter in kind of an oblique way), and it absolutely deserves considerable crossover success. The second thing is that it won’t get it, and for the most ridiculous of reasons. It’s not that the book deals frankly with difficult questions of sexuality to a degree that has the potential to shake-up mainstream audiences, though you’d be forgiven for thinking that. No, it’s because it suffers from Porcupine’s Quill Syndrome. You see, the Porcupine’s Quill is a really amazing Canadian literary press (not Triptych‘s publisher, but they are notorious for this, so bear with me). They publish excellent books that deserve critical praise and popular attention, and they put them in the most off-putting, god-awful ugly, embarrassed-to-be-seen-on-the-subway-with-it covers you could possibly imagine. And Dragon Moon Press, who have clearly shown themselves to be excellent judges of what should go between those covers (by virtue of having published something as good as Triptych in the first place), have saddled Frey’s book with a cover that conforms to just about everything mainstream audiences hate about SF book covers, implying so many of the stereotypes that make them think they don’t like genre fiction in the first place that I can guarantee it will be enough to keep them away (because I have ignored books for the exact same reason, and I am a lot more SF-friendly than a great many of my mainstream literary-minded friends). As harsh as that sounds, I believe it to be the absolute truth. I encourage you to not be that person, because the book I’m about to tell you about deserves your attention.

Triptych takes its name from the relationship between the three main characters: Specialist Gwen Pierson, her partner Doctor Basil Grey, and Kalp, the alien who becomes the third in their aglunate (perhaps taken from agglutination, a term from biology that refers to a clump of cells usually bound together by a different kind of cell, its root being the Latin word for “glue”), which has its closest human analogue in the polygamous marriage, and is the primary social unit for Kalp’s species. The book also has a three part structure, each (more or less) focusing on one of the main characters, with Kalp’s being both the longest and the most engaging.

As is natural with stories involving time travel, events in Triptych don’t always happen in the right order. It opens with Kalp’s death, immediate and visceral. Frey does an excellent job of making the reader feel Basil’s pain and shock at seeing Kalp killed in front of him, no easy feat given at that point we don’t know—and therefore have no reason to care about—any of the characters. We then move almost immediately, via time machine, to Gwen’s early childhood where she and Basil stop a murder and try to perform some emotional triage. At this point Triptych looks like it’s being set up to be a thriller—an unusually emotionally aware thriller, but still. And then we get to Kalp.

The middle section of the book sees Kalp become the (third person limited) point of view character and Triptych suddenly stops resembling a thriller. Kalp and his people arrived on Earth as refugees, after their own planet was destroyed. Frey takes us through Kalp’s culture shock expertly, using the alienness of his species’ biology (which is where I see the Gotlieb)—particularly his unusual aural-sensitivity and a facial structure that makes recognizing and reproducing human visual cues difficult—to emphasize how similar, how recognizably human and familiar his situation is and what it does to him emotionally. Frey makes it impossible for the reader not to connect with Kalp, handily disproving all the stereotypes about SF being unable to do anything sophisticated with character. Even after opening with such a heavy emphasis on the thriller elements, Triptych is fundamentally about character. I wanted to spend a lot more time with Kalp, and it was genuinely heartbreaking when I came to his death the second time. Frey handles the thriller/time travel elements of the novel well, but her character work is so good I think that if she wanted to she could deliver an exceptional SF novel (or a novel in any genre she chooses, really) built on character alone.

Of course the aglunate and accompanying issues of sexuality are absolutely central to Triptych. Gwen and Basil are already partners when Kalp comes into their lives, and Frey is very delicate about how she works his curiosity and cultural norms into their world, until it becomes a natural part of that relationship. And for the most part it works. I say “for the most part,” because it sometimes seems a little too smooth. Accepting sexuality as a spectrum, and polygamous (or other) relationships as being as valid as, and equal to, straight monogamous relationships doesn’t necessarily move one’s position on that spectrum, even though Frey is perfectly right about the pressures unexamined social structures put on how we see love. Gwen and Basil go through all the expected turmoil as they think about their position on that spectrum for perhaps the first time in their lives, realigning their expectations for themselves and their lives, but it sometimes seems too compressed a time frame, especially given how traumatized Gwen initially seems when Kalp makes his first timid, confused advances. Likewise with the speed that Kalp’s people are accepted by governments and integrated into society; it seems overly optimistic to me (not because of his peoples’ sexuality, but simply because paranoia and xenophobia seem like the default positions on the best of days, though they do get their fair share of bigots doing what bigots always do). The sex scenes themselves are very well done, though at times unsettling (if only because they are a bit outside my wheelhouse, as I kept picturing Kalp as a large blue cat or wolf with certain humanoid features, and that put him into uncanny valley territory, a combination that hits my creepiness button a little).

The thriller plot wraps up cleanly, although not as cleanly as it could have, which leads me to my only other issue with Triptych. For the most part, Frey’s prose is quite good, and it is especially good when she’s writing about Kalp. His voice (well, by proxy anyway) comes through with considerable sharpness and individuality. But when she’s more focused on Gwen and Basil, specifically when writing about the violence that frames the story of their relationship, she is not always at her best. In the early days, pulp SF/F (I’m currently reading Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories from the ’30s, but I have read quite extensively in early SF as well) leaned very heavily on modifiers to define its “style”—by which I mean using lots of adverbs and adjectives—and they still seem to show up in the prose of SF/F writers whose style otherwise eschews them, in the same way that detective novels still sometimes sprout overly-clever metaphors more than seventy years after Raymond Chandler published The Big Sleep, as if those things manifest on their own, a feature of the genre that asserts itself independent of the individual writer’s will. Using three modifiers when one—or none—would do the job better just seems to be one of those things for SF/F writers. I find that when I encounter it I spend so much energy trying to parse how they all fit together that I can’t always keep track of what’s going on, and that happened to me one or two times at the beginning and end of Triptych, in particular during scenes of violence.

These are minor quibbles, though, and Triptych is definitely one of the strongest books I’ve read this year, and certainly one of the strongest SF novels I’ve read in quite some time. If there’s an SF fan on your Christmas list, or even someone who isn’t generally an SF fan but loves strong characters, Triptych would make them an excellent gift. While you’re at it, pick one up for yourself.

August

Writer. Editor. Critic.

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