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Retro Friday: On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voigt

March 12, 2010

This book has had several different covers, none of which I’m particularly fond of.

cover of the edition I at the library

The last one, however, is the worst. It’s just so boring.

Okay, so I mentioned Cynthia Voigt’s On Fortune’s Wheel a couple of posts ago, saying

I think I first read this in 7th grade, and I loved it. Reading it again, I was struck by how beautifully written it was and really admired the writing, something I didn’t give much (if any) thought to back then. But, emotionally, it didn’t hold up as well for me. I recognized why I loved it so much as a kid, but I guess I’m more — cynical? skeptical? — now… [I]t’s still a fabulously well-written and moving book, and also because I think its age is visible when you read it today (it was originally published in 1990), but in a good way. Meaning: the pace is leisurely and thoughtful, it’s not dynamic like so many YA fantasies today, and although the book itself is post-Alanna, Birle is not a post-Alanna heroine, in that she’s strong, but not in a physical, kick-butt way.

Authors, wouldn’t you know, can articulate these differences much better than I did. At The Enchanted Inkpot, there’s a discussion about “old-fashioned” and “new-fashioned” fantasies, and the first four points are relevant here.

  • The New Fantasy is Here, Not There
  • The New Fantasy Has Feisty Feminist Sheroes
  • The New Fantasy is Fast-Paced, with a Commercial, Filmic Flair
  • The New Fantasy and Its Variations Are Darker

On Fortune’s Wheel qualifies as an old-fashioned fantasy by these measures. It’s the story of Birle (pronounced “beryl”), fourteen-years-old at the start of the story, who, in the middle of the night, discovers a man trying to steal a small boat from her family’s inn. Without waking any of her family, Birle impulsively joins the stranger. In the morning, she discovers the thief is a young man, handsome, certainly a Lord, and chooses to remain with him for at least a little while longer.

Orien is determined to leave the Kingdom. Birle is determined to remain with him, even as his servant, if that’s what it will take. Struck by misfortune, they are sold into slavery in a country to the south, where Orien is sent to labor in the gold mines while Birle is purchased by a scholar.

Birle is competent and gutsy—much more so than Orien, I would argue—but I wouldn’t call her feisty or kickass or [insert your own adjective for heroines in “new-fashioned” fantasies]. This is entirely fitting with the medieval Europe-like fantasy setting Voigt created. Within these limitations, yes, Birle is strong and her actions don’t seem out of character. I think what bothers me now is that while Birle does have agency, many of her decisions are in reaction to her romantic feelings toward Orien, regardless of her past promises or her family or whether or not her feelings are reciprocated by Orien. Granted, not everything Birle does is in order to be with Orien or to save him; I suppose out of a combination of my own feminism and a few occurrences of what I now consider to be more foolish than romantic behavior, the cumulative effect of the times in which Birle does base her actions on Orien left me feeling much more ambivalent about the story than I previously did.

Yet despite my newfound discomfort, the book continued to have hold on me as I reread it. Because, as I mentioned earlier, of the writing. Here’s a section that I think exemplifies why my feelings are so mixed:

… They spoke easily to each other. She hadn’t guarded her tongue, and she hadn’t needed to. So she asked him what she wondered. “Why did you run away, my Lord?”

At the words, his face closed to her. He turned his back. That was a question to which she should have never given voice. If Birle had dared, she would have asked his pardon. If she had dared, she would have apologized. Aye, but he wanted to hear nothing of her. His shoulders and silence made that clear.

Through the next two days of the journey, he spoke only to request her presence or absence, a fire, food, to be taken to shore or to set off on their way, to have his linen laundered. Birle was even more silent than he, because her response needed only to be actions. She wondered that her question had caused such a change. He wished to know more of her. He wished her to know no more of him. The sun came out, and shone strongly, but its warmth fell as sad as little rains. (p. 61-62)

I was disappointed that On Fortune’s Wheel didn’t stand up for *me*. This has nothing to do with the merits of the book itself, and everything to do with how I’ve changed as a reader. What I said the last time still holds, that I appreciate Voigt’s writing now in ways I didn’t before and that On Fortune’s Wheel is a very well-written book. But I grew up and the story lost some magic along the way. Maybe I’m making too big a deal about my discomfort, because I still found a lot to appreciate about the story and writing, and I kind of think that if I hadn’t read it before, if this was the first time I’d read it, my reaction would be more positive. Because reading it again meant realizing I was losing something I had once loved.

Book source: I couldn’t find my personal copy, so I borrowed one from the public library.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2010 1:28 pm

    On Fortune’s Wheel was the first “children’s book” I read with a sex scene. My young teenage self was so toally floored that today I still remember sitting on my bed trying to figure out what exactly happened on the shore of that lake, and then..when I realized… I was both embarrassed and thrilled. I remember feeling like I was trusted. Trusted to be mature enough that I could handle something like this now. And how do I find more books in the library like this one!! LOL- It will always have a warm space in my heart for that reason.

  2. Molly permalink
    March 12, 2010 6:59 pm

    This was my favorite book for half a decade. It took most of that time for me to realize that the reason it feels so different from other fantasy novels is because there is actually nothing fantastical in it. The entire Kingdom series, in fact, intentionally avoids any plot device or character type that could not be found at some point in our own histories. Strangely enough, it was when I realized this that my love for the book gradually diminished. Voigt’s heroines and heroes are always learning that the myth, magic, legend, or ideal they had hoped in is insufficient for reality. On the surface, this seems like an important lesson for growing readers. But I would argue that losing one’s ideals and discarding your mythologies as trivial or childish makes you smaller, not stronger. I think that’s why Shannon Hale, Mette Ivie Harrison, Kristen Cashore, and even Suzanne Collins (though in a very different way) resonate so thoroughly with readers today. Because fiction should give us a framework for reality that embraces the unbelievable, unlikely, and inexplicable. Not every novel need be a fantasy novel; but if you are writing fantasy, don’t assume you must disenchant your readers in order to help them grow up. That is the very age at which the world needs a little reenchantment.

  3. March 14, 2010 5:13 am

    Oh, wow. Old-school Voight fantasy! Good memories, there.
    Man, all three of these covers really ARE dreadful. Good grief.

    I remember this book being wonderful, but frustrating, because I hated the idea that things just happened, and that the wheel of fortune kept turning, and that nothing seemed to go right completely. I wanted bells and ribbons and perfection. I think the value of the book for me was that it was imperfect – which was maybe the point? However, I find that I hate it when characters react in ways I can’t understand. A couple of things that Birle did made zero sense to me. But, the writing is so strong that it really makes the book hold up anyway.

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