Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

Book Review: The Choir Boats by Daniel A. Rabuzzi

# Genre: Period Fiction, Historical Fantasy, Time Travel/Parallel Worlds
# Paperback: 408 pages
# Publisher: ChiZine Publications
# Publication Date: September 15, 2009
# ISBN-10: 0980941075
# ISBN-13: 978-0980941074
# Author Website: Daniel A. Rabuzzi

The Choir Boats mixes all the best elements of folklore, Georgian romance, and fantasy to produce an eloquently crafted tale. Best described as a pre-Steampunk novel in the vein of Naomi Novik, debut novelist Daniel A. Rabuzzi tells the story of one Barnabas McDoon, a merchant. One fine day, McDoon receives a package containing a key, a book, and promise that a meeting with the sender will help find his heart’s desire. McDoon is no Ebenezer Scrooge, and his mind leaps not to gaining more wealth, but a lost love, found and abandoned in his youthful days.

Intrigued but skeptical, McDoon and his partner meet with the letter sender, who weaves a fantastic tale of a mythical world called Yount that exists parallel (or “in tune”) to our own, but that is accessible by ship. McDoon scoffs. Meanwhile, his foster children, his nephew (Tom) and niece (Sally) by birth, are intrigued by the story they find of this small world as described in the book that came with the key and letter. But McDoon does not believe any of the letter sender’s tale, and promptly returns to the running of his business. But when a mysterious man kidnaps McDoon’s nephew, the family begins to believe, prompting an adventure that only begins with the saving of Tom.

Rabuzzi’s story is historically set, but at the same time aware of its literary tradition. Favorite British heroes and heroines are included as if they existed. Elizabeth Bennett (a friend of Sally in the story), Jack Aubrey, Horatio Hornblower, even Frodo get some small mention as if they had actually existed. This myth mixed with reality gives the story authenticity while also making it ethereal and obviously a work of fiction.

The tale is a significant contribution to the field of fantasy. In many ways, it is a revival of the fiction that was published in the late 1700s to early 1800s. It reads as if it came from the very period in which it is set. As a result, some readers may think that the story moves slowly as McDoon and company head toward Yount. But at the same time, Rabuzzi creates such interesting characters that one is not bothered by the slow pacing of the plotline. For the same reason readers enjoy the work of Jane Austen or Susanna Clarke, I enjoyed The Choir Boats.

The Choir Boats is Gulliver’s Travels crossed with The Golden Compass and a dollop of Pride and Prejudice. Rabuzzi has a true sense of wonder, which is clear in his narrative construction and a through knowledge of the time period in which his story is set. He writes as if he has lived and breathed the Age of Napoleon, as if he is not a 21st century author, but rather a man of the times.

Fascinating characters with individual and group plot lines that are interesting permeate the tale. There is the plot line of Maggie, the poor, black, math savant whose is somehow inextricably linked to the McDoons. Sally, a seemingly unimportant character becomes its epicenter. Tom too becomes more than just a foil for his sister. Barnabas McDoon drives the train at the beginning, but as time goes by fades into the background as the younger generations find their voice. This is true group fiction in which different characters dive the plot at different times.

I cannot praise Daniel Rabuzzi or The Choir Boats enough. This story is unique. I have not encountered its like since my class in British Literature. The tale is an instant classic of fantasy, and perhaps even the co-progenitor (with Novik, Clarke, and a few others) of a new subgenre in speculative fiction.

SIDE NOTE: The story also has some beautiful chapter illustrations by the author’s wife Deborah Mills. View five of them here.