Leah R. Cutter, The Caves of Buda (Roc, 2004)

The Caves of Buda is admirably ambitious and willing to explore new territory for fantasy. It's based on Hungarian folklore and largely set in Budapest, has one protagonist with Alzheimer's Disease and one with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and switches between the present day and WWII. I approve of ambition and originality, so I had hoped to be able to write a rave review of it, and perhaps encourage other fantasy authors to also take paths less traveled on.

Unfortunately, this particularly path leads to less-than-thrilling territory. Like many thoughtful and high-minded novels, The Caves of Buda is so busy being historically, medically, and folklorically accurate that it forgets to be entertaining.

When Laci was a boy in WWII Hungary, he stumbled upon Belusz, an ancient demon trapped in the form of a statue hidden deep within a cave. Belusz wanted to escape the cave and wreak havoc upon the earth, and he seized Laci as a servant. But Laci knew a few tricks from his gypsy grandmother and was able to turn Belusz's binding back upon the demon. The boy escaped from the cave, but he and the demon were inextricably bound together.

Laci is now an old widower in Arizona, and his granddaughter Zita has just discovered that he has Alzheimer's. Naturally, she's sure that the demons he keeps raving about are symptoms of his failing mind. But when he escapes from a hospital and heads for Hungary to make sure Belusz doesn't get loose, Zita reluctantly follows him. In Budapest, Zita finds her grandfather and meets Ephraim, an American tourist whose obsessive-compulsive disorder is the key to his magical heritage. Together, the three of them must defeat their psychological demons . . . and Belusz.

Though Ephraim and Zita first seem to have very different problems — Ephraim needs to get over his ex-wife and get a life, and Zita needs to dump her condescending boyfriend — Cutter quickly reduces their psychological issues, as well as the issues of their significant others, to the tendency to go to extremes. Ephraim and Zita start out with their life in a rut, then self-consciously attempt to be extremely spontaneous. Zita's boyfriend is too controlling, and Ephraim's ex-wife is too political. The only major characters who escape the curse of the extreme are Laci, who has enough trouble trying to remember what hotel he's staying at, and the demons, though perhaps their issue is being extremely evil.

Ephraim and Zita subject themselves to so much self-analysis, all of it narrated in psychologically correct terminology, that they sound as if they've been chained to the self-help section of Barnes & Noble for as long as Belusz has been a statue in the Caves of Buda.

"He'd started making changes in is life, breaking his routine. Janos' opinion of his worth didn't matter."

"Maybe he was special. A lifetime of self-effacement stood between himself and that possibility."

"[Zita] let go of everything: her need for extremes, Peter's voice inside her head, her own doubts and failures."

"He didn't need her any more, to prove his value or lack of it."

The terms of psychoanalysis are so antithetical to the metaphors of fantasy that a writer of fantasy must handle them with extreme care, unless they're writing a satire. Fantasy tends to express psychology in metaphor: demons or vampires or fairies represent deep-seated human urges, shapeshifting indicates an inner transformation, and the breaking of a curse may represent a psychological breakthrough. To juxtapose catch-phrases about self-worth with real demons requires great skill on the part of the writer, or it will seem jarring, unintentionally humorous, or at best redundant.

Cutter is skilled enough to save the book from absurdity, but she fails to capture either the intersection of modern anomie with brutal magic that Holly Black portrays in Tithe, or to make psychoanalysis itself seem magical, as Robertson Davies does in his Jungian quasi-fantasy The Manticore. While its ambition is laudable and its settings are vivid, The Caves of Buda is neither magical enough to succeed as fantasy nor deep enough to succeed as a set of psychological portraits. Overall, it's too dull, too self-conscious, too safe.

It would have benefited from a touch of the extreme.

[Rachel Manija Brown]