Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s novelette Except the Music is about a middle-aged classical musician playing a concert series in small coastal town in Oregon. Max was once a child prodigy, wowing audiences for years, but these days his popularity has waned and so, too, has his connection to the music. This does not go unnoticed by two people in his life: Otto, a classical music celebrity and Max’s mentor, and an enigmatic woman groupie with whom Max has a one night stand.
Max’s unhappiness and ennui are indicative of a mid-life crisis. Although he’s not an entirely likable character — the opening scene shows him escaping a regretful tryst — we can still sympathize with Max because he’s at a turning point in his life that we all come to navigate. In Max’s case, events conspire to intervene in his personal soul-searching.
The one thing Max knows is music. It’s the most important thing in his lonely life. What Rusch does particularly well in this story is to emphasize that fact by depicting music as a living, breathing thing…something that emotionally moves the attentive listener. It plays into Max’s relationships with both his mentor and the beautiful woman who creepily declares a preoccupation with death.
Except the Music reads like a mainstream piece of fiction; the fantastical element of the story is marvelously underplayed, making it accessible even to casual fantasy fans. Rusch’s characterization of Max is lifelike, an important ingredient to any story, but even more so to one that is about one man’s struggle to deal with his own future and past failures. It’s themes like these that make Except the Music meaningful and one of those stories that initiate introspection.