I was enticed into reading this week’s recommended book by a striking cover. “Riverkeep” is a debut novel by Scottish author, Martin Stewart. This is a story about dark deeds and bright spirits set in the kind of monster-infested Fantasy realm which makes you grateful to live in the real world – even in these anxious times. It was published in 2016 and is widely available in paperback or as an ebook

In Canna Bay a massive sea-serpent known as a mormorach has been spotted for the first time in a thousand years. Whale-hunters and fishermen hasten to the area hoping to kill this fabulously valuable magical beast. Meanwhile  fifteen year-old Wulliam (Wull) and his Pappa are out on the river Danék in their rowing boat. When he reaches the age of sixteen, Wull is expected to succeed his father as Riverkeep. Wull doesn’t want this grim and lonely job, which involves keeping the river free from ice, rescuing the drowning and retrieving corpses. This winter’s night things go horribly wrong when Pappa is dragged under the water by a corpse that isn’t as dead as it should be.

Wull manages to get his Pappa back to their Boathouse but the loving father he knew is gone. Something else has taken over Pappa’s body. Wull struggles to perform the Riverkeep’s duties while his Pappa wastes away. When Wull learns that secretions from the brain of a mormorach can cure spirit-possession, he decides to row his Pappa down the Danék to the sea. Wull faces many obstacles on his urgent journey, including bandits, a crazed explorer and ferocious ursa-beasts. He also finds himself stuck with some unwanted passengers. There’s a stowaway called Mix, who is only a helpless little girl when she chooses to be, a witch called Remedie who nurses a wooden baby, and huge blue-skinned Tillinghast, who proves hard to kill because he’s never been properly alive.

Wull’s passengers are all on the run. Mix has “accidentally” stolen something from “scary people”, Remedie is fleeing from a Pastor who wants to try her for witchcraft and Tillinghast is in possession of a mandrake which some very nasty men would kill to obtain. The magic of the mormorach might help them all but even if Wull can get to Canna Bay in time, how can he compete with ruthless Captain Murdagh of The Hellsong who is determined to be the man who kills the sea-serpent?

With its icy river and forests, whale-hunters and souped-up polar bears, the geography of “Riverkeep” resembles North-West America or Canada. The period seems vaguely 19th century but with elements of  earlier magic and alchemy. We are soon told that one of the main characters – Tillinghast – is an homunculus, an artificially created man. Rather than being grown inside a glass container in the traditional way (see my review of “Goblin Moon”, September 2016), Tillinghast has been stitched together from the body-parts of various people and stuffed with straw and herbs. “Riverkeep” itself seems to have been stitched together from bits of various well-known novels, such as “Frankenstein”, “Moby-Dick” (Captain Murdagh is virtually a parody of Captain Ahab), “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, and even “The Wizard of Oz”.  So, is Stewart’s stuffing original enough to give this book a shape of its own? After some early doubts I was won round to the view that it is.

The cover of “Riverkeep” is cleverly designed to avoid implying that the book is aimed at any particular age group or gender, but the note about the author reveals that Stewart wrote this novel for “younger readers”. It would be hard to guess this from his complex prose style and rich vocabulary. This novel is full of striking sentences which I wanted to read aloud, such as “Think on the respectful, dignified, hidden violence o’ the sea, all its monsters floating, graceful as angels, all those masses o’ death-bringin’ teeth and tusk as smooth in that world as heavenly bodies in the sky.”  If you dislike novels which attempt period language, “Riverkeep” may not be for you but Stewart does carry it off very well. His swaggering dialogue, with its frequent flashes of dark humour, delighted me.

There is so much explicit violence in “Riverkeep” that I would classify it as Dark Fantasy. Gruesome events, such as a fisherman being eaten alive by the mormorach, are described with horrid vivacity. Children will probably relish this more than squeamish adults like me. I’ve never enjoyed boat-trips very much and the story of Wull’s disaster-filled voyage hasn’t helped. This isn’t the kind of book which inspires you to want to spend time “messing about on the river”. Try messing about on the Danék and you’ll get your fingers bitten off – or worse.

Although two of the leading characters are youngsters, I wouldn’t call “Riverkeep” a child-centred  story. The main emphasis is on three unusual parent/child relationships – the Riverkeep and the boy he has raised alone; Clutterbuck, an alchemist/scientist and the straw-man he has created; and Remedie and the dead baby she is trying to bring back to life. The unbreakable bond between Wull and his Pappa is established in flashbacks and by the heartbreaking way that Wull continues to care for a creature who gobbles raw fish-scraps and refers to him as “It that speaks”. Tillinghast may look like Frankenstein’s monster but he’s shown as struggling to block out the memories of the bad men he was made from and find an identity and purpose of his own. The witty bickering between sharp-tongued Tillinghast and the haughty but vulnerable Remedie is one of the highlights of “Riverkeep”. I was disappointed when Remedie and the elusive Mix suddenly disappeared from the plot but this does open up the possibility of a sequel.

Apart from the richness of his language, I think that Stewart has two particular strengths as a writer – he can create characters with fascinating interior lives and he has given his voyagers a strong moral compass. Wull is presented as a fundamentally decent boy with absolutely no social skills – how could he have when he’s been brought up in isolation? His honest words and his inability to read other people both get him into trouble but Wull’s tenderness towards the father he secretly fears is already lost is extremely touching. So is Clutterbuck’s determination that the “monster” he loves like a son should live his own independent life as a unique being. Pugnacious Tillinghast believes that he is “nothin’ but a cheap trick” but Clutterbuck tells him, “Only the unloved hate:” and that Tillinghast can become human by caring about others and making good choices.

A plot full of highly dramatic events throws up many difficult choices for Wull and Tillinghast to make. Remedie argues that feeling compassion is what makes us human. Wull puts it more simply – “a real person lives a good life by livin’ for other people.” Tillinghast may not have a heart but this novel does. In spite of a deliberately grotesque cast of characters and all the cruel and sad things that happen during Wull’s journey, “Riverkeep” is a story which leaves you a little more hopeful that “life can be free and beautiful” and that “We are all of us miracles, each with a swirling universe inside his own head.” Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

I apologize that this post is later than planned but I’ve been unwell.  Now I’m recommending a Fantasy novel full of colour and warmth which was just the tonic I needed. “The Star-Touched Queen” is by Roshani Chokshi, an American author of Indian descent, and it taps into a rich tradition of female story-telling in India. This novel was published in 2016 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. A sequel called “A Crown of Wishes” has recently come out but this has different central characters.

“The Star-Touched Queen” is the story of seventeen year-old Princess Mayavati (Maya) one of the many children of Raja Ramchandra of Bharata. Her mother died shortly after she was born and Maya has been brought up in the royal harem by her numerous step-mothers. Due to a hideously inauspicious horoscope, Maya is treated like “a dead girl walking” and regarded as unlucky. Her only friend is her younger half-sister, Gauri, who loves the fairy stories that Maya tells her about extraordinary Otherworld places such as the Night Bazaar.

Raja Ramchandra, knows that Maya is exceptionally intelligent and that she understands how Bharata is suffering after many years of war. Maya longs for love but because she is “a girl with dark skin and a darker horoscope” she assumes that her fate is to become a scholarly old maid. Her father has other ideas and involves her in a ruthless plan to save his kingdom. When that plan goes wrong, Maya is carried off by a mysterious bridegroom called Amar. He takes her through supernatural realms to his strangely empty kingdom of Akaran.

Amar swears that Maya is his beloved and that they are destined to rule Akaran together but claims that he cannot yet tell her any of the secrets he is obviously hiding. Maya yearns to trust him but a woman who claims to be a friend from a past life warns her not to. During her search for the truth, Maya makes dark discoveries and is forced to go on a perilous journey with a flesh-eating demon. The fate of Bharata and many other realms will depend on whether Maya has the courage to survive her ordeals and recover everything that she has lost.

Chokshi is a captivating storyteller. If my synopsis is a little vaguer than usual it’s because I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises which she springs on the reader during the early chapters of “The Star-Touched Queen”.  However, regular Followers of this blog will probably have already spotted that the plot of this novel is loosely based on the romantic myth of  “Cupid and Psyche”. Elements of this myth, such as the princess who is sacrificed to save her country, the girl who doesn’t know whether she’s married a prince or a monster, the jealous sisters, a broken promise followed by exile and a series of magical ordeals, also feature in Fairy Tales from all over the world. I’ve already recommended one retelling of the Psyche story – C.S. Lewis’s extraordinary  novel “Till We Have Faces” (March 2013). As I wrote in that post, “Most authors would have used the Cinderella-like Psyche as the viewpoint character” but Lewis chose to make her “ugly sister” Orual the focus of his novel. Orual is one of the most complex and memorable villains in all of Fantasy fiction. She is well worth seeking out.

“The Star-Touched Queen” is less original than “Till We Have Faces” but it’s still packed with interesting features. Chokshi has written her novel entirely from the Cinderella-like Maya’s point of view and I have to admit that it works very well. In Bharata, Maya is treated like an outsider in her own family and in the Otherworld she has to learn everything anew. This makes her an easy character for readers to identify with. In the original story (the earliest version is found in “The Golden Ass”, a Latin novel written in the 2nd century CE), Psyche is a rather feeble heroine who is easily influenced and makes stupid mistakes. Chokshi’s Maya is pleasingly strong-minded and cleve but she has been deprived of vital memories. In these circumstances, it’s understandable that “cursed” Maya makes some disastrous misjudgments.  “Till We Have Faces” is about leaps of faith; “The Star-Touched Queen” is more concerned with what is at the core of a person’s identity and how far we are able to shape our own destiny.

The unusual setting is an outstanding feature of “The Star-Touched Queen”. The story takes place in an Indian-based Fantasy world rather than in India itself. Chokshi is clearly very knowledgeable about the cultures and religions of the Indian subcontinent but she uses her sources with freedom and panache. Standard religious ideas such as the concept of Reincarnation and belief in horoscopes are crucial to the plot of “The Star-Touched Queen” but Chokshi has invented her own pantheon of supernatural beings. She’s also plucked dramatic incidents and exotic creatures from a range of Indian Myths and Fairy Tales. I enjoyed this novel because it reminded me of one of my favourite collections of Fairy Tales, a book called “Old Deccan Days or Hindoo Fairy Legends “. These are stories that a South Indian woman called Anna Liberata de Souza remembered being told by her grandmother at the beginning of the 19th century. They are full of magical transformations, terrifying Rakshas (demons), unlucky Rajahs and brave and resourceful heroines. Some of these heroines have to cope with a whole harem full of jealous or spiteful step-mothers and half-siblings – just as Maya does. Depth is added to this standard Fairy Tale situation late in the novel when Maya learns to see things from her most hated step-mother’s point of view.

Chokshi’s ornate prose style won’t please everybody but she has a wonderful visual imagination. “The Star-Touched Queen” is the sort of book which makes you wish that all novels came with illustrations. In the early chapters , Chokshi’s descriptions of the Raja’s court filled my head with vibrant images of multi-coloured silks and shimmering jewels. Maya is adorned for her sinister wedding with henna-patterns of mango blossoms on her skin, a blood-red sari, amethyst earrings, golden hair ornaments and bangles as heavy as shackles. Chokshi is even better at describing her Otherworld. Chapter titles such as “The Palace Between Worlds”, “The Garden of Glass”, “A Room Full of Stars” and “The Memory Tree” hint at the enchantments in store for readers of this novel. Best of all are the sights, scents and sounds of the Night Bazaar where daydreams that look like spun-glass, bones for telling the future, dancing conch-shells, and pearls that taste of “ripe pears and rich honey” are all on offer “beneath a split-sky leaking with magic”. This is a Fantasy world I wanted to explore further and I was pleased to learn more about Maya’s intrepid sister, Gauri, in “A Crown of Wishes”.

One small niggle – Author’s Acknowledgements are now getting as lengthy and emotional as Oscar acceptance speeches and Chokshi’s is a particularly gushing example. I love novels because they represent individual human voices rather than group efforts. Chokshi’s distinctive voice is hers alone and she should be proud of that achievement. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

 

How solid is the barrier between the genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction? I ask because novels which play games with genre divisions seem to be in fashion. In January I reviewed a book (Iain Pears’ “Arcadia”) which keeps readers guessing about whether it is Fantasy or Science Fiction. This week I’m recommending a novel in which the two leading characters seem to belong in different genres. “All the Birds in the Sky” by Charlie Jane Anders was first published in 2016 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook.

The story is set in an America in the near future and starts by describing the formative experiences of two unhappy kids who go to the same school. When six year old Patricia saves a wounded bird from her cruel sister, she discovers that she can understand the speech of birds and animals. The rescued bird takes Patricia to the Parliament of Birds which is held deep in the forest. At the Parliamentary Tree, Patricia is told that she is a witch and asked “the Endless Question” – which she fails to understand. Patricia is punished by her parents for wandering off and loses her ability to talk to animals. She soon wonders if the whole episode was a dream. Meanwhile, clever science-obsessed Laurence is getting bullied for being a nerd. One day Laurence goes off by himself to the MIT campus to watch a rocket-launch that he’s heard about. The launch is postponed but Laurence does get to meet a sympathetic rocket-scientist called Isobel and “maverick tech investor” Milton Dirth who is funding a new space programme. They tell Laurence to come back and see them when he is eighteen.

Patricia and Laurence are both picked on at school for being different and are persecuted by a guidance counselor who is not what he seems. They form a defensive alliance which is almost a friendship and confide in each other. Laurence secretly builds a sentient supercomputer called CH@NG3M3 and Patricia learns how to reawaken her magic. She finds Laurence an unreliable supporter. Even so, just before she is whisked off to attend a special school for the magically gifted, Patricia intervenes to help Laurence when his ambition to go to a science school is under threat.

The pair don’t see each other again until they are both grown up and living in San Francisco. Laurence has become a brilliant computer engineer and is working for Milton Dirth. He shares a house with Isobel and has a stunning girlfriend who builds “emotional robots”. He has got the life he wanted but Ecological catastrophes are mounting up and the whole world is under threat. Laurence and Patricia meet at a party and soon start confiding in each other again. She is in trouble with her group of witches for using her magic too often and breaking the rules about helping people. Laurence is working on a Doomsday Machine that could save humanity but the witches are dedicated to preserving the whole of nature. Patricia and Laurence find themselves on opposite sides in what could be the final conflict….

After the magical opening chapter, I found “All the Birds in the Sky” hard going for a while. Introverted Laurence and lonely Patricia are regarded as “losers” by their schoolmates at Canterbury Academy and it was painful to read about the physical and mental cruelty they are forced to endure. I do so hope that the hellish impression I get of American public schools from Fantasy novels, films and TV series is wildly unrealistic. I would rather take a bus trip through Mordor than spend a week at Canterbury Academy. The only place worse is the brutal Military Reform School that Laurence gets sent to by his inept parents. Anders deploys all the descriptive powers and depth of characterization of a top-notch literary novelist. Although their family and schoolmates are bizarrely awful, Patricia and Laurence seem intensely real – so you suffer along with them.

However, “All the Birds in the Sky” is not a conventional “coming of age” novel. Anders constantly takes the story off in surprising directions. For example, when Patricia and Laurence take turns to guess who people on an escalator are “based just on their footwear” it seems a perceptive account of the way childish imaginations work. Then on the next page, one of Patricia’s wildest guesses – that a man in “black slippers and worn gray socks” is “a member of a secret society of trained killers” – turns out to be true. Anders also catches you out with sudden shifts of tone. Some parts of “All the Birds in the Sky” are sharply funny; others achingly sad. Many elements of the story are treated in unexpected ways. Thus the assassin subplot is played for laughs, the natural disasters largely happen off-stage rather than being used to generate big dramatic scenes, Laurence’s potentially farcical relationships with woman are sensitively examined, and the inset story of CH@NG3M3, a computer with its own agenda, turns out to be more heart-warming than sinister.

Is it possible to please both Science Fiction and Fantasy fans in one novel? In “All the Birds in the Sky” Anders takes numerous popular plot motifs from both genres  and uses them in her own distinctive way. From Science Fiction there is a Time Machine (but one that only takes Laurence two seconds into the future), an Artificial Intelligence which starts to act independently of its human creator, a vault to store humanity’s scientific knowledge, creepy high-tech devices which seem to be controlling people’s lives, a world threatened by man-made disasters, an increasingly urgent mission to find a new planet for the human race to settle and a machine which might tear the earth apart. I suspect that some lovers of Hard SF will think Anders approach to these serious topics too playful and quirky for their tastes. I found it refreshing.

Among the Fantasy motifs included in “All the Birds in the Sky” are talking animals,the riddle which must be solved, the magical place that is hard to find again, the school for training witches and wizards, the spell that exacts a terrible price, the prophecy of doom and the witch who breaks the rules. Fantasy readers may feel that the magical part of the narrative isn’t given enough page time. We only learn about Patricia’s training in flashbacks, which is a pity because her dual-campus school sounds interesting. Students spend part of their time studying formal magic in Eltisley Hall and part experiencing a more intuitive magic in The Maze, where you can do whatever you like but learn through random ordeals. Patricia’s fellow witches in San Francisco are an intriguing bunch too, especially Ernesto who cannot leave his bookstore home and must not be touched and Dorothea who looks like a harmless old woman but can kill people with her whispered stories. I wish we saw more of them.

As I read “All the Birds in the Sky” I kept thinking that it couldn’t work because Anders was putting in things that should have been left out and leaving out things that should have been put in. Strangely, when I got to the end I realized that the novel had worked for me. I’d been charmed by Anders’ style and won over by her characters. The evolving relationship between Patricia and Laurence is one of the most convincing love stories I’ve ever read. Initially all they have in common is being outsiders. Laurence is embarrassed by Patricia and she feels crushed by his intellect but they go through a lot together. Both of them want to change the world for the better but fear that they may only make things worse. As an adult, Laurence realizes that he feels secure with Patricia because she has already seen him at his worst and Patricia comes to believe that Laurence is the one person who has earned her complete trust. They belong to opposing groups with very different visions of the future but together they have the strength to look for a less extreme third way. This isn’t a novel which argues that one side is right and the other is wrong. “All the Birds in the Sky” offers the hope that different philosophies and beliefs can be reconciled and that everyone can join together to do amazing things. This happens in the story in a most extraordinary fashion. To find out how, you’ll have to read this endearing novel. Until three weeks time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

This week I’m looking again at two Fantasy series which have expanded since I first recommended them. They are both about practitioners of magic in modern London. Lovers of Urban Fantasy should find plenty to relish in each of these series.

In December 2012 I wrote about “Rivers of London” a first novel by Ben Aaronovitch which described how a young black policeman called Peter Grant became a trainee wizard. There are now six Peter Grant novels (“Rivers of London”, “Moon Over Soho”, “Whispers Under Ground”, “Broken Homes”, “Foxglove Summer” and “The Hanging Tree”)  with a seventh (“The Furthest Station”) due out this September. A number of subsidiary stories have been told in Comics/Graphic Novels. Sadly the latter won’t work on my Kindle but you don’t need to have read the Comics to follow the plots of the main sequence. The adventures of Police Constable Grant are funny and frightening “Police Procedural” stories with a supernatural twist. If you like Christopher Fowler’s entertaining “Bryant & May” books about London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, you will probably enjoy the “Rivers of London” Series.

After he manages to interview a ghost, PC Grant is taken on as an apprentice by formidable wizard, Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, and goes to live at The Folly – “the official home of English magic since 1775”. Grant has to learn on the job as he battles crime and unauthorized magic. There are several long-running plot lines in this series, including the search for a group of illegally-trained magicians known as the Little Crocodiles and the struggle to discover the true identity of the evil Faceless Man. Aaronovitch generally treats dark events in a light-hearted way but there are plot developments in the final chapters of Volumes One and Four which have a powerful emotional impact. Grant’s personal story arc features an on and off romance with a river goddess, a frustrating relationship with his jazz musician father and a bond with a brilliant colleague which survives mutilation and betrayal.

A realistically portrayed modern London is the setting for this series – except in “Foxglove Summer” (2016)  which sends Grant on a post-traumatic trip to the countryside which, thanks to some sinister local fairies, proves far from restful. I’ve learned a lot about London’s architecture, underground rivers, police force and jazz scene from these books. Handsome PC Grant makes a dashing hero while as a narrator he has a nice line in self-deprecating humour. He tries to drag The Folly into the 21st century by using both magic and technology but with limited success since spell-working apparently does awful things to phones and computers. There are so many maverick detectives in fiction that it’s refreshing to come across a policeman who strives to do things by the book however bizarre the  circumstances. In “The Hanging Tree” (2017) for example one of his murder suspects is a haughty river goddess and another has been dead for centuries. Grant’s latest sidekick is a tough-minded headscarf-wearing Muslim policewoman. This series could be seen as an example of tick-box diversity but it doesn’t read that way because Aaronovitch writes about all his regular characters with such warmth and affection. I find myself caring about the fate of the people in these books, so I’m keen to read the continuing adventures of PC Grant.

In March 2013 I recommended “A Madness of Angels” by Kate Griffin, a prolific SF and Fantasy author who also writes under the names of Catherine Webb and Claire North. “A Madness of Angels” is the first of a quartet of novels about Matthew Swift, a murdered Urban Sorcerer who comes back to life when he fuses with the Blue Electric Angels who embody all the life and energy in London’s telephone network. During Volume One he encounters a horror known as The Shadow and tries to track down and defeat his own killer. At the start of Volume Two, “The Midnight Mayor”,  Swift unexpectedly inherits the office of  Midnight Mayor, the protector of  London from supernatural dangers – such as the terrible “Destroyer of Cities”. In Volume Three, “The Neon Court”, Swift and his new apprentice, an ex-Traffic Warden called Penny, have to deal with an angry underground tribe, some furious fairies, a lost “chosen one” and a night that refuses to end.  “The Minority Council”  sees Swift investigating a drug-dealer known as “The Fairy Godmother”, a monster which is attacking hooligans and possible treachery among the Aldermen who are supposed to assist the Midnight Mayor.

In 2012, Griffin launched a new London-based series called “Magicals Anonymous”. Matthew Swift is still Midnight Mayor but he is no longer the narrator. The central character is young woman called Sharon Li. At the start of “Stray Souls”, Sharon is working in a coffee-shop and worrying about the fact that she can walk through walls. She has founded a Facebook Group for those with weird powers and some very strange people turn up at the first meeting of “Magicals Anonymous” to discuss their problems. Afterwards, Sharon is approached by the Midnight Mayor who tells her that she is a shaman and sends her to an irascible goblin for training. Swift also sets Sharon the task of looking for the protective spirits who have gone missing from parts of London. Sharon learns how to walk herself invisible and into a world of danger. In the sequel, “The Glass God”, it is the Midnight Mayor himself who goes missing, so it is up to Sharon and her fellow members of “Magicals Anonymous” to save London from a new threat.

It wouldn’t matter very much if you read this double series out of sequence because the plots of the novels are all rather similar and there isn’t very much character development. In each book there is a mystery to be solved, a monster to be slain and a conspiracy to be defeated. I warned in my initial review that these stories are not “for the fastidious or the faint-hearted”. All the books contain extremely graphic violence and far too much bad language for my taste. However, the tone of the novels has become less grim than in “A Madness of Angels”. Griffin has introduced more humour and given Swift some cheerful companions including my favourite character, the Midnight Mayor’s relentlessly upbeat PA, Kelly. She knows how bleak the world can be but is determined to face horror with a smile and make sure that fighters against unspeakable evils at least get decent coffee and sandwiches.

An outstanding feature of the first four novels is the strange but compelling narrative voice of the composite being that is Matthew Swift and the Blue Electric Angels. You can tell which is dominant at any given point in the story by whether the pronoun used is I or we.  Fallible Swift is a “man of sorrows” who suffers injury, betrayal and every kind of loss but remains generous and compassionate. The Blue Electric Angels have never had corporeal form before and are keen to share all the varied experiences of a human body – which means they’ll eat anything. The merciless angels give Swift supercharged magical power and the ability to wreak terrible fiery revenge on his enemies when he loses his temper. “A Madness of Angels” tests whether Swift can retain his sanity and humanity, but then Griffin seems to lose interest in this question. The later books are more about what is likely to happen when an anti-authority loner is put in charge of a large organization with pragmatic values. I missed Swift’s consistent narrative voice in the “Magicals Anonymous” books, which are told from multiple viewpoints, but it is good to glimpse the Midnight Mayor as others see him – a shabby dark-haired man with impossibly blue eyes and sometimes a pair of flaming wings.

There are two particular reasons for recommending Griffin’s books. Firstly, she is a wonderful observer and recorder of modern city life and secondly she’s the best there is at inventing forms of truly Urban Magic. In the course of these novels you get detailed tours of numerous districts of London, which each generate their own distinctive magics. For example, the Brutalist concrete architecture of the Barbican is “a place where the laws of space and time are put through the wringer”  and sorcerers can pass through apparently solid structures.  Even the seediest parts of London are lovingly described. Griffin finds terror and beauty in urban landscapes that most of us have stopped noticing.  In Willesden, spectres take the form of gangs of hoodies loitering in bus shelters, which Swift defeats with bottles of beer, cigarettes and Sellotape bought from the nearest corner shop. London is a scary place but thanks to the Midnight Mayor if I’m ever attacked by a demon while travelling on the Underground I now know how to defend myself with my Oyster Card. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

This week, in a first for Fantasy Reads, I’m recommending a Graphic Novel. “Yvain The Knight of the Lion” has a text by American author M.T.Anderson based on a 12th century poem by Chrétien de Troyes and illustrations by Andrea Offermann, an artist based in Germany. This beautiful book has just been published by the Candlewick Press (2017). It isn’t cheap but “Yvain…” is the sort of book you will want to keep.

The story is set in the legendary reign of King Arthur. Two royal knights, Sir Yvain and Sir Gawain, are best friends who enjoy competing with each other. When another knight returns to Arthur’s court with a tale of being defeated by a mysterious warrior in the forest of Brocéliande, Yvain decides to see if he can do better. Anyone who pours water from a certain fountain in Brocéliande onto a magical weather-stone is promised an adventure. When Yvain tries it, he is challenged by an angry knight who claims that his dukedom has been flooded. After a mighty combat, Yvain kills this knight but is trapped in his enemy’s castle. He is protected there by the magic of a friendly damsel called Lunette. When Yvain falls in love with his enemy’s beautiful widow, Laudine, the Lady of the Fountain, Lunette even helps him to win her hand in marriage.

Is this the happy ending? No, because Yvain’s thirst for adventure leads him to neglect his marriage and his responsibilities. Rejection by Laudine, drives Yvain mad and exposes him to many perils. He encounters a serpent and a lion and must do battle with cruel knights, a huge monster, a pair of demons and his own best friend. Yvain fights to save a series of wronged women but can he ever win back the love of his wife?

The real forest of Brocéliande in Brittany is still a mysterious and magical place where it isn’t hard to imagine that you might come across a questing knight or an enchanter’s castle. The French author of the original poem, Chrétien de Troyes (c. 1130-1191) combined elements of Celtic myth with aspects of contemporary court life. There is an entertaining medieval Welsh version of the Yvain/Owein story – called The Lady of the Fountain – in the famous collection of tales known as “The Mabinogion” (See my post of November 2012).

The modern “Yvain The Knight of the Lion” is more complex than it seems at first glance. A narrator’s ambiguous words are recorded at the beginning and repeated at the end, by which time they have acquired a rather different meaning. Most of the story is told in dialogue, with the minimum of linking passages, but some vital action sequences only feature in the illustrations. This leaves gaps in the narrative which the reader has to fill in by interpreting the pictures. Stories within the story are shown on background textiles in scenes depicting the present rather than in separate “past happenings” boxes. So don’t think of “Yvain…” as a quick and easy read. It demands concentration and an eye for significant details.

However, at 129 richly illustrated pages, “Yvain..” is much shorter than most Arthurian epics you are likely to come across. I don’t think I had much success in persuading anyone to dip into Malory’s immensely long “Morte D’Arthur” (see my February 2016 post on “The Death of Arthur”) so I’m hoping that something briefer will tempt you. We all need to get into an Arthurian mood before Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur : Legend of the Sword” blockbuster hits cinemas this summer.  In “Yvain…”  Anderson has done an excellent job of compressing the complex original poem and modernizing its language. The dialogue is dynamic and the commentary thought-provoking.

Offerman’s illustrations have a contemporary feel even though they are packed with authentic early medieval details. At first I was disconcerted by the ugliness of most of the characters’ faces but I’m guessing this is a deliberate attempt to get away from the static beauty of medieval manuscripts. Yvain lives in a brutal society and Offerman is particularly good at depicting the shocking rhythms of violence and conveying extreme emotions such as Laudine’s furious grief and Yvain’s self-hatred. She has also chosen to use some symbols, such as a soaring hawk, which she knows have different meanings for medieval and modern people. Together Anderson and Offermann have produced a Graphic Novel which provides an excellent introduction to the morally ambiguous world of Arthurian legend.

Yvain may be a great fighter but he is far from a perfect knight. He is selfish and thoughtless, failing to notice that Lunette adores him and quickly betraying the trust of the noble Lady of the Fountain. Yvain is easily lured back by Gawain into a laddish life-style in which so-called knightly deeds are just a form of competitive sport. In his Author’s Note, Anderson explains that, “One of the things that drew me to this story is Chrétien’s searing, ironic treatment of the role of women in this highly masculine, honor-based, chivalric society.” For all the talk of courtly love, women are treated as prizes to be awarded to the strongest warriors and they cannot obtain justice without a man to fight for them. In origin, the Lady of the Fountain may have been a Celtic water goddess but by the medieval period she isn’t allowed to rule without masculine help even though she seems far more intelligent and honourable than Yvain. Clever and decisive Lunette nearly gets burned alive by men jealous of her influential role at court. This is a story full of threatened, imprisoned and ill-treated women but at least it gives them a defiant voice. Nor does it pretend that the answer to every woman’s woes is to marry a knight in shining armour. Quite the reverse. Anderson and Offermann’s retelling of the story of the Knight of the Lion and the Lady of the Fountain is simplified but not simple. Its words and images will linger in my memory. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

This week I’m recommending the work of an almost forgotten writer of literary Fairy Tales – Mary de Morgan (1850- 1907). During her lifetime she was overshadowed by more famous relatives such as her father, the eminent mathematician Augustus de Morgan, and her brother the great ceramicist William de Morgan and his artist wife, Evelyn. Yet Mary’s distinctive voice survives in her three collections of Fairy Tales. Some of the stories were first told to the children of her artistic friends including the daughters of William and Jane Morris and a nephew of Georgie Burne-Jones – the young Rudyard Kipling. That alone gives them a place in literary history. I’ll describe each of the three collections in turn.

“On a Pincushion and Other Fairy Tales” was published in 1877 with thirty rather gloomy illustrations by Mary’s brother, William. There are seven stories in the collection, most of them with a romance element. The first three are purportedly told by a jet brooch, a shawl-pin and an ordinary pin who are sharing a pin cushion. One story, “The Hair Tree”, is almost novella length. “On a Pincushion…”contains some of Mary’s best work, including her most famous story “A Toy Princess”. Unfortunately this collection doesn’t seem to be available as an ebook. You can get paperbacks photocopied from the original book but be aware that these can be a of variable quality and some omit the illustrations. “A Toy Princess” has been reprinted in a number of anthologies, such as “A Book of Princesses” (1963, edited by Sally Patrick Johnson) and “The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales” (1993, edited by Alison Lurie).

A second collection, “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde and Other Stories”, was published in 1880. This consists of seven stories with illustrations by Walter Crane, one of the leading figures in the Arts and Crafts movement. The title story features a splendidly wicked princess. “The Heart of Princess Joan” is a striking tale about a long-suffering lover but overall there is less romance than in the first collection. Mary’s final book, “The Wind Fairies and Other Tales”, dates to 1900. There are nine stories charmingly illustrated by Olive Cockerell. Some are melancholy in tone and they don’t all have “happy ever after” endings. “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde” and “The Wind Fairies” are both available as cheap ebooks or as overpriced paperback reprints. If you possibly can, seek out a Victorian copy of these beautiful books instead.

Many great collections of traditional tales were put together during the 19th century, which then inspired contemporary writers to create original Fairy Tales. I’ve already recommended the work of some of these writers, such as Hans Christian Andersen (see my post of January 2013), Oscar Wilde (November 2013), George MacDonald (January 2013) and Edith Nesbit (March 2016). Mary de Morgan’s Fairy Tales don’t have the wonderful poetic language of Wilde, the zany inventiveness of Nesbit, or the visionary quality of MacDonald. They are closest in style and mood to Andersen’s tales but owe less to traditional prototypes. What these three collections do provide is variety, originality and unpredictability.

Mary’s plots are her own and her stories can be long or short, funny or sad. Some are moral fables with limited supernatural elements, such as “The Story of a Cat” (“The Windfairies”) in which the life of a callous old miser is changed for ever by a strangely beautiful cat. Others are magic and monster-filled quests, rich in disturbing symbolism. In “The Hair Tree” for example, a young man has to get past killer-flowers with the eyes or lips of seductive women as he seeks hair-seeds to cure a selfish Queen of baldness. Some of the stories use biting humour to attack vices such as vanity and greed; others are told with emotional intensity as if the author was suffering along with her characters. Suffering is the word Many of Mary de Morgan’s characters are cruelly punished for what seem quite trivial faults or endure long separations from the people they love. The endings of her stories don’t all follow a set pattern. Some finish with a wedding and others with a funeral.

I’ve long wanted to know more about this author, so I recently bought a book by Marilyn Pemberton called “Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan”. I learned a lot about the talented de Morgan family from this biography but sadly Mary herself remains in the shadows. Dr Pemberton has found out frustratingly little about many periods in Mary’s life. Mary features in other people’s stories as a “spare woman” who can always be relied on to help out family and friends – she nursed William Morris during his last illness. What is clear is that Mary knew a lot about suffering and grief. By the time her first collection of Fairy Tales was published, she had already lost her beloved father and three of her siblings.

When Mary wasn’t painting tiles for her brother, she earned a little money by writing articles and as a typist. She also did voluntary social work in poor areas of London and campaigned for the rights of workers, women, and animals. These interests are reflected in her fiction and help to explain why few of the wealthy and powerful characters in her Fairy Tales are flatteringly portrayed. Some of the issues underlying the stories seem quite topical again. For example, in “Siegfried and Handa” (“On a Pincushion”) an honest shoemaker is put out of work when his fellow villagers start buying cheap shoes from a visiting gnome but these shoes turn out to have a terrible cost in human lives.

Recent interest in Mary de Morgan has focused on her as a Feminist rather than as a storyteller. Her stories do make it obvious that she was frustrated by the codes of behaviour imposed on women of her era and the limited opportunities available to them. In “The Hair Tree”, Trevina a woman who has “transgressed” by refusing to marry for wealth and position is turned into a tigress and can only recover her real shape by being beaten by a man until she bleeds. In “A Toy Princess” a lively real princess called Ursula is replaced by a doll which can only say four things – “If you please,” “No, thank you,” “Certainly,” and “Just so.” Everybody at court is delighted with this polite Toy Princess who has none of the messy emotions of a real woman. Both Trevina and Ursula are given happy endings of a sort in the form of marriages to kindly men but the later stories seem more pessimistic. Mary may have sympathized with Fiorimonde’s plot to dispose of the royal suitors who plan to rule in her name but she doesn’t allow this independent princess to win. In a story called “The Wise Princess” (“The Necklace of Princess Fiormonde”), the princess’s intelligence and learning bring her no happiness and she only finds fulfillment in self-sacrifice.

In the later years of her life, Mary often  seems to have been lonely and depressed but she went on writing and never stopped trying to help people. Failing health led her to move to Egypt for the dry climate (TB was the family curse) where she threw herself into the work of running a progressive “reformatory” for girls. She died in Cairo, a long way from family and friends. The title story in “The Windfairies” helps to sum up why I admire Mary de Morgan. In it, a miller’s daughter called Lucilla is able to see the windfairies who dance in the air and begs to be taught to dance like them. They agree but on condition that Lucilla never tells anyone who taught her to dance. If she does, she will never dance again and harm will befall those she loves. Lucilla becomes a wonderful dancer and is invited to display her skills at a royal court. A jealous Queen demands to know who Lucilla’s teacher was, so that she can be taught too. Lucilla keeps her promise to the windfairies and refuses to reveal the secret, even when she is offered a fortune and threatened with a series of horrible deaths. Like Lucilla, Mary stayed true to her early visions and loyal to the people she loved. She wrote about things she cared about in her own fashion, whether it was popular or not. The price for making the Toy Princess is “four cat’s footfalls, two fish’s screams, and two swan’s songs.” How could you not love an author who invented a detail like that? Until three weeks time..

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

Cats are very much on my mind at the moment since I have a litter of young kittens in the house. So this week I’m going to recommend a book by an author who was particularly good at writing about cats – Robert Westall (1929-1993). His Fantasy novel “The Cats of Seroster” was published in 1984, with a fabulous cover designed to appeal to cat-lovers. It is currently out of print but there are plenty of cheap second-hand paperbacks around. The story is set in 16th century Europe and features a tribe of cats who collectively remember the days when they were revered in Ancient Egypt.

Somewhere in the south of France is a very old walled city, built on a rock riddled with caves. The city is famous for a breed of cats known as the Miw. They are twice the size of ordinary cats and golden-furred. The Miw are highly intelligent creatures who can send thoughts to each other and to the ordinary cats they refer to as the Weaker Brethren. For centuries the city was ruled by powerful Dukes who were catfriends but as the story begins a weak Duke has been murdered by a band of usurpers led by the cat-hating Little Paul. The Duke’s young heir is saved and hidden by Sehtek, the she-cat who leads the Miw and speaks with the voice of “the Goddess-in-her”.  She fears that under the new regime the witch-mania and persecution of cats which is spreading across Europe will reach her city. The greed and cruelty of Little Paul and his followers soon cause many people to flee the city but there is one hope. According to legend, whenever the city is under threat a new incarnation of the great warrior Seroster will rise with a golden cat by his side.

Sehtek sends a Miw male named Amon to tell her ally Horse (the collective mind of the wild white horses of the marshes) what has happened in the city. While in the marshes, Amon encounters a young Englishman called Cam. He is a wandering scholar whom people sometimes mistake for a wizard. Cam has been given a dagger by a mysterious blacksmith in return for taking a letter to the Seroster. As Cam makes his way towards the city he discovers that the dagger has alarming powers to change his personality and make him into an almost invincible warrior. Amon’s own journey back to the city is delayed by his decision to help a group of Brethren who are fleeing persecution. When he does get home, Amon finds that things have gone from bad to worse.

Cam discovers the secrets which lie beneath the city and, after a series of shocking events, finds himself leading the men, women and cats who want to restore the young Duke to power. Cam is the most unwilling of heroes and there are many other problems. The city is ably defended by experienced soldier, Sir Henri, Little Paul has spies everywhere, and the witch-burning Bishop of Toulouse and a crusader army is on its way. Can Cam fulfill his destiny without losing himself and can the Miw come up with a plan that will save their city?

Robert Westall was born and grew up in northern England. He served in the British Army for two years and was a teacher and an antique dealer before he became a full time author. He wrote a large number of novels and stories, mainly in the genres of Historical Fiction and Horror, and twice won the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature – for “The Machine Gunners” (1975) and “The Scarecrows” (1981). Many of his books were originally published for children or teenagers but  Westall is often regarded as one of the finest of British war novelists. I’m guessing that someone read a synopsis of  “The Cats of Seroster” and thought that a Fantasy containing telepathic cats must be for children. However, it is not a book that I would give to a child. All the viewpoint characters in “The Cats of Seroster” are adults and the story deals with the brutal realities of war and religious persecution. This is an Historical Fantasy packed with dark humour and heartbreaking tragedies.

Reading “The Cats of Seroster” is rather like having a cat on your lap which mainly purrs but sometimes turns round and swipes you with all claws out. Westall wrote punchy prose and contemporary-style dialogue and he liked to slip in sudden shocks. Many authors would have centred the whole story on Cam but Westall chops the narrative up among numerous human and feline points of view. He is very good at representing what Amon calls “the clatter and bumble of men”. Giving us a cat’s eye view of human conflicts points up the absurdity of many of the things which people kill each other for. I’m confident that Westall knew everything there was to know about siege-warfare and military strategy and that all the gory details are accurate. Some of the most violent events  are described with a detached humour which could seem callous but the underlying feel of the book is compassionate. When Westall wrote about wars he always seemed to empathize with decent men and woman on both sides of the conflict. In “The Cats of Seroster” two of the most sympathetic characters are on the “wrong side” in the plot. Sir Henri is a professional soldier trying to do his duty while mourning the end of the age of chivalry. His brave little she-cat, Castlemew, becomes an outcast from cat society rather than abandon the man she loves.

The depiction of cat society, both among the aristocratic Miw and the ordinary Brethren, is one of the great joys of this novel. Cats feature in much of Westall’s work. Outstanding examples include his children’s novel, “Blitzcat”, which recounts episodes from World War II from a cat’s point of view, and the chilling Horror story, “Yaxley’s Cat”. He was a loving but unsentimental observer of the way that cats behave. The ordinary cats in this novel have splendid names such as Nibblefur and Gristletongue. The minds of Ripfur and Tornear, the two black toms who accompany Amon on his journey, are dominated by the joys of hunting, fighting and mating, while a she-cat in the marshes only thinks contentedly of “Full-belly, lie-sun, lick-fur.” The Miw , who are descended from the sacred cats of Ancient Egypt, are shown as more intellectual creatures who worship Father Re and Mother Bastet. Their eternal warrior Seroster is based on the legendary figure of Sesostris, who combined the qualities of several actual rulers of Middle Kingdom Egypt. The Miw (the Ancient Egyptian word for cat) do have some magical powers but they mainly dominate the city through their superior intelligence. Sehtek’s plan for dealing with the fanatical Bishop of Toulouse is particularly clever.

Cat-lovers should be warned that there are a number of distressing feline deaths in this book, though the impact is softened by visions of the cats being welcomed into the afterlife by the cat-goddess, Bastet. Westall never wrote about wars without showing the terrible collateral damage to civilians and the physical and mental costs endured by the fighters. Many Fantasy novels have reluctant heroes but Cam is more consistently reluctant than most. To him the magical dagger is a curse rather than a blessing. He doesn’t want to lose his own identity within a violent archetype – even in a very good cause. For much of the story, Cam is a failed hero and Amon is a failed leader but then, as an old soldier tells them, “None of us know what we are doing”. “The Cats of Seroster” is a brilliant book about cats which also celebrates how brave and resourceful people can be. Until next time…

Geraldine

P.S. If you are curious about my kittens and their mother, you can see pictures of them at http://www.chalcedon.co.uk/cats