This week I’m recommending “Rotherweird”, a debut novel by Andrew Caldecott set in a very peculiar English town. Since “Rotherweird” has only just been published, the choice is between hardback and ebook. The novel comes with a striking cover design by Leo Nickolls and monochrome illustrations by Sasha Laika, which sounds like an argument for buying the hardback. Sadly, the illustrations are so blurry you might as well go with the ebook version. “Rotherweird” is a difficult book to classify, so I’ve had to invent a new subgenre for it – Cosy Horror.

Ever since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Rotherweird Valley and the town of Rotherweird have been set apart from the rest of England. The town is ruled by an elected Mayor and an hereditary Herald and has “a legendary hostility to admitting the outside world”. Most of Rotherweird’s inhabitants never leave the valley and outsiders are rarely allowed in but in 2017 several exceptions are made. Corrupt Mayor Snorkel has been bribed to permit ruthless multi-millionaire Sir Veronal Slickstone to restore the town’s Elizabethan manor house, which has been empty for centuries. Slickstone arrives in Rotherweird with an actress and a juvenile thief whom he has hired to impersonate his wife and son.

Another new arrival is Jonah Oblong, a young history teacher who is desperate enough to apply for a post at Rotherweird School. He agrees to take the job but is warned that he must only teach the modern history of the outside world. Any study of the history of Rotherweird itself is strictly forbidden. Once Oblong moves to Rotherweird he is perturbed to discover that his predecessor, another outsider called Mr Flask, vanished without trace after being sacked for looking into the early history of Rotherweird. Oblong soon meets a wide range of eccentric locals, including chivalrous Games Master, Gregorious Jones, fiery scientist, Vixen Valourhand, ex-teacher and biologist Godfrey Fanguin and frustrated shop-assistant Orelia Roc. When Orelia buys a set of four mysterious stones and resells them to Slickstone, who seems to know their purpose, a sinister series of events is set in motion.

With Fanguin’s help, Oblong investigates his predecessor’s disappearence and the meaning of the cryptic notes he left behind. After he witnesses Slickstone display some extraordinary powers and stumbles on the body of a murder victim, Oblong becomes part of a diverse group who are determined to uncover the truth about the town’s origins and foil Slickstone’s evil plans. Some of this group are already surprisingly knowledgeable about the strange history and even stranger geography of Rotherweird. That knowledge will lead the companions into a hidden world of beauty and horror haunted by monstrous beings and the sins of the past. All of Rotherweird is in danger and the Midsummer Fair may be the last chance to save it…

I ought to be cautious when reviewing this novel because the author is a barrister who specializes in defamation and libel law but I must admit that I dithered about whether to recommend “Rotherweird”. Followers of Fantasy Reads may imagine that I take a Pollyanna approach to fiction – seeing the upside of every book and liking everything. This is far from the truth. I only recommend about 20% of what I read and there are plenty of Fantasy novels which I find disappointing or positively hate, such as… No, I vowed not to waste words on bad or boring books so I won’t name them. Books that feature on Fantasy Reads don’t have to be perfect (see my August 2015 post on “The Paper Magician”) but they do need to have some distinctive quality which makes them worth recommending. At first, I believed that “Rotherweird” was going to fail this test because I kept thinking – this is very like Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” but not as good. Caldecott lacks Peake’s emotional intensity and gift for poetic language and he hasn’t created powerful leading characters to compare with Steerpike and Titus Groan.

In fact “Rotherweird” doesn’t really have leading characters since it is a story about a place. I’ve chosen to make outsider Oblong the central figure in my synopsis because he is the easiest character for readers to identify with but the novel isn’t like that. Caldecott’s narrative has more than a dozen viewpoint characters and a complex double structure. Events in the town’s present day are interspersed with enigmatic scenes set in the 16th century. Rotherweird’s mix of quaint old-fashioned customs (at one point Oblong finds himself competing in a coracle race dressed as a grasshopper) and cutting-edge Science never seems entirely plausible. For much of the book the numerous story-lines don’t seem to be getting anywhere. The self-consciously eccentric locals can be hard to empathise with – authors please note that coining funny names is not a substitute for proper characterization – and gangling Oblong is not exactly hero material. He is more like a hapless character from a novel by Evelyn Waugh or even P.G.Wodehouse. Caldecott has fun giving Oblong a disastrous love-life but the social comedy in “Rotherweird” tends to work against the Horror elements when these finally arrive. I was disturbed by a creature who is part good woman and part malicious spider but to be honest you can terrify me with the tiniest of spiders.

“Rotherweird” seemed like one for the reject pile until I noticed that I was ignoring my husband at breakfast in order to finish reading this novel. At some point, I’d been hooked by Caldecott’s wayward plot and charmed by his setting. So, what is good about “Rotherweird”? Caldecott does have a strong visual imagination. His style may not be poetic but it is highly readable and pleasingly precise – when Sir Veronal sends for some “flavourless biscuits” they are served “in a white napkin, lined up like poker chips.” Caldecott writes entertaining dialogue which is more literary than natural but that helps to establish Rotherweird as a timeless place, set apart from the rest of the world. It’s an extreme version of the kind of small provincial town often celebrated in English literature – think Cranford or Tilling with added zany machines and weasel-men. Rotherweird lacks some of the main annoyances of modern life, such as traffic jams and mobile phones. This is a place I should like to visit and I got a strong sense that creating Rotherweird was a labour of love for Caldecott.

If you enjoy plots put together like a jigsaw puzzle and intriguing mysteries, “Rotherweird” is the book for you. This novel has mysteries galore. Why has Sir Veronal restored the manor house and what is he trying to remember? Who is the scholarly Countrysider known only as Ferensen and what happened to missing teacher, Flask? What is the purpose of the set of stones and the meaning of some mysterious murals in the church? Why did Rotherweird have to be sealed off from the rest of England and what kind of monster once came to its Midsummer Fair? These questions are answered in the current novel but there are plenty more mysteries left to be explored in the impending sequel, “Wyntertide”. “Rotherweird” is a book to be read for the range of its characters rather than their depth. Sir Veronal Slickstone is a standard Fantasy villain but, due to a last minute plot twist, this doesn’t matter. What I really like is the variety of the “good guys”. The companions are female and male, young, middle-aged and old, and include a cheery pair of inventors, a reckless scientist, a warm-hearted cleaner, a reclusive scholar, a timid bureaucrat who learns to take risks and an authority figure brave enough to break with tradition. I’m looking forward to reading more about this group. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

This week I’m recommending a subtle story to enjoy during the languid days of high summer. Yes, Fantasy can do subtle; especially when the author in question is Caroline Stevermer. Her novel “When the King Comes Home” was published in 2000 with a wonderfully atmospheric cover illustration by David Bowers. I’m sorry to say that this book is currently out of print but cheap second-hand copies are easy to obtain. “When the King Comes Home” is set in the same invented realm (Galazon) as two of Stevermer’s other novels – “A College of Magics” and “A Scholar of Magics” but this story takes place hundreds of years earlier.

In Stevermer’s version of late Renaissance Europe there is a country you may not have heard of called Galazon. It was once the centre of an empire ruled by powerful kings, of whom the most famous was Julian IV. At the time this story begins, the reigning monarch is an elderly figurehead and the real power in the land is the prince-bishop of Aravis. In the rural northwest of Galazon lives the Rosamer family. They are hard-working sheep-farmers and wool-merchants but the youngest child, Hail, knows from an early age that she wants to be an artist. When Hail is fifteen, her father takes her to the ancient capital city of Aravis to become an apprentice to the famous painter Madame Angelika Carriera.

Hail quickly settles down in Aravis and gets on well with her fellow apprentices, except for the malicious Gabriel. During visits to the palace, Hail learns more about Galazon’s greatest rulers, Good King Julian and his beautiful Queen, Andred, and their Champion, Sir Istvan. Julian has been dead for over 200 years but people in Galazon still speak of how everything will come right “when the king comes home”. By the time she is eighteen, Hail has become a skilled painter and metal-worker but she is obsessed with the work of an artist called Maspero who served King Julian. When Hail copies Maspero’s famous “Siege Medal”, Gabriel persuades her that she has committed a serious  crime. Hail flees the city to find her father, but on her journey she encounters a beggar who looks just like the surviving portraits of Good King Julian. This is a meeting which will change the course of history.

The beggar claims to be “a damned spirit” and wants a priest to exorcise him. When Hail and her family take the beggar to Aravis it quickly becomes a political matter. A ceremony carried out by the prince-bishop’s exorcist proves that the beggar is not Julian but rumours of the return of the Good King have already spread. Hail is held in the palace because she has acquired some dangerous knowledge. She knows that a sorceress is using ancient relics to bring back the dead and that the works of Maspero contain more magic than she ever imagined. When Hail does leave the palace again she will be exposed to the dangers of sorcery and civil war…

I originally became aware of Stevermer when I read, “Sorcery and Cecelia”, the first of three Regency Romance/ Fantasy novels which she co-wrote with Patricia C. Wrede. These delightful books, which take the form of letters exchanged by “Two Young Ladies of Quality”, are full of wit and charm. There is a vein of humour in “When the King Comes Home” but this story is deeper and darker than most of Stevermer’s work. For the first 70 pages it reads like a well-researched historical novel, albeit one set in an invented country. As an amateur painter, I found all the detail about an artist’s training fascinating but other readers may get impatient. Only a brief conversation about the possibility of fetching back dead people if you have something that belonged to them, suggests that there is powerful magic ahead. Stevermer takes time to make the country of Galazon and her heroine Hail Rosamer seem very real before the discovery of the man who looks like King Julian sparks off a series of extraordinary events.

All these events are seen through Hail’s eyes and “When the King Comes Home” is written as a first-person narrative. It worries me that many male readers may refuse to try this novel simply because the narrator is a teenage girl for most of the plot. Please think again. I promise this isn’t a “girly” sort of book and it could almost be classified as an Anti-Romance. The most important thing about Hail is not that she is female but that she is an artist with a true vocation. The novel explores the joys, pains and responsibilities of such a life-long vocation. The narrative is a sophisticated one because Hail is telling her story looking back from old age. This allows Stevermer to drop intriguing hints about the way that the history of Galazon is going to develop.

Hail is a distinctive and sometimes exasperating heroine. Intelligent but naive, she ignores good advice, talks herself into trouble, and does things her own way – whatever the consequences. A possible romance between Hail and a young officer never develops because she has different priorities. Stevermer conveys the poignancy of the “road not taken” in a few lines of ostensibly trivial conversation. With equal subtlety, Stevermer draws parallels between headstrong Hail and the ambitious sorceress, which Hail herself doesn’t seem to perceive. What distinguishes Hail from the sorceress is her compassion and her tenacious loyalty. She goes on helping two heroes who have been forced back from death, even when she isn’t rewarded by any kind of emotional response from them.

All over the world there are stories about great leaders who, after many signs and portents, will return in their nation’s hour of need. In Britain, this legend is most often told about King Arthur. The return of the true king or queen is also a popular theme in Fantasy fiction, generally featuring as a triumphant climax to thumping great epics. Stevermer on the other hand has used this theme to create a short, sharp novel which examines the way that some people try to exploit the real or imagined glories of the past to manipulate the present. This “return of the king” doesn’t go to plan, partly because the long dead heroes cannot engage with an era that is not their own. They are locked into their original behaviour patterns and relationships and little else matters to them. These walking dead aren’t the monsters of Zombie fiction but there is a deep wrongness about their second lease of life. “When the King Comes Home” is a book which doesn’t provide simple answers to difficult questions. Hail’s story has lingered in my mind long after more conventional Fantasy novels have been forgotten, so I commend it to you. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

This week I’m recommending a cool, watery book to read during hot weather. “Ingo” (2005) is the first of a five-volume Fantasy series for children by versatile British writer, Helen Dunmore, whose recent death has saddened her many readers. It is set in the beautiful county of Cornwall (as seen in “Poldark”) and in the undersea realm of Ingo. There is an attractive box-set of the five “Chronicles of Ingo” but each volume is also available individually in paperback or ebook form.

“Ingo” is the story of Sapphire (Sapphy) Trewhella and her brother, Conor. They live with their parents in a small village on the Cornish coast. The Trewhellas seem a happy family but one issue divides them. Sapphy and her Dad, Mathew, are passionate about the sea but Mum, Jennie, hates and fears it. One summer evening, Mathew slips away to the nearby cove and takes his boat out. He never comes back. The wreckage of his boat is eventually found but there is no sign of Mathew. He is presumed drowned but his children refuse to give up hope.

The story continues thirteen months later. Jennie is now supporting her family by working as a waitress in a nearby town. She has begun to “move on” and has met a new man – a professional diver called Roger. This, coupled with unkind gossip about her father’s disappearance, makes Sapphy very unhappy. She is haunted by the song that Mathew used to sing to her – “I wish I was away in Ingo, Far across the briny sea…”  Sensible Conor is the one person Sapphy relies on but suddenly he starts disappearing for hours on end. She sees him in the cove talking to a strange girl far out on the rocks. Conor won’t tell her what is going on but when Sapphy feels compelled to go down to the cove at night, she meets Faro who seems to be half-boy, half-seal.

Faro takes Sapphy into the captivating underwater realm of Ingo, challenging everything she thought she knew about the world and her own nature. Once in Ingo, it is hard for Sapphy to remember her life and family “in the Air” but concerns about Conor draw her back to the surface. She longs to explore Ingo but time and truth are different there and she isn’t sure how far she can trust Faro. Sapphy seeks answers to the mystery of her father’s disappearance from the elusive Faro and from local Wise Woman, Granny Carne. Cornish legends may hold a clue but Sapphy and Conor are confronted with a more immediate problem. They must risk their lives to prevent a deadly clash between people from the Air and the guardians of Ingo.

Helen Dunmore (1952-2017) was a hard author to pin down. She was a prize-winning poet, novelist and literary critic. Her fiction for adults ranged from contemporary and historical novels to ghost stories. When a highly regarded literary author also writes for younger readers, it’s often assumed that these children’s books will be inferior to their usual work and unworthy of adult attention. This ignores the fact that writing for children requires even more care and discipline than writing for adults. I believe that you can appreciate the true essence of a writer in their work for children because they have to pare everything down to essentials. In my view, “The Ingo Chronicles” are timeless children’s Classics which will be an important part of Dunmore’s literary legacy.

“Ingo” was inspired by Dunmore’s love of Cornwall, where she had a house for 40 years. The Trewhellas’ cottage and the nearby cliffs and cove come across as real places and brought back happy memories for me of childhood beach holidays in Cornwall. “The Ingo Chronicles” draw on the fascinating folklore of the South-West of England, like several other books I’ve recommended (e.g. “Diving Belles”, January 2015 and “An English Ghost Story”, October 2015). Cornwall is particularly rich in legends about mermaids, some of which include details of an imagined life under the sea and information about how mer-people view the “forked” creatures who dwell on land. Dunmore uses these legends but also subverts them as Faro mocks traditional human ideas about mermaids and allows Sapphy tantalising glimpses of life in Ingo. Dunmore only reveals her invented undersea world a little at a time. I’d advise reading “Ingo” and its first sequel “The Tide Knot” together to get a fuller picture.  Volume One is a tense read because you are never sure whether Conor and Sapphy are being offered a marvellous adventure or being cruelly lured away from home and family.

If you’ve ever longed to be able to swim through the sea as easily as a fish does, you’ll enjoy this story. Sapphy experiences the freedom of being able to breathe underwater and ride the sea’s currents and tides. She joyfully learns to communicate and interact with dolphins and gets close to a range of marine creatures from spider-crabs to sea-horses and grey seals to purple jellyfish. Yet “Ingo” isn’t merely an escapist Fantasy. Sapphy is pressured to choose between her human and mer natures, as many young people of mixed backgrounds are pressured to choose between conflicting cultures or idealogies. The inhabitants of Ingo are angry with the Air People for all the dreadful things that we have done to the oceans, such as destroying coral reefs, polluting beaches, hunting whales and using fishing nets that trap dolphins. Righteous as this anger is, “The Ingo Chronicles” ask whether it is ever justifiable to punish innocent individuals for the harmful acts of corporations and governments.

I’ve said that “Ingo” isn’t an escapist Fantasy but it is a Fantasy novel about being tempted to escape the difficulties and tedium of daily life. The story is told from Sapphy’s point of view but right from the start Dunmore cleverly allows the reader to see that Sapphy’s adored father is the kind of man who might just abandon his responsibilities.  A few brief scenes make the fault-lines in Mathew and Jennie’s marriage obvious. Dunmore writes with compassion about a fractured family and a slow and painful recovery from grief. Stubbon, secretive Sapphy is a realistically drawn heroine though constant Conor seems a little too good to be true. Sapphy’s prickly relationship with her mother is at the heart of the story. Even though you know it’s wrong, it is hard not to sympathise with Sapphy’s anger at her mother for beginning a new relationship. Sapphy resents Roger all the more because he is annoyingly nice and the kind of reliable father-figure she has never had before. Complexities of this kind help to make “Ingo” a novel which combines the best of Fantasy and Realism. If you are looking for a high quality series which might appeal to older children or teenagers, I’d thoroughly recommend “The Ingo Chronicles”. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

It’s high time for some midsummer madness so this week I’m recommending J.B.Priestley’s light-hearted Arthurian Fantasy, “The Thirty-First of June”. This book, which was first published in 1961, was out of print for many years. Recently I was pleased to discover that most of Priestley’s novels are now available as ebooks. Better still, there is a new paperback edition of “The Thirty-First of June” (from Valancourt Books) complete with John Cooper’s charming original illustrations.

This is a story set in two very different places – London, England in 1960 and the small kingdom of Peradore during the reign of the legendary King Arthur.  One of these places is real and the other is imaginary but no-one can agree which is which. In London, frustrated artist Sam Penty works for an advertising agency run by Dan Dimmock (“Call me D.D.”) . When Sam is told to produce a drawing for the Damosel Stockings campaign, he pictures a medieval princess and falls in love with her. The next morning Sam wakes up convinced that it’s a day which shouldn’t exist – the 31st of June.

Meanwhile in Peradore, Princess Melicent has fallen in love with a strangely dressed young man whom she’s seen in a magic mirror lent to her by an enchanter. Melicent’s peppery father, King Meliot, warns her that Sam is only imaginary but Malgrim the Enchanter has already sent the castle dwarf to find him. Malgrim is plotting to get hold of a magical brooch given to the royal family of Peradore by Merlin himself. So is his uncle, a wily old enchanter known as Master Marlagram. Back in London, Sam abandons work and goes off to the Black Horse pub while a harassed D.D. has some baffling encounters with a dwarf in medieval costume and a laughing rat. Marlagram escorts Melicent to Sam’s world but Malgrim has already lured Sam and a drinking companion to Peradore.

Sam encounters a wicked damsel-in-waiting instead of his princess and gets thrown into a dungeon for “being improperly dressed”. D.D., several of his staff and the barmaid from the Black Horse all end up in Peradore. Some of these visitors find themselves playing much the same roles in Peradore as they did in London; others are startlingly transformed. Melicent endures bizarre experiences during her visits to London, including an appearance on television, while in Peradore Sam is required to act like a medieval hero, which he’s very sure he’s not. He can’t even work out what species of dragon he’s meant to be fighting. Can Sam and Melicent, and their worlds, ever be united?

J.B.Priestley (1894-1984) was a prolific novelist, playwright and journalist. You can find out more about him on the website run by the J.B.Priestley Society (jbpriestleysociety.com). Priestley is remembered as a plain-speaking, pipe-smoking Yorkshireman who campaigned against social inequalities and nuclear weapons, so you might assume that he was strictly a realist writer. In fact, there are supernatural elements in many of his novels and plays (including his most famous play, “An Inspector Calls”) and much of his work was influenced by esoteric ideas about the nature of time and reality. This novel explores those ideas in a playful way, suggesting that “whatever has been imagined must exist somewhere in the universe” and that “Which is real, which is imaginary, depends upon the position of the observer.” Malgrim the Enchanter explains that in the sphere of the imagination times-streams can converge or become intertwined so that it possible to pass from one to another. It all sounds jolly convincing but bear in mind that Malgrim isn’t a particularly reliable person and he has just drunk a whole bottle of créme-de-menthe.

I’ve read “The Thirty-First of June” numerous times and it still makes me laugh. Think “Mad Men” meets “Camelot” but played as farce. I wasn’t too surprised to learn from Lee Hanson’s introduction to the new edition that “The Thirty-First of June” was originally a play-script. It would make a wonderful TV drama. The plot is full of surprising entrances and dramatic exits and most of the characterization is achieved through the sprightly dialogue. Each member of the cast is given catch-phrases and distinctive turns of speech. One of my favourites is “Captain” Skip Plunket, whom Sam meets in the Black Horse. He constantly tells irrelevant anecdotes and tries to sell people dubious schemes or goods. Thus Plunket’s response to Malgrim’s abstruse explanation of time-streams is, “And, talking of times, I can put you on to a fella who has four gross of Swiss watches in the spare tank of his motor yacht.”

The subtitle of this novel is “A Tale of True Love, Enterprise and Progress, in the Arthurian and Ad-Atomic Ages” so it is now doubly a period piece.  Priestley was familiar with the conventions of medieval Arthurian literature and has fun with them in this story. For example, in Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur” (see my February 2016 post on “The Death of Arthur”) knights tend to encounter two standard types of damsel – virtuous oppressed ones and seductive deceitful ones. In “The Thirty-First of June”,  Melicent’s two damsels-in-waiting are meek and mousy Alison – whose double in London is D.D.’s overworked secretary – and glamorous Ninette who conspires with Malgrim out of sheer love of mischief-making. Ninette torments Sam by making him believe that he has to speak in a pseudo-medieval manner (“Noble damsel- er – ye say sooth.”) before suddenly pointing out that he’s “no great shakes at this kind of dialogue.”

Priestley makes jokes about what doesn’t change between eras, such as doctors who prescribe useless remedies based on bogus theories. So, to cure their flights of fancy, Melicent is ordered to take mummy paste, mandrake root and powdered dragon’s tooth because her humours are out of balance while Sam is told that he has an unstable metabolism and is offered calcium and vitamin D. tablets.  It’s fairly clear though that Priestley himself was more attracted to an idealized version of the Middle Ages than he was to modern urban life. Most of the things his characters find stressful in 1960 – noisy construction work, traffic jams, ridiculous advertising campaigns for rubbishy products, and absurd television shows and competitions – still annoy people today. No wonder that Plunket and D.D. come up with the idea of selling time-travelling tours to peaceful Peradore.

When Sam is asked why he wants to marry Melicent, his answer is that she seems to combine, “two wonderful qualities….a beautiful strangeness and a loving kindness.” So does this novel. Thanks to the rival enchanters, delightfully strange things happen in the course of the plot but Priestley is too kind-hearted an author to punish any of his characters severely for their faults. Ultimately, everyone is allowed to benefit from their exposure to another place and time. In Priestley’s world, the 31st of June is the one day on which people who are barely existing are given the chance to live a different and more rewarding kind of life. So, may I wish all my readers a happy 31st of June! Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

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