My last recommendation was a big and colourful novel (“The Rook”) so this time I’m choosing something small and delicate – “The Ghost’s Child” by Australian author Sonya Hartnett. She is best known for her Young Adult fiction but she has also written books for adults and for children. “The Ghost’s Child”, which came out in 2007, has won prizes as a children’s book but I would call it a fable which you need to read at the right point in your life. That point might be when you are ten or ninety; it depends on the individual. “The Ghost’s Child” is available as an ebook but print copies are better for appreciating the exquisite black and white illustrations by Jon McNaught.

The story begins in an Australian seaside town when an elderly lady called Matilda comes home to find a strange boy sitting on her settee. Matilda (Maddy) has lived alone for a long time with only her dog for company. She is pleased but puzzled by her unexpected visitor. “He was like a strong bold bird that had flown into the room and, finding itself cornered, was bored, but unafraid.” Over tea and biscuits, the boy asks some very direct questions, such as, “Isn’t it horrible, being old?” Maddy struggles to explain how she feels about being old and looks back at the history of her life and loves.

Born in the late 19th century, Maddy was the only child of wealthy parents. She was a shy and lonely girl who never seemed able to please her mother. Many children have imaginary friends whom their parents can’t see. Maddy’s friend was the nargun; a cynical monster “old as the hills, larger than a draught horse”. When sixteen year-old Maddy finishes school her father asks her, “What is the world’s most beautiful thing?” Unsatisfied by her answer, he takes Maddy on a grand tour to see the world’s greatest buildings, works of art and natural wonders. They return to Australia when Maddy is eighteen. She is still unable to choose one thing that “is lovelier than anything else combined” until she meets a mysterious young man called Feather.

Feather lives on a beach, talks to birds, and spends most of his time gazing out to sea. Maddy is soon desperately in love and insists that she and Feather belong together. For a while their life in a secluded cottage seems idyllic but a force that Maddy doesn’t understand is driving them apart. Feather warns her that, “There is somewhere else I need to be – someone else I have to be.” Maddy’s search for understanding will take her on a voyage through seas inhabited by lost souls, talkative fish and battling monsters, to the Island of Stillness where a person’s deepest desire is granted. But one person’s paradise may be another person’s nightmare…

“The Ghost’s Child” does have something in common with my previous choice, “The Rook”, in that both books are by Australian authors. There is a great richness and diversity in Australian Fantasy fiction at the moment. Other examples I’ve recommended include “Spindle” by W.R.Gingell (July 2016) and “The Brides of Rollrock Island” by Margo Lanagan (November 2013). If you assume that Australian culture is still a bit rough and ready, please think again. Both Lanagan and Hartnett write particularly elegant prose. “The Ghost’s Child” is a book you may want to read aloud to savour Hartnett’s poetic use of language. There are dazzling descriptions of extraordinary events such as the battle between two sea-monsters  (“Round and around the two legendary creatures careered, the leviathan tangled in tentacles and bellowing, the kraken silent as a tomb, its huge eyes flatly reflecting the clouds and the sea”) but Hartnett also captures the essence of ordinary things in a few simple words. When the boy tells Maddy that old people smell “Like coats in mothy cupboards…Like taps dripping for years and years.” you just know that he is right.

This short novel has some unusual shifts of tone and genre. The opening chapter and most of the scenes involving elderly Maddy and her young visitor seem to belong to a well-observed realistic novel.  The unnamed visitor looks like a normal boy and mainly behaves like one. He’s easily bored, embarassingly direct and squirms when Maddy talks about love. Yet there are chilling hints that his presence is transforming the narrative into some kind of ghost story. Maddy’s account of her childhood and of her successful professional life as a grown woman could come from a historical novel similar to “My Beautiful Career” but her teenage years belong firmly in Fantasy fiction. Maddy and Feather are described as “the lonely fairytale princess and the wondrous being chained to the ground” and Maddy’s second voyage takes her into a dream-like realm where she can converse with whales, the spirits of the drowned and the west wind. Jon McNaught’s drawings, which are more like patterns inspired by the text than conventional illustrations, are particularly magical in this section.

I found the shifts between realism and Fantasy a bit disconcerting at first but then it struck me that for many people the teenage years do stand out from the rest of their life like an era of legend. It is the time for meeting your prince or princess, fighting the dragons of the established order and going on quests for the meaning of life. Fables that try to teach important lessons about how to live your life are fragile things. One false step by the author and belief fails and trust is lost. I found it jarring that the child which Maddy miscarries is always coyly referred to as `the fay’. Apart from that, the story worked for me because it isn’t a rigid allegory with just one set of meanings. The title of the book raises more questions than answers and the character of free-spirit Feather remains open to a variety of interpretations. He seems to be a young girl’s dream boyfriend, desirable because he is unattainable, but is he as imaginary as Maddy’s monster-friend? Even if Feather is real, does he represent the kind of spiritual longings that cannot be satisfied in the material world? Every reader has to come to their own conclusions.

“The Ghost’s Child” is inspiring without being relentlessly upbeat and it doesn’t offer easy solutions to life’s problems. Hartnett believes in being honest with children about the “hard laws and complicated outcomes” of the adult world and she writes unflinchingly about love. Maddy explains to her young visitor that “Love isn’t always a good thing, or even a happy thing. Sometimes it’s the very worst thing that can happen. But love is like moonlight or thunder, or rain on a tin roof in the middle of the night; it is one of the things in life that is truly worth knowing.” This is a story of failed love and incompatible desires but it also shows how Maddy survives rejection and loss by having faith in her own worth and courage. Young Maddy doesn’t always behave wisely or well but I’ve added mature Maddy to my list of favourite older characters in Fantasy fiction. Perhaps you would enjoy meeting her too. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week I’m recommending “The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley – a novel which shows that if you want a story with strong heroines you don’t always have to go to a female writer.  “The Rook”, which is Volume One of “The Checquy Files”, was first published in 2012 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. It is a novel which doesn’t fit neatly into just one genre. “The Rook” could be classified as Urban Fantasy with Science Fiction and Horror elements but it is also a Murder Mystery and a psychological Thriller. O’Malley is an Australian-born writer who was educated in America but “The Checquy Files” series is set in Britain and concerns a very British kind of secret organization.

With “The Rook” you get two heroines for the price of one. At the start of the story our heroine finds herself in a rain-drenched London park surrounded by corpses. She can’t remember how she got there or who she is and even her body doesn’t seem familiar. Fortunately there is a letter in her pocket from her battered body’s previous owner, Myfanwy Thomas, telling her to use the cards in her wallet to check in at a luxury hotel.  Once there, Myfanwy 2, reads another letter from her predecessor, Myfanwy 1, describing how she was warned by several psychics that she was going to be attacked and stripped of her memory. Myfanwy 2 is given a choice between two deposit boxes. One contains the wherewithal for a fresh start abroad; the other all the information she would need to take on Myfanwy 1’s identity and a life of power, wealth and danger.

After surviving another attack, Myfanwy 2 chooses the second option. The next letter in the sequence explains that she has the power to disrupt other people’s control of their own bodies. After this power first manifested in nine year-old Myfanwy 1 she was taken away from her family and raised by a secret organization known as the Checquy Group whose purpose is to protect Great Britain from supernatural threats. The agents of the Checquy (pronounced Sheck-Eh) come in two kinds – Retainers, who are ordinary human beings, and Pawns, who each have some kind of inhuman power. The Checquy are ruled by a Court which always consists of a Lord and Lady, two Bishops, two Rooks and two Chevaliers. Myfanwy I was unwilling to use her special power in combat but her talents as an administrator caused her to be promoted to the rank of Rook. Myfanwy 2 doesn’t have time to learn much more before she has to turn up at Checquy headquarters and pretend to be the real Rook Thomas.

On her first day, Myfanwy 2 has to deal with her scarily efficient PA, Ingrid, and with Rook Gestalt, a single mind with four bodies – all of them annoyingly blonde and gorgeous. She manages not to throw up when watching the interrogation of a visitor from Brussels who has killed and eaten a prostitute. The Checquy assume that the man has natural inhuman abilities but he turns out to be something worse – a monster created by a group of European scientists known as the Grafters. Back in the 17th century, the Grafters used their surgical skills to adapt men and animals into a monstrous army which invaded Britain. At great cost, they were defeated by the supernatural powers of the Checquy of the day. The Grafters were stamped out – or so it was thought. Now they seem to be attacking Britain again and horrible things begin to happen. Myfanwy 2 surprises her colleagues by being brave and resourceful in the field. The letters left by Myfanwy 1 warn that she cannot necessarily trust those colleagues. Timid Myfanwy 1 was in the process of uncovering a conspiracy at the heart of the Checquy. Rook Thomas is not the woman she once was, so can she unmask the traitors and save the Checquy from their ancient enemies?

Amazon kept telling me that I should buy “The Rook” because I own all of Charles Stross’s “Laundry Files” books but I resisted for a long time. Amazon aren’t always right – they are currently convinced that my cat-loving husband has a labrador and keep recommending doggie treats. I love “The Laundry Files” (see my September 2014 post on “The Rhesus Chart”) and I didn’t want to read something that sounded like a pale imitation.  Luckily, I opened a copy of “The Rook” in my local bookshop and was immediately captivated by the wry narrative voice of Myfanwy 2 – “It sounds like I’m the Defence Minister of Ghosts and Goblins, but as long as the job is “all fairly self-explanatory” I’ve no doubt it will be fine. The country might get overrun by brownies and talking trees, but what the hell – there’s always Australia!” The two series do have a similar premise (the existence of a secret branch of the British government which uses both magic and technology to fight supernatural threats) and Stross and O’Malley share a dark sense of humour. It may not be apparent from my synopsis that “The Rook” is a very funny novel. O’Malley doesn’t have Stross’s uncannily accurate knowledge of current trends in management and government policy but he has the British character nailed and he has given his Checquy Group a long and inventive history. There is a delightful running joke about the Checquy having been sent to deal with various situations which readers will recognize as coming from well-known Fantasy stories.

“The Rook” has a wider range of female characters and a more complex structure than any of the “Laundry Files” books. Amnesiac main characters are not uncommon in fiction but the device is used particularly well in this novel. The reader learns about the strange world of the Checquy step by step, just as Myfanwy 2 does. Scenes in which she has to deal with things she knows nothing about such as “tidying up after that outbreak of plague in the Elephant and Castle” and a “scheduled assault on an antler cult” alternate with the new Rook reading carefully prepared briefings from Myfanwy 1. These cover the history of the Checquy and its sister organization in America, the Croatoan, and give detailed accounts of the members of the ruling court, like haughty Lady Farrier who can walk into other people’s dreams or hot vampire Bishop Alrich whose hair changes colour when he drinks human blood. Some of the back-stories in these briefings, such as what happened when a Pawn thought he’d developed a rapport with a dragon’s egg, aren’t necessary to the plot but are gruesomely entertaining.

Myfanwy 1’s more personal letters describe her upbringing and rise to power and her attempts to discover why she is going to be erased. Meanwhile, in the current part of the narrative, Myfanwy 2 is having to cope with increasingly bizarre events including a conversation with a flayed aristocrat in a tank of slime, a house in Bath full of man-eating fungus, and a cocktail party with a very high body count. Further subplots about Myfanwy 2 striking up a friendship with a glamorous American Bishop and an unexpected approach from Myfanwy 1’s sister add to the hefty page count. If you prefer fast-moving linear narratives you might get impatient but as a voracious reader I’ve a lot of tolerance for over-stuffed books. I also appreciated the games that O’Malley plays with genre. Kick-ass Bishop Shantay who can turn herself into metal, represents the flamboyant American comic-book superhero tradition. She’s the perfect contrast to quiet administrator Rook Thomas who, like a character from a classic British Spy novel such as “Smiley’s People”, is so much more formidable than she seems.  The plot of “The Rook” concerns the long-standing and bitter enmity between the supernatural Checquy and the scientific Grafters but it could be interpreted as a dramatization of the perpetual argument between lovers of Fantasy and Science Fiction about which is best. A wonderful twist right at the end of the novel suggests the stance that O’Malley himself might take in this argument.

This plot twist works because O’Malley made me believe that only the woman Rook Thomas has become would think of taking the Checquy in such a startling new direction. Publishers have finally realized that strong heroines sell books but in Fantasy fiction I often get the impression that a male leading role (warrior, wizard etc.) has been automatically replaced by a female one without giving much thought to the differences the change of gender might bring. That isn’t the case with “The Rook”. O’Malley has created a number of complex and interesting female characters. They convince as professional women doing difficult jobs and none of them are in the plot to be somebody’s love interest. Shy and plain Myfanwy 1 could destroy people with a touch but preferred forensic accounting and sitting at home reading Georgette Heyer novels and eating pastries.  Myfanwy 2 is irritated by her predecessor’s dull dress-sense (O’Malley is very good on clothes as an expression of character) but has increasing respect for the courage with which Myfanwy 1 faced her impending destruction. One of the fascinations of this novel is watching Myfanwy 2 develop a distinct personality, starting with small rebellions such as taking cream in her coffee and working up to taking the lead in tackling monsters and traitors.

If both versions of Rook Thomas aren’t enough of an attraction, may I draw your attention to Ingrid, the loyal PA who remains unflappable in dire situations which would reduce most of us to hysteria. How often in Fantasy fiction is a middle-aged, married secretary allowed to shine? “Stiletto”, the recent sequel to “The Rook” features two more appealing heroines, one representing the Checquy and the other, the Grafters. “The Checquy Files” is a series I’ll be sticking with. If you can stomach some quite strong violence, do give “The Rook” a try. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week I’m recommending “The Incompleat Enchanter”, a light-hearted Fantasy Classic which makes ideal holiday reading. It consists of two novellas co-written by a pair of well-known American SF/Fantasy authors: Lyon Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. Both novellas recount “the Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea”. “The Roaring Trumpet” sends him to the world of Scandinavian Myth and “The Mathematics of Magic” to the world created by Elizabethan author Edmund Spenser for his epic poem The Faerie Queene. These stories were first published in the magazine Unknown in 1940. The book version, under the title of “The Incompleat Enchanter”,  came out in 1941 and has been reprinted many times. You can now get this, and its two sequels, as ebooks.

“The Roaring Trumpet” introduces Harold Shea, a young psychologist at the Garaden Institute. He’s bright but bored. Harold keeps trying new things, like learning to ski and fence, but it isn’t enough. He longs for a real adventure and to meet his dream girl. Harold’s older colleague, Dr Reed Chalmers has a solution. He has invented a syllogismobile – a mathematical formula for shifting people into parallel worlds with very different natural laws. Chalmers’ theory is that in a world “where all minds were attuned to receive the proper impressions, the laws of magic would conceivably work.” Harold decides to use Chalmers’ formula to transport himself to the world of Irish myth. He intends to go well prepared, packing a colt revolver, a box of matches, a torch and the Boy Scout Handbook.

The formula works and Harold is thrilled to find himself in a strange landscape with a cloaked horseman approaching. Unfortunately, the horseman is Odinn the Wanderer. Harold has accidentally arrived in the world of Scandinavian myth just before the final battle between the gods and the giants. Meeting the haughty Norse gods, and the warriors who serve them, is an humiliating experience for Harold. Everyone regards him as puny and useless. Harold tries to impress the gods by claiming to be a powerful warlock but finds that none of his modern gadgets will work. The gods still take him along on a quest to recover two magical weapons, the Hammer of Thor and the Sword of Frey. Harold teams up with the friendliest of the Norse gods, Heimdall the Watcher, and begins to understand how the laws of magic function in the Norse world. After he and Heimdall are captured by the Fire Giants, Harold uses both magic and psychology in a daring escape plan…

During the epic battle of Ragnarok, Harold was suddenly flung back into his own world. In “The Mathematics of Magic”, Harold is keen to go on another adventure and this time Dr Reed Chalmers wants to come along. After perfecting his “structural theory of a multi-universe cosmology” Reed thinks it’s time to seek a more enjoyable life in a fictional world. Harold suggests the one created by Spenser for his immensely long (but unfinished) poem, The Faerie Queene. This is a part-Classical, part-Medieval world filled with kings and queens, knights and damsels, witches and monsters. Harold and Reed hope to win a place for themselves by helping the Faerie  knights of King Arthur and Queen Gloriana to defeat the evil enchanters who are their chief enemies.

Harold’s fencing skills come in handy as the adventurers encounter ill-tempered knights, ape-like monsters known as Losels and a Celtic tribe keen on human sacrifice. Reed thinks that he’s mastered the rules of magic but his spell-rhymes rarely produce the expected result. When he tries to conjure up a single fierce dragon, one hundred gentle vegetarian dragons appear instead. Reed has been distracted by falling in love with a beautiful damsel who turns out to be a creature made out of snow by a witch. Meanwhile, Harold has met two potential dream girls – the golden-haired warrior Britomart, who can defeat almost any knight, and flame-haired archer and hunter, Belphebe. Unfortunately, they are both already betrothed. Reed and Harold’s plan to infiltrate the headquarters of the evil enchanters doesn’t go too smoothly either. Is there any hope of a happy ending for these “incompleat enchanters”?

L.Sprague de Camp (1907-2000) and Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956) were close friends who met in 1939 because of a mutual love of war-gaming. They started writing together almost straight away and produced five Harold Shea stories between 1940 and 1954, later published in book form as “The Castle of Iron” and “The Enchanter Compleated”. In these stories, Harold and his companions visit the worlds of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (with a side-trip to Coleridge’s Xanadu), the Finnish Kalevala and, finally, Irish myth at the time of the famous “Cattle Raid of Cooley”.  According to Sprague de Camp, Pratt provided most of the backround information. They would then work out the plot together before Sprague de Camp wrote the first draft and Pratt the second. This unusual method of collaboration doesn’t produce elegant prose. What the two writers mainly shared were fertile imaginations and an irreverant sense of humour.

In the introduction to the 1975 reprint of “The Incompleat Enchanter”, Sprague de Camp described the Harold Shea stories as “sword and sorcery” fiction long before the term was invented. They are packed with exciting action scenes but I would classify them primarily as Comic Fantasy. I don’t often recommend books in this genre because humour is such a personal thing but if you enjoy early Terry Pratchett novels such as The Colour of Magic, the misadventures of Harold Shea will probably make you laugh. Some of the humour is quite broad. For example, in a world where spells have to be in verse, Harold defeats the terrifying Blatant Beast by reciting “The Ballad of Eskimo Nell” at it. He then spends the rest of the story trying to avoid explaining this erotic poem to virginal Belphebe. In “The Roaring Trumpet” Pratt and Sprague de Camp were working from source material which is already full of rumbustious humour. Much of the comedy comes from mythical beings such as giants and trolls talking like American gangsters and from over-confident Harold’s humiliations. He’s given the nickname “Turnip Harald” after unwisely asking for some vegetables with his boiled pork.

In “The Mathematics of Magic” the comedy arises from the contrast between the solemn source material and the farcical way that it’s treated. Spenser wrote beautiful stately poetry but no-one has ever praised him for his sense of humour. The Faerie Queene is an allegory in which the leading characters are meant to embody virtues such as Chastity and Justice. Pratt and Sprague de Camp have fun with characters who take themselves far to seriously, such as a virtuous wife Amoret who bores everyone with her endless tale of woe (“Oh , the perils I go through!”) and enthusiastic enforcer of the High Justice, Sir Artegall, who rarely stops to think before he jousts. The Harold Shea stories may be light reading but they are based on a detailed knowledge of myth, Fantasy literature and anthropological research on magic. Fletcher Pratt knew all about the ancient ideas of magic working through laws of Similarity or Contagion and he must be one of the few people in history to have read the whole of The Faerie Queene for pleasure (I never have).

Harold Shea has the distinction of being one of the few fictional characters to be killed off by another writer – by L.Ron Hubbard in 1941. His creators decided to ignore this piece of literary rudeness but it seems prophetic that the founder of Scientology would disapprove of Shea’s ingenious uses for his psychological training – such as persuading a troll that he needs a nose-job and teaching Dame Britomart how to boost the fragile male ego. Even Sprague de Camp describes his hero as brash and conceited but Harold does mellow and become more likeable after marrying his dream girl.

The attitude towards women shown by the American males in these stories now seems prehistoric but fortunately Spenser, who lived and wrote during the reign of a formidable queen, had provided some strong female characters to work with. In The Faerie Queene, the damsels rescue the knights as often as the other way around and Belphebe, who is thought to be based on aspects of Elizabeth I, makes a spirited and attractive heroine for “The Incompleat Enchanter”. The Harold Shea series was revived in the 1980s by Sprague de Camp and other writers but these later stories mainly lack the charm of the originals. So, my advice is to stick with the first three books. Until next time…

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the four years that I have been writing this Fantasy Reads blog, my most-read post as been the one on the Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde (November 2013). I’m pleased by this, since Wilde is one of my favourite authors, but a little surprised. It does suggest that there are plenty of people out there who enjoy literary Fairy Tales, so this week I’m recommending a collection of sophisticated stories about fairies by British author Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978). Her “Kingdoms of Elfin” came out in 1977 but most of the stories in this collection were first published in The New Yorker. There were several paperback editions during the 1970s and it is still easy to find cheap copies of these. Sadly “Kingdoms of Elfin” doesn’t yet seem to be available as an ebook.

The sixteen stories in this collection don’t have the standard plotlines of traditional Fairy Tales. They are stories about fairies, and the humans unlucky enough to interact with them, set in the Elfin courts of Europe and the Near East. This book should really be called “Queendoms of Elfin”, since each of the Fairy Realms is ruled by a Queen. The male Consorts and Favourites of these long-lived Queens have little power or security of tenure. According to the original blurb, this is the “first authoritative account of Elfin life and manners to appear in mortal language.” There is a sharp and scholarly tone to the authorial voice in these stories. Townsend Warner wrote about fairies as if she had been studying them for years, or even lifetimes. According to her, fairies “are about four-fifths of ordinary human stature, fly or don’t fly according to their station in life, and after a life-span of centuries die like other people – except that as they do not believe in immortality, they die unperturbed.”

In this book, Townsend Warner describes numerous small kingdoms, such Elfhame in Scotland, Brocéliande in Brittany, Castle Ash Grove in Wales, Zuy in the Netherlands, and Catmere in northern England. Each kingdom has its own particular history, customs, fashions and etiquette. Each Fairy Queen has a different form and personality –  from 720 year-old Tiphaine with her weakness for human lovers (in “The Five Black Swans”), “irritable and arbitrary” Queen Balsamine whose only soft spot is a fondness for marmots (in “The Blameless Triangle”) and the lethal Queen of the Peri who has wings “the tranquil colour of moonstones” (in “The Search for an Ancestress”) to hospitable Morgan Spider “so titled because of her exquisite spinning” (in “Visitors to a Castle”) and the shrewish child Queen, Serafica, of Castle Blokula (in “The Mortal Milk”).

The author delights in richness of detail, listing the love gifts given by True Thomas to the Queen of Elfhame ( “acorns, birds’ eggs, a rosegall because it is called the fairies’ pincushion, a yellow snail shell”) and the complete ingredients of a dish called Hunters’ Pie (in “The Power of Cookery”). These include capercaillie, grouse, pheasant, partridge, pimentos, chanterelle mushrooms, juniper berries, anchovy fillets, salami and grated chocolate. It sounds amazing but the consumption of the pie leads to a near death, royal hysteria, and an unjust dismissal. This is typical of the whimsical yet sinister tone of these stories.

Townsend Warner has drawn on the darkest aspects of Fairy lore and stresses their incomprehending cruelty towards humans. In one of the saddest stories (“Foxcastle”) a scholar romantically longs to meet fairies but when he does they view him as an object of scientific curiosity and then casually discard him. A number of the stories follow the fate of changelings; human babies who have been stolen from their cradles and replaced by “sickly and peevish” fairy children. In Elfhame, human children have some of their blood drunk by weasels and replaced by “a distillation of dew, soot, and aconite” to prolong their lifespan ( in “The One and the Other”). They are treated like pampered pets but once their hair begins to turn grey, changelings are thrown out to starve; that is if they haven’t been strangled first for some trivial misdemeanour. Shocking violence lurks in Townsend Warner’s throwaway sentences. Dissident fairies often suffer as much as humans do from the caprices of their Elfin rulers. They may be forced into exile or even condemned to be burned at the stake for daring to suggest that fairies have immortal souls (“The Climate of Exile”).

At this point I must make a confession. Normally I only review books which I have enjoyed but this time I’m recommending a body of fiction that I admire more than like. For me, these exquisitely written stories lack heart but perhaps Sylvia Townsend Warner was accustomed to having to hide her heart. She was a complex woman with multiple talents who knew many of the most famous writers and artists of 20th century Britain (you can find out more about her on the website run by The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society). Her biography of Fantasy author T.H.White is still well worth reading and one of the stories in “Kingdoms of Elfin” ( “The Blameless Triangle”) could be interpreted as a satirical commentary on the intellectual pretensions of wealthy Bohemians like the Bloomsbury Group.

Bisexual Townsend Warner seems to have had an interesting love life before settling down with the poetess Valentine Ackland. “Kingdoms of Elfin” dates to her sad, and perhaps cynical, old age after she had lost her beloved Valentine to alcoholism and breast cancer. The leading characters in many of these stories strive to break away from the conventions of the Elfin courts but usually have their modest hopes or ambitions crushed. There is plenty of black humour in Townsend Warner’s take on Fairy Tales but few happy endings. Still, if you are in the mood for something that is more sour than sweet, this may be just the book for you. Until next time…

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

This month I had been planning to recommend Seth Dickinson’s “The Traitor” – a brilliant but exceedingly grim novel about a woman prepared to do anything to free her country from an oppressive empire. However I do try to keep this blog a politics-free zone and I suspect that all the terrible and tragic things which have been happening lately have left most of us wanting comfort reads. So I’m going for something lighter – “Spindle” by W.R.Gingell. She is an Australian Indie Author who likes to “rewrite Fairy Tales with a twist or two”.  “Spindle” is Book 1 of “The Two Monarchies Sequence” and you can get it as a Kindle ebook or as a paperback.

In a castle surrounded by a hedge of thorns a sleeping beauty is woken by a kiss. This sounds like the perfect happy ending but it is just the beginning of “Spindle”. Nothing is quite what it seems. Polyhymnia (Poly) has been woken by a young-looking man called Luck who is a powerful enchanter rather than a prince. Luck has been sent by the Head of the Wizard Council to rescue the lost Princess of Civet who has been in an enchanted sleep for over 300 years. Civet is now a Republic whose political parties are dominated by wizards but there are factions who want to restore the monarchy. That could be a problem because though Poly can’t remember how she she came to be lying in the royal bedchamber in a splendid dress, she is sure that she isn’t the princess.

Poly was a reluctant lady in waiting to the actual very unpleasant princess. Everyone she knew must now be dead but the wizard who is paying Luck to bring her to the capital has the same name as a man who features in some of her worst memories. Poly doesn’t know if she can trust the infuriatingly vague Luck and she daren’t reveal her true identity. To make matters worse, the curse on her hasn’t been fully broken so she keeps falling asleep and dreaming. Luck claims that Poly is full of strange magic but she insists that, inspite of coming from a magical family, she never had any powers of her own. As the enchanted castle crumbles, Poly is forced to leave with nothing but three books saved from her mother’s library and a small wooden spindle which surprises her every time she finds it in her hand.

The trip to the capital doesn’t go as planned and Luck blames Poly for making his Shift spells go wrong. They encounter a fictional hermit and Poly rescues a “snarl of magic” called Onepiece who is sometimes a puppy and sometimes a small boy.  She also discovers the bizarre fate of the royal family she once knew and finds out something extraordinary about her long-lost parents. Someone is setting lethal magical traps for Luck and Poly. When they take refuge in Luck’s home village, Poly gets to know the elusive enchanter better and learns about modern life and romance. All too soon threatening events force them to continue their journey to the capital where old and new enemies are waiting for Poly…

I’m grateful to Intisar Khanani for recommending Gingell’s consistently enjoyable work.  Both authors are inspired by traditional Fairy Tales but use them in innovative ways (I reviewed “Thorn”, Khanani’s version of “The Goose Girl” in March 2015).  I’ve read other novels based on “Sleeping Beauty”, such as Robin McKinley’s charming “Spindle’s End”, but this one is the most original. Instead of using a standard medieval or an updated modern setting, Gingell has set her story in an invented world lit by three suns known as the Triad.  In the oldest versions of “Sleeping Beauty” the princess’s problems are only made worse by the arrival of her prince since she wakes up to find that she’s given birth to twins and earned the murderous emnity of the evil sorceress who is the prince’s wife (for the gory details see the chapter on this story in Iona and Peter Opie’s “The Classic Fairy Tales”). Gingell is clearly familiar with these versions and picks out a few key elements to reuse in her own fashion. She very reasonably makes Poly highly suspicious of the man who has forcibly kissed her awake, and gives her an unexpected child – the cursed dog/boy Onepiece – to look after. The touching maternal relationship which Poly develops with Onepiece is one of the most attractive things in the novel.

I knew that I was going to enjoy “Spindle” when I read Gingell’s gracious acknowledgement of her debt to the work of one of own my favourite Fantasy authors – the late Diana Wynne Jones. Gingell writes on the dedication page that she “would have liked to bask in that sunshine a little longer.” I feel the same but reading “Spindle” was almost as good as discovering a new Wynne Jones novel. Gingell shares Wynne Jones’ talents for devising intriguing plots with an escalating sequence of startling twists (see my comments on `the Wynne Jones Twist’ in my November 2012 post on “The Lives of Christopher Chant”) and for creating distinctive forms of magic for her characters to use. Luck has magic that “was just a little bit too golden and strong and abundant to make him a mere wizard”. Truth be told, Luck is rather similar to Wynne Jones’ famous wizard Howl from “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Castle in the Air” but I still found him highly entertaining. This absent-minded enchanter can usually make people do what he wants but he meets his match in Poly, who turns out to be capable of using the much rarer powers of antimagic and unmagic. She has an arm that can unmake spells and her continuously growing magical hair is almost a character in itself. As Luck says, “Everything about Poly is beautiful and impossible.”

Like many of the heroes or heroines of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels, Poly is forced to pretend to be someone else while she struggles to work out what is going on and what kind of person she really is. Once she’s awoken, shy Poly has to learn to engage with the world in a way that she never did in her previous life. It’s a pleasure to watch her come out of her shell and into her powers. It is also nice to encounter a Fantasy heroine who wears glasses. The sparky relationship between Poly and Luck is a constant delight. She starts by kneeing her “rescuer” in the stomach and he calls her “a horribly violent princess.” Poly objects to Luck invading her personal space (which he does) and accuses him of never listening to what anybody says but she eventually realizes that he always takes notice of the things which are truly important. I finished the book wanting to see more of this quarrelsome couple but they don’t appear in “Masque”, the entertaining  second volume of “The Two Monarchies Sequence”.  This takes place some years later and features two of the minor characters from “Spindle”.  “Wolfskin”, another book by Gingell set in the same world, has a curse-breaking theme in common with “Masque” and “Spindle”.  If you enjoy forest settings and stories about good witches, you might want to try “Wolfskin” too. Until next time…

Geraldine

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week I’m recommending a Fantasy novel which features a rather unusual love-triangle involving a Man, a Dryad and a Minotaur. “The Forest of Forever” by Thomas Burnett Swann is set on the island of Crete around 1500 BCE. This novel, first published in America in 1971, is a prequel to “The Day of the Minotaur”, which originally appeared as a serial in Science Fantasy magazine under the title of “The Blue Monkeys”. A third story in this sequence was published after Swann’s death in a volume called “The Minotaur Trilogy” but I’ve never been able to get hold of this rare book. Fortunately old paperback copies of “The Forest of Forever” are easy to find – my Mayflower Books edition has a wonderful painting of a dryad by Brian Froud on the cover. This novel and the sequel are now also available as ebooks.

The story is told by Zoe, a 360 year old Dryad, who prides herself “on having enjoyed twice as many lovers as I have years.” She is one of the green-haired tree-nymphs who are bonded to mighty oaks in the Country of the Beasts. Most of Crete is inhabited by humans and ruled by King Minos but there is a great forest in the centre of the island which people are forbidden to enter. Inside this forest dwell the “Beasts”, creatures of legend such as Centaurs, Panisci (Goat Boys), Bear Girls, and Eunostos, the last of the Minotaurs.

Fifteen year-old Eunostos is a poet and craftsman whose best friends are a plump Paniscus called Partridge and Bion the Telchin “a three-foot, ant-like being” who makes exquisite jewellery. Eunostos regards Zoe as a kindly aunt but he’s madly in love with Kora, a beautiful young Dryad. Kora has dreams about visiting the great cities of Crete and meeting a valiant Man but she is unable to stray far from her oak. Meanwhile in the palace of Knossos, the king’s brother Prince Aeacus believes that a tree is whispering to him…

A time of peace and contentment is about to be shattered by two different groups of invaders – swarms of Bee-Folk known as the Thriae and Achaean warriors from the Greek mainland. The thieving Bee-Folk are ruled by seductive queens and one of them soon proves to be a danger to Kora and Eunostos. Zoe rallies her fellow Beasts to deal with this crisis but then a Man stumbles into the forbidden forest. Prince Aeacus has been wounded fighting a band of Achaean raiders. His meeting with Kora and Eunostos will have momentous  consequences for their personal lives and for the future of two threatened civilizations.

Thomas Burnett Swann (1928-1976) was an American college professor who studied and wrote poetry. He was also the author of quite a number of Fantasy novels and novellas; many of them inspired by pre-Christian civilizations. Swann doesn’t really fit into the tradition of meticulously researched Fantasy written by academics. His work is quirky and rather slapdash. He often reused ideas and produced several versions of the same story. He admits in an Afterword to “The Forest of Forever” that there are lots of inconsistencies between this novel and its sequel “The Day of the Minotaur”.  He was not a specialist in the culture and religions of the Ancient World. His rosy view of the far past as an era of sexual freedom and women’s liberation tells us more about the period at which the novels were written than about the complexities of the real Ancient World. As a scholar, I should probably disapprove of much of what Swann wrote but I’ve allowed myself to be seduced by the hippy charm of his fictional universe.

Among the attractions of this particular novel are the beautifully described sylvan setting and the simple but idyllic lifestyles of its inhabitants. Zoe explains that, “we dwelt with our forest, we never tried to master her, wound her, crush her to our purposes…the forest was our home, but we were its guests and not its masters.” This is Eco-friendly Fantasy. The lovelorn Minotaur creates a delightful home in a hollow tree with windows shaped like crescent moons, a fountain decorated with sea-shells, bamboo furniture (odd for Minoan Crete) and moss-stuffed cushions. He tries to please Kora by offering her “a jar of roasted acorns, a tray of snails soaked in olive oil, a cheese of bear’s milk, a basket of delicate sparrow eggs, and a weasel pie.” Swann obviously enjoyed subverting mythical stereotypes. His red-maned Minotaur has the strength of a mighty bull but Eunostos is a sensitive soul who makes friends with other species. The Centaurs in this book are majestic and sometimes drunken warriors but they also hang wind-chimes in their windows and keep pet pigs. A Greek myth about a girl turned into a bear is transformed into a whole race of shy creatures, part bear and part girl, who gather blackberries and weave necklaces of Black-eyed Susans. Swann cheerily throws races of his own invention into the mix, such as the insectoid Telchins and Thriae.

Zoe declares that, “If you demand a death or a rape on every tablet, my story is not for you.” “The Forest of Forever” is a gently paced read full of loveable characters; particularly Eunostos and his chums: faithful Bion and beer-loving Partridge, a Goat Boy who utterly fails to seduce anyone. You might therefore assume that the book is sunny and light-hearted all the way through but that isn’t the case. On the very first page, Zoe warns her readers that she will be describing “melancholy events”. There are no rigid laws or oppressive moral codes in the “Country of the Beasts” but Swann does show a darker side to this society. The Queens of the Bee-Folk are ruthless sexual predators  and some of the Bear-Girls and Goat Boys lead a squalid existence under the influence of hemp. Nor does freedom of choice always ensure carefree relationships. Since Kora has two rival suitors, Eunostos and Aeacus, someone has to be the loser. Twice the story seems to have come to a happy ending but it continues into a time of pain and disillusionment. This is a book which suggests that finding your dream lover could be worse than losing them.

I first read “The Forest of Forever” years ago. When I picked the book up again recently I couldn’t recall much about the plot but I did remember the warm voice of the narrator. Zoe is a comic character telling a sad story. She jokes about her own ample charms and past conquests and makes bitchy comments about her sister Dryads (“her success lay in the fact that she said yes when she looked as if she would say no”). Her favourite poem The Indiscretions of a Dryad is “full of laughs and definitely not an epic”, which is a fair description of Zoe’s narrative too. This worldly-wise Dryad is a generous lover and a faithful friend. Zoe knows how to enjoy life to the full but she is not as jolly as she seems. She hides her true feelings for the one she loves best and suffers when her courageous efforts to help him don’t always succeed. “No one has ever seen me cry,” Zoe states. “I choose my times.” She’s a voice worth listening to. Until three weeks time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week I’m celebrating the arrival of summer and William Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year by picking Poul Anderson’s “A Midsummer Tempest”. The novel is set in an alternate version of 17th century Europe in which everything that Shakespeare wrote was fact rather than fiction. It came out in 1974 and is an early example of a parallel worlds story and arguably of the Steampunk genre. There are plenty of cheap paperback copies of “A Midsummer Tempest” around and it’s also available as an ebook.

In 17th century England a civil war has broken out between King Charles I and the Parlimentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell. The royalist Cavaliers are gradually losing to the puritanical Roundheads. The most brilliant general in the royalist army is Charles’ nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine but he is captured by the Roundheads after the battle of Marston Moor. Rupert is imprisoned in the home of Sir Malachai Shelgrave. Although Shelgrave is a fanatical Puritan, he and Rupert share an interest in the new technology which is beginning to transform Britain. The prince’s imprisonment is made more pleasant by the presence of Shelgrave’s lively niece, Jennifer Alayne. She quickly falls in love with the handsome captive.

One of Rupert’s faithful soldiers, a West Country dragoon called Will Fairweather, persuades Jennifer to help him rescue the prince. Will leads them deep into the woods to meet some potential allies – the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania (from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). The fairies deplore the industrialization of England and see the repressive Puritans as their enemies. Oberon declares that “The Royal cause defends the Old Ways, knowing it or not.” He tells Rupert that the only way to stop the rise of the Puritans is to recover the spell books and staff of power which the great sorcerer Prospero (from “The Tempest”) left concealed on his hidden island. Titania gives magical rings to Rupert and Jennifer which will help them to achieve their quest, as long as they remain true to each other.

Shelgrave and his men are already in pursuit but Rupert and Will escape by stealing a steam train (yes really) and are allowed to take refuge for one night in the elusive Old Phoenix inn, a magical nexus between parallel worlds. After Rupert and Will reach the coast they hitch a lift to the Mediterranean on a ship belonging to the Tunisian ambassador and his beautiful young wife. There are complications and temptations ahead for Rupert. Meanwhile Jennifer’s part in the escape plot has been discovered. Her furious uncle sends Jennifer to Europe, guarded by Puritan soldiers and an odious clergyman, in the hope that her magic ring will lead them to the fugitive prince. Can Jennifer evade her escort and reach the mysterious island where the spirit Ariel and the monster Caliban await?

Poul Anderson (1926-2001) was a prolific author who worked in many different genres. He is probably best known for his Science Fiction but he was also a member of the group of Fantasy writers known as The Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guild of America. The 1960s and 1970s were something of a Golden Age for “Sword and Sorcery” tales (see my July 2014 post on Fritz Leiber’s “Swords and Deviltry”). Many authors of this period created thrilling plots full of fascinating concepts but their work can now seem cold, carelessly written, and lacking in convincing female characters. Anderson has none of these faults. He was both a stylist and an ideas man. His writing is full of wit and charm and many of his stories feature memorable female characters. Style first. In “A Midsummer Tempest” Anderson displays his passion for the glorious language of Shakespeare by sometimes letting his noble characters break into blank verse. This may sound off-putting but it soon seems natural. A bit more trying is Anderson’s fondness for writing dialogue in a variety of regional accents. Will’s z-filled West Country dialect is quite hard-going at first, but if you persevere you’ll find that his salty speeches are full of jokes and puns.

Anderson was also a founder member of the still flourishing Society for Creative Anachronism – “an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts, skills and traditions of pre-17th century Europe”. The phrase creative anachronism could equally be used to sum up “A Midsummer Tempest”. For the first few pages it reads like an ordinary historical novel. Then you realize that you are in an alternate 17th century in which historical events are taking an unexpected turn and the Industrial Revolution has arrived more than a century early. To be honest, the trains are not essential to the plot. I’m guessing they are there because Anderson liked steam trains – and the incongruous idea of Dashing Prince Rupert comandeering one. He also clearly loved Shakespeare and imagining the further adventures of characters from some of the Bard’s most magical plays. I wish the narrative got to Prospero’s island rather sooner because the scenes set there are so beguiling. There is a particularly sympathetic portrait of “witch’s whelp” Caliban, still pining for his lost Miranda.

He isn’t the only character in the novel who turns out to be rather different from what you might expect. Rupert the soldier prince could be an Heroic Fantasy stereotype but in real life he was also an inventor and an artist, whom his contempories called “the philosophic warrior”. It is this complex and thoughtful person whom Anderson deploys as the hero of “A Midsummer Tempest”. The diving bell that Rupert uses to try to retrieve Prospero’s drowned treasures sounds like one of Anderson’s anachronisms but is based on a machine which Rupert (a founder member of The Royal Society) actually designed. In the course of the story it is warm-hearted Jennifer who has to endure the harshest ordeals. Like all the best Shakespearean heroines, she displays great courage and loyalty and, once she is disguised as a boy, takes the initiative in completing the quest. Will Fairweather begins as a typical comic servant figure, much given to drinking and wenching, but becomes something very much more at the climax of the novel.

At The Old Phoenix Rupert has the chance to talk to travellers from two further alternate versions of history – the formidably clever Valeria Matuchek from “Operation Chaos” and Holger Carlsen the hero of Anderson’s best-known Fantasy novel “Three Hearts and Three Lions”. So, if you find that you enjoy “A Midsummer Tempest”, there is a whole interconnected fictional universe to explore. Have a good summer.

Geraldine

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