This week I’m recommending a novel which should appeal to connoisseurs of invented magic. “Thirteenth Child” (2009) by Patricia C.Wrede is the first in the “Frontier Magic” trilogy, which is set in an alternate version of mid 19th century America. It tells the story of Eff, the “cursed” youngest daughter of the magically talented Rothmer family. This and the two sequels, “Across the Great Barrier” (2011) and “The Far West” (2012), are available in paperback or as ebooks. “Thirteenth Child” covers the first eighteen years of our heroine’s life.

Daniel Rothmer and his wife Sara live in one of the United States of Columbia. The couple have fourteen children, the youngest being Francine (Eff) and her twin-brother Lan. Right from birth, Lan is regarded as special because he is a “double seven” and “everybody knows that the seventh son of a seventh son is a natural-born magician”. In contrast, thirteenth children like Eff are regarded as horribly unlucky and bound to “go bad”. Eff’s parents don’t believe in this superstition but other members of the extended Rothmer family do, so she is bullied or shunned by many of her relatives. When Eff is only five, one of her uncles tries to denounce her as a witch. After this distressing  incident the family moves to the North Plains Territory.

Daniel Rothmer becomes a Professor of Avrupan Magic at a new college in Mill City, a frontier town on the east bank of the Mammoth River. Mill City is also just the right side of the Great Barrier – a magical force-field set up by Benjamin Franklin and President Jefferson in the previous century. The Great Barrier protects Columbians from the beasts, both natural (mammoths, wolves, woolly rhinoceroses, etc.) and magical (steam dragons, spectral bears, sphinxes etc.) which roam the Western Plains. At the college, Professor Rothmer trains the magicians who are needed to protect the pioneering land-grant settlers on the Western Plains.

Since some of her older siblings have stayed behind in the East, Eff is able to disguise the fact that she is a thirteenth child and make a new start. As the years pass, Lan lives up to his promise as a brilliant young magician. Eff shows no talent for Avrupan magic but she is encouraged by her class teacher, Miss Ochiba, to study Aphrikan magic – which looks at the world in a very different way. After Lan goes back East for a while to study magic, Eff develops a particular interest in the extraordinary animals that live beyond the Great Barrier. When Eff gets to go on a study trip to the West Bank with her father and Lan, the Rothmers are confronted by a magical plague. Can the twins work together to save the settlers from disaster?

I’ve already mentioned Patricia C. Wrede as the writing partner of Caroline Stevermer (see my July 2017 post on Stevermer’s “When the King Comes Home”). Their delightful “Cecelia and Kate” novels are now available in a one volume edition. A recommendation for one of Wrede’s solo novels is long overdue since she is a consistently entertaining and inventive writer. I’ve enjoyed her dragon-centred “Enchanted Forest  Chronicles” and her Georgette Heyer-influenced “Magic and Malice” duology but I decided to pick the first of her “Frontier Magic” series because of its unusual Wild West setting. Wrede has created a fascinating history for her version of the USA and for its neighbouring countries such as Vinland and New Asante. The reader has to be piece this history together from brief references in Eff’s account of her life and times. Her Columbia has had a revolution to gain independence from the Avrupan (European) powers and an early war of Secession ending in 1838. There are important black characters in the story but I was surprised that there don’t seem to be any Native Americans. As I’m British, this isn’t my history so I’ll make no further comment.

You may have noticed that my synopsis says more about the background to the story than the story itself. This reflects the nature of the book. “Thirteenth Child” is more of a leisurely family saga than a thrilling adventure. The dramatic events, which include a dragon attack and the dangerous first manifestation of Lan’s powers, are well spaced out. Some promising plot-lines, such as a potential conflict between magic-using settlers and the Society of Progressive Rationalists, never really go anywhere. Instead, the book concentrates on secretive Eff’s hidden thoughts and feelings during her childhood and early teenage years. I was intrigued by Eff’s complicated home life –  Wrede showed me what it might be like to have numerous siblings. Overall, I found “Thirteenth Child” a soothing but addictive read. By the later chapters I was almost as keen as Eff to get over the river to the wild West Bank. The second and third volumes in the Frontier Magic trilogy are closer to being adventure stories since they are mainly set in the perilous lands beyond the Great Barrier.

Wrede’s flair for describing monsters and magic is one of the great strengths of this trilogy.  I love the way that her Columbia is still inhabited by the creatures which roamed the continent of America in prehistoric times. Mammoth-handling becomes one of Eff’s special skills and she learns to defend herself with a rifle against aggressive prides of saber-tooth cats. In the course of the trilogy, Wrede introduces a wide range of scary magical beasts. Dragons and sphinxes may be relatively common in Fantasy fiction but this series also has terror birds, medusa lizards, giant invisible foxes and lethal swarming-weasels. In “Thirteenth Child” the magical creatures which cause the most trouble are the innocuous-sounding mirror bugs (based on the Colorado Beetle?) which threaten to make farming impossible on the Plains.

Inventing one convincing system of magic is quite an achievement but “Thirteenth Child” has three – Avrupan magic, which is analytical and technical, Hijero-Cathayan magic which is intense and group-oriented and Aphrikan magic which is observational and intuitive. Promising young magicians learning from a wise older person is a common plot element in Fantasy fiction but few teachers of magic have impressed me as much as Wrede’s Maryann Ochiba, a formidable woman who introduces her students to the art of “world sensing” because, “To be a good magician, you must see in many ways…You must be willing to learn from different sources. And you must always remember that the truths you see are incomplete.” It is Eff, rather than her powerful brother, who follows this teaching and manages to combine the three schools of magic in a new way.

Throughout the story, golden boy Lan’s overconfidence is contrasted with his twin’s lack of self-confidence. Eff tells her own story. Her sparky narrative is full of  shrewdness and humour but Wrede allows the reader to see that Eff has been far more traumatized by the “thirteenth child stigma” than her loved ones realize. She admits that she has “spent a large part of my life being scared of myself and my magic”. Mentors like Miss Ochiba and war-veteran and roving magician, Wash Morris, help Eff to trust her own moral sense and put her unique powers to good use. There is a romance sub-plot in the trilogy but Eff makes it very clear that she doesn’t “want to get married just because most of my sisters had.” It is more important to Eff, to find fulfilling work to do which will make a positive difference to her world. Watching Eff grow in confidence is one of the big rewards for reading the whole “Frontier Magic” trilogy.

I’ll finish this post with a preemptive apology. Due to domestic upheavals (of a pleasant kind), Fantasy Reads will be appearing less regularly for the next few months. In the meantime, there are over 180 previous recommendations to explore. I wish everyone good reading….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

This week I’m recommending “Arcady” a poetic Science-Fantasy novel by American author Michael Williams, who is better known for his Dragonlance series. “Arcady”, which was published in 1996, is the first of two books which Williams wrote about the Hawken dynasty and their extraordinary family estates. The sequel is called “Allamanda” (1997). You can still find old paperback copies and both these novels are now available as ebooks, with covers which make them look more like standard Steampunk than they actually are.

As the story begins, Solomon Hawken is returning to his ancestral home, Arcady, for the first time in many years because of an urgent summons from his aunt, Morgana. He travels by balloon over the Alphside Forest where government and rebel forces are fighting each other. In this part of Urizen, the rebels are led by the Lady – Solomon’s fiery cousin, Artemis Hawken. She is reluctantly opposed by Solomon’s younger brother, Diego, who commands an incompetent troop of the Citizen’s Guard. Solomon and his young balloon pilot are shot at by both sides and crash-land near Arcady, where they have a perilous encounter with one of the sphinxes which prowl the grounds by night.

The mansion and estate of Arcady sit on the Borders, close to ruins from an ancient civilization and to “the whirling, devouring clouds” known as Absences. Now the Borders are shifting and Arcady is becoming a place of ghosts and shadows, where rooms can change and statues come alive, the dead may appear and the living disappear. Solomon’s little niece, Faith, has already vanished but her father, Endymion, does nothing but drink, argue with his pet phoenix, and build a model city. Aunt Morgana, who claims to see and hear angelic messengers, believes that  Absences are about to engulf the house and that only Solomon can save Arcady with the magic he has learned at the famous seminary in distant Lambeth.

The trouble is, Solomon doesn’t believe in magic. He was sent to Lambeth as a young man to study the sacred Text, “the first book found by the Forefathers”. This illustrated book prophesies a union between a mysterious Bard and Saint Milton who will return from the heavens to renew the world. Solomon was expected to train as a priest but a tragedy made him doubt the power of the Text so he became a teacher instead. When he is asked to use the Text against the Absences, Solomon’s initial response is to flee but a series of strange encounters imbue him with a new sense of purpose. He risks entering an Absence, a place “where the fabric of reality unravels”, but nobody who does that emerges unchanged. As the crisis deepens, Solomon’s two estranged brothers set out on their own journeys of discovery. Can the divided Hawken family come together to help Solomon save Arcady?

After this description you may be wondering why I have tagged “Arcady” as Science-Fantasy. Well it’s because this book is set in a future version of our world in the aftermath of some great catastrophe. As in many Post-Apocalypse stories, most people live in small rural communities avoiding the wastelands and the shattered remains of the ancient cities. Technology has reached, or regained, the level of muskets, balloons, steam-boats and velocipedes. So far, so Steampunk but two things make the world of “Arcady” distinctive. Firstly, the mysterious “Physics of the Borders” cause the creatures of the human imagination to come to life, so the Border-dwelling Hawkens have mermaids and dryads in their family tree. Secondly this is a society which derives its religious beliefs and cultural values from surviving fragments of English poetry. Fragments which are interpreted in ways their original authors never intended or imagined.

As in my last choice, “The Reader”, a unique book plays a central role in the story. Characters in the Hawken novels engage with the Text in many different ways. Border-dwellers use sentences from it as protective spells, rival sects argue over the interpretation of obscure passages, sophisticated scholars see the Text as a string of metaphors with no factual content but for many it is “the heart of faith, the Divine Word”. As quoted, the Text seems to range from ugly doggerel to insightful poetry. It mentions a mix of familiar (London, Lambeth) and unfamiliar (Bowlahoola, Golgonooza) place-names and has a cast of unusual angels, saints and deities, such as the Seven Angels of the Presence, Saint Ololon and the creator god, Los. You might well assume that Michael Williams had made all this up but instead the Text is largely taken from “Milton”, an epic poem written and illustrated by William Blake (1757-1827). There is one section of this poem which you probably know – the famous hymn “Jerusalem” (“And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England’s mountains green…”).  In “Arcady” part of the plot revolves around whether the government’s “dark Satanic Mills” are causing the Absences to destroy the “green and pleasant land”; an issue with plenty of contemporary relevance.

I’ve attempted to read “Milton” but found it very heavy going (Sample lines – “For that portion nam’d the Elect : the Spectrous body of Milton: Redounding from my left foot into Los’s Mundane space..”). The phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous” might have been coined to describe Blake’s work. Academics have struggled to make sense of Blake’s invented mythology and wild visions but Williams uses them creatively in ways which bring out both their absurdity and their profundity. “Arcady” is not as obscure and difficult as its source material but Williams isn’t the kind of author who explains everything as he goes along. You are plunged into a bizarre and baffling world and left to sink or swim. The narrative never develops into a typical Fantasy adventure and Solomon is more of a thinker than an action hero. The plot drifts back and forward in time and divides to follow all the main members of the Hawken family. I just wish that more page-space had been given to the female Hawkens, such as sculptor, Mina, who continues to work on a vital statue even while she is dying of a cruel disease and potter, Morgana, who has survived persecution for her belief in angels. “Spot the angel” becomes a vital element in the plot as both characters and readers are challenged to decide whether the mysterious voices which speak to the Hawkens are angelic or demonic.

“Arcady” has some appealing characters but it is the places in the story that I find most memorable – the dark, dryad-haunted forest beside the sacred river, Alph; the silvery misted air of the Absences where unseen machinery pounds and gnashes “the sound of the world being eaten away”; and Endymion’s teak, coral and wire city built inside a gin-bottle. Above all there is Arcady itself with its heady mix of danger and beauty; a house centred on the mausoleum of the founder of the Hawken dynasty, expanded by each generation and unpredictably altered by the movement of the Borders. This is a place where ghosts appear in mirrors and angels peer in through the windows. Arcady has sphinxes the way other houses have rats – bronze garden-statues that can suddenly turn into lion-women who smell “hot and acrid and feral” and know how to mesmerize their victims. Williams makes you see Arcady both an actual building and as a vision of the world which the Hawkens are striving to renew. It is a house well worth visiting. Until next time…

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

As we’re coming up to Valentine’s Day I should probably be recommending something romantic. Well, this week’s choice does contain two love stories but it isn’t romantic in a slushy, happy-ever-after kind of a way. “The Reader” by Traci Chee is a Dystopian Fantasy written for Young Adults. It came out in 2016 and is Book One of the “Sea of Ink and Gold” series. A sequel, “The Speaker”, was published a few months ago. “The Reader” is easy to find in paperback or as an ebook; just don’t get it confused with “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink because that is a very different kind of novel.

Chee’s book is a complex multi-stranded story. It is set in Kelanna, “a wonderful and terrible world of water and ships and magic.” Many different races live in the five island kingdoms of Kelanna but none of them seem to have developed systems of writing. They remember their history by turning it into tales which pass “from mouth to mouth”.  One rare tale tells of “a mysterious object called a book, which held the key to the greatest magic Kelanna had ever known.”

The main story-line follows an orphan called Sefia who lives with the skilled thief she calls Aunt Nin. They are on the run from the people who murdered Sefia’s beloved father six years before. When assassins led by a woman in black catch up with them in the Forest Kingdom, Nin is carried off. Alone in the woods, Sefia opens a bundle which her father entrusted to her and discovers a book. Guided by memories of lessons from her late mother, Sefia teaches herself to read. She also learns how to enter a hidden world of golden currents which gives her strange powers.

In another strand of the plot, we meet a boy called Lon who also has the talent for dipping into this Illuminated World, where he is able to see past, present and future events. Lon is invited to become the new Apprentice Librarian in a secret Library run by by an order of Guardians dedicated to bringing “peace to an unstable world”. He forges friendships with other young Guardians and risks breaking the rules of the order by being strongly attracted to the Apprentice Assassin.

When Sefia rescues a prisoner from a crate it turns out to be a mute boy rather than her aunt. The boy, whom she calls Archer, has been tortured by the brutal Impressors and forced to fight other boys to the death. They travel on together. Sefia hopes to find and save Nin and she wants to investigate possible links between the woman in black and the cruel pirate who commands the Impressors. Her book sometimes shows Sefia stories about a very different pirate – Cannek Reed, the treasure-hunting, fame-seeking captain of  the Current of Faith. After an uncomfortably close encounter with a young assassin, Sefia and Archer are startled to find themselves on board the Current of Faith. They must win over Captain Reed if Sefia is to continue her quest for answers, redemption and revenge.

“The Reader” has sneaked onto Fantasy Reads even though I can think of a stack of reasons for not picking this book. For starters, the synopsis is a nightmare to write without giving away too much about the plot and structure of Chee’s novel. What begins as a fairly standard epic journey plus “teenager develops superpowers” plot soon deepens and divides. There are layers of stories within stories and Chee plays tricks with time and identity. Working out the connections between the various plot-lines and characters isn’t easy. By the end of this book some of Sefia’s questions about her heritage have been answered but there are revelations to come in the sequel which overturn most of what you think you’ve learned about Kelanna and the Guardians. If you prefer straightforward linear narratives, and don’t enjoy pitting your wits against an author, avoid “The Reader”.

Chee makes clever use of the traditional belief in a “Book of Life”, in which “everything that had ever been or would ever be” is recorded. Many of the characters in the “Sea of Ink and Gold” series challenge the idea that “What is written always comes to pass” and struggle to shape or reshape their destinies. The “secret library manipulating the world” part of the plot is not a particularly original idea. The less common libraries become in real life, the more popular they seem to be in fiction. There is Genevieve Cogman’s enjoyable but rather light-weight “Invisible Library” series and Rachel Caine’s grim and gripping “Great Library” series, which I’ve already recommended (see my November 2015 post on “Ink and Bone”).

Caine’s series has a more interesting central character than “The Reader” does. With her dark hair, golden skin and onyx eyes, Sefia is physically striking but she does seem a rather standard Young Adult Fantasy heroine. She’s brave, intelligent and compassionate but I did feel that I’d read about her before. Melodramatic problems which keep young lovers chastely apart (i.e. she’s human, he’s a vampire) are also standard in Paranormal Romance. There are plenty of obstacles for the two pairs of star-crossed lovers in this series but “The Reader” did score highly with me for its sensitive portrayal of a slowly developing relationship between two damaged young people – Sefia and Archer. Be warned that there is a lot of violence in this story. Some of it is comic-book style (high-leaping, bullet-stopping assassins) but Chee does explore the physical and mental effects of the horrific violence that Archer has both endured and inflicted.

You might assume that most of the violence in this story would be centred on the pirate-characters but the crew of the Current of Faith are the nicest, kindest, most equal-opportunity pirates ever to sail the seas. These freedom-loving outlaws never do anything as dreadful as the Guardians, who claim to be acting for the good of society. Captain Reed himself is an ambiguous character, obsessed with escaping the anonymity of death through daring deeds which will be remembered for ever. His adventures “for treasure and glory” at the edge of the known world are my favourite parts of “The Reader”. They are wonderfully romantic and inspire some of Chee’s best writing but also develop the theme of what kind of stories we choose to tell about ourselves and others.

“The Reader” isn’t a perfect book but it contains some dazzling scenes, such Sefia and Lon’s plunges into the rippling, shifting Illuminated World and Reed’s encounters with an island-sized turtle, the Cursed Diamonds of Lady Delune, and the ruby-red eyes of the dead. I’m still not sure if Chee will succeed in weaving all the strands of her plot together to create a satisfying conclusion but that uncertainty is part of what makes “Sea of Ink and Gold” an exciting read. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

Timeless Classic is an overused phrase but it genuinely applies to this week’s choice – “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster. This American children’s story was first published in 1961 with quirky black and white illustrations by Jules Feiffer. I don’t think it has ever been out of print. “The Phantom Tollbooth” is available as an ebook but I’d particularly recommend the HarperCollins Essential Modern Classics paperback which has a lovely introduction by the much-missed Diana Wynne Jones.

This is a story about a bored boy called Milo. Nothing really interests him and he regards “the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.” One day an unexpected package is delivered. It contains a purple tollbooth, some coins to put in it, a rule book and a map of places that Milo has never heard of. Milo decides that he might as well play at driving his small electric car past the tollbooth. When he does, Milo finds himself on an unfamiliar country road which takes him to a place called Expectations. After a baffling chat with the Whether Man, Milo plans to reach the city of Dictionopolis but gets lost in the Doldrums.

Milo is rescued by a Watchdog called Tock (who goes tick) and reaches Dictionopolis, the city of words, where he meets a loud-mouthed insect-man known as the Humbug. During a stay in the palace dungeons, Milo learns that the Kingdom of Wisdom is ruled by two brothers: Azaz the Unabridged, who founded Dictionopolis, and the Mathemagician who founded Digitopolis. The brothers keep quarreling about whether words or numbers are more important and little has gone right since they banished their twin sisters, the peacemaking Princesses of Pure Reason and Sweet Rhyme.

Milo volunteers to retrieve the princesses from the Castle in the Air, which hovers over the Mountains of Ignorance. He sets out on his quest with brave Tock and the Humbug, who rarely does or says the right thing. Milo meets some extraordinary people during his journey, including Alec Bings who “sees through things”, the smallest giant in the world, Chroma, the conductor of colour, the Awful Dynne and .58 of a boy. He faces obstacles such as an unexpected detour to the barren Island of Conclusions, the Silent Valley and, worst of all, the terrible demons who haunt the Mountains of Ignorance. Can Milo and his friends defeat the “Unwelcoming Committee” and restore Rhyme and Reason to the Kingdom of Wisdom?

If you’re American, you can skip this recommendation because you probably already love “The Phantom Tollbooth” but it isn’t as well known as it should be in the rest of the world. I was lucky enough to be sent a copy as a child by an American aunt. It made me laugh and think and became one of my favourite books. Now I often give “The Phantom Tollbooth” to parents to read aloud to their children. A chapter per night is just perfect because this deceptively simple story is packed with complex ideas. Architect Norton Juster apparently wrote “The Phantom Tollbooth” when he should have been working on a book about Urban planning and it was illustrated by his flatmate. As a child, I preferred more colourful and detailed types of illustration but now I can appreciate the brilliance of Feiffer’s minimalist style. He could draw even the most grotesque (e.g. a mountain-sized Gelatinous Giant) or extraordinary (e.g. a twelve-faced Dodecahedron) creatures of Juster’s imagination.

I’m sure it’s clear from my synopsis that “The Phantom Tollbooth” is a Fable rather than a realist novel.  I could use the term Allegory but that might imply something archaic and worthy and there is nothing stuffy about this fast-paced and often hilarious story. Milo is accompanied by two archetypal figures: the steadfast companion (Tock), who makes young readers feel safe, and the unreliable adult (the Humbug), who makes young readers feel superior. Milo himself is an every-child figure. A child of any age, gender or race could easily identify with Milo because what Juster is mainly depicting is a state of mind. Milo is someone who isn’t fully engaged with the world he lives in. He doesn’t notice the marvels all around him, he doesn’t give much thought to anything (which is why he ends up in the Doldrums) and he’s reluctant to try anything difficult. Milo is far from alone in these faults. During his journey he passes through a whole city which has become invisible because its inhabitants are too busy to see its “wonders and beauties”.  And this is fifty years before smart-phone addiction… “The Phantom Tollbooth” seems even more relevant today than when it was first written.

At this point I must issue a heath warning – this novel might do you good. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has a lot in common with Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”. Both Alice and Milo endure a series of encounters with bizarre beings but only Milo is transformed by his journey. Carroll refused to make Alice’s adventures into the kind of morality tale his Victorian readers expected. “The Phantom Tollbooth” reads like a story written for fun but it does have things to say about the pains and joys of getting an education. Juster never seems preachy, just warm and wise. When Milo complains that everything in Digitopolis is too difficult for him, he’s gently told by the Mathemagician “that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that’s hardly worth the effort.” Colourful characters and startling events provoke Milo into using his brains and senses to their full capacity.

Juster is a wonderful teacher. I learned more about arithmetic from Milo’s problems with Subtraction Stew (the more you eat, the hungrier you get) and Division Dumplings than I ever did at school. The Mathemagician is my husband’s favourite Fantasy character but then he did grow up to be a mathematician.  I always preferred Dictionopolis where you can buy “fancy, best-quality words” such as “quagmire, flabbergast and upholstery” and letters have distinct tastes – Cs are crisp and crunchy but Zs are “very dry and sawdusty”.  Like Milo, I need to be reminded not to leap to Conclusions (it’s a difficult place to get back from) and I’m still sometimes ensnared by Juster’s demons of modern life. If you spend way too much time filling in endless forms or doing pointless repetitive tasks, then you’ve already met the Senses Taker and the Terrible Trivium. Don’t worry. Reading “The Phantom Tollbooth” will help you to escape them and get excited all over again about the possibilities life offers. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

For my first post of 2018 I’m recommending a novel by K.M.Briggs based on the British Fairy Tale known as “Kate Crackernuts”. The unusual thing about this story is that “ugly stepsister”, Kate, is the main heroine. In case you’re wondering, Kate’s nickname is due to her habit of hoarding nuts like a squirrel. The novel “Kate Crackernuts” was published in 1963 and reprinted in the Faber Finds Series in 2009. Katharine May Briggs (1898-1980) was an expert on the Folklore and Fairy Tales of the British Isles. The story of “Kate Crackernuts” probably originated in Scotland but was also known in the north of England. You can find a version of it in Dr Briggs’ wonderful scholarly book “A Dictionary of Fairies” (1976).

This novel is set in the mid 17th century and the story begins in a small castle in Galloway (south-west Scotland) which is the home of Andrew Lindsay, the Laird of Auchenskeoch. Andrew is a widower with one daughter, a beautiful fair-haired child called Katherine. At five years old Katherine first encounters dark-haired, green-eyed Kate, the only daughter of a haughty widow called Grizel Maxwell. The two girls seem opposites in every way but they become fast friends and see each other whenever they can. When Katherine is twelve, her beloved nurse leaves her to get married. Andrew feels that his daughter needs a minnie (mother) so he decides to marry Grizel Maxwell.

The two girls are delighted to become stepsisters but Grizel despises her meek stepdaughter. She resents the fact that Katherine has had a more luxurious upbringing than Kate and that everyone thinks the Laird’s daughter is prettier than her stepsister. Grizel is determined that the two girls shall be treated exactly alike but this only makes them happy because they love each other like real sisters. As time passes, Grizel’s obsessive hatred of Katherine increases. This frightens Kate who knows her mother’s dark secret – Grizel Maxwell is the Queen of the local witches. Grizel wants her daughter to become a witch too but Kate tries to resist the lure of the wild magic that is in her blood.

When Andrew leaves Auchenskeoch to fight for King Charles II in England, Grizel seizes her opportunity to harm her stepdaughter. She conspires with evil Henwife, Mallie Gross, to cast a cruel spell on Katherine. Can Kate help her stepsister without betraying her mother’s secret? Even when the two girls flee to England there is no escape from sorcery. Kate must defy the Seven Whistlers (the Wild Hunt) and risk entering a fairy hill in her battle to save two innocent souls from malign magic.

No 20th century scholar knew more about the Fairy Lore and Folktales of the British Isles than Katharine Briggs. She wrote a thesis on folklore in 17th century literature and published important books such as “The Anatomy of Puck”, “The Personnel of Fairyland” and her four volume “Dictionary of British Folktales and Legends”. If you can’t tell a boggart from a banshee or you want to find out about the King of the Black Art, the Gurt Vurm of Shervage Wood or the ghostly Drummer of Airlie, you need to consult Briggs’ work. She combined formidable scholarship with an easy to read style. Her reputation as a Folklorist remains high but few people remember that she also published two novels – “Hobberdy Dick”, the story of a hobgoblin who faithfully guards a manor house during the English Civil War, and “Kate Crackernuts”.

I suspect that these novels have failed to gain a wide readership because they were originally published as stories for children. When a scholar writes fiction about their academic subject there is always a danger that it may come out reading too much like a textbook. Briggs was determined to give her characters the mindsets of 17th century people and she was reluctant to simplify any aspect of their lives, even in the interests of good story-telling. Initially, “Kate Crackernuts” seems more like serious Historical Fiction than Fantasy. Children often enjoy reading about everyday life in the past (see my recent post on “A Traveller in Time”) but they’re less likely to be fascinated by a mass of detail about the history, religion and politics of 17th century Scotland. I love the use of Scots words in the dialogue (e.g. “The maid’s a silly fushionless tawpie” or “My poor wee whitterick!”) but young readers might find them baffling. So, I’m not sure that “Kate Crackernuts” works as a children’s story but it does now fit happily into a genre that hadn’t been invented in 1963 – the female-centred Young Adult novel.

“Kate Crackernuts” is a book in which the female characters are far more forceful than the males and the plot is driven by their actions. Free-spirited Kate, who loves to roam the countryside and hates being constrained by the conventions of lady-like behaviour, is a remarkably modern heroine. She has the courage and cleverness to protect her stepsister and rescue a young man who has been reduced to a helpless state by a curse. Pretty blonde Katherine gets most of the masculine attention in the story and it would have been easy to make her into an unlikable character. Briggs didn’t do that because “Kate Crackernuts” is primarily a story about female friendship. Katherine may not be feisty but she is utterly loyal to Kate and very much in charge when it comes to choosing a marriage partner.

The novel also features a difficult mother-daughter relationship. Kate and Grizel are shown as being very much alike but their wild streaks manifest in different ways. Grizel is a wicked stepmother you can admire as well as hate. She resents her poverty and despises the men around her, who are mainly much less intelligent than she is. Grizel claims to be indignant on her daughter’s behalf but seems mainly motivated by jealousy of the unbreakable bond between Kate and Katherine. Briggs makes memorable use of the wealth of 17th century material about belief in witchcraft. She weaves both humorous and horrible stories about witches into her narrative and makes you understand the attractions of witchcraft as well as its evils.

The spell placed on Katherine – which makes her believe that she is monstrously ugly – is truly chilling. Sadly it has a modern equivalent in the cruel bullying of young women which often takes places on social media. I wouldn’t be recommending “Kate Crackernuts” as my first book of the new year of it didn’t have a positive message about the power of female solidarity to defeat malice. This is a novel which deserves to win a new generation of readers. Until next time…

Geraldine

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

As we’re still within the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas I’m going to continue the theme of Christmas ghost stories by recommending “The Inn at the Edge of the World” by British author, Alice Thomas Ellis. This novel was first published in 1990. Second-hand paperback copies are easy to find and it has recently become available as an ebook. Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005) was renowned as a literary editor and novelist so she may not seem an obvious choice for Fantasy Reads. However, she often drew inspiration from British folklore and many of her novels feature elements which can be interpreted as supernatural.

“The Inn at the Edge of the World” is set on an (unnamed) island off the west coast of Scotland. Eric has left the “horrid comfort” of a boring life in England to fulfill his romantic dream of running a small hotel “at the edge of the world”. It isn’t going well. The inn is unprofitable, Eric doesn’t get on with most of the locals and his bored wife, Mabel, longs to return to city life. In a last effort to drum up custom, Eric places an advert suggesting that people who are dreading the Festive Season should come to stay in his remote hotel in a place that doesn’t celebrate Christmas – the islanders get drunk on New Year’s Eve instead.

Mabel thinks that the advert is silly but it attracts five guests from England. She flounces off to Glasgow just as these visitors arrive on the island. They are Jessica, a charming actress best known for doing voice-overs for commercials, Jon, a handsome young actor who claims to be much better acquainted with Jessica than he actually is, Ronald, a psychoanalyst whose wife has just left him, Anita, who runs the stationary section in a London department store, and Harry, a retired soldier who once lived on the island. Eric manages to look after his guests with the help of local handyman, Finlay, and his silent, web-fingered sister-in-law.

The five guests socialize with the regular customers in Eric’s bar, who are mainly well-off people from the mainland with holiday homes on the island. The true islanders prove harder to fathom. Several of the guests join in a ghost-hunt and Jessica learns about tragic events in Harry’s past. As everyone tries to ignore the season of goodwill, there are disquieting incidents – a fence is repeatedly torn down, a mysterious boy keeps appearing near the inn and the local seals behave strangely. It gradually becomes apparent that one of Eric’s guests is in danger and another is probably insane. Who will survive Christmas at the edge of the world?

Alice Thomas Ellis was the pen-name of Anna Haycraft. Like Alison Uttley (see my last post), Haycraft was a woman of fascinating contradictions. Though she came from a family of atheist intellectuals, she grew up to be both a devout Roman Catholic and a fierce critic of the Catholic Church. She nearly became a nun but eventually married a publisher and had seven children. She spent most of her time in cities but seems to have felt most of home deep in the Welsh countryside. Her lifestyle was famously Bohemian but her writing was highly disciplined. Her novels are black comedies which deal with serious moral and spiritual issues. Haycraft claimed to reject Feminism but the heroines of her novels are often strong, free-thinking and free-loving women.

None of Haycraft’s elusive novels fit neatly into established genres. I might classify “The Island at the Edge of the World” as Literary Fantasy but it could also be called a social comedy, a ghost story, a moral tale, or even a “woman in peril” thriller. Let’s take the comedy first. Haycraft’s accounts of her chaotic domestic life, collected as “Home Life” volumes I-IV, are among the funniest books I know and a great consolation to hopeless homemakers everywhere. Her novels are comic in a much darker way, so don’t expect sweetness, sentimentality or conventional happy endings. Haycraft enjoyed taking urban sophisticates out of their comfort zone and subjecting them to boredom and bafflement in the countryside until their certainties are stripped away. In this novel she shows little mercy towards comic characters like pompous Ronald and pretentious Anita. Ronald is depicted as a man stuffed with academic knowledge about the human psyche who hasn’t a clue about how to relate to actual human beings. I do feel that Haycraft is a bit hard on poor Anita, who pretends to be a fashion-buyer because clothes are more glamorous than stationary and longs to be thought of as a “real woman”.

Critics have often found the mix of comedy and tragedy in Haycraft’s novels unsettling but part of the point of “The Inn at the Edge of the World” is that most of its characters don’t know what kind of story they are in. For some, their stay on the island will be a comedy of errors; for others a shocking tragedy or a longed-for release. Jessica mocks the melodramatic plight of the heroine of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (the only novel she has with her)  not realizing that she herself has been cast as the central figure in somebody’s grand obsession. Only Harry, a man who has lost two loved ones in the prime of their lives, expects the island’s ghosts and journeys clear-eyed towards his destiny. Haycraft herself had to endure the deaths of two of her children. She writes about life-long grief in a precise and understated way that I find intensely moving.

The supernatural elements in “The Inn at the Edge of the World” enhance both the tragic and comic aspects of the story. The novel’s viewpoint characters – Eric and his five guests – are all outsiders in the context of the island. Cynical Eric is scathing about the bogus crafts and customs which the islanders sell to tourists but is unaware of the deeper level at which ancient ways and beliefs continue. Most of Eric’s customers think of themselves as superior to the superstitious locals but it is the visitors who aren’t seeing things clearly. Much of the humour in the novel comes from the visitors’ failure to recognize ghostly encounters while they are having them or to notice the extraordinary, even when it is serving them breakfast. Like Margo Lanagan in her brilliantly written novel, “The Brides of Rollrock Island” (see my Fantasy Reads post of November 2013), Haycraft has updated the legend of seal-woman (Selkies) who marry humans, with emphasis on the domestic drudgery they are subjected to.

One of the things I like about Haycraft’s work is the way that she transforms unsympathetic characters by giving them what I would call luminous moments. Eric’s barely suppressed hatred for his customers is played for laughs but he has moments when he is still overwhelmed by the wild beauty of the island. Something he glimpses in the final part of the story alters his perception of the boundary between life and death. Actress Jessica is sometimes vain and shallow but she is redeemed by kind impulses and flashes of self-awareness. Jessica experiences both physical and spiritual danger on the island and realizes that turning her back on Christmas is a symptom of turning her back on life. There is no tinsel or jollity in this Christmas story but “The Inn at the Edge of the World” still makes you believe in the importance of celebrating human contacts and the renewal of hope at the darkest time of the year. Until next year….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

My seasonal recommendation this year is a time-slip story which ends with Christmas celebrations in two different eras. “A Traveller in Time” by Alison Uttley is a very English Children’s Classic which was first published in 1939. I don’t think it has ever been out of print so there are numerous editions out there. This novel has been illustrated by many different artists but I like the detailed drawings of Faith Jaques (1977). You can also get “A Traveller in Time” as an ebook or an audio book and a BBC television dramatization from the 1970s is now available on DVD.

“I, Penelope Taberner Cameron, tell this story of happenings when I was a young girl.” Penelope begins by looking back to her childhood in the early 20th century when she lived in London with her parents and her older brother and sister. This sickly and imaginative child alarms her mother with stories about people no-one else can see. All three siblings are sent to stay with their Great-Aunt Cicely (Tissie) and Great-Uncle Barnabas Taberner in rural Derbyshire. The Taberners live at Thackers Farm, an ancient building which was once part of a grand manor house belonging to the Babington family. The children enjoy learning about old-fashioned country ways and helping their great-uncle with his farm-work.

Penelope is the only one to discover “the secret of Thackers”. She glimpses a strange girl in her bedroom mirror and when she opens an upstairs door she encounters four women in elaborate period dress playing a game with ivory counters. Penelope is convinced that the women were real and that they could see her too. Great-Aunt Tissie tells her that some females in the Taberner family are able to see and interact with people who lived at Thackers in past centuries. From time to time, Penelope finds herself slipping back into the 16th century. She meets various members of the Babington family and their housekeeper, Dame Cicely, who is the image of Great-Aunt Tissie. Penelope is accepted as a niece of Dame Cicely, who occasionally visits from London.

Though she cannot control her travels in time and fears being trapped in the past, Penelope becomes deeply involved in the lives of the Babingtons and their devoted servants. The Babington family are Papists (Roman Catholics) living under the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. They are forced to practice their religion in secret. The head of the family, Anthony Babington, is a courtier of Queen Elizabeth but his true loyalty is to the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots. Anthony risks the safety of everyone at Thackers by plotting to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne. Penelope becomes a witness to a daring plan to free Mary Queen of Scots from nearby Wingfield Castle. As the year 1584 draws to a close, the Babingtons are in danger of being arrested for treason and Penelope herself is at risk from an accusation of sorcery….

When you were a small child, did your parents read you any of Alison Uttley’s “Little Grey Rabbit” books? Mine did and I adored these gentle stories – the literary equivalent of a comfort blanket. Later, I identified strongly with the heroine of Uttley’s “A Country Child”, a semi-autobiographical story about a girl growing up on a farm. Most of all though I loved “A Traveller in Time”, a book I borrowed over and over again from my school library. Until recently I’d never known much about Uttley herself. When I looked up accounts of her life, including one on the website of the Alison Uttley Society (www.alisonuttley.co.uk) I was fascinated by the apparent contradictions in her character.

She was brought up in a Derbyshire village and remembered every detail of her rural childhood with astonishing clarity. Uttley seems to have clung to country ways, such as belief in the existence of fairies, yet her passion was science. In 1906 she was one of the first women to get a Physics degree from Manchester University and she became a science teacher. Uttley married and had a son but her husband’s mental health never recovered from his experiences fighting in the First World War. After he committed suicide, Uttley started writing children’s books to support herself and her son. Much of her fiction is sweet and tranquil but she had the reputation of being a difficult woman to get on with. I like difficult women.

Knowing something about Uttley’s life has helped me to understand why I have always found “A Traveller in Time”  so convincing. Uttley spent her early years on a farm close to the manor house which she calls Thackers and she grew up hearing stories about “the Babington Plot”. She gives Penelope a childhood similar to her own and the domestic details of country life are lovingly described. Penelope may be frail and bookish but she enjoys feeding chickens and pigs and helping with the haymaking. Uttley’s account of everyday life in the 16th century manor house rings just as true. She is particularly good at gardens – “Pale lilies-of-the-valley and blood-red primulas were out with bees hovering round them from the straw skeps perched on stone stools” and food – “ham baked in honey syrup and spiked with cloves, and brawn and pigs’ pettitoes soused, and tansy puddings.” Uttley makes her readers into time-travellers by transporting us back to the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the 16th century.

In her preface to “A Traveller in Time”, Uttley made the startling claim that, “Many of the incidents in the story are based on my dreams” in which she “talked with people who lived alongside but out of time, moving through a life parallel to my own existence.” Many of the time-slip episodes do have a dream-like quality, especially when Penelope sees people from different eras occupying the same space – “Each set of figures kept distinct, neither was aware of the other, and the farmer walked through them as if they were films of smoke”. However, it’s also clear that this story has been influenced by scientific theories about time and space which Uttley must have studied as part of her Physics course. Time travel isn’t just a plot device in this novel and the heroine isn’t just a plucky girl who has adventures in a more exciting era than her own. Penelope thinks very hard about what is happening to her and what it might tell her about the nature of reality.

I nearly recommended this book during “Ghost Month” (October) on Fantasy Reads because, essentially. “A Traveller in Time” is a reverse ghost story. Modern girl Penelope is haunting the 16th century characters, sometimes frightening them with glimpses of their future. In the most poignant scene in the book, Penelope tries to warn doomed Mary Queen of Scots against agreeing to Anthony Babbington’s plan but Mary only sees her as a sorrowful phantom and complains that, “The world is full of ghosts for me. There is no peace or happiness left.” The more time Penelope spends in the past, the harder she finds it to remember her knowledge of the future. This seems logical and adds tension to the story. When she is in the 16th century, Penelope is charmed by the captive queen and it almost seems as if history can be altered but when she returns to her present, Penelope is reminded of the terrible consequences of Mary’s reckless behaviour.

Penelope’s account of her childhood experiences is tinged with sadness – she cannot stay in the past with people she has come to love and she cannot change their ultimate fate – but this isn’t a depressing book. The story leaves the Babbingtons enjoying their last “glorious Christmas”, complete with Yule Log, garlands of fir, holly and bay, a Wassail Cup, a Boar’s Head and a model of Thackers made out of marchpane (marzipan). History remembers the Babbingtons as wicked or tragic but Penelope has shared their hopes and joys. The novel suggests that somewhere in the layers of time these golden moments continue to exist. Penelope comes back from the past able to live more intensely because she has learned that life itself has “a power behind it that carries folk on to struggle and not give in.”  If you are looking for a beautiful and thought-provoking Christmas read, “A Traveller in Time” may be the book for you.

My treat this Christmas will be reading a new time-travel story in Jodi Taylor’s delightful “Chronicles of St Mary’s” series. Whatever you are doing over the holiday season, I wish you many golden moments.

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

As winter bites I’m recommending a dark book for a dark time of year – “Grendel” by John Gardner. My previous choice (“Black Ships”) was a novel based on an epic poem in Latin (Virgil’s “Aeneid”) retold from a woman’s point of view; this time I’ve gone for a novel based on the great Anglo-Saxon poem “Beowulf” (see my Fantasy Reads post of June 2014) told from a monster’s point of view. “Grendel” was first published in 1971 and reprinted in the Fantasy Masterworks series in 2015, with a perceptive introduction by Adam Roberts. You can get this as an ebook but I cherish my battered Picador paperback which has a wonderfully sinister cover illustration by Michael Leonard and semi-abstract illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Like the complex poem it is based on, “Grendel” doesn’t have a straightforward linear narrative. The story is told by the monster himself as he looks back on the events and encounters which led to his reign of terror. In Dark Age Daneland (Denmark), in caverns below a lake filled with fire-snakes, a wordless water-hag gave birth to a son called Grendel. As he grows, this son becomes bored with the clinging company of his devoted mother and the “putrid stinking hole” they live in. He begins to explore the forest surrounding their lake. An attack by a wild bull leads to Grendel’s first meeting with a group of humans led by a warrior called Hrothgar. Grendel’s attempts to communicate with them fail and he has to be rescued by his mother.

Grendel spends years secretly watching the humans who encroach on his forest. He learns about murder and war as he sees rival groups destroy each other. Most ruthless of all is Hrothgar who gradually makes himself the greatest power in the area. A blind harpist arrives at Hrothgar’s meadhall and sings of the glories of the ancient kings of Daneland. King Hrothgar is inspired to believe that he is the ruler destined to bring peace and prosperity to his country. He decides to build a magnificent new meadhall on a hill overlooking the sea. When the hall is finished, the harpist, whom Grendel calls the Shaper, sings of God’s creation of the world and how an ancient feud between brothers (Cain and Abel) first “split all the world between darkness and light”. Grendel, a descendant of Cain, longs to come into the light but when he tries to enter the hall people perceive him as a monster and drive him away.

Grendel still yearns to believe in “the hopeful dreams” of the Shaper but is disillusioned during a conversation with the great dragon who can see past, present and future. The dragon claims that nothing Grendel does will make any difference in the end but still encourages him to scare people “into glory” by acting the monster. When Grendel next gets into a fight with Hrothgar’s soldiers, he discovers that he has become almost invulnerable. For twelve long years Grendel makes murderous night-attacks on Hrothgar’s hall and no-one is able stop him. Then fifteen strangers arrive in Daneland and their mighty leader offers to guard Hrothgar’s hall. Suddenly, “it’s a whole new game” for Grendel….

Is it worth trying this novel if you haven’t read “Beowulf”? My answer is – yes. It helps if you have a basic knowledge of the legend of “Beowulf versus the monsters” but even this isn’t essential. Plot-wise, Grendel himself tells you all you need to know. You may also be worrying that the characters in “Grendel” will speak in archaic and poetic language that is hard to understand. Well, there are some passages of poetry but most of the time Grendel pokes fun at the human tendency to make speeches that are “long-winded, tediously poetic, all lies”. John C.Gardner (1933-1982) was a professor of English literature who specialized in Old and Middle English but he wasn’t a tweedy type – he died in a motorbike accident. He was capable of producing brilliant pastiches of Anglo-Saxon poetry but “Grendel” is also full of contemporary language and deliberate anachronisms. So the dragon explains his views on the universe in scientific terms and a rebellious peasant uses modern political jargon. Though short (120 pages) “Grendel” is a very wordy book but one in which the impact of every word is carefully calculated.

At first glance the original black and white illustrations in “Grendel” look like meaningless squiggles but once you examine them carefully you begin to see the shape of a huge hairy beast. Antonucci’s drawings don’t just show you the monster they illustrate the main theme of the story – Grendel’s search in an uncaring universe for something which would give meaning to his life and death. As he looks back on his “idiotic war” with Hrothgar, Grendel calls himself a “Pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of dead men”. Grendel envies animals who simply live their lives without reflection while he is condemned to observe and question everything.  In the course of the novel he explores and rejects many of the ideals and beliefs which people live by, such as patriotism, heroism, revolutionary politics, loyalty to family, romantic love and faith in benevolent or all-powerful deities.

Gardner finds characters in the original poem to embody most of these ideals and beliefs. He uses Hrothgar’s champion Unferth, who is infamous for killing his own brothers, to illustrate the “shoddy reality” of men who claim to be selfless heroes and he allows Grendel to idealize Hrothgar’s beautiful queen for a while before being repelled by her sexuality. Hrothgar is presented as a thug who foolishly comes to believe his own myth. His shining meadhall has a doom-laden atmosphere because a monster within Hrothgar’s family is as dangerous as the one prowling outside. While telling his own story, Grendel exposes and jeers at most of the illusions people cling to but he never quite rejects the power of the Shaper to create beauty and meaning through his poetry. In a controversial book called “On Moral Fiction” (1978), Gardner himself argued that fiction ought to be a force for good. He also criticized contemporary authors for not caring enough about their characters.

It is very clear that Gardner cared about Grendel. The narrative voice he created for this outcast driven mad by poetry is extraordinarily convincing. Grendel describes his own brutal deeds in gruesome detail and with the blackest of humour. He whinges and rants but there are moments of lyrical beauty. This monster’s actions and ideas are fascinatingly unpredictable. He goes through extremes of emotion yet there is always a detached part of his mind mocking his own feelings. Gardner shows Grendel enduring the loneliness of the psychopath who finds it hard to believe that anyone else is real. He cannot even relate to his mother, whom he describes as a “horrible, humpbacked, carp-toothed creature, eyes on fire with useless, mindless love.” The hero (never named in this novel) who is destined to be Grendel’s nemesis accuses the monster of shaping his own dark world. “Grendel” could be read as Horror but like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” it is also story about what makes us human. Gardner’s Grendel is one of Fantasy Fiction’s great anti-heroes. Meet him if you dare. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

This week I’m recommending a gripping Historical Fantasy based on Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. “Black Ships” by American author, Jo Graham, was first published in 2008 and is still easy to find in paperback or ebook editions. This novel is the first in the `Numinous World’ series, which currently runs to six books, but it can be read as an entirely self-contained story following the life-history of a woman called Gull.

“Black Ships” is set around 1200 BCE. After the brutal conquest of the great city of Wilusa (Troy), many of its women were taken to Greece as slaves. Gull was born to one such slave in Pylos. She was crippled in an accident when she was only six years old, but Gull’s gift for seeing visions causes her to be adopted by the Pythia, the priestess of the Lady of the Dead. Gull’s first vision is of black ships and a burning city. As she is taught the mysteries of the goddess, Gull learns that the Greek lands are under a curse because of an unforgivable murder.

In time, Gull becomes the new Pythia but she fears that the goddess will never speak through her. One morning Gull notices nine black ships heading towards Pylos. Most of the men are away raiding so the city is almost defenceless. Gull is inspired to intervene and discovers that the attackers are men from Wilusa who have come “for the captives, for our wives and children taken in slavery”. The small fleet is all that is left of the people of Wilusa. Its reluctant leader is Prince Neas (Aeneas). He is the last of King Priam’s royal line and has the special favour of the Sea Goddess. Gull knows that she must go with Prince Neas to serve as his Sibyl but she only has glimpses of their journey’s end.

The search for a new home leads the exiled Wilusans to many different places at a time when all the countries around the eastern Mediterranean are in turmoil. Neas and his closest comrade, Captain Xandros, are both men who have suffered terrible losses but now they face fresh dangers and difficult decisions. The Wilusans endure storms, sea-battles and a relentless pursuit by the cruel son of Achilles. The wealthy and civilized kingdom of Egypt seems to offer a safe haven but at what price? Can Gull help Neas to become the great leader his people need and guide him to fulfil his destiny in Italy?

I decided to read this book after noticing that the dedication mentioned one of my favourite novels – Mary Renault’s “The Last of the Wine”. Graham cites Renault’s Greek-based Historical novels as one of her formative influences. I wouldn’t claim that “Black Ships” is as profound as the greatest of Renault’s novels but the two authors do have some qualities in common. Both are skilful story-tellers with the gift of writing deceptively simple prose. “Black Ships” is most similar to the “The King Must Die”, the first of  two novels in which Renault retold the myth of  Theseus. These books both treat a legendary hero as an historical figure, living in an era when religions centred on goddess-worship are waning. Renault stripped the story of Theseus of all its supernatural elements. Graham rationalizes aspects of the Aeneas myth – making him the son of a priestess of Aphrodite rather than a direct child of the goddess – but gives Gull genuine prophetic powers and a close if intermittant connection with the goddess she serves. Gull longs for divine guidance but most of the time she has to rely on her own wisdom.

Some readers have complained that “Black Ships” ought to be categorized as Historical Fiction rather than Fantasy. If you are expecting sea monsters and fighting skeletons you will be disappointed but the deities and divine realms of the late Bronze Age seem as real as the people who believe in them. To me, that is what makes a good Historical Fantasy. There are a few drawbacks to basing a novel on Virgil’s “Aeneid”. Many people have never heard of this epic while plenty who have hate it after being forced to translate the dull bits during Latin lessons. The poem is full of historical inaccuracies and, worst of all, features one of the least appealing of all ancient heroes. Aeneas is best known for abandoning women – his first wife after the fall of Troy and lovelorn Queen Dido in Carthage. It’s not surprising that Fantasy novels based on “The Aeneid” are rare – though Ursula le Guin’s “Lavinia” came out in the same year that “Black Ships” was published.

Graham tackles the problems with her source material by telling the story of the Trojans who became the legendary founders of Rome from an anti-heroic, female point of view and by making the background more consistent with history.  Her biggest change is to substitute New Kingdom Egypt for Carthage and an imperious Egyptian princess for the wronged Queen Dido. The princess is turned into a largely unsympathetic character so that Aeneas doesn’t seem such a jerk for leaving her. In my view, this is the weakest point in the plot. What does work well is linking the epic journey of the Wilusan survivors with the migrations of the “Sea Peoples”. This was a mass movement of groups from Asia desperate to settle in Mediterranean lands. It is easy to see parallels between the ancient Sea Peoples and today’s migrants and refugees who are struggling to make new lives for themselves in Europe. Graham writes with great compassion about displaced people who have been traumatized by the horrors of war.

Gull is quite a cool and detached character but I found her narrative voice compelling. She is a child of rape who was still much loved by her mother. Her story is full of examples of women facing grim circumstances with courage and resilience but most of the male characters are sympathetically treated too. This version of Aeneas is implausibly nice but he’s given enough guilt and self-doubt to make him interesting. An important element of the plot is the unusual love triangle that develops between Gull, Aeneas and Captain Xandros – a man with a complicated emotional history. Like Renault before her, Graham writes movingly about gender-blind forms of love which blurr the boundaries between friendship and passion. If you like the main characters in “Black Ships” you can meet them again in the other `Numinous World’ novels when they are reborn as “Companion Souls” into other historical periods. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

I’m continuing Ghost Month by recommending “Women and Ghosts”, a collection of ten supernatural stories by American author and academic, Alison Lurie. Since her field of study has been Children’s Literature and Fairy Tales, she knows a thing or two about story-telling. Professor Lurie is best known for her witty novels, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Foreign Affairs”, but she also has the knack of writing unsettling short stories. This collection dates to 1994. “Women and Ghosts” doesn’t seem to be available in ebook form but there is a good audio version (ideal for ghost stories) and cheap paperbacks are easy to get hold of.

As you would expect from the title, all of the stories feature female characters who go through some kind of supernatural experience. The settings are contemporary rather than Gothic. They range from sunny Florida to the rain-drenched English Lake District and from India and Africa to small and college town America. The supernatural elements are equally varied. Ghosts of the “wronged dead” type manifest themselves in unusual ways and apparitions of the living are just as frightening. Some of the stories involve haunted objects; others describe bizarre visions or inexplicable happenings. All of the supernatural encounters are life-changing for somebody but not always in a negative way.

In “Ilse’s House” a young woman is haunted by visions of her fiancé’s former girlfriend while in “The Pool People” a little girl can see more than shadows in her nasty grandmother’s swimming pool. Ever felt that inanimate objects have a grudge against you? Then you’ll respond to “The Highboy”; the story of a piece of antique furniture with a will of its own. In “Counting Sheep” a professor comes up with an extraordinary explanation for the mystery of a missing student. During “In the Shadow” a diplomat is haunted by a dead boyfriend who tells her unpleasant truths about her lovers. “Waiting for the Baby” follows an American woman who has come to India to adopt a baby and has a strange experience in a local temple. In “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” a bride’s feelings are transformed by a garment she is given to wear on her wedding day. “Fat People” lives up to its title when a reluctant dieter starts seeing monstrously overweight people everywhere. In “Another Halloween” a guilty woman realizes that there is always one Trick or Treater too many, while in “The Double Poet” a writer learns that she has a doppelganger who seems to be stealing her life.

I would classify the stories in “Women and Ghosts” as delayed-impact fiction. Some of them seem quite slight on first reading but they linger in the mind and gradually provoke new and disturbing interpretations. Alison Lurie’s fiction has sometimes been compared with that of Jane Austen. Like Austen, Lurie produces perfect prose and dissects human nature in a ruthless but amusing way. She is the mistress of fine detail. When Lurie writes about a particular sheep with “dense yellowish-drab wool, incurled grey corrugated horns, long pale narrow face, and liquorice eyes” (Counting Sheep) I can see it so vividly. She can describe anything from the exact effects of light on water at different times of day (“The Pool People”) to a gaudy group of “glaringly new…half-comic, half-sinister deities” in an Indian temple (“Waiting for the Baby”). Thanks to the power of Lurie’s prose, the supernatural elements in these stories seem as real as the mundane ones.

Lurie also has the gift of summing people up in a few barbed sentences (“She had the sort of cool manners that always made me think of words like pleasant and cordial. She never had much to say, or raised her voice, and she didn’t like it when somebody else did.” Another Halloween) . In Britain, Ghost fiction has been dominated by male writers and male characters (see my October 2013 post on the work of M.R.James) but females have had a stronger voice and presence in American Ghost fiction. It is refreashing to read a collection of Ghost stories centred on female characters who aren’t just there to scream when the ghost appears. At the start of  “In the Shadow” we’re told that successful diplomat “Celia Zimmern was about the last person she, or anyone else would have expected to see a ghost”. This is true of most of the women in “Women and Ghosts”, who include a Professor of English Literature, a market-research analyst and a Poet in Residence. None of these intelligent women frighten easily but they don’t behave like dauntless Fantasy heroines either. Their flaws are woven into the stories. Is Celia’s haunting caused by her greed for fine things and her sense of superiority? It’s left to the reader to decide.

An outstanding feature of this collection is that the living people in the stories are often scarier than the ghosts. The first story, “Ilse’s House”, contains a chilling portrait of Gregor, a man whose charm masks an abusive personality. During this story a confident young woman is haunted by a vision of the cowed housewife she will become if she marries Gregor. In “The Pool People” the villain is a monumentally selfish old woman, who fails to notice the catastrophes she has caused.  The central character in “The Double Poet” is a monster of egotism who despises her readers. “Another Halloween” is, on the surface, more like a conventional Ghost or Horror story than the rest of the collection. It shows how a failure to accept responsibility comes back to haunt a woman whose motto is “I wasn’t involved”. After a possibly preventable tragedy, the narrator says, “Now I believe women have to take responsibility for other women, even ones they don’t much like.” It’s a conclusion that lets none of us off the hook. Have a thoughtful Halloween.

Geraldine

www. chalcedon.co.uk