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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geraldine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geraldine

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

 

It is about time that I recommended something by the great Roger Zelazny (1937-1995). Isn’t Zelazny the most perfect surname for a writer who inhabited the borderlands between Fantasy and Science Fiction? The novel I’ve chosen, “Jack of Shadows” (1971), is set in a world divided between a magical darkside and a scientific lightside. There are plenty of old paperback copies around but don’t go for the 1974 Corgi edition which I have – its ghastly bat-dominated cover makes “Jack of Shadows” look like the tackiest of Horror stories. The novel was reissued in 2016 in the “Rediscovered Classics” series with a good introduction by Joe Haldeman.

This story begins in the Twilight Lands during the Hellgames. Many powerful beings are competing for the Hellflame trophy but the thief known as Jack of Shadows plans to steal it for the father of the woman he loves. Jack is difficult to defeat because if any shadows are present he can escape into them but he is betrayed by two darksiders who serve the Lord of Bats and beheaded. Jack is annoyed at “having to lose one of his lives on a sloppy job”, especially as this means a very long walk back from the Dung Pits of Glyve. During his perilous journey through the horrid realm of Drekkheim he meets a Wise Woman called Rosalie whom he once seduced with promises of taking her to live in his possibly non-existent castle of Shadow Guard. She warns him against letting hatred lead him to “the machine that thinks like a man.”

Jack’s hatred for his enemies does increase when he discovers that his beloved Evene now seems to be the bride of the sorcerer known as the Lord of Bats. After escaping from a cruel imprisonment, Jack visits his only friend, the chained fallen angel, Morningstar, who tells him about the great machine at the heart of the world. Jack breaks the rules by crossing over into the human lightside, where he gets a college-job lecturing on anthropology. He is soon pursued by a terrifying darkside monster known as the Borshin and forced to flee but he already has the information he needs to overpower his enemies. Jack will have his vengeance, even if it costs him his soul. Can anyone stop him destroying the world?

“Jack of Shadows” is a mish-mash of a book which shouldn’t really work and yet this story has fascinated me for years. The plot moves extremely fast and all manner of ideas are crammed into this short novel (only 157 pages). The opening chapters read as humorous Dark Fantasy, rather similar to Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” stories (see my Post of June 2012) or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (see my Post of July 2014). Initially, nothing is taken very seriously. When the Lord of Bats appears, he’s described as though he was a vampire out of a junk Horror movie and he lives in the absurdly named fortress of High Dudgeon. These jokes make the ensuing psychological duel between Jack and his arch-enemy all the more shocking. When Jack is masquerading as Dr Shade in the science-oriented human world, the story resembles a Crime Thriller before morphing into Horror again as a monster haunts the campus. Once Jack is back among his shadows, the tone darkens even further. There are deliberate echoes of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Christopher Marlow’s version of the Faustus legend, not to mention “The Count of Monte Cristo”. The more successful Jack is in wreaking revenge, the more tragic his story becomes.

I think it would be fair to say that all of Zelazny’s novels are dominated by variations of the same hero/anti-hero. To begin with, Jack seems a typical Zelazny hero – a threatened loner with unusual powers who is willing to question and shatter the rules of his world. What makes Jack distinctive is how close he gets to becoming not just an anti-hero but the villain of the piece. In the early chapters, most readers will like this amusing trickster but we soon get to see Jack’s ruthless side. The more he is denounced as a selfish liar and fantasist, the more Jack is determined to validate his self-image, even if that means forcing everyone else to fit in with his own version of reality.

Zelazny’s female characters aren’t usually memorable but the ones in this book are something of an exception. Sad-eyed Evene becomes a haunting figure as Jack changes from devoted lover to implacable stalker. Rosalie is the human love whom Jack simply forgot to go back for. She has become an old woman while her shadow-Jack has not aged at all. Rosalie has cause to be bitter and vengeful but she chooses forgiveness and acts as the guardian of Jack’s soul and the voice of his conscience.

Jack’s respect for Rosalie and his strange friendship with the angel/demon Morningstar are the two elements which made me want to stay with Jack on his journey through his own personal hells. Morningstar is an unforgettable creation, with his “great, lightning-scarred visage” and his lidless eyes always looking towards a sunrise that never comes. The poetic conversations between Jack and Morningstar are the heart of the novel. Jack is told that, “Everything that lives changes or dies” and that “Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it.” Morningstar’s explanations deconstruct Zelazny’s own genre of Science-Fantasy in a disturbing way, so it is fitting that there is a massive apocalypse at the climax of the novel. Many authors would have set a whole series in this complex double world but Zelazny always refused to write a sequel to “Jack of Shadows”. I’m glad that he didn’t because the enigmatic ending allows each reader to finish Jack’s story in her or his own way. Do try it and see which ending you choose.

While writing this post I realized that a book which contains two stories of failed love might not be the most appropriate choice for Valentine’s Week, so here is a quick bonus recommendation. If you are still in a romantic mood (or need cheering up after reading “Jack of Shadows”) you couldn’t do better than Garth Nix’s charming Regency Romance “Newt’s Emerald” (2015). This is now at the top of my list of Georgette Heyer- inspired Fantasy. On her eighteenth birthday, Lady Truthful Newington (Newt) is shown the magical emerald which is her birthright. When the emerald is stolen, Newt disguises herself as a boy and embarks on adventure which will bring her danger and romance. Enjoy. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

During this cold week I’m recommending a novel inspired by Russian history and folklore. “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden has only just been published, so the choice is between hardback and ebook editions. The charming cover of the British hardback looks more tropical than Russian. The American cover features a dramatic snow scene which is truer to the atmosphere of this dark and wintry book.

On the edge of a forest in medieval Russia lived a boyar (lord) called Pyotr Vladimirovich and his wife, Marina. She was a daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow but because her mother was rumoured to be a witch, she was married off to a boyar in a remote northern province. This happy marriage produced three children but as Marina’s health failed she longed for a special daughter who would inherit her grandmother’s magic. Marina died after giving birth to a baby girl called Vasilisa (Vasya). Little Vasya was looked after by her older sister and by nurse and storyteller, Dunya.

After six years Pyotr decides that his older daughter needs a husband and his spirited youngest child needs a stepmother. He returns from Moscow with another royal bride, but the neurotic Princess Anna dislikes Vasya and soon has a daughter of her own to favour. The villagers who live on Pyotr’s estate are devout Christians but they also respect the spirits who inhabit the forest and lakes and leave offerings for the ones who protect houses and stables. Vasya has the rare gift of being able to see these spirits. She even befriends some of them, such as the beautiful but dangerous rusalka in the nearby lake and the squat brown domovoi who guards her family home. Her stepmother can see spirits too but she interprets them as demons and is terrified. Princess Anna is grateful when an ambitious young priest, launches a crusade to stop people following the old ways.

As Vasya grows up she has more encounters with spirits and learns to understand the language of horses. When the local people begin to fear Vasya as a witch, her only choices seem to be marriage or a convent. Evil is stirring deep in the forest and dark forces are threatening the village. Weakened by the lack of belief and offerings, the ancient spirits can no longer offer protection against wolves, fire and the walking dead. Vasya, and a magical jewel given to her by a mysterious stranger, may be the only hope…

This debut novel has been launched with much publicity and endorsements from big name Fantasy authors such as Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik. I think the hype is mainly justified. “The Bear and the Nightingale” isn’t as distinctive as Catherynne M.Valente’s mesmerizing Russian-based Fantasy “Deathless” but it is beautifully written and has a most appealing heroine. I was hooked as soon as the old nurse began telling the tale of King Frost. I’ve always been attracted to Russian Fairy Tales, which abound in forceful female characters and magical creatures. I have already recommended one trilogy based on them – Peter Morwood’s “Prince Ivan Saga” (April 2013). Morwood’s novels are primarily dramatizations of specific Russian Fairy Tales with added historical elements. The early chapters of “The Bear and the Nightingale” read more like an historical family saga with added Fairy Tale elements.

Arden has spent some time living and studying in Moscow and it shows in her vivid descriptions of the Russian landscapes and climate. Through young Vasya’s eyes, we see the beauty of the great forests which cover much of northern Russia but it also becomes clear that this is a harsh land. In a bad season, even the wealthy are reduced to living on black bread and cabbage soup for months on end. Weather is very important in this novel. Vasya and her family endure suffocatingly hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Family life is literally centered on the kitchen stove, which everyone sleeps around in freezing weather. Arden is excellent on domestic detail and family dynamics. All the members of the Vladimirovich family are well-rounded individuals. I was sorry when Vasya’s kindly elder sister and interesting oldest brother disappeared from the plot to go and live in Moscow but there is plenty of precedent for that kind of exit in Russian literature.

It is now more or less compulsory in historical Fantasy for the heroine to be a bold rule-breaker who refuses to accept the limited roles available to women. Vasya does fit this profile but she is also convincing as a child of her era. She tries to be a dutiful daughter but cannot conceal her unusual abilities. The men in Vasya’s family may find her hard to understand but they aren’t shown as oppressive  and the author doesn’t criticize Vasya’s gentle sisters for choosing more traditional female roles. The plot requires a cruel stepmother but Arden made me feel sorry for the hysterical Anna who has been deprived of the quiet convent life which was her heart’s desire and forced into marriage. I sometimes felt that Arden was torn between writing a realistic historical novel exploring the plight of women and writing Fantasy. Vasya is told several times that she can’t escape a woman’s usual fate because she isn’t living in a Fairy Tale but it turns out that she is.

The tone of this novel becomes much darker about three-quarters of the way through and the supernatural elements escalate. There are gruesome episodes which could come from a Horror novel when Vasya finds herself facing a demon who wants “to eat the world” (The Bear) and dealing with the walking dead. Anna suddenly behaves like a Fairy Tale stepmother and demands that Vasya find snowdrops in midwinter or be banished from her family home. From this point on, Vasya is immersed in a thrilling Fairy Tale world of danger and magic. We finally meet the Nightingale character and learn more about the enigmatic Frost King. The story ends back in the heart of a changed family but there is plenty of scope for a sequel. I would gladly follow brave Vasya on another adventure. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

As the Scots are so good at celebrating the arrival of New Year, I’m choosing a Scottish author for my first recommended Fantasy Read of 2017. Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was a journalist, critic, poet and novelist who is now best remembered for the twelve anthologies of Fairy Tales which he edited, starting with “The Blue Fairy Book” (1889) and ending with “The Lilac Fairy Book” (1910). Lang himself was prouder of two original  stories for children which he wrote – “Prince Prigio” (1889) and “Prince Ricardo” (1893). These two novellas, and a sequence of short stories called “Tales of a Fairy Court” (1907), are set in the invented kingdom of Pantouflia and are collectively known as “The Chronicles of Pantouflia”. You could get the two novellas under this title as a very cheap ebook or search out  an anthology called “My Own Fairy Book”, which includes all of Lang’s original Fairy Tales. Another good choice would be “Prince Prigio and Prince Ricardo”, a 1961 edition which has pictures by D.Watkins-Pitchford and an excellent introduction by Roger Lancelyn Green. Old copies of this, and paperbacks based on it, are quite easy to find.

Lang begins with a potted history of Pantouflia, an ancient kingdom somewhere “up the Danube” and its peace-loving royal family, whose crest is a dormouse, dormant. After relating the story of the spirited founder of the dynasty, Lady Dragonissa, he skips forward to the birth of her ever so many times great-grandson, Prince Prigio. The prince’s rational mother refuses to believe in fairies, so none are invited to the christening party of her first-born son. The fairies come anyway, bringing magical gifts, but one of them puts a curse on Prigio that he “shall be too clever!” Prince Prigio grows up to be the ultimate know-all. He argues about everything and is always right – which makes everyone detest him.

The King and Queen have two ordinary younger sons, Alphonso and Enrico, who are universally liked. When a terrible Firedrake, made of red-hot iron, threatens Pantouflia, the King promises his throne to whichever of the princes succeeds in killing the monster and bringing back its horns and tail. Prigio refuses to try, because he knows that it is traditional for the eldest son to fail , and suggests that this is a job for Enrico. Both the younger princes enthusiastically go off to fight the monster but neither of them returns. Prigio is then shunned by his family and left behind in an abandoned castle, where he finds the fairy gifts and learns to use them. When Prigio falls in love with the English ambassador’s daughter, the idea of being a hero becomes more attractive. With a little magic and a lot of ingenuity, can Prigio kill the monster, save his brothers, win the right girl and make people like him?

The seven stories in “Tales of a Fairy Court” tell us more about the relationship between Prigio and his father King Grognio, and describe some of the adventures which Prigio fitted in before his marriage. The second novella is set 17 years later when Prigio is King of Pantouflia and he and Queen Rosalind have a son called Ricardo. Prince Ricardo is always off fighting “dragons, giants, cannibals, magicians”. He has rescued lots of princesses, including a clever one called Jaqueline, but he isn’t interested in marrying any of them. The trouble is that the quests and fights are too easy for Ricardo because he always uses his father’s fairy gifts, such as the sword of sharpness, the seven-league boots, the magic carpet and the cap of darkness. Through a spell known as Drinking the Moon, Jaqueline discovers that Prigio plans to swap the fairy gifts for ordinary objects. The princess soon has to use more of her magic to protect Ricardo when he goes up against fearsome enemies such as the evil Yellow Dwarf  and The Giant who does not Know when he has had Enough. After Jaqueline is imprisoned by a monster, Prigio goes on an extraordinary journey as part of his plan to save her.

The more I’ve read about the life of Andrew Lang, the more I feel that Prince Prigio was a self-portrait. He knew from his own experience that while the canny Scots admire cleverness, the English tend to distrust it. In one of the “Tales of a Fairy Court”, young Prigio is described as picking up every language he heard and knowing “more ancient Greek and Latin than his tutor before he was six”. Moreover, “he knew the history of everywhere, and all the fairy-stories in the whole world.” Much the same could be said about Lang. He was a Classical scholar, renowned for his translations of Homer, but he also edited the work of British poets and was an expert on Scottish history. He was a pioneer in the field of Psychic Research, wrote adult books on the interpretation of mythology and folklore and the development of religion but he thought it just as important to introduce children to the riches of traditional storytelling. Lang was a man of strong opinions whose sarcastic wit made him many enemies – just as Prigio’s conceited cleverness does. In “Prince Ricardo”, Prigio uses the weight of Stupidity (particularly the stupidity of learned writers on Shakespeare, Homer and the Bible) as a weapon to crush a monster. Lang was a life-long fighter against ignorance and stupidity.

One of his battles was against influential educators of the late 19th century who claimed that Fairy Tales were irrational, violent and bad for young minds. Does that argument sound familiar? In every age well-meaning people have wanted to ban or censor Fairy Tales but, with help of scholars like Andrew Lang and his wife Leonora, the stories survive. Lang didn’t collect directly from oral storytellers and he credited his wife with much of the work of translating and adapting stories from foreign sources. His great contribution to children’s literature was to provide easily accessible, entertaining versions of Fairy and Folk Tales from all over the world. Nobody knew more about the structure and rules of traditional tales than Lang. In his original writing he plays with those rules in what seems a very modern way. “The Chronicles of Pantouflia” are both enjoyable stories in their own right and amusing commentaries on the way that Fairy Tales function.

Lang hated it when other Victorian writers produced moral tales in which pretty-pretty fairies preached at children. The only preaching in his own stories is done tongue-in-cheek. “The Chronicles of Pantouflia” are the work of a serious scholar having fun with his own special subjects. For this reason Pantouflia is not the most consistent of Fantasy realms. Lang borrows magical objects from “The Arabian Nights”, tosses in episodes from his beloved Scottish history (Ricardo has an encounter with Bonnie Prince Charlie) and provides new endings for some Fairy Tale characters.  He mocks Prigio’s scientific-minded mother for refusing to accept anything that doesn’t fit with her world-view and the very English Ricardo for treating quests as a form of big-game hunting. A scene in which Ricardo hacks up a giant but the pieces cheerily keep on fighting reminds me of the anarchic humour of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. Other characters refuse to be constrained by the conventions of the Fairy Tale world – Jaqueline (who turns out to be an Inca princess) is consistently braver and smarter than her beloved Ricardo, while Prigio has no intention of being the disposable elder brother who loses out to the lucky youngest son.

Of all the Fairy Tale princes I read about when I was a child, Prigio was the only one I wanted to marry. He uses brain-power rather than force to solve problems and he doesn’t care if this approach makes people call him a coward. In fact, Prigio is an early example of the Nerd as hero. His method of dealing with the Firedrake is particularly ingenious but you will have to read the story to find out what it is. Prigio does have to learn what we would now call people-skills before he can become a good ruler. In “Prince Ricardo”, King Prigio is shown as a worried father, failing to let his son make his own mistakes, but he still saves the day with panache. Lang gave Prigio his own hatred of violence and cruelty. In a new version of “The Goose Girl”, which is one of the darkest of Fairy Tales (see my March 2015 post on “Thorn”), Prigio intervenes to stop the villain being executed in a horrible way. Pantouflia represents the world as Lang would like it to have been rather than as it actually was. You might enjoy his dream-world too. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk