Welcome to Ghost Month on my Fantasy Reads blog. Prepare to be chilled by some very unquiet spirits. I’ll start by recommending a classic haunted house story – “Frost Hollow Hall” by British author Emma Carroll. This  novel, which came out in 2013, is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. It was published as a children’s book but is multi-layered enough to appeal to adults as well. The story is set in South-West England in 1881 and moves between a grand country house and the cottages of the local village.

Teenager Mathilda (Tilly) Higgins lives in the village of Frostcombe with her Ma and her older sister. Tilly’s Pa has been away for a long time. If he doesn’t come home soon, the Higgins family will be turned out of their cottage because of unpaid rent. On the day that her Pa is expected back, Tilly is dared by annoying Butcher’s Boy, Will Potter, to come skating with him on a frozen lake in the forbidden grounds of Frost Hollow Hall. Tilly falls through the ice and nearly drowns but is guided to the shore by a vision of a beautiful golden-haired boy. She soon identifies her golden boy as the ghost of Kit Barrington, the young heir to Frost Hollow Hall who drowned in the same lake ten years previously.

Tilly begins to dream about Kit who tells her that he “can’t rest in peace until the truth is known”. After Tilly and her Ma suffer a betrayal, Tilly asks for work at Frost Hollow Hall in order to earn some money and investigate the death of Kit Barrington. At the hall, the intimidating housekeeper, Mrs Jessop, offers Tilly a job as a housemaid. Tilly makes friends with a maid called Gracie but it quickly becomes clear that Frost Hollow Hall is a very unhappy household.

Lady Barrington cannot get over her grief for Kit and has her son’s room kept exactly as it was on the day that he died. Tilly can’t sense Kit’s ghost in his room but she and Gracie encounter a spiteful poltergeist who smashes china and haunts the back stairs. Risking everything in her quest for the truth, Tilly learns about a second untimely death and discovers that someone at Frost Hollow Hall has been keeping a terrible secret. How can the dead rest in peace while the living are crippled by guilt and remorse?

This is a ghost story which manages to be both frightening and moving. It deals with two very different types of haunting: one that seems benevolent and one that seems malevolent. Tilly sees Kit’s ghost as gentle and sad and she is flattered that he has entrusted her with the important task of uncovering the truth about his death. This gives Tilly new confidence in herself but as she becomes increasingly obsessed with solving the mysteries of Frost Hollow Hall, the reader begins to wonder if Kit’s influence might be a dangerous one. The way that Lady Barrington insists on a fire always being kept alight in Kit’s bedroom to warm her frozen son is extremely creepy. Yet it is the absence of Kit’s ghost from his old home which Tilly finds troubling. Instead, Tilly has to endure what seems to be an alarmingly physical manifestation of someone’s unresolved anger. An episode in which Tilly and Gracie are trapped in the dark with a being that whispers, pinches and smells strongly of honey, certainly scared me.

The supernatural elements in “Frost Hollow Hall” work because the late 19th century village and country house settings are convincing and the leading characters are credible individuals. I believed in the ghosts because I believed in Tilly and her world. If you enjoyed watching “Downton Abbey”, this novel may appeal to you but it has a less romanticized view of the past than the popular television series. Carroll shows the Higgins family living in grim poverty. Pa is forced to take labouring jobs a long way from home and Ma does sewing and mending seven days a week even though “it paid little and hurt her eyes”. Most of the village is dependant on the whims of the local aristocrats. There is a telling incident when Tom fails to back Tilly because he knows that his family will be ruined if they lose the custom of the Barringtons. Tilly isn’t ill-treated at Frost Hollow Hall but her work as a housemaid is exhaustingly hard and she can be unjustly sacked at a moment’s notice.

Sharp-tongued, fierce-tempered Tilly Higgins is a distinctive heroine. She is sometimes surly and unreasonable but she never lost my sympathy. Tilly is convinced that she is far less attractive than her blonde elder sister and her critical mother makes her feel worthless. In the course of the story, Tilly has to face the hard truth that the father she adores has chosen to abandon her in order to follow his dream of a new life. She longs to be needed and trusted, if only by a ghost. Tragic Kit Barrington is the kind of romantic youth that girls dream about but ordinary Tom’s friendship proves solid and real. The prickly relationship between Tilly and Tom is beautifully observed. Tilly’s viewpoint dominates the narrative but Carroll sometimes gives us glimpses of the way that other characters see her – as a courageous wild rose of a girl.

Carroll is good at making the reader think that they know what kind of people her characters are and then changing that perception with a single speech or incident. Tilly’s Ma seems harsh and her Pa feckless but I ended up feeling some sympathy for both halves of this incompatible couple. At Frost Hollow Hall, Mrs Jessop at first appears to be a standard sinister housekeeper and Lady Barrington a typical selfish and capricious aristocrat but there is much more to both of them than that. The hauntings don’t arise from some ancient evil but from a plausible sequence of events in which understandable actions have disastrous consequences. Tenacious Tilly uncovers a story of the strength of maternal love and the healing power of forgiveness. You might find it worthwhile to explore the mysteries of Frost Hollow Hall alongside her. Until next time…
















Do you ever get tired of reading pseudo-Medieval Fantasy novels? If so, you might want try this week’s recommendation – a story set in Euterpe, a magical version of 18th century Europe. “Goblin Moon” by Teresa Edgerton is Volume One of the “Mask and Dagger” duology. Copies of the 1991 paperback, and its sequel “The Gnome’s Engine”, are quite scarce but thankfully both novels are now available as ebooks. In this new edition, “The Gnome’s Engine” has been renamed “Hobgoblin Night”. These novels are set in a world in which humans, dwarfs and gnomes have lived peacefully together since the fall of two opposing empires. However, there are other races, such as fairies, trolls and goblins, which can be more dangerous to humans….

“Goblin Moon” tells the story of three interlocked families who live in the city of Thornburg. Caleb Braun and his grand-nephew, Jed, are boatmen who scavenge the tidal river Lunn. Young Jed hates this trade and Caleb used to be a high-ranking servant in a nobleman’s house. One night they recover a coffin which proves to contain the strangely well-preserved body of a sorcerer and some spell-books. They take it to Caleb’s old master, the bookseller Gottfried Jenk, a nobleman reduced to poverty by his obsessive study of alchemy and his search for the mystical stone Seramarias. The only other thing that Jenk cares about is his eighteen year-old granddaughter Seramarias (Sera). She has been sent to live with her wealthy relations the Vorders to act as a companion to their delicate daughter, Elsie. Jed has grown up thinking of “obstinate, headstrong” Sera as a sister. He bashfully adores the beautiful Elsie but she is being courted by the handsome Jarl Skogsra, a friend of her godmother, the Duchess of Zar-Wildungen.

The sorcerer’s books reignite Jenk’s passion for magical research and he and Caleb embark on a secret project to create an homunculus, a miniature living being. Jenk wants to sell the homunculus to fund his search for the Stone Seramarias but Caleb has other ideas. Meanwhile, Jed has gone to work for a kindly dwarf who belongs to the Glassmakers Guild. Caleb warns his great-nephew that the Glassmakers still “remember the magic and the mystery at the heart” of their secret ceremonies. One of  the Guild’s more unusual members is Imbrian nobleman, Francis, Lord Skelbrooke, who is famed as a poet and dandy. Skelbrooke is said to be the exquisite Duchess of Zar-Wildungen’s latest lover but he seems curiously interested in independent-minded Sera.

Sera has too many problems to pay much attention to how she feels about Lord Skelbrooke. The health of her beloved cousin is failing and the bizarre treatments which Elsie’s mother insists on only make Elsie worse. Jarl Skogsra has increasing influence over Elsie but something about their relationship seems wrong to Sera. Sinister things happen and Sera begins to fear that there is a plot against Elsie. The one person who might be able to help the cousins is Lord Skelbrooke but he has a hidden agenda of his own and a talent for making dangerous enemies. Can he arrive in time to help Sera save Elsie from a cruel fate?

Don’t let the mention of goblins and gnomes fool you into thinking that this is a children’s book. “Goblin Moon” is a dark-hued story for adult readers. It has one of the creepiest openings in Fantasy fiction and the civilised delights of polite society in Thornburg are contrasted with a seamier underworld.  The book is full of memorable scenes. At a fashionable funeral the mourners are served a delicious picnic by footmen in the graveyard but the “deceased” is too busy to attend. At an equally unusual wedding, an aristocratic young woman marries a criminal just before he is executed. During the wedding banquet the groom is represented by a wax effigy with “a tastefully arranged hempen noose around his neck”. This isn’t battle-heavy Heroic Fantasy but there is no shortage of action and excitement since the intricate plot has room for a reanimated corpse, vampires, witches, evil magicians, brutal trolls, marauding hobgoblins, vengeful Fees (fairies), serial killers, people-traffickers and pirates.

Edgerton is an underrated writer. If you haven’t heard of her it is probably because her career hasn’t been nurtured by commercial publishers as it should have been. In my view Edgerton is one of the best `world-makers’ in modern Fantasy. Her novels are set in a variety of superbly detailed worlds, including one with a basis in a Welsh myth (see her “Green Lion” trilogy). The “Mask and Dagger” books feature unique versions of several European cultures and, in Volume Two, of 18th century America. Edgerton is particularly strong on creating cities and towns with distinctive history, architecture and atmosphere. She is also wonderful at describing the food, furnishings and fashions of the late 18th century. If I was drawing up a list of Best Dressed Fantasy Characters, “Mask and Dagger” would be second only to E.R.Eddison’s “Worm Ouroboros” (see my post of February 2014). Who could resist the Duchess of Zar-Wildungen “splendid in diamonds and heliotrope satin, and a cartwheel-sized hat loaded with plumes enough to outfit an army of ostriches”?

I’m also impressed by the beliefs, customs and rituals which feature in “Goblin Moon”. They suggest that Edgerton has a sound knowledge of the history of Magic and Alchemy and of the new philosophies and religions which sprang up during the Enlightenment. For example, the secret rituals of the Glassblowers Guild are based on the kind of Masonic initiation rites that Mozart portrayed in his “Magic Flute” (one of my favourite operas), while Lord Skelbrooke hunts down the murderous Knights of Mezztopholeez – a version of the Hellfire Club who notoriously dabbled in the demonic. The dainty female homunculus “born” in Jenk’s bookshop is eerily convincing and the fall of the island-based empires (which adds an Atlantis plot-line to the series) is celebrated by tossing two wickerwork giants into the river Lunn. Worship in the cathedral centres on the Father, the Seven Fates, or planetary intelligences, and the Nine Powers, or seasons. This adds another dimension to some of the novel’s characters. Sera hopes for a “sober and sensible existence” free of superstition and magic but beautiful images of the Fates and Powers never fail to inspire her “to higher and better thoughts”.

Two other features which make this novel particularly enjoyable are the romantic element of the plot and a fascinating villainess. I’m guessing that Edgerton admires the great Romantic and Mystery novelist, Georgette Heyer and that the “Mask and Dagger” stories are influenced by some of the novels which Heyer set in the late 18th century, such as “Powder and Patch”. Dashing master of disguises, Lord Skelbrooke, who rescues Sera from social embarrassment at a ball, is the perfect Heyer-hero. The other members of the central quartet, Sera, Jed and Elsie are all appealing characters. Sera is a rational young woman in denial about her latent powers, loyal Jed is a young man discovering his own potential and though Elsie is mainly a helpless victim in “Goblin Moon” she comes into her own in “Hobgoblin Night”.

Then there is the striking figure of Marella, the tiny Duchess of Zar-Wildungen, with her gorgeous clothes and her indigo ape who may, or may not, be only a pet. Marella is a rare human-fairy hybrid, compelled by strong loves and hates – it’s a real shock when you suddenly realize which Fairy Tale motif Edgerton is using to power her plot. The Duchess’s motives remain intriguing and her actions unpredictable right up to the end of the second book. She is reason enough in herself to recommend this novel. Until next time…













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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




















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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

















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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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












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

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

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

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

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

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

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







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

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

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

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

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

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

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