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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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