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…














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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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










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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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











Is there enough cake in Fantasy fiction? I ask because my ideal comfort read would combine magic, romance and comedy with a beautiful setting and plentiful descriptions of delicious food – especially cake. I have recently found a book which does contain most of these elements – “The Witches of Cambridge” by Menna van Praag. She defines her work as Magical Realism and this is the fourth novel she has set in her home town of Cambridge, England. “The Witches of Cambridge” came out this month (May 2016) so it’s only available in hardback or as a reasonably priced ebook.

This story concerns an unusual group of people. Amandine, Héloise, Kat, Cosima, Noa and George have two things in common. They all live and work in Cambridge and they are all witches. Each of them has a different special power. Amandine, who teaches art history, can feel other people’s emotions. Her mother Héloise used to be able to see future events but hasn’t done so since she failed to predict her beloved husband’s death. Kat is a Professor of Mathematics who can turn formulae into spells while her younger sister Cosima bakes joyful magic into the food she serves at her Sicilian-style café, Gustare. Art student Noa perceives people’s deepest secrets. Kat’s best friend George claims that his magic can’t do anything much. When Amandine invites Noa to join the Witches’ Bookclub, which meets on the rooftops of Cambridge colleges, the evening doesn’t go well. Noa can’t help blurting out secrets that members of the group are trying to hide.

All the good witches have problems in their personal lives. Amandine believes that she has lost her husband’s love but she doesn’t know why. Héloise is starting to emerge from the numbness of grief but her husband’s ghost is still the dominating presence in her life. Kat fears that her secret love for George is unrequited and George doesn’t feel free to act on his true feelings. Cosima suffers from an inherited condition which makes pregnancy dangerous for her but she is determined to have a baby – even if it means misusing love spells. Noa sees her truth-telling gift as a curse, so when Brazilian artist and witch, Santiago, offers to change her, she leaps at the chance. Soon Noa is living an exciting new life in the London art-world, but is gorgeous Santiago too good to be true? There are shocks in store for all the witches and encounters with love and death. The power of the Cambridge Witches could save a soul, but only if they can shed their secrets….

Having studied and later taught at Cambridge University, I couldn’t resist a book called “The Cambridge Witches” but I was prepared to be critical of any mistakes in the background detail. I don’t think there are any. The boring bits of academic life have been left out, but that just helps to speed up the story-telling. Quirky areas of Cambridge town – such as Midsummer Common – are well exploited. The author is clearly writing about a place she knows and loves.  Menna van Praag is young, beautiful and successful but let’s not hate her for that because she endured a long struggle to get her work accepted and had to self-publish her first book  – “Men, Money and Chocolate” (great  title). She still has to put up with patronising reviews. I note that when a male author like Matt Haig writes warm-hearted, life-affirming novels (see my August 2014 post on “To Be A Cat”) his work is praised as profound, but when a female author does it her books tends to be dismissed as sentimental Chick Lit.

I do concede that if the sort of relationships you like to read about in Fantasy mainly culminate in rape, mutilation or gruesome death, this rather gentle novel probably isn’t for you. The focus is on the witches’ innermost feelings and much of the magic is of a therapeutic kind – such as “Break-up Brownies” made with pinches of magnolia for dignity and celandine petals for joys to come. Having said that, the story is darker than you might expect from the opening chapters. Cruel things happen to several of the characters and magic isn’t shown as able to solve all problems or prevent all ills. Some of the plot twists are rather predictable. Others may give you a jolt. You could class “The Cambridge Witches” as a Romance but it doesn’t just feature romantic love.  There are many different kinds of love in the story, including love between friends and siblings and between parents and children. Types of infatuation which can be mistaken for love are cleverly depicted and I like the fact that van Praag seems equally interested in lovers of all ages, from teenage Noa to sixty-something Héloise. The men in this book do tend to be either very nasty or very nice but the women are satisfyingly complex.

The way that van Praag combines compassion with sharp analysis when writing about her female characters, and the emphasis on the little comforts of daily life, made me think of her as a mildly pagan version of Elizabeth Goudge (see my September 2012 post on Goudge’s classic children’s novel “The Little White Horse”). van Praag is a very sensual writer. I don’t mean that her work is erotic (though there are a couple of steamy sex scenes in this novel) but that she revels in sensory appreciation of the world and is excellent at describing how things look, sound, feel or taste. The visual arts are important in this novel and van Praag made me see Santiago’s mesmerising seascape paintings which remind Noa “of Turner’s tranquil sunsets, with a slightly sinister edge, as if sharks swim in the purple seas and black crows caw through the red skies.” We’ve all read about corruption and fraud in the art-world but this book comes up with an entirely new form of art-crime. The joy of reading and discussing books with like-minded people is celebrated in this novel and plays a major role in Héloise’s recovery – though not quite in the way she expects. Then there is the food…

The wonderful tastes and aromas of Cosima’s Café Gustare reminded me of my own favourite Sicilian café (it’s called Dolce & Salato if you are ever in Cheltenham). Food is shown as a tangible expression of love, such as the picnic Cosima prepares to share with her adored husband – sour cherry and chocolate cupcakes, goat’s cheese and pesto pizzas, orange oil canoli, and lemon and lavender cake. Cosima’s magic melds traditional herbalism with the Great British Bake-Off. The book even includes full recipes for delights such as “Spicy Chocolate Cake – To Ensure Wishes Come True” and “Very Simple Sicilian Biscuits – For Domestic Bliss”. In the early stages of the plot, van Praag gets a lot of humour out of the wrong person eating an enchanted biscuit. Later food plays a more poignant role, summing up someone’s character. Café Gustare definitely joins my list of Fantasy places I should love to visit.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by this novel’s modish argument that keeping secrets from people close to you is always harmful. I think I’ll still plump for traditional British reticence. Nor does “The Witches of Cambridge” have as strong a central concept as van Praag’s last two Cambridge-set novels – “The House at the End of Hope Street” (a magical sanctuary for women who need a new start in life) and “The Dress Shop of Dreams” (a shop where the clothes endow women with qualities they lack) but if you love cake (and aren’t currently on a diet) this book is a mouth-watering treat. Until next time….
















Last week a British Head Teacher declared that children shouldn’t be allowed to read Fantasy novels because their darkness and violence damage “sensitive subconscious brains” and “encourage difficult behaviour”. He suggested that parents should read them Classics such as Shakespeare instead, which is odd if you consider the amount of darkness, violence and fantasy in Shakespeare’s plays. Can he ever have read “Macbeth” ? This is a man who clearly knows nothing of the range and depth of Fantasy fiction. In response, I’m going to recommend a Fantasy novel which is all about the right way to educate young minds – “The Just City” by Welsh/Canadian author Jo Walton. This came out in 2014 and is available in paperback or as an ebook.

At the start of this story the Greek god Apollo visits his half-sister, the goddess Athene, and learns about her project to help a group of humans found the ideal “Just City” described by the Athenian philosopher Plato (c.428-348 BCE) in his dialogue “The Republic”.  Athene uses her ability to travel through time to collect 300 people from many different eras who have all longed to live in Plato’s Just City. She brings them to the volcanic island of Kallisti (Thera) during the Bronze Age. This group, which includes some famous thinkers and scholars, are destined to be the Masters who will teach the first generation of children to love what is good and strive for excellence. Athene provides robots from a far future to build and maintain the new city and sends some of the Masters to collect great art and buy thousands of Greek-speaking ten year-old children at slave markets across the centuries. Apollo arranges to be reborn as one of these children because he thinks it will be interesting to experience this great experiment from a human point of view.

Among the children chosen by Renaissance philosopher, Master Ficino, is a clever Coptic girl from Egypt whom he renames Simmea. She is assigned to a dining hall called Florentia and a sleeping house presided over by Master Maia, who was born a clergyman’s daughter in 19th century England. Simmea loves her new communal life and the intensive education she receives but Kebes, a boy bought from the same slavers, resents the fact that he was given no choice about coming to Kallisti and that he is not allowed to leave. Kebes believes that he has a special relationship with Simmea, so he becomes jealous when she befriends an exceptionally handsome and brilliant boy called Pytheas.

As the children grow up it becomes increasingly clear that Plato didn’t know much about teenagers and that some of his ideas on how to achieve social justice are not working out as planned. Those ideas are questioned by Plato’s own mentor, Sokrates, when Athene has him saved from his execution in Athens and brought back in time to Kallisti. Among the children Sokrates chooses to teach are Simmea, Kebes and Pytheas, who are singled out as future Guardians – Plato’s ruling elite. They debate many issues, including whether it is worth building a society which is bound to be destroyed when the island’s volcano eventually erupts. Sokrates is also determined to find out whether the robots who have taken the place of human slaves are intelligent beings who should be treated as people. Some citizens of the Just City begin to follow forbidden forms of love; others plot rebellion and Sokrates prepares to challenge the power and wisdom of the gods…

The Head Teacher mentioned above complains that Fantasy fiction isn’t difficult or challenging enough to stimulate young minds. “The Just City” easily disproves that argument. I think you’ll find it intellectually stimulating whatever age your mind happens to be. Walton notes that she was inspired to write this novel by reading Plato when she was “way too young”. I’m glad to know that I wasn’t the only teenager to have imaginary arguments with Sokrates (I didn’t get out much). Plato, the original spinner of the Atlantis myth, can be seen as one of the earliest Science Fiction/Fantasy authors and the invented society he describes in “The Republic” is one of the most influential Utopias in literary history. For over 2,000 years readers have been both shocked and attracted by the revolutionary ideas expounded in Plato’s work – ideas such as the abolition of family units and equal education for women.

If you are now thinking that there is no point in trying to read “The Just City” because you don’t know anything about Plato, please don’t worry. Walton puts all the information you need into the story and the novel is cleverly constructed so that readers can identify with either of two contrasting groups of characters – the ones who are deeply influenced by “The Republic” and the ones who haven’t yet read the book that is shaping their lives. The children brought to Kallisti are not going to be allowed to read “The Republic” until they are 50, and then only if they belong to the “Gold” souls – the intellectual elite. If you want to read Plato’s dangerous book rather sooner, editions such as the Penguin Classics paperback are very easy to find. There are older translations which you can download from the internet for free, including one by Oxford Don, Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) who appears as a character in this novel under the name of Adeimantus.

You can probably tell from my synopsis that “The Just City” is stronger on concept than plot development. The story is told by three diverse voices – two human and one divine. The humans are represented by one teacher, Maia, and one pupil, Simmea. Maia is the least interesting of the three narrators. She does make a strong impression in her opening chapter as she longs for “a life of the mind” but is frustrated by the “unbearably narrow” choices available to Victorian woman. Maia is attracted to Plato’s work because in his Republic she could learn to be a philosopher. Once her prayer is granted by Athene, Maia’s life seems to become one long committee meeting – as you might expect in a society run by philosophers. The importance of women having true freedom of choice is one of the major themes of the novel but Maia is raped by one of her fellow Masters. This dramatic storyline doesn’t really lead anywhere and Maia sinks into the background in the latter part of the novel.

Many authors would have used the rebellious Kebes as their viewpoint character amongst the slave-children but obedient Simmea is a more subtle choice. She is grateful for the education she is offered by the Masters and keen to be a good citizen but, with Sokrates help,  she blossoms into a thinker who loves to question everything. Simmea may be plain but she is brave, intelligent and warm-hearted enough to impress Apollo himself. Early in the book it is revealed to readers that Pytheas is an incarnation of Apollo. He has the memories of an immortal deity but is experiencing the pains and joys of life as a human. Apollo gradually learns from Simmea that all men and women are of equal significance and that their choices must be respected. The Platonic love which develops between these two characters is the most touching relationship in the novel.

Like the Fantasy-hating Head Teacher, Plato was concerned that young people should only be exposed to improving fiction. One of his rules was that children mustn’t be told stories about bad behaviour and violent quarrels among gods and heroes – which excludes most of Greek mythology. Walton seems to be aiming her novel more at adults than older children, so she shows the Greek deities – even the goddess of wisdom – as having faults and limitations. Rather like this novel. Some of the chapters about the setting up of the city are rather dull and Walton lets the sub-plot about Sokrates and the robots overwhelm the individual story-lines of the three narrators. That’s the kind of thing which can happen if you allow a character as lively as Sokrates into your novel. Not everyone will like the open ending of “The Just City”, which leaves it unclear whether the Kallisti experiment will inspire Plato’s ideal Republic or only the legend of the doomed civilization of Atlantis. When reading this novel I often found myself thinking that I would have handled the material differently but that just shows how engaged I was with the central idea. This is a book which makes you want to examine your own life and join in the “great conversation” about the way the world should be. I can’t see that as being harmful to anyone’s mind. Until next time…


P.S. For another recommended Fantasy novel set on Thera see my post on “Travels in Elysium” (June 2013)















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