I have a love/hate relationship with my Kindle but there is no denying that e-readers have made a wider range of Fantasy fiction readily available. This week’s choice – `Elementals: Water’ by Peter Dickinson and Robin McKinley – is a case in point. Until recently you would have had to search hard for second-hand printed copies of this book, which is also known by the title, `Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits’. Now it is easy and cheap to buy an ebook edition. American-born McKinley and long-established British author Dickinson are married to each other and currently live in England. This volume contains three novellas by each writer. When `Elementals: Water’ came out in 2002 it was marketed as a children’s book, but Dickinson’s contributions at least are best regarded as fairy tales for grown-ups.

This is not a sequence of connected stories sharing a common setting. The only link between these novellas is that they all feature the element of water and the magical or monstrous creatures which may live in it. `Mermaid Song’ by Dickinson concerns a Puritan community on the coast of a region similar to 19th century New England, while McKinley’s `The Sea King’s Son’ is set in an unnamed country where the sea people and the land people have long been estranged. Dickinson’s` Sea Serpent’ takes place in and around Britain’s Severn Estuary during an ancient era when the Fathergod is challenging the rule of the Earthmother. In `Water Horse’ by McKinley a girl is summoned by the Guardian of Western Mouth to help her protect their island from the hostile forces of the sea. Dickinson’s `Kraken’ follows a sea-princess as she encounters the ultimate terror of the deep when she tries to save two of the airfolk from drowning. The final story, `A Pool in the Desert’, is set in the same world as McKinley’s popular Fantasy Romance `The Blue Sword’. It involves an unhappy young woman who dreams of a better life in a legendary desert-land.

The stories in this volume reflect humanity’s ambiguous relationship with water. Water is precious (especially in desert-lands) and essential to life but it can also be dangerous and hugely destructive. It has often been pointed out that we know more about outer space than the we do about the depths of our oceans and lakes, so it’s not surprising that many cultures have legends about creatures who live in these depths. Folktales are awash with sea-creatures – seductive mermaids, seals who can transform into people, and wish-granting fish. These folktales were an inspiration to 19th century Fantasy writers, such as Hans Christian Andersen, and there seems to have been a recent revival of interest in sea-creature Fantasy (see my posts on `The Undrowned Child’ – June 2013, `The Brides of Rollrock Island’ – November 2013, and `Diving Belles’, January 2015). I particularly enjoy stories about merfolk and underwater kingdoms. There are three of these in `Elementals: Water’, each portraying a different kind of relationship between merfolk and airfolk. This book also offers a terrifying man-eating water-serpent, a beautiful but menacing version of the Scottish water-horse (kelpie), an unusual interpretation of the Kraken, the monster whose rising means the end of the world, and in `Pool in the Desert’ there is a starring role for my favourite amphibian – the newt. You don’t get many newts in mainstream Fantasy.

McKinley and Dickinson have collaborated on a number of collections but, thankfully, they remain very different writers. In `Elementals: Water’ they are both inspired by the sea-creatures of legend and folklore but the resulting stories are fascinatingly distinct. One of the few qualities this pair of authors have in common is a refusal to make their fiction fashionably fast-paced. Each of them takes all the time they need to build up atmosphere and character. Practise a little patience as a reader and you will be rewarded with memorable stories.

I find McKinley’s work consistently enjoyable. Like most of her novels, the three novellas in this volume fit comfortably into the subgenre of `Young Adult Fantasy’. They each tell the story of a young woman – quiet farmer’s daughter, Jenny, who is in love with the wrong man (`The Sea King’s Son’), shy, over-looked step-daughter, Tamia (`Water Horse’), and exploited and frustrated elder sister, Hetta (`A Pool in the Desert’). These last two are typical McKinley heroines – intelligent,  hard-working, kind-hearted animal lovers who long to escape from domestic drudgery or abuse. I get the impression that McKinley always identifies very strongly with her heroines and that makes them easy to care about. Her romantic heroes usually strike me as being more like wish-fulfilment figures than flesh and flaw real men (or mermen). This may be why I thought that `Water Horse’, which has no Romance element, was the best story of the three. Its water-magic is well worked out and watching a girl develop from insecure drudge to national treasure is very satisfying. Besides, you have to like a heroine who takes time in the middle of a magical crisis to help a mare give birth.

Dickinson is a more versatile writer (I recommend his eccentric mystery stories) and a less predictable one. McKinley has empathy for her heroines but Dickinson shows compassion towards all his characters – good and bad. In `Mermaid Song’ a girl aptly named Pitiable is cruelly mistreated by her grandfather, Probity Hooke, but Dickinson makes you understand why this sad old man behaves the way he does. Pitiable and Probity belong to a repressive culture but this isn’t too dark a story because the women of this community have a marvellous secret to sustain them. The plot of `Water Serpent’ involves a magician trying to steal sacred stones from a shrine of the Earth Goddess, so you might expect it to be told either from the point of view of the magician or of the wronged priestess of the Goddess. Instead, events are seen through the eyes of an old man who uses drug-induced dreams to navigate the strange tides of the Severn, a man who realizes that he is working for the wrong side but is obliged by his own moral code to fulfil the contract he has made. There is no easy resolution to this situation.

With Dickinson’s third novella, `Kraken’ , you get two stories for the price of one. The first concerns a wild tuna-riding sea-princess on the brink of maturity and the second a strong-willed human princess who has run away with her lover. We never find out the full details of this second story and we don’t need to. The few glimpses we get of these doomed lovers are so extraordinary that they make you believe in a love that can transcend death. Dickinson may not write Romances but he can certainly portray passion. So, if you are in the mood for some marine magic, try this book. Then you will also have the companion volume `Elementals: Fire’ to look forward to. Until next time….

Geraldine

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

 

 

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