Archives for category: Dark Fantasy

Does no-one have fun in Fantasy fiction any more? I ask because so many of the Fantasy novels I’ve read recently are about tortured souls having a horrible time in invented countries that no-one would choose to live in. I wish I could tell you that this week’s recommendation – `The Copper Promise’ by Jen Williams – was completely different but that wouldn’t be true. In many ways this novel is a throwback to the Sword and Sorcery romps of the mid 20th century but with added gloom and gore. Thankfully, it still manages to be an entertaining read. `The Copper Promise’, which came out in 2014, is easily available in paperback or as an ebook and there is already a sequel called `The Iron Ghost’.

Young Lord Frith of Blackwood needs knowledge and power if he is to carry out his plan to avenge his murdered family. He begins by hiring two of the most famous sell-swords in all Ede – Wydrin, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven and her huge friend Sebastian, who was once a Knight of Ynnsmouth. Their first task is is to help him search the haunted Citadel of Krete, which is said to have `a thousand grisly ways to kill you, each more unpleasant than the last’. Wydrin and Sebastian’s companion, Gallo, has already disappeared inside the Citadel while treasure-hunting, so they are keen to find him. Frith is only interested in a legend that powerful mages, from the era when gods and goddesses walked the earth, still inhabit the labyrinth below the Citadel.

The labyrinth proves to be every bit as dangerous as expected and the reunion with Gallo is not a happy one. The adventurers are warned that the mages imprisoned Y’Ruen`a creature of unspeakable evil’ under the Citadel and that she is awake and breeding an army. When they refuse to turn back, they unleash a monster on the world.  Wounded Sebastian finds that he has a blood-link to the goddess Y’Ruen’s army of ferocious daughters while Frith gains magical powers that he does not know how to use.

Transported by magic to Blackwood, the adventurers have a perilous encounter with Fane, the man who tortured Frith and murdered his family. With help from a Secret Keeper, Frith is able to take the hidden path to the treasure vault that Fane was searching for. Its contents send Frith on another quest for knowledge – a quest that takes him to a mysterious island. Meanwhile, Wydrin does things she regrets and embarks on a desperate voyage to save her brother, while Sebastian feels so guilty about the death and destruction caused by Y’Ruen’s army that he makes a terrible bargain. Can Frith, Wydrin and Sebastian act together to confront a goddess and save their world?

Chapter 5 of `The Copper Promise’ ends with the words – `The haunted Citadel awaits’. Could you resist reading on? I certainly couldn’t. No-one enjoys a haunted citadel more than I do so I was rather miffed when this one was totally destroyed a few chapters later. Fortunately the book still has plenty of the other ingredients you need for a rip-roaring Sword and Sorcery adventure – including killer bears, twin villains with demonic powers, an invisible bridge, a deity in disguise, a magical suit of armour, a pirate ship versus dragon combat, an eerie mountaintop Rookery with monstrous guardians and, as Wydrin remarks in the sequel, plenty of `sneaking about…and old fashioned beating people up’. None of this is particularly original but the thrills and chills come thick and fast.

For Fantasy buffs like me, the interest lies in seeing how Williams has updated the Sword and Sorcery genre for 21st century readers. `The Copper Promise’ has no pseudo-medieval dialogue; all the characters speak in a modern idiom whether they are knights or priestesses, mystics or demons. This is probably wise but Williams is no great stylist and I do miss the rich and subtle language of Sword and Sorcery masters such as Jack Vance (see my June 2013 post on `The Dying Earth’) or Fritz Leiber. The violence in `The Copper Promise’ is described in much more graphic detail than it would have been in older novels. You could argue that this makes the book more honest about the brutal consequences of wielding a sword, whether you’re a hero or a villain. The passages written from the viewpoint of Y’Ruen’s murderous daughters as they massacre everyone they meet almost tip the story into the Horror genre, yet they also show some of the daughters gradually developing individuality and human feelings. Williams is a writer with emotional intelligence and her main characters have more capacity to change and deepen than most of the iconic characters from the golden age of Sword and Sorcery.

It is clear that Williams has been strongly influenced by two of these iconic character – Fritz Leiber’s treasure-hunting, sword-fighting duo, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (see my July 2014 post on `Swords and Deviltry’). In this updated version, huge but smart northern barbarian Fafhrd becomes massive, mountain-god worshipping barbarian Sebastian and small, crafty but impulsive Mouser becomes diminutive dagger-fighter Wydrin, nicknamed the Copper Cat. In a further contemporary twist, sensitive Sebastian has been thrown out of a religious order of Knights for being gay while Wydrin is a woman who likes to drink, gamble and take stupid risks. This pairing works wells. Sebastian and Wydrin’s friendship is oddly convincing but I never believed in them as carefree rogues. They have too much emotional baggage and they lack Fafhrd and Mouser’s zest for adventure and mischief. There is less humour in `The Copper Promise’ than I was expecting because the plot rapidly takes several grim turns.

The standard treasure-hunting quest is expanded by many other plot-lines because Williams wants to explore the lives and choices of her leading characters. Several past and potential love stories are treated with surprising delicacy and it isn’t easy to predict whether the duo will become a trio again. Can anything be done to reverse Gallo’s alarming condition and will arrogant aristocrat, Frith (literally a tortured soul) go from client to companion? If you are a reader in search of gay heroes in Fantasy, `The Copper Promise’ could be the book for you. Honourable, guilt-ridden Sebastian is an immediately sympathetic figure, which makes the dark path he eventually chooses to take all the more unnerving.

Wydrin is less interesting and her (mainly self-inflicted) personal problems don’t seem as well integrated with the main plotline as Sebastian’s do. However, Williams does have fun with Frith’s (and so many male authors and cover-artists’) fantasy of what the Copper Cat might be like, `a tall, curvaceous woman, with hair as red as blood tumbling unbidden to her waist, a pair of green eyes as playful and cruel as a cat’s, and armour that perhaps did not leave much to the imagination. In truth the Copper Cat was a young woman of average height with short, carroty hair, freckles across her nose and almost every inch of her covered in boiled leather armour.’ This passage alone is enough to show that `The Copper Promise’ is traditional Fantasy with a modern slant. If you are up for high adventure in good company, this is a series worth trying. Until next time…




I apologize for the longer than usual gap between posts, which was due to the disruption caused by having painters in my house. During all the moving of books I rediscovered a novel that I am making this week’s recommendation. The ugly cover of  `The Fishers of Darksea’ (bald men waving spears) nearly made me put it on the `going to the charity shop’ pile. Then I glanced at the first few pages and remembered why I had kept this book for so long. `The Fishers of Darksea’ is one of two novels with a Fantasy feel but some Science Fiction elements written by British author Roger Eldridge (1944-2007). Both are out of print and unavailable as ebooks but it is still easy to find cheap copies of the 1984 Unwin Unicorn paperback edition of `The Fishers of Darksea’.

In a version of our world, an Arctic tribe live on a volcanic island which they call Darksea. The tribespeople hate and fear Old Churny (the sea) and try to prevent the winter ice from ever touching their island. The strict rules which govern life on Darksea are enforced by Glorkas, the rarely seen Water Sorcerer, and Nemu, the Curer. As the story begins, two young men known as Mirth and No-Mirth, are trying to prove that they are worthy `to be admitted to the deep-house of the Fishers’ and join the elite of the tribe. Mirth and No-Mirth are Others, bound together from early childhood;  they share a wife and a destiny. Others are supposed to behave as one person but No-Mirth sometimes thinks and acts independently. This nearly costs Mirth his life during their struggle to kill a fang-walker (a walrus).

In the deep-house, Mirth sings the story of their conquest of the fang-walker. Nemu suspects that parts of the story are untrue, but the Others are accepted as Fishers and each receive a piece of the sacred Liferock to wear. Mirth is delighted to join the Fisherhood, even though it will involve hard and dangerous work. No-Mirth is unhappy that his new status sets him apart from his family and from his childhood friend, Anselm. He surprises everyone by giving the walrus-tusk he won in the hunt to his share-child, Mirth’s little daughter Liss-eht. When walking the cliffs by himself, No-Mirth sees a gigantic Fish circling the island. He is sure that this monster poses a terrible threat to Darksea but no-one will believe him.

No-Mirth tries to send a vision of what he has seen to the Water Sorcerer and makes an enemy of jealous Nemu. Mirth presses his Other to conform but when No-Mirth realizes that he has true-sight he begins to question the Seven Fear-laws of Darksea. Is it really true that his tribe are the only flesh-folk (humans) in the world and that everything that lives in or floats on the sea is evil? After a confrontation with Nemu, rule-breaker No-Mirth has to flee from the angry Fishers. In the bone-house, No-Mirth encounters a creature from the Warm. He learns the truth about his island and has an almost impossible choice to make…

With a hero named No-Mirth you can’t expect this to be a cheery novel but it is an interesting one and not as gloomy as my synopsis suggests. A major plot-twist about two-thirds of the way through the book is pretty clearly sign-posted right from the start.  You will probably think, `I know what’s going on here – it’s a people with superior technology observe and exploit a primitive society situation.’ This was indeed a popular plot-line in Science Fiction stories and television series of the 1970s and 80s but the variant in `The Fishers of Darksea’ does not develop in the way you might expect. One of the themes of this story – the dangers of exploiting wild places like the Arctic – seems more topical now than it was when the book was first published.

The great selling points of this novel are the intensity of Eldridge’s writing and the way that he completely immerses the reader in this isolated hunter-gatherer society. From the very first sentence, the physical setting of the story is astonishingly vivid – `A light wind idled across the rocky heights of Darksea, gathering steam from the spout-holes and making pale ghosts whirl across the water towards the fishwalk.’ With its mists, blizzards and unpredictable spouts of scalding steam, this barren island is a terrible place where the tribe is slowly losing its struggle to survive. Eldridge belonged to what I would call the anthropological school of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He builds up a detailed picture of how the people of Darksea think and behave and he invents convincing rituals, traditions and myths for the tribe. No-Mirth tells his Other-daughter the story of how the island was created when the radiant goddess Liferock emerged from her prison beneath the ocean `in a great fire-burst that made the brine boil’ and the ancestors of the tribe were born.

Anthropologists will tell you that not all tribes live in harmony with nature. The people of Darksea believe that they are alone in a hostile world. They think that the ocean is their enemy and that anyone who falls into the poisonous brine will die and become a nixie. The fate of each child in the tribe is decided by the Water-Sorcerer examining the guts of a fish. The children themselves have no say in what they will do when they grow up. The one person who questions his preordained role in the tribe and tries to find a new identity for himself is No-Mirth. He is unhappy being paired with Mirth when the real link he feels is with Anselm, whose fate is to live in the common-house rather than becoming a Fisher. No-Mirth has a grim outlook but he is humanized by his love for his share-daughter `the joy of his waking life’. The adult women in No-Mirth’s life, such as his share-wife, are too worn down by daily tasks to be interested in the status games that the men play.

At first it seems obvious that the ways of the tribe are primitive, brutal and ignorant and that No-Mirth is a hero for thinking as an individual but the story is more nuanced than that. The Fishers are brave and resourceful and the novel explores the benefits of thinking collectively as well as the drawbacks. No-Mirth himself recognizes that many of his actions have been selfish and that he is partly responsible for his disastrous relationship with his Other. When No-Mirth encounters beings from a very different culture, it gives him a better understanding of his own society. Some anthropologists claim that all cultures can be divided into just two types – ones that can cope with change and ones that can’t. `The Fishers of Darksea’ is a novel which makes you wonder if your own tribe will survive in an era of massive changes. Until next time….





Necromancers are Fantasy’s favourite villains but there are both good and bad necromancers in this week’s recommendation  – a new book in the popular `Old Kingdom Series’ by Australian writer, Garth Nix. `Clariel’ was published in 2014 and is easy to find in paperback or as an ebook. The first three novels in the series – `Sabriel’, `Lirael’ and `Abhorsen’ featured two courageous heroines, two captivating magical creatures, a unique form of magic involving seven bells, and more zombies than `The Walking Dead’. `Clariel’ is a prequel, set around 600 years before the start of `Sabriel’, so it provides a good introduction to Nix’s Old Kingdom – a country where technology doesn’t work and there is a constant threat from the returning dead and Free Magic elementals. Only Charter Magic can protect the living.

When this story begins, the Old Kingdom is enjoying a time of relative peace and the importance of Charter Magic has almost been forgotten. Seventeen-year-old Clariel has been forced to leave her beloved forest, and accompany her parents to Belisaere, the capital city of the Old Kingdom. Lady Clariel is a very well connected young woman. Her mother has just become a High Master of the Goldsmiths Guild and Clariel is related to the reigning king and to the current Abhorsen, the powerful Charter Mage whose task is to banish the dead and defeat demons. Clariel wants to become a Borderer and spend her life patrolling the Great Forest but her parents insist that she goes to an elite school where she will mix with the `best people’, including her friendly cousin Bel.

At school, Clariel begins to understand that the Guilds are now more powerful in Belisaere than the royal family and that the Abhorsen and his clan no longer practise their hereditary magic. Bel is the only member of the family striving to be a true Abhorsen. When Clariel is sent to Magister Kargrin for some token lessons in Charter Magic, he discovers that she has an affinity with Free Magic and a powerful rage within her. Kargrin enlists her help to track down and capture a Free Magic creature which is loose in the city but the encounter does not go as planned. Clariel is warned that the whole kingdom is in danger but she focuses on avoiding an arranged marriage and getting back to her chosen way of life.

When the power-struggles in Belisaere erupt into violence, Clariel flees the city with the help of Bel. Clariel is taken to the ancient House of the Abhorsens where she meets Mogget, an elemental being in the form of a cat who is compelled to serve each Abhorsen. The House is staffed by ghostly servants known as Sendings and protected by powerful magics. Clariel is safe there but she doesn’t want safety – she wants action and revenge. She decides to risk using Free Magic; a choice which sets her on the path to an extraordinary destiny.

This is a difficult review to write because I can’t tell you about some of the things which make this novel so good without spoiling the story. I shall have to choose my words as carefully as Mogget does. Anyone who enjoyed the previous `Old Kingdom’ books will be delighted to meet the charming but utterly unreliable Mogget again. He may look like an ordinary white cat but he is something very different if anyone is foolish enough to remove the collar which binds him. Without breaking the rules of his servitude, Mogget can deceive and beguile innocents like Clariel into very deep trouble but he’s also capable of forming real attachments to some humans. You never know which way he’ll jump and that is what makes him a fascinating character.

Nix usually writes as if all the monsters he’s invented were snapping at his heels, so he daren’t pause for a reflective moment. Most of his novels are packed with thrilling non-stop action scenes, leaving little room for character development. The one exception is `Lirael’ , which describes all the formative events in the shy young heroine’s life before sending her off on a difficult and dangerous mission. `Clariel’ is similar in that the reader is allowed plenty of time to get to know the central character and understand her hopes and dreams. Clariel’s unhappy relationships with her weak father and dominating mother, her frustration at the lady-like role she’s expected to play and her fear of being manipulated, are all very well portrayed. It is because we see the politics of Belisaere through her naive eyes, that the descent into  extreme violence is particularly shocking. Clariel suddenly finds herself fighting to survive.

I suspect that some readers of this blog will be thinking, `Please, not another story about a feisty teenage girl finding her true destiny and saving the world!’ I have several responses to this complaint. Firstly, Fantasy Fiction was dominated by male characters for a very long time, so now it’s the girls’ turn to take the leading roles. Secondly, it is every teenager’s job to discover their destiny and save the world because they have reached the age when they can see what the previous generation has done wrong. Teenagers burn to put it all right but they may end up making things worse. There are two teenagers in `Clariel’ who seize the initiative because they think that they know better than their elders but their actions have very different results. This is a `finding your destiny’ story with a bitter twist.

If you are not yet convinced that `Clariel’ is worth reading, here are more reasons. Nix takes risks with the character of Clariel. She isn’t particularly likeable and she is definitely not your typical Fantasy Romance heroine. She has tried sex and didn’t think much of it and she isn’t interested in relationships. Clariel is critical of everyone around her but blind to her own faults and the mistakes she makes aren’t the sort which teach neat life-lessons. The motto of the `Old Kingdom Series’  is `Does the Walker Choose the Path, or the Path the Walker?’ `Clariel’ is a serious exploration of the question of how much character shapes destiny. At the end of this novel you will probably look back at the choices Clariel has made and wonder whether things could have turned out differently. So, if you want a change from the usual `follow your dream and save the world’ format, try this introduction to one of modern Fantasy’s darkest domains. Until next time…



This week I’m recommending `Uprooted’ by Naomi Novik. She is the author of the popular `Temeraire’ books about the relationship between a Chinese dragon and an English naval captain at the time of the Napoleonic wars. I had some reservations about this Historical Fantasy series but I’ve been completely won over by Novik’s new novel, which has a more conventional Fantasy setting influenced by Eastern European fairy tales. `Uprooted’ came out this Spring, so it is currently only available in hardback or as an ebook. The intriguing first sentence suggests that this is going to be another dragon-centred novel – `Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley’ – but Novik is just playing with her readers’ expectations. If you only want more of the same from Novik, you may be disappointed but I admire authors who dare to try something different.

In `Uprooted’ the story is told by Agnieszka (Nieshka), a girl who lives in one of the villages close to the sinister forest known simply as the Wood. Something monstrous dwells deep in the Wood. Anyone who strays into the Wood is lost and anything and anybody it touches is hideously corrupted. The villagers are protected from the malice of the Wood by their local Lord, a wizard known as the Dragon. Once every ten years the Dragon takes a seventeen year-old girl to serve him in his tower. The girls are released at the end of their service but they never want to return to their homes. `The Dragon didn’t always take the prettiest girl, but he always took the most special one’. This choosing year everyone is sure that the Dragon will take Nieshka’s best friend, bright and beautiful Kasia. Instead, he picks Nieshka.

Alone with the Dragon in his tower, Nieshka finds that her worst fears aren’t coming true but she is still baffled by the bad-tempered wizard’s attempts to teach her simple spells. It is only after an unfortunate encounter with Prince Marek of Polnya that Nieshka realizes she is a potentially powerful witch. When the Wood attacks her village while the Dragon is away, Nieshka has to discover her own form of magic, based on the spells of the legendary witch, Jaga. Nieshka helps her village and later risks her life to rescue her friend, Kasia, from a people-devouring tree. Then she and the Dragon combine their magics in a new way to purge Kasia of the shadows of the Wood.

This success leads Prince Marek to compel Nieshka to undertake a reckless expedition to rescue his mother, Queen Hanna, who has been imprisoned in the Wood for twenty years. Kasia and the Queen will both have to prove that they are free of the Wood’s corruption or be burned to death. Nieshka travels to the royal court of Polnya to meet her fellow wizards and witches but the evil of the Wood seems to follow her there, provoking murder and war. To bring peace, Nieshka and the Dragon must seek the heart of the Wood and confront the Wood-Queen herself.

Nieshka is a vivid narrator with a sharp turn of phrase. Her story gripped me from the very first sentence to the very last. I read it quickly and was sometimes enchanted and sometimes shocked but never bored. Once she’s uprooted from her beloved family and village, Nieshka’s life is filled with mysteries, challenges and nightmare-like experiences. Even when some of the mysteries appear to be explained, there usually turns out to be much more to learn. A book which seems for the first few chapters to be about a young woman’s magical and romantic education suddenly develops into a violent and disturbing story. I’ve categorized `Uprooted’ as Dark Fantasy with good reason. Terrible things happen to innocent people (and trees) in this book. After her `Temeraire’ series, Novik is an old hand at writing brutal unromanticized battle scenes but her talent for gruesomely inventive Horror is unexpected.

European folklore and Fantasy fiction are full of beautiful but dangerous forests; wild places where the rules of civilization are left behind and anything can happen. Novik has created a woodland setting that can stand comparison with Tolkien’s Mirkwood,  T.H.White’s Forest Sauvage (see my post of  December 2012), Holdstock’s Mythago Wood or Patricia Mckillip’s Forests of Serre (see my post of November 2013). Her Wood contains scary things, such as white wolves, the stick-like Walkers who carry off children, and massive heart-trees which can swallow a person, body and soul. However, it is the Wood’s effect on the nearby villages that is truly terrifying. Even `shambler vines’ or pollen from the Wood can transform crops into poison, domestic animals into monsters, and sane people into mad and murderous men or woman. Yet this is not the motiveless evil of what I would call Junk Fantasy. There does turn out to be a reason why the Wood has become so hostile to its human neighbours.

Novik’s Wood has the ability to bring out the worst in humanity and to expose people’s basest motives to each other. This works because there is real depth to the characterization in `Uprooted’. In her `Temeraire’ series, the secondary characters never came to life for me. Here they do. Prince Marek, for example, is not as heroic as his reputation suggests. He is arrogant and manipulative but also damaged and vulnerable. Unchosen Kasia turns out to have a destiny as remarkable as Nieshka’s and their friendship is convincing because it is full of tensions and unspoken resentments. Then there is the fascinating relationship between Nieshka, who describes herself as `a too skinny colt of a girl with big feet and tangled dirt-brown hair’ and the ageless wizard who has deliberately stayed detached from the people he guards. She starts by hating him; he thinks she has `an unequaled gift for disaster’. Their personality clash is described with great humour. More unusually, their slowly developing love is expressed almost entirely through the magic they do together.

Another of the things which surprised me about this novel was how good Novik is at writing about magic. She makes the spells used in `Uprooted’ seem thrilling and difficult. Each of the wizards and witches in this novel has a distinctive type of magic which fits the kind of person they are. The Dragon loves beauty, perfection and order, so his spells are `great intricate interweavings of gesture and word that went on like songs’. Nieshka’s magic is more earthy, passionate and instinctive. The Dragon is a book-loving intellectual. Nieshka’s spells draw on the traditional nature-magic of Slavic wise women. Baba Yaga, the great witch of Russian and Eastern European folklore (see my April 2013 post on `Prince Ivan’ ) is inserted into the story in a clever and subtle way.

Novik is drawing on her own Polish roots in this book. As you might expect from the title, `Uprooted’ looks at the roots of ancient conflicts and at why people put down roots in a particular place. It also explores what it means to be rootless, either by choice or because of some traumatic event. `Uprooted’ is a thought-provoking novel. In this era of frequent refugee crises, it asks when people should flee and when they should stand and fight to save their homeland. Oh and just when you’ve stopped expecting one, there is a dragon. Until next time…


This week I’m recommending Book One of `Iremonger’, a series set in a bizarre version of Victorian London. `Heap House’ by British-born author and artist, Edward Carey was published in 2013. It’s available in paperback or as an ebook but to get the full impact of Carey’s creepy monochrome illustrations you really need the hardback edition. Some Fantasy fans may have missed this long dark novel because it is allegedly for children `aged 9-12′. I would say that it is for people who have a Gothic cast of mind – and fairly strong nerves. Age has little to do with it. If you loved Mervyn Peake’s `Gormenghast Trilogy’ and go around muttering, `They don’t write ’em like that any more’, take heart. Carey does.

The story begins in 1875 and is centred on two young people born into very different lives – Clod Iremonger and Lucy Pennant. Walls separate London from the grim district of Filching and from the massive heaps of rubbish gathered from all over the capital city. The Iremonger family controls these stinking, rat-infested heaps and has made a great fortune from them. Numerous members of the Iremonger family live in a mansion known as `Heap House’ in the centre of the `heaplands’. One of the unusual things about this family is that each of them has been allocated a `birth object’ which they must always keep close to them.

The birth object of Clodius Iremonger (Clod) is a universal bathplug. Clod is sickly and small for his age but he is the grandson of the head of the family, and he has a talent for hearing objects talk – though all they usually say is a name. Lucy Pennant lives in an orphanage in Filching and faces a dismal future as a rubbish-sorter. Then it transpires that she has some Iremonger blood, and so is considered worthy to be a servant to the Iremonger family. Lucy is taken to Heap House, where she is given a birth object (a matchbox) and told that her role is to clean the fireplaces on the upper floors every night. Soon Lucy is finding it hard to remember her former life but she is determined to try.

Clod has his own problems. He’s being bullied by his cousin, Moorcus, and he’s about to be forced into an arranged marriage with a female cousin. He is also increasingly puzzled by the unhappy voices of the objects all around him. When an aunt falls sick after her birth object goes missing, Clod is the only one who can track it down. Iremongers aren’t supposed to notice servants and junior servants are forbidden to speak to members of the family, but Clod and Lucy break the rules. Together they investigate the disappearance of one of Lucy’s fellow servants and uncover the true purpose of the Iremongers’ birth objects. Danger is coming to Heap House. There is a monster in the bat-infested attics and a storm rising in the heaps and Lucy and Clod may face a terrible punishment for their friendship.

This is not `Downton Abbey’ with dust heaps.`Heap House’ is a Neo-Victorian Fantasy which isn’t nostalgic about the Victorian era. It takes every opportunity to illustrate the gulf between the privileged lives of the rich and the wretched lives of the poor in the most dramatic ways possible. At first, the Iremonger family just seem enjoyably eccentric but one of Lucy’s fellow maids warns her that Iremongers are wicked because they do nothing but take. The remainder of the story shows how true this is of nearly all the family. I was initially attracted to `Heap House’  because the cover illustration reminded me of my favourite novel by Charles Dickens – `Our Mutual Friend’ . One critic has noted that in `Our Mutual Friend’ Dickens used London’s privately owned dust-heaps `as symbols of the corrupting influences of wealth’. So does Carey. There is a lot of second-rate Dickens-influenced Fantasy about but I think that Carey shares three qualities with his great 19th century predecessor – an audacious use of language, a strong visual imagination and a gift for creating whole galleries of memorable grotesques.

Carey doesn’t imitate 19th century prose. Instead he’s invented a peculiar syntax for his characters to use, with distinctive speech-patterns for the Iremongers and for their servants. You may or may not like this. It certainly worked for me. When it comes to the narrative, there is nothing minimalist about Carey’s style. He piles up verbs, nouns and adjectives into heaps as big as the ones he’s describing. Carey will make you see, hear, feel and most of all smell the seething heaps and the creatures that live in them. Clod’s grandfather raves about the Iremongers’ passion for the things that other people discard, `The disgusting and malodorous, the shattered and the cracked, the rusted, the overwound, the missing parts, the stinking, the ugly, the poisonous, the useless and we loved them all…’

You often hear someone boast that they are a `people person’. I fear that I have something in common with the awful Iremongers because I’m more of a `thing person’. Things comfort and inspire me and I suspect that they do the same for Carey. It’s amazing how eloquent he can be about a simple bathplug. The way that Carey  breaks down the normal boundaries between objects and people is the most distinctive aspect of this novel. Victoria’s reign was the first age of mass consumerism. The Victorians had an awful lot of stuff – much of it unnecessary. Carey has fun with this in the absurd birth objects chosen for his Iremonger characters, such as a the lace doily of Clod’s fiancée, the cake-knife of his late Aunt Jocklun or the nose-tongs of his Uncle Idwid (if you like the idea of a birth object, Carey’s website will generate one for you). In this story, the evils of treating people like objects are shown in a startlingly literal way. People may become things and things may be become people. Things can come together in `Gatherings’ with a dangerous will of their own. A sofa may have a tragic past, a moustache-cup may be much more than it seems and as for the fraught relationship between Cousin Moorcus and his toastrack…

There was no room in my synopsis to mention all the notable characters, such as gentle Cousin Tummis who understandably prefers seagulls and rats to most of his relatives, blind Uncle Idwid, `the Governor Extraordinary of Birth Objects’, Clod’s cruel grandmother who has spent her whole life in one room because her birth object is a marble fireplace, and corset-wearing Mrs Piggott who is in the running for most sinister housekeeper ever. Melancholy Clod knows that he isn’t hero material but Lucy is a welcome addition to the list of spirited red-haired heroines in children’s literature. Lucy makes a strong first impression on Clod when she hits him on the head with a coal-scuttle but the outlook for their romance isn’t good. The perils they are plunged into may be outlandish but their sufferings are treated with emotional realism. Lucy has to struggle against drugs and brainwashing to retain any sense of her own identity, while Clod is in moral as well as physical danger. There always seems to be a very real possibility that his Iremonger heritage will corrupt him.

In my very first review on this blog, I wrote about the two main types of `comfort reading’ – books that transport you to a world you’d love to be part of and books that make you feel better about your own world. `Heap House’ is definitely in the second category. Reading this novel, and its even grimmer sequel `Foulsham’, has distracted me from the pain of a nasty attack of mouth ulcers.  `Heap House – works better than mouth-wash’ may not be the endorsement the publishers are looking for but I mean it as a sincere compliment. Until next time….


This week I’m back to the theme of modern writers inspired by traditional Fairy Tales. In this case, one particular tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm – `The Goose Girl’. Do you remember the plot? A queen sends her daughter to marry a prince who lives in a far away land. The princess rides a white horse called Falada and carries a handkerchief stained with three drops of her mother’s blood for magical protection. During the journey the princess’s maid refuses to wait on her. After the princess loses the magic handkerchief, the maid threatens to kill her if she doesn’t give up her fine clothes and her beautiful horse. When they arrive at the royal court, the maid claims to be the prince’s bride and tells the king to give her lazy servant some menial work to do. The true bride is forced to look after the king’s geese and deal with the unwanted attentions of a goose boy, while the false bride enjoys a life of luxury. Can the real princess regain her identity and win back her prince?

In his recent book `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’ (see my post of May 2014), Philip Pullman comments,`the princess/goose girl has to give second place, as far as enterprise and vigour are concerned, to the wicked maidservant who deserves a longer story.’ He adds, `It’s hard for a storyteller to make an attractive character out of a meek and docile victim who doesn’t argue or fight back once…’  I have to disagree with Pullman about that since two other Fantasy authors, Shannon Hale and Intisar Khanani, have written novels based on this Fairy Tale which each make the meek princess into a very attractive heroine. Where Pullman sees a docile victim, Hale and Khanani see a brave young woman who endures a dramatic change in circumstances with dignity and grace. Hale’s book, which is simply called `The Goose Girl’, was published in 2003 and is the first in a series of interlinked novels known as `The Books of Bayern’. Khanani’s novel `Thorn’ came out in 2012 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. I like both of these surprisingly different novels but I’ve decided to concentrate on `Thorn’ this week and to recommend one of Hales’ `Books of Bayern’ next time.

`Thorn’ begins in the small country of Adania, whose Queen is being visited by the King of the much larger and more powerful land of Menaiya. Gentle Princess Alyrra of Adania is despised by her mother and viciously bullied by her brother. She prefers to spend her time in the palace kitchens or in the company of a friendly wind. Alyrra is shocked to learn that the King has come to ask her hand in marriage for his son, Prince Kestrin. A strange magician appears in her bedroom to warn her that the enemies of Menaiya may try to attack her during the journey to the capital city, Tarinon. One of those enemies is a terrifying sorceress who has an implacable hatred for the whole royal house of Menaiya.

Alyrra is sent off to Tarinon with a lady in waiting, Valka, who has a particular grudge against her and a wild white horse who is an unkind gift from her brother. During the journey, Alyrra discovers that her lady in waiting is in league with the sorceress. A spell forces the princess to swap bodies with Valka and never to tell anyone what has happened. Once they reach Tarinon, Valka blackens the character of her `lady in waiting’ and gets her sent to work as a goose-herd. At first, Alyrra’s only ally is Falada, who reveals that he belongs to an ancient race of talking horses. Alyrra, renamed Thorn, makes friends among the animal-keepers and accepts her humble new role. It is only when she learns more about the threat to Prince Kestrin, and the dark side of life in Tarinon, that Alyssa/Thorn is forced to take up the challenge of becoming a princess again.

The original tale of `The Goose Girl’ may be short but it is packed with bizarre and mysterious details such as the spell of the bloodstained handkerchief, the white horse who is able to talk even after his head is cut off, and a protective wind which the princess can summon (contrary to what Pullman says, she does sometimes fight back). It is fascinating to see how distinctively Khanani and Hale have interpreted these details so that two books which, inevitably, have much the same plot have ended up very different in tone. `Thorn’ is the darker of the two novels, which probably makes it truer to the source material. When I was a child, `The Goose Girl’ was never one of my favourite Fairy Tales. I was upset by the malevolence and cruelty in the story, which culminates in an inventively nasty execution. Khanani has created a fictional world in which such an execution becomes terrifyingly plausible and, as in the original, innocents suffer and die. After becoming a goose-herd, Alyssa finds out how hard life is for the working classes in Tarinon and how little hope they have of obtaining justice even when they are victims of appalling crimes. Once she crosses paths with Red Hawk, a notorious thief/vigilante, the narrow line between justice and revenge becomes one of the major themes of the story.

`Thorn’ isn’t a perfect novel. The strange experience of living in someone else’s body isn’t fully explored, the invented Red Hawk subplot doesn’t really go anywhere, and I found it annoying that the reason for Valka’s grudge against the princess isn’t revealed until near the end of the book. Still, Khanani writes with passion and she has the gift of making you care about her characters. Right from the first chapter I ached with sympathy for shy Alyssa whose self-confidence has been destroyed by her abusive family. Khanani implies that it is not so much the spell that keeps Alyssa quiet about what has happened, as her genuine belief that ambitious Valka is more suited to the role of royal bride than herself. Alyssa has never wanted power but that, as Falada points out, only makes her `a better princess than most’. Noble Falada acts as the voice of conscience, urging Alyssa to honour the betrothal vows she made to Kestrin and to strive to set things right in the kingdom she is destined to rule. Later, when Alyssa is almost overwhelmed by the evil and suffering around her, one of the animal-keepers sensibly tells her to, `Start somewhere and keep going.’

Even if you are thoroughly familiar with the Grimms’ `Goose Girl’, you’ll find that `Thorn’ has surprises in store. This is partly because Khanani has added several subplots – including an important one explaining the curse on the royal family of Menaiya – and partly because of her original interpretations of the leading players. Her `wicked maidservant’ character, Valka, is almost as insecure as the princess she has replaced. Valka has no empathy for others and refuses to take responsibility for her own actions but that makes her easy to manipulate. `The Goose Girl’ could have been rewritten as a Romance with the disguised princess as a Cinderella-figure, but Khanani’s Kestrin is no Prince Charming. He is clever, calculating and verging on ruthless. Alyrra is afraid of Kestrin and the scenes in which he probes her identity crackle with tension. She warns the prince that he cannot bully or cajole her into trusting him and her assessment of his character becomes a matter of life or death. At no stage is this the sort of conventional love story that a commercial publisher would probably have demanded. Khanani is an `Indie author’ and `Thorn’ is about a woman finding her place in the world and accepting the painful responsibilities that come with it. In spite of Pullman’s opinion of the goose-girl princess, I hope you will find Alyrra a heroine worth reading about. Until next time…..




This week I’m recommending another collection of Fantasy stories which offers new interpretations of traditional tales. `Toad Words and Other Stories’ by T.Kingfisher contains seven short stories, one novella and three poems. Most of these items have appeared elsewhere but the novella is original to this collection, which came out in 2014. T.Kingfisher is a pen-name for American writer and illustrator, Ursula Vernon. She is one of a growing number of professional writers who are choosing to self-publish their work as ebooks, so there is no print version of this one. Don’t be put off by the self-published bit, even if the author has called her imprint Red Wombat Tea Company.

Kingfisher begins her introduction by confessing that she didn’t think she was capable of `doing something so disciplined’ as writing short stories. She was wrong. Her imagination may be wild but Kingfisher uses language with precision and elegance. While reading `Toad Words’, I frequently found myself highlighting sharply expressed truths, such as, `But you have two cultures breaking against each other, it’s the young women who are going to come out the losers.’ One of the most charming stories in this collection, `Night ‘, should probably be classified as metaphysical Science Fiction; the remainder comfortably count as Fantasy. They shed a fresh, and sometimes disconcerting, light on famous works of Fantasy such as Peter Pan (`Never’) and `The Little Mermaid’ (`The Sea Witch Sets The Record Straight’) or on Folk Tales (`Toad Words’, `The Wolf and the Woodsman’, `Bluebeard’s Wife’, `Boar & Apples’) and traditional Ballads (`Loathly’).

One of the poems includes the lines, `Fairy tales are human things which we have chewed over since before we could eat solid food.’ Kingfisher has clearly chewed over them more than most and she delights in asking unexpected questions about Fairy Tale characters, such as what happened to the `bad’ sister condemned to have frogs and toads drop from her mouth whenever she spoke? In `Toad Words’ the delightful answer is that she learns to distinguish between toad words, such as desiccated, obligation and matchstick, and frog words, such as purple, murky and squill, and to use them creatively to save rare amphibians. As someone with a particular fondness for amphibians (my garden is full of them) I adored this story. It’s a good example of the author’s wit and dry humour.

Kingfisher also asks pertinent questions such as, `What  might have happened if wife-killer Bluebeard finally married a woman who did feel that her husband’s privacy was more important than her own curiosity?’ and `Why was Red Riding Hood’s grandmother living in the middle of a deep dark wood, and who should you be more wary of – a shy wild animal or an angry, axe-wielding woodman?’  Kingfisher’s take on `Little Red Riding Hood’ is full of funny lines but is just as brutal as the original story. In this version, the grandmother is being stalked by a creepy admirer determined to force her into an abusive relationship. In several of the stories, Kingfisher writes angrily about the sufferings inflicted on women whose only power is their inner strength. `Loathly’ is an almost unbearably sad tale of a woman who has become a monster through no fault of her own. For her, as in real life, marriage to a handsome prince does not automatically make for a happy ending. In `Never’, Kingfisher focuses on the horrors that might happen when a young girl lured to Neverland by Peter Pan has the temerity to grow up. She chooses to bring out the very dark side of Peter Pan, which is definitely there in Barrie’s work (see my August 2014 post on `Peter and Wendy’) but her interpretation of the famous crocodile is original and nastily convincing.

Several of the stories in `Toad Words’ can be seen as reactions against the Disneyfication of Fairy Tales. If you only know the Sea-Witch from the Disney film of `The Little Mermaid’, you’ll be surprised by the motives she reveals in `The Sea Witch Sets the Record Straight’. This shrewd, unsentimental but compassionate witch sees all too clearly that the dim-witted mermaid will never attract the prince she has set her heart on. I found the ending to this story more moving than the one in Hans Christian Anderson’s original version. `Boar & Apples’ sounds like a recipe but this novella contains Kingfisher’s interpretation of `Snow White’. She has fun with references to Snow White’s famous costume in the classic Disney film – `The seamstress had always had a great desire to sew something with puffed sleeves, and the fact that Snow stared at them with great astonishment and mild indignation did nothing to diminish her moment of glory.’

Kingfisher also does full justice to the bleak and cruel aspects of the tale first recorded by the Brothers Grimm (see my May 2014 post on `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’). As in my own story,`Iron Shoes’,  the Queen is Snow’s real mother but after that the two versions diverge. Kingfisher warns her readers not to waste sympathy on this murderous Queen. The magic mirror does `not have to seduce her with words or visions; she came essentially pre-seduced.’ The Queen orders a Huntsman to kill her teenage daughter, Snow, and bring back her heart. Since this isn’t the kind of Feminist Fantasy in which all the male characters are villains or wimps, he does no such thing. The Huntsman leaves Snow in the forest. What are you more likely to find in forests, dwarves or wild boar? So, seven talking pigs it is then. After this surprise, you realize that the story is going in an unexpected direction. Can her experiences in the forest help this practical princess to survive the inevitable confrontation with her jealous mother? Read `Toad Words and Other Stories’ to find out. Self-publication under a new name has allowed Ursula Vernon to escape from being pigeon-holed as an author and illustrator of cosy children’s books and write for adults about `hard, ugly, things.’ I hope that other authors will follow her brave lead. Until two weeks time…