Archives for category: Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

November can be a nasty month so as a countermeasure I’m recommending a warm-hearted story about a very nice dragon. Rachel Aaron’s “Nice Dragons Finish Last” is the first book in her “Heartstriker” series. It came out in 2014 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. This novel is set in the late 21st century, 60 years after magic has surged back into the world reawakening the spirits of the land and empowering human mages. I’d classify “Nice Dragons Finish Last” as Urban Fantasy. Most of the action takes place in a bizarre version of Detroit, a city which deserves a break but doesn’t get much of one in this plot. Oh and as a hangover from “Ghost Month” this novel features a ghostly cat who may or may not be a Death Spirit.

Twenty-four year-old Julius is a junior member of the powerful dragon-clan known as the Heartstrikers. He is a kindly soul who lacks the ambition and aggression of most of dragonkind. This is a problem when you are a grandson of the mighty feathered dragon, Quetzalcoatl, and a son of the ruthless Bethesda. She murdered her own father to take over the Heartstriker clan and has hatched more clutches of eggs than any other female dragon. Bethesda doesn’t tolerate failure in her children. She suddenly seals Julius into his human form, depriving him of most of his powers, and throws him out of his Nevada home. Julius is dumped in the notoriously dangerous DFZ (Detroit Free Zone) and warned that Bethesda will eat him if he doesn’t do something truly draconic by the end of the month.

His only chance seems to be a job offered by his devious elder brother, Ian. All Julius has to do is track down a runaway dragoness in a city where humans have few legal rights and full-form dragons are killed on sight. Julius does have two allies among his numerous siblings: his much stronger clutch-brother Justin, and his oldest brother, the Great Seer Brohomir, known as Bob. The trouble is that Justin is none too bright and Bob is generally thought to be mad. Bob can see possible futures but his only advice to Julius is to behave like a gentleman and help desperate women. Julius soon meets one – a young human mage called Marci Novalli who is desperate for a paying job. Julius hires her to help him infiltrate a group of shamans and find Katya, the missing dragoness.

Marci is a mage powerful enough to bind a Death Spirit but she’s on the run from the man who killed her father. Murderous thugs and mages are after her and they keep on coming because of a prophecy. Julius soon has to cope with a malicious Seer from another dragon-clan,  gun-wielding gangsters, sewer and cave-dwelling monsters, and his scary sister Chelsie whose job is to punish any Heartstriker who steps out of line. Justin’s efforts to help only attract the unwelcome attention of both Chelsie and Algonquin, the terrifying Spirit of the Great Lakes who rules the DFZ. Julius is reluctant to complete his mission and force Katya to go back to her clan. He’s sick of being told to be a good dragon if that “is just another name for a cold-blooded sociopath.” Can Julius find a way to come out on top but still stay nice?

Regular readers of Fantasy Reads will know that I am keen on dragons. I loved this novel even though most of the dragon-characters stay in their drop-dead gorgeous human forms throughout the story. This book is more about draconic states of mind than fire-breathing monsters. The sudden return of magic to earth after a “thousand-year drought” and the history of the two dragon groups we get to meet – the black-haired, green-eyed Heartstrikers and the snow-pale, all female Three Sisters clan – are rather sketchily described in “Nice Dragons Finish Last”. Fortunately, the details are filled in – complete with some fascinating surprises – in the two sequels: “One Good Dragon Deserves Another” (2015) and “No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished” (2016).

What you do get in this very American take on Urban Fantasy is a wonderfully atmospheric portrait of a city that has risen again after a great catastrophe. I’ve a soft spot for Detroit (a favourite aunt of mine used to live there) and the decay of huge areas of this once prosperous city seems to have captured the imagination of artists and writers. In Jim Jarmusch’s intriguing Fantasy film “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013), cool vampire Adam hangs out in a decayed Victorian mansion in Detroit. Marci squats in a similar, rubbish-filled, cat-infested house in “Nice Dragons Finish Last”. In Aaron’s version of American history, most of Detroit was destroyed by a tidal wave on the night that magic returned when Algonquin took vengeance for the pollution of her lakes. The “Lady of the Lakes” then built a new city of “blindingly white, thousand-floor superscrapers rising from a beautiful  whimsically spiraling lattice of elevated skyways” over the “rotting carcass” of the old city. Tens of thousands of people live in almost total darkness among the underground ruins in “the chaos of capitalism gone crazy”. With virtually no laws restricting business or magic, this Detroit is a place of unlimited opportunity and unlimited peril. The perfect mean-streets setting for gritty magical adventures.

Though these books contain plenty of thrilling action scenes, the Heartstriker Series is also a Family Saga centred on a hero who has always felt the odd one out. Julius has spent most of his life hiding in his room from bullying or competitive siblings and from his selfish and manipulative mother. Many unhappy teenagers will be familiar with this scenario but it is all so much worse when you have nearly a hundred siblings and your mother is likely to kill members of the family who disagree with her. In 2014 I recommended a novel which features a monstrous mother in law (Erick Setiawan’s “Of Bees and Mist”). Now I’m nominating greedy, power-mad Bethesda as one of the worst mothers in Fantasy fiction. We get to know her better as the series progresses, along with many of Julius’ brothers and sisters. Chelsie isn’t the greatest name for a character who develops into a tragic heroine but we can blame that on Bethesda since she’s supposed to have vulgar tastes in everything from jewellery (gold, gold and more gold) to her children’s names.

Bethesda has done the right thing in kicking Julius out to force him to stand on his own two feet (or four feet when in dragon form) but this isn’t accidental. She’s been nudged into it by Bob who sees gentle Julius as a vital player in the version of the future he’s trying to create. Charming Bob, with his crazy dress-sense and his strange relationship with an intelligent pigeon, seems to be a force for good in the story but may not be. Aaron keeps us guessing. An on-going battle between Dragon-Seers to shape the future is one of several intertwining plot-strands in the Heartstriker series. It is typical of Aaron’s clever plot-making that quirky details in “Nice Dragons Finish Last”, such as Bob’s pigeon or Marci’s ghost-cat, turn out to be of vital importance in the later volumes.

Two other important plot-strands involve Marci’s discovery of her huge potential as a mage and her developing relationship with Julius. To most dragons, a human is at best a pet and at worst lunch but Julius is won over by Marci’s warmth and courtesy. They become business partners and friends with a hint of more to come. Aaron shows that this partnership is successful partly because human Marci isn’t quite as nice as dragon Julius. She can be secretive and vengeful and she’s utterly determined to make the most of her talent for magic, whatever the cost. Nevertheless, it is Marci’s support which gives Julius the strength to break with draconic tradition and start doing things his way. He tries to solve problems by diplomacy and negotiation rather than physical or magical force. Whether you’re human or dragon, or a bit of both, this series could cause you to think about what sort of society you want to live in.

Each volume of the Heartstriker series contains one complete story-arc but leaves several issues unresolved. The cliff-hanger at the end of the third volume is of the kind that makes you want to kidnap the author, lock her in an attic and tell her she’s not coming out until she’s finished the sequel. Don’t worry Rachel, I have a very nice attic. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…

Geraldine

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do I only recommend novels which are perfect in every way? No. If that were my rule, I would never have managed to recommend over a hundred books on Fantasy Reads.  My choice this week – `The Paper Magician’ by Charlie N. Holmberg – has plenty of flaws but I was able to forgive most of them. This novel, which came out in 2014, is the first in `The Paper Magician Trilogy. The second and third volumes, `The Glass Magician’ and `The Master Magician’, have already been published. All three are available in paperback (with very stylish covers) or as ebooks.

`The Paper Magician’ is set in a version of Edwardian England (though not a version most English people will recognize). Ceony Twill is a girl from a poor family who aspires to be a magician. Thanks to an anonymous benefactor, she is able to attend the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, where she studies the theory of enchanting various types of manmade materials. When Ceony graduates top of her class, she looks forward to becoming an apprentice Smelter – a magician who deals with metals. Then she is informed that England is short of Folders – magicians who work with paper. So Ceony is to be apprenticed to Emery Thane, a Paper Magician who lives on the outskirts of London. Ceony regards Folding as outdated and useless but once she is formally `bonded’ to paper, there is no turning back.

Ceony is unhappy in her new home and uncertain what to make of her eccentric Master and his mysterious disappearances. She only warms to the Paper Magician after she discovers an unexpected link between them and he creates an animated paper dog to replace the pet she was forced to leave behind. Ceony soon becomes interested in the art of Folding since it can do many more things than she imagined, such as foretelling the future. A spell suggests that a woman called Lira will be coming back into Emery Thane’s life. When she does, the consequences are horrific because Lira is an Excisionist – someone who practises `the forbidden magic that uses human flesh as a conduit’. Ceony is forced to use her new found skills to save her Master and must undertake a perilous journey through the heart of a magician.

Holmberg clearly has a strong visual imagination but she (this particular Charlie is female) is not an elegant writer. In fact `The Paper Magician’ is in dire need of a sterner editor who might have sorted out some of the misused words and tenses. Historical and geographical research aren’t Holmberg’s strong points either, so I’m not sure why she chose to set this novel in a very specific time and place. Nearly everything about the society in which Ceony lives seems more American than English – particularly the school system. The costumes her characters wear aren’t consistently Edwardian and Big Ben is about the only recognizable London landmark (though Holmberg has some very strange ideas about what goes on in Parliament Square). I do hope that all of this is deliberate but I have a sneaking fear that it isn’t. Quite early on, I decided that the only way I could enjoy `The Paper Magician’ was to forget everything I know about Edwardian England and regard this novel as set in an entirely invented Steampunk-style world.

If you can do the same, there are pleasures on offer. Emery Thane’s cottage is one of the most charming magician’s homes in Fantasy fiction. Behind the illusion of a gloomy mansion is a garden full of red, violet and yellow paper tulips which close their petals when a cloud obscures the sun. Inside, a paper skeleton serves as a butler, hundreds of paper birds dangle from the dining room ceiling and everywhere there are piles of brightly coloured paper for using in spells. The `Folding’ magic in this book is brilliantly worked out. Emery tells his apprentice that it requires ` a keen eye and deft hands’. As someone with no physical dexterity whatever, origami (the Japanese art of folding paper into complex shapes) has always seemed magical to me. Holmberg takes it a step further and has her Paper Magicians fold paper to create birds that can act as messengers and spies, snowflakes to keep things cool, paper-chains that can bind or protect, a glider that can carry a person, and a loyal canine companion who can be packed away until needed. This form of magic is convincing because it has strict rules and limitations. Anything written on paper can be brought to life but paper is vulnerable to water and fire. Throughout the trilogy, Holmberg comes up with ever more inventive ways to use paper, and other man-made materials such as glass and rubber, to create wonders and fight evil.

In my last post (on Naomi Novik’s `Uprooted’), I wrote that `a book which appears for the first few chapters to be about a young woman’s magical and romantic education, suddenly develops into a violent and disturbing story.’  Exactly the same words can be used about `The Paper Magician’.  Until a third of the way through, the book is a whimsical love story about two people who are refreshingly different from the intense couples found in most Paranormal or Gothic Romances. Emery Thane may have dark hair and a tragic past but he’s no Mr Rochester. He’s gentle, good-humoured, allergic to animal-hair and fond of racing paper frogs against each other. Orange-haired Ceony is an ambitious loner who starts the book in a mighty sulk and spends her spare time snooping on Emery and cooking comfort food. Just as this pair are getting to know and like each other, the plot takes a dark turn with the sudden introduction of heart-stealing blood magicians. `The Paper Magician’ becomes a race-against-time thriller with some very gory scenes.

Personally, I wish that Holmberg had involved her trio of leading characters – Emery, Ceony and Fennel, the cute paper dog – in a gentler, more frivolous adventure. It would have been a better fit with the cheery tone of the early chapters. However, I must  praise Holmberg for doing something really different with the folktale motif of the search for the magician’s heart. Magicians traditionally store their power in detachable hearts. In this story, Ceony has to find the way to a man’s heart in an alarmingly literal way. In the four chambers of Emery’s heart she sees his joys, sorrows, hopes and fears, and can only progress when she understands them. She’s partly able to do this because she has her own guilty secrets and forlorn hopes. It is easy to pick holes in the logic of this part of the plot but writing Fantasy gives Holmberg the freedom to explore character in ways that more realistic novels can’t.  I finished the book wanting to know what happened next to Ceony and Emery. `The Paper Magician’ won’t please everyone but it is worth reading for the Folding magic alone. Until next time….

Geraldine

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

It’s a sunny June day so my thoughts are turning to relaxing holiday reading. On my wish-list when I’m reading Fantasy purely for pleasure are thrilling adventures in spectacular settings, flawed but lovable heroines and  heroes, scary but interesting villains, breathtaking magic, a dash of romance, a sprinkling of humour and, if I’m really in a holiday mood, some cute animals and covetable clothes. I found most of these elements in V.E.Schwab’s `A Darker Shade of Magic’ so I’m making it this week’s recommendation. `A Darker Shade of Magic’ was published a few months ago and is already available in paperback and as an ebook.

The story begins in 1819 when a young man called Kell arrives in London to visit the mad King George III. Kell is an Antari, a blood-magician with the very rare skill of being able to travel between parallel worlds. King George rules Grey London, which has no magic but is developing science and technology, while Kell comes from Red London which is rich in magical power. In White London people fight ferociously to control the little magic that is left after a crippling war with Black London, which has long been sealed off as a place too dangerous to visit. Kell has been adopted by the royal family of Red London and serves as an official messenger between the rulers of the three remaining Londons. It is absolutely forbidden for an Antari to carry anything between the worlds except royal letters but Kell is a rule-breaker and a risk taker.

During a trip to White London, Kell rashly agrees to smuggle a package which turns out to contain a magical stone that can only have come from Black London. In Grey London, Kell is attacked and wounded and the powerful black stone is stolen from him by a pick-pocket known as the Shadow Thief. When Kell tracks down the Shadow Thief he discovers that she is a nineteen year old girl called Delilah Bard. Lila has romantic dreams of becoming a pirate with her own ship and she longs for a life of adventure. When she proves to have an apititude for magic, Lila forces Kell to take her with him on the perilous journey he must make between worlds to get rid of the black stone. In Red London, Lila and Kell discover that there is a plot against the royal family which threatens the life of Kell’s adoptive brother, the dashing Prince Rhys. Kell and Lila also find themselves hunted by Holland, the powerful Antari who is forced to serve the Dane twins, the psychotic rulers of White London. Can a smuggler and a thief stop a magical war between the worlds which might threaten all the Londons?

I imagine that it was the interesting concept of a series of alternate Londons which sold this book to the publishers. London-based Fantasy has become fashionable in recent years and I’ve recommended a number of outstanding examples on my blog, such as Benedict Jacka’s `Fated’ (October 2012), Ben Aaronovitch’s `Rivers of London’ (December 2012) and Kate Griffin’s `A Madness of Angels’ (March 2013). In `A Darker Shade of Magic’ Kell reveals that he has never been to the countryside beyond the three cities but I’m not entirely convinced that Urban Fantasy is Schwab’s thing. None of her Londons seem as vivid and varied as the real city in all its splendour and squalor. Her Grey London is well…a bit grey. Flower-scented Red London with its shining crimson river and teeming Night Market, is the most colourful of the Londons we get to explore in this novel.

Palaces, and the extravagances and intrigues of court life, appear to inspire Schwab more than cityscapes. `Dreary’ Windsor Castle and `elegant’ St James in Grey London;  `Beating Heart’ the glittering palace built on a bridge over the magic-filled river of Red London, and the `Stone Forest’ fortress of the rulers of ash-covered White London are very well differentiated. Imagining striking clothes for her characters to wear is another of Schwab’s strengths. Lila gets to go to a masquerade ball in pirate boots, a horned mask and a cloak of true black velvet with glassy red clasps, while Kell has a magical coat which can transform itself to fit the fashion of any time or place. I want one of those.

Schwab is also a fine story-teller. Her fast-paced narrative is full of exciting action scenes – chases, abductions, murders, fights and some cracking magical duels – but still finds time for character development. `A Darker Shade of Magic’ is a good example of a `cascade plot’. Kell’s petty smuggling lands him in ever-worsening trouble and leads to further rule-breaking (such as transporting Lila between worlds) as he strives to put things right. The vicious rulers of White London, Queen Astrid and her brother King Athos, may be standard Fantasy villains who wouldn’t be out of place in `Game of Thrones’ but their evil plans do lead to some high-tension scenes. In spite of its title, I haven’t tagged this novel as Dark Fantasy because the mood of the story is relatively upbeat and the violence isn’t too gory. Schwab’s mission is to entertain her readers, not to horrify or disgust them.

Kell’s rival blood-magician, Holland, fulfils my requirement for an interesting villain. Holland’s true feelings remain hidden for most of the story and he frequently challenges Kell’s beliefs about the nature of magic. Is magic about balance or about dominance? Does the magician choose magic or the magic choose the magician? The most frightening force in the book is the stone from Black London, which can grant remarkable powers but is addictive and potentially lethal. As the story develops it becomes clear that Kell is not the only one to have made a near-disastrous mistake because of a desire to be something that he isn’t.

Kell and Lila meet by chance and become magically linked through an exchange of objects. Their story isn’t (yet) a romantic one, but they seem to have a special insight into each other’s true characters. Lila rejects any form of charity and insists that she needs no friends. She presents herself as a bold adventurer who steals `for freedom’ but Kell sees through this to the frightened, abused girl struggling to survive in a largely hostile world. Picturesque Kell ( pale skin, copper hair, one blue and one black eye), who has no idea who his real parents are, seems a typical brooding tormented Fantasy hero. It is one of the pleasures of this novel that spirited Lila won’t let him play this role. She frequently reminds Kell that he is lucky to have a family of any kind, that he has never known the poverty and hardship which she has experienced, and that breaking the rules for kicks just makes him a spoiled brat. Lila does though have some lessons to learn from Kell about friendship and unselfish bravery. I’m looking forward to reading the further adventures of this likeable pair and, who knows, there may even be some cute animals in the sequel. Until next time….

Geraldine

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

 

This week I’m recommending the first part of a Fantasy trilogy inspired by the diverse cultures and turbulent history of the Silk Road countries of Central Asia. Some years ago I visited Turkmenistan and as I stood in the ruins of an ancient city destroyed by the Mongols and saw the remains of a pyramid built of human skulls, I thought, `Someone should write a Fantasy novel about this.’ Now they have. `Range of Ghosts’ by American author Elizabeth Bear was published in 2012. The story is continued in `Shattered Pillars’ (2013)  and completed in `Steles of the Sky’ (2014). These three novels (the titles all refer to mountain ranges) are collectively known as `The Eternal Sky’.  ‘Range of Ghosts’ is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook but after reading it on my Kindle, I ordered the whole trilogy in hardback because I knew that these were books I would always want on my shelves.

The story opens in the aftermath of a terrible battle between rival claimants to become Khagan of the empire conquered by the Qersnyk nomads. A young warrior called Temur has been wounded in the throat and left for dead. As he struggles to survive on the snowy steppe, Temur learns that most of his kinsman have died and that his treacherous uncle, Qori Buqa, has been victorious. Temur’s luck changes when he finds a friendly warhorse whom he names Bansh (dumpling). Riding Bansh he joins up with other refugees including the Tsareg clan. Temur soon becomes the lover of Edene, the clan leader’s grand-daughter, but Qori Buqa has supernatural help to track down and eliminate his nephew. The Tsareg survive an attack by an army of  blood-ghosts but the pregnant Edene is carried off. Temur vows to get her back but becomes dangerously ill as he and Bansh cross the haunted mountains known as the Range of Ghosts.

Temur is found and nursed back to health by two female wizards from the Rasan Empire, Tsering-la and Once Princess Samarkar, who have been sent to investigate the fate of the deserted city of Qeshqer. In the mountains, they encounter Hrahima who is a Cho-tse, a tiger who walks upright and speaks like a human. She brings a warning from Temur’s grandfather that the leader of the assassin cult known as the Nameless is stirring up wars and using evil magics not seen since the time of the legendary Carrion-King. When they all travel to Rasa, Samarkar finds the royal family in a state of crisis after a murder. She helps one of her sisters-in-law to escape from the Black Palace and throws in her lot with Temur and Hrahima. They are joined on their quest to reach the hidden citadel of the Nameless and rescue Edene, by  a warrior monk who has taken a vow of silence. A long and dangerous journey begins…

`Range of Ghosts’, and the `Eternal Sky’ Trilogy in general, has what I would call a `wandering around the map’ plot until the whole cast is finally in the same place for the big battle. Some of this wandering seemed a bit under-motivated but I never minded because the characters visit such colourful and fascinating places along Bear’s Celadon Highway.  In her world, each cultural area has a unique sky and set of heavenly bodies – `Different sky, different gods.’ This is a novel in which thrilling action scenes (magical attacks, assassination attempts, court intrigues and daring escapes) alternate with long descriptive passages. When is an `information dump’ not an information dump? When it is so full of captivating detail (such as Rasan people sticking their tongues out as a mark of respect or the 64 sacred colours of the wonderful steppe horses) that you want to learn even more about the places and customs being described.

The majority of Fantasy novels used to be set in versions of medieval Europe.  Now writers plunder cultures from all over the world for story ideas. This only works if the writer does plenty of research and is truly inspired by what they discover. That certainly seems to be the case with Bear who has used the `Secret History of the Mongols’ and legends and beliefs from places such as Tibet, North-West China, and the salt-deserts, `Heavenly Mountains’ and Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan to create a dazzling alternative version of Central Asia. Some things in the novel that you’d think she’d made up have a basis in fact, such as the notion that removing the head of an ancient conquerer from his tomb could cause a major war. Well, the head of Tamerlane (Timur the Lame) was removed from his tomb in Samarkand in 1941. Hitler invaded the Soviet empire the next day. I’ve been into Tamerlane’s tomb myself  but I promise I trod very quietly so as not to disturb his blood-thirsty ghost.

`Range of Ghosts’ has a larger cast of characters than I’ve been able to mention in my brief summary, all of them with interesting story arcs of their own. The plot includes Fantasy favourites such as the `return of the necromancer’, the `wandering heir to the throne’ and the `making of a wizard’ but they are all given a new gloss by the Central Asian setting. The ruthless  leader of the Nameless, al-Sepehr (so not very nameless then) may be a standard Fantasy villain but he is a particularly scary one. The ancient magic of Erem which al-Sepehr uses to communicate with his agents and control a djinn is impressively evil. Even reading the script in which its spells are written causes people to go blind. The sorcerer known as the Carrion King and his opponent the great Mother Dragon are haunting presences in the novel. Young Temur has never wanted to be Khagan but he sees his only alternatives as being carrion or being a king and both seem monstrous. Whether Temur can find a third way, is a question that hangs over the trilogy. As Qersnyk/Mongol warriors go, Temur is rather a gentle soul who manages to find room in his heart for three very different females – brave Edene, the wizard Samarkar, and his miraculous mare Bansh.

Strong female characters used to be a rarity in Heroic Fantasy but this book is full of them. Qersnyk women are shown as equals of the men. They are free to ride, hunt, fight, rule clans and take the sexual initiative. So when Edene is kidnapped and imprisoned in the citadel of the Nameless she doesn’t just sit around waiting to be rescued. After she is tricked into stealing a magical ring, Edene spends much of the trilogy fighting its corrupting influence. Samarkar is a clever and stong-willed princess who, after enduring a loveless royal marriage, decides to become a `Wizard of Tsarepheth’ even though this means sacrificing the power to create with her body for the chance of power to create with her mind. Compassionate Tsering-la failed to gain any magical powers after surviving the dangerous `neutering’ operation but she gradually discovers an important role for herself. Samarkar endures the ordeals and grows in status as a wizard throughout the story. She also becomes part of a love-triangle which doesn’t develop in the way that Western readers might expect. Tigress Hrahima is a formidable fighter but due to a tragedy in her past she is grappling with the moral problem of why bad things happen to good tigers. If the company of these four splendid heroines isn’t enough for you, as the trilogy continues you will also get to know a wicked empress who has a change of heart, two veiled Uthman women with secret agendas who must contend with many restrictions placed on their freedom, and the woman-king of the Lizard people. I hope you’ll enjoy following all of them along the Celadon Highway. Until two weeks time…

Geraldine

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

 

 

This week I’m recommending `The Golem and the Djinni’, a  warm-hearted first novel by Helene Wecker. The title makes this sound like some awful mash-up Horror movie along the lines of `Godzilla versus Mothra’ or `Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man’. In fact, it’s a sensitive story about an impossible friendship between a creature of earth and a creature of fire. `The Golem and the Djinni’ (or `The Golem and the Jinni’ as it is in America) came out in 2013 and is now available in paperback and as an ebook or an audio download. It is historical Urban Fantasy, largely set in late 19th century New York.

A wise old Rabbi finds a Golem – a woman made of clay and animated by Jewish magic – wandering the streets of Manhatten. Rabbi Meyer learns that she was created in Europe and bound to a man who was emigrating to America, but her `Master’ happened to die on the voyage just after bringing her to life. Due to their inhuman strength and destructive tendencies, Golems are dangerous creatures. Rabbi Meyer fears that he ought to destroy this Golem but he knows that she isn’t to blame for her existence, so he names her Chava and teaches her to pass for human. As a test, the Rabbi introduces her to his nephew Michael, who runs a refuge for Jewish immigrants who have just arrived in America. Michael is attracted to what he thinks is a shy young widow. To  solve the problem of Chava’s sleepless energy, Rabbi Meyer finds her a job in a Jewish bakery.

Meanwhile, a few streets away in the area known as `Little Syria’, a poor tin-smith called Arbeely is repairing a very old flask that belongs to Maryam, a kindly woman who runs the local coffee shop. With a flash of light, a naked young man appears in his workshop. Arbeely has accidentally released a Djinni who has been imprisoned in the flask for centuries. Djinns are creatures of fire but this one is trapped in human form by an iron band that he cannot get off his wrist. The Djinni guesses that he must have been enslaved by a powerful magician but he can’t remember how this happened. Arbeely finds the Djinni some clothes and gives him a name – Ahmad. As Ahmad proves to have an extraordinary talent for metalworking, Arbeely passes the Djinni off as his apprentice, newly arrived from Syria. Only Saleh, a crazy ice-cream seller who used to be a doctor, can see that Ahmad is not human.

Haunted by memories of his desert palace and his fascination with a Bedouin girl, handsome Ahmad wanders the city each night. He becomes the lover of a wealthy young lady, but their relationship means little to him. When he encounters the Golem, it is obvious that their natures and personalities are very different. Yet Chava is the one person who can understand how difficult Ahmad finds it to live as a human. Their friendship is interrupted when Chava’s instinct to use her strength to protect someone causes a crisis in her life. After Yehudah Schaalman, the old man who created the Golem, arrives in New York in search of the secret to eternal life, it becomes clear that the Golem and the Djinni are linked in an unexpected and dangerous way.  Both of them will have to make terrible sacrifices to stop an ancient evil and save the lives of people they have come to care about.

If you go into this book expecting frequent shocks and gore, you will be disappointed. This is a novel about human nature and the ways in which people can or should connect with each other. The pace of the story seems very slow at first. The Golem and the Djinni don’t even meet until about a third of the way through the book. Wecker takes her time lovingly describing two ethnic groups, the Jews and the Syrians (some Muslim, some Christian) struggling to establish themselves in a new country. These groups are suspicious of each other, but within themselves have an immensely strong sense of community. This is exemplified by Maryam’s many acts of discreet but practical charity, such as persuading local restaurants to buy ice-cream all year round so that Saleh won’t starve in winter. `The Golem and the Djinni’ initially seems to have a collection of case histories instead of a plot. There are no minor characters. The reader gets to hear everyone’s back story. There are detailed accounts of  the mysterious affliction which ruined Saleh’s life, Schaalman’s unsavoury career, the romantic life of one of the bakery assistants,  and the history of a Bedouin family who were able to see the Djinni’s palace. These may seem irrelevant, but rest assured these disparate pieces of the story all come together in the final chapters to create a dramatic climax.

What kept me reading in the early stages of the book was Wecker’s general gift for characterization and her solemn heroine Chava in particular. The Golem is a creature out of Jewish legend, made famous (or infamous) by a series of early German horror films (`Der Golem’ made in 1920 is still pretty scary). Schaalman warns his client, “No golem has ever existed that did not eventually run amok. You must be prepared to destroy her.” Wecker has imagined what it would be like to have a Golem’s powers and limitations. Chava doesn’t need to eat and cannot sleep but she has been warned that she must never tell anyone her true nature. There is a poignant scene in which Chava is so desperate for something to do during a long sleepless night in her tiny boarding-house room that she is reduced to counting the number of boards in the floor. Once she meets the Djinni she begins to spend her nights exploring the rooftops and parks of New York with him. Losing her Master on the voyage to America has left her with a terrifying lack of purpose. She no longer knows what she is for and she is almost overwhelmed by the conflicting needs and desires she can sense in the people around her. Chava lacks experience of the human world but her creator gave her intelligence and curiosity so she’s a remarkably quick learner. This combination of power and vulnerability make Chava one of the most appealing Fantasy heroines I’ve  encountered in long time.

On the surface, Ahmad is a less sympathetic character. He seems ungrateful towards the people who have taken him in and too selfish to comprehend the damage he does to his human lovers. Djinns in bottles have often been used to comic effect in Fantasy fiction or films (such as the wonderful `The Thief of Baghdad’) but Wecker treats the Djinni’s situation with complete seriousness. This freedom loving creature from the empty desert is trapped in a cold, crowded city where water is a constant danger to him. He doesn’t understand the ties of love and friendship, religion and culture that bind people together but he does have the spirit of a true artist. It’s hard not to be touched when Ahmad creates an image of his lost desert on a tin ceiling. Wecker even manages to evoke some sympathy for Schaalman, who abandoned his religious studies after a vision that he was already damned and became an unscrupulous dabbler `in the more dangerous of the Kabbalistic arts’. The reason for this vision is eventually explained but whether it was really impossible for Schaalman to be anything but evil remains an open question.

One of the major themes of this book is how far any being, whether they are golem, djinni or human, is compelled to act in a particular way because of their nature. Chava is shocked to discover how much of her character appears to be dictated by her original Master’s `grocery list of …desires in a wife’. She wonders if this means that `she can take no credit for her own discoveries, her accomplishments?’ Whether constraints take the form of magical words written on paper or a particular combination of genes, the problem is much the same. Every reader of `The Golem and the Djinni’ will have to make up their own mind about how far Chava and Ahmad are responsible for the consequences of their actions. Until two weeks time…

Geraldine

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