Archives for category: Myth

I apologize that this post is later than planned but I’ve been unwell.  Now I’m recommending a Fantasy novel full of colour and warmth which was just the tonic I needed. “The Star-Touched Queen” is by Roshani Chokshi, an American author of Indian descent, and it taps into a rich tradition of female story-telling in India. This novel was published in 2016 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. A sequel called “A Crown of Wishes” has recently come out but this has different central characters.

“The Star-Touched Queen” is the story of seventeen year-old Princess Mayavati (Maya) one of the many children of Raja Ramchandra of Bharata. Her mother died shortly after she was born and Maya has been brought up in the royal harem by her numerous step-mothers. Due to a hideously inauspicious horoscope, Maya is treated like “a dead girl walking” and regarded as unlucky. Her only friend is her younger half-sister, Gauri, who loves the fairy stories that Maya tells her about extraordinary Otherworld places such as the Night Bazaar.

Raja Ramchandra, knows that Maya is exceptionally intelligent and that she understands how Bharata is suffering after many years of war. Maya longs for love but because she is “a girl with dark skin and a darker horoscope” she assumes that her fate is to become a scholarly old maid. Her father has other ideas and involves her in a ruthless plan to save his kingdom. When that plan goes wrong, Maya is carried off by a mysterious bridegroom called Amar. He takes her through supernatural realms to his strangely empty kingdom of Akaran.

Amar swears that Maya is his beloved and that they are destined to rule Akaran together but claims that he cannot yet tell her any of the secrets he is obviously hiding. Maya yearns to trust him but a woman who claims to be a friend from a past life warns her not to. During her search for the truth, Maya makes dark discoveries and is forced to go on a perilous journey with a flesh-eating demon. The fate of Bharata and many other realms will depend on whether Maya has the courage to survive her ordeals and recover everything that she has lost.

Chokshi is a captivating storyteller. If my synopsis is a little vaguer than usual it’s because I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises which she springs on the reader during the early chapters of “The Star-Touched Queen”.  However, regular Followers of this blog will probably have already spotted that the plot of this novel is loosely based on the romantic myth of  “Cupid and Psyche”. Elements of this myth, such as the princess who is sacrificed to save her country, the girl who doesn’t know whether she’s married a prince or a monster, the jealous sisters, a broken promise followed by exile and a series of magical ordeals, also feature in Fairy Tales from all over the world. I’ve already recommended one retelling of the Psyche story – C.S. Lewis’s extraordinary  novel “Till We Have Faces” (March 2013). As I wrote in that post, “Most authors would have used the Cinderella-like Psyche as the viewpoint character” but Lewis chose to make her “ugly sister” Orual the focus of his novel. Orual is one of the most complex and memorable villains in all of Fantasy fiction. She is well worth seeking out.

“The Star-Touched Queen” is less original than “Till We Have Faces” but it’s still packed with interesting features. Chokshi has written her novel entirely from the Cinderella-like Maya’s point of view and I have to admit that it works very well. In Bharata, Maya is treated like an outsider in her own family and in the Otherworld she has to learn everything anew. This makes her an easy character for readers to identify with. In the original story (the earliest version is found in “The Golden Ass”, a Latin novel written in the 2nd century CE), Psyche is a rather feeble heroine who is easily influenced and makes stupid mistakes. Chokshi’s Maya is pleasingly strong-minded and cleve but she has been deprived of vital memories. In these circumstances, it’s understandable that “cursed” Maya makes some disastrous misjudgments.  “Till We Have Faces” is about leaps of faith; “The Star-Touched Queen” is more concerned with what is at the core of a person’s identity and how far we are able to shape our own destiny.

The unusual setting is an outstanding feature of “The Star-Touched Queen”. The story takes place in an Indian-based Fantasy world rather than in India itself. Chokshi is clearly very knowledgeable about the cultures and religions of the Indian subcontinent but she uses her sources with freedom and panache. Standard religious ideas such as the concept of Reincarnation and belief in horoscopes are crucial to the plot of “The Star-Touched Queen” but Chokshi has invented her own pantheon of supernatural beings. She’s also plucked dramatic incidents and exotic creatures from a range of Indian Myths and Fairy Tales. I enjoyed this novel because it reminded me of one of my favourite collections of Fairy Tales, a book called “Old Deccan Days or Hindoo Fairy Legends “. These are stories that a South Indian woman called Anna Liberata de Souza remembered being told by her grandmother at the beginning of the 19th century. They are full of magical transformations, terrifying Rakshas (demons), unlucky Rajahs and brave and resourceful heroines. Some of these heroines have to cope with a whole harem full of jealous or spiteful step-mothers and half-siblings – just as Maya does. Depth is added to this standard Fairy Tale situation late in the novel when Maya learns to see things from her most hated step-mother’s point of view.

Chokshi’s ornate prose style won’t please everybody but she has a wonderful visual imagination. “The Star-Touched Queen” is the sort of book which makes you wish that all novels came with illustrations. In the early chapters , Chokshi’s descriptions of the Raja’s court filled my head with vibrant images of multi-coloured silks and shimmering jewels. Maya is adorned for her sinister wedding with henna-patterns of mango blossoms on her skin, a blood-red sari, amethyst earrings, golden hair ornaments and bangles as heavy as shackles. Chokshi is even better at describing her Otherworld. Chapter titles such as “The Palace Between Worlds”, “The Garden of Glass”, “A Room Full of Stars” and “The Memory Tree” hint at the enchantments in store for readers of this novel. Best of all are the sights, scents and sounds of the Night Bazaar where daydreams that look like spun-glass, bones for telling the future, dancing conch-shells, and pearls that taste of “ripe pears and rich honey” are all on offer “beneath a split-sky leaking with magic”. This is a Fantasy world I wanted to explore further and I was pleased to learn more about Maya’s intrepid sister, Gauri, in “A Crown of Wishes”.

One small niggle – Author’s Acknowledgements are now getting as lengthy and emotional as Oscar acceptance speeches and Chokshi’s is a particularly gushing example. I love novels because they represent individual human voices rather than group efforts. Chokshi’s distinctive voice is hers alone and she should be proud of that achievement. Until next time….



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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










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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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














Today I’m recommending a novella in Canongate’s `The Myths’ series. This small Scottish publishing firm had the big idea of commissioning famous authors from all over the world to write modern interpretations of ancient myths.  Nineteen volumes, of variable quality, have appeared so far. I’ve already recommended one of them – Natsuo Kirino’s haunting `The Goddess Chronicle’, based on a Japanese myth (see my post of September 2013). Now I’m picking Alexander McCall Smith’s `Dream Angus’, which has the subtitle `The Celtic God of Dreams’. This volume was first published in 2006 and is available in paperback and as an ebook.

There are two strands to this book. The first, as the author puts it, `is a retelling of the myth of Angus, a popular and attractive figure of the Celtic mythology of Ireland and Scotland.’ Deep in the mythical past, the mighty god Dagda seduced a water spirit called Boann and she bore him a son called Angus. The floating cradle of this baby god was always surrounded by singing birds. Dagda kidnapped his son but discovered that Angus already had the power to send sleepers prophetic dreams. Fearing this power, Dagda sent Angus away to the house of his older son, Midir. Angus grows up thinking that he is Midir’s son until spiteful words reveal the truth. Then Angus sets out to confront his real father and win his inheritance. Angus becomes a kindly ruler who protects animals and grants people dreams identifying `the man or woman who would be their lover’. What will happen when this god of love falls desperately in love with an unattainable princess?

Interwoven with the ancient myth of Angus are five interconnected modern stories set in Scotland and Canada. McCall Smith explains in his introduction that there is an `Angus figure’ present in each of these stories but the identity of this figure isn’t always immediately obvious. In Chapter 3 a couple are on their honeymoon in the Hebrides but the wife starts to wonder about what kind of secrets they might keep from each other. Chapter 5 introduces two brothers living in poverty in a Scottish village during the 1930s. Young Jamie adores his elder brother but a letter from Canada is about to change their lives. In Chapter 7 a 15 year old boy finds out a family secret and threatens to ruin his parents’ marriage. Chapter 9 centres on a compassionate animal-keeper who works in a research laboratory near Glasgow and one of his charges – Pig Twenty. In the final chapter a therapist who works with dreams tries to help a Canadian woman whose marriage has broken up.

Being part Celt, I have a general liking for Celtic mythology but I was also attracted to this book for two specific reasons. Firstly, it reminded me of one of my favourite poems -`The Song of Wandering Aengus’ by the great Irish poet W.B.Yeats. Right from the opening lines, `I went out to the hazel wood, Because a fire was in my head,’ this is one of the most magical and romantic poems ever written. If you’ve never read `The Song of Wandering Aengus’ (an alternate spelling for Angus) you can find it in seconds on the internet. The second reason was that `Dream Angus’ is by an author whose work I generally enjoy. The prolific Alexander McCall Smith is chiefly famous for his `No. 1 Ladies’s Detective Agency’ Series set in Botswana, though I am most fond of his Edinburgh-based `Scotland Street’ stories. Some people dismiss his books as trivial or sentimental but McCall Smith is passionately interested in the ethics of everyday living and he has a rare talent for writing about goodness. Lots of authors can win sympathy for bad characters; making good people interesting is much harder.

Though he has reworked some African fables, McCall Smith isn’t known for writing Fantasy so I was curious to see how he handled a Celtic myth. Ancient Irish stories tend to mingle beauty with brutality and tragedy with broad humour. McCall Smith captures most of this in his version of Angus’ story. There are plenty of humorous touches and the narrative is charmingly matter of fact about marvels such as a holy man who can sleep underwater and people transformed into pigs. The traditional characters are given plausible inner lives and the callous behaviour of the King of the Gods is unsparingly portrayed. When Dagda takes baby Angus from his watery mother `her pleading was no more than the sound that a river makes when it crankles between stones’.

McCall Smith has chosen to write about one of the gentlest of Celtic deities but Angus isn’t boringly perfect. He tricks his father out of power, reducing Dagda to a broken old man. Angus is unable to save all of his subjects (if you are fond of pigs, prepare to shed some tears) and he takes to his bed when he can’t find the girl he’s seen in a vision. Like Yeats’ wandering Aengus, this Angus is prepared to spend his whole life on `the search for beauty’ because once a man `feels that there is something missing in his world …he will never be complete until he has found that missing thing,’ McCall Smith does justice to the romance of this idea while allowing one of his other characters to mock the notion that `beauty and goodness go together’. The god Bodb points out that `Beauty can exist alongside the most appalling character defects.’ Sharp observations like this ensure that the mythical narrative in `Dream Angus’ is never too bland.

There is even more sharpness in the modern sections. If you think of McCall Smith’s books as being all sweetness and light, you may be surprised by the darkness and sadness which infuse these inset stories. They are about people who struggle with the disappointments and compromises of life. In Chapter 7 it is the erring mother rather than her self-righteous son who seems to have the author’s sympathy and the Angus-figure is unexpectedly sinister. McCall Smith leaves it up to the reader to tease out the elusive connections between the stories and their inner meanings. Like myths and dreams they are open to more than one interpretation. `Dream Angus’  is full of Celtic melancholy but it ends on an upswing of forgiveness  and reconciliation. If you want to believe in the transformative power of dreams, try this novella. 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….





Once in a blue moon I realize that I am reading a new book which is destined to become one of my all time favourite Fantasy novels. `City of Stairs’ by Robert Jackson Bennett is such a book, so I’m making it this week’s recommendation. This novel came out last year and is currently available in paperback and as an ebook. `City of Stairs’ seems to have appealed to both Fantasy and Science Fiction readers. It also incorporates the genres of Spy story and Murder mystery.

Shara is a Saypuri Intelligence officer posing as a low-grade diplomat. She and her secretary/bodyguard, a massive North-man called Sigrud, have come to Bulikov to investigate the murder of Shara’s mentor, the historian Dr Efrem Pangyui. Bulikov is the chief city of the Continent and was once the site of the Seat of the World, a temple from which six Divinities ruled an empire. The country of Saypur, which had no gods to protect it, was conquered by the Continentals and its people treated like slaves. Eventually the Saypuris rose in revolt and their leader, known as the Kaj, discovered a way to kill Divinities and their semi-divine offspring, the Blessed.

When the Divinities died almost everything they had created disappeared, an event known as the Blink. After the Blink came a terrible time of plague and famine. Now the Continent has long been a poor and backward colony of Saypur and all knowledge of its extraordinary past has been suppressed.  Under the `Worldly Regulations’, Continentals are not allowed any form of religion and they must not even mention the names of their former gods.

There is a lot that Shara isn’t mentioning to the people of Bulikov too. She is a direct descendant of the god-murdering Kaj and she’s also the niece of Vinya Komayd, the all-powerful Minister for Foreign Affairs. Shara has only been given a week to look into Dr Pangyui’s brutal murder. Her investigations uncover a plot by fanatical `Restorationists’ to destabilise Bulikov, a plot which may involve Shara’s old flame, wealthy local businessman, Vohannes. After a series of attacks and disappearances there are urgent questions to be answered. What secrets did Dr Panguyi uncover during his research on the true history of Bulikov? How powerful are the ancient artefacts kept in the `Unmentionable Warehouses’  guarded by the Saypuri military, and are all the Divinities of Bulikov really dead?

In my last post I wrote about an Urban Fantasy  (`A Darker Shade of Magic’) which didn’t quite bring its city-settings to life. There are no such complaints this time. Bulikov – the City of Stairs – is an exciting and distinctive place, though not the ideal destination for a relaxing city-break. People who spend all their lives in cities probably dream about rural paradises. I was brought up in beautiful countryside, which may be why I’ve always been fascinated by the great cities of Fantasy. The dangerous Divine City of Bulikov with its vast white walls and mountainous stairs that lead everywhere and nowhere is one of that select group, or even two. There is the  modern city which Shara sees when she first arrives, with its dark alleyways and bland, featureless buildings, and the dazzling pre-Blink city which she gets occasional glimpses of. Modern Bulikov convinces as a colonial city with a complex political life where the ordinary citizens struggle to earn a living amongst the ruins of their once great civilization. Ancient Bulikov was a place where different realities met and miracles were a daily occurrence, a place which some factions long to see restored to its former glory.  That glory though came at a high price for citizens unwilling or unable to conform with the sacred laws of the ruling Divinities.

Bennett is a very skilful story-teller who only gradually reveals the full back stories of his leading characters and of the relations between the Continentals and the Saypuris. He cunningly begins with the military Governor of Bulikov, Colonel Mulaghesh,  presiding over an absurd court case in which a hat maker is accused of advertising his hats with a sign which is deemed to be too similar to an ancient symbol of one of the banned Divinities. The defendant is outraged because, `The Wordly Regulations deny us our history’, though Saypuri scholars such as Dr Pangyui are allowed to study the records forbidden to locals. The reader shares his outrage. `City of Stairs’ explores the same theme, of whether war crimes should be forgotten for the sake of peace, as Ishiguro’s recent novel `The Buried Giant’ (see my April 30th post) but in my view does it even better. As the story develops it becomes clear that while the Continentals know that parts of their history, and therefore their cultural identity, are denied to them, most Saypuris are unaware of how much their own history has been distorted by their ruling elite. By the end of the book plenty of secrets are still being kept but you can understand why.

Having got our sympathy for a people whose Nationalism has been neutered by depriving them of the religion which underlay so much of their culture, Bennett proceeds to illustrate the darker aspects of that religion, embodied by the puritanical Kolkashtani sect whose followers must live by a bizarre and cruel set of rules. I say religion but it isn’t just one. Bennett describes a wide range of religious experience to go with his six primary Divinities, who include Sky-Dancer Trickster God, Jukov; harsh, judgemental Kolkan; and the gentle Goddess Olvos who disappeared before the Blink. Bennett has come up with a wonderful explanation for why some cultures have conflicting creation myths and his Divinities come with impressive sets of miracle-working objects and sacred creatures. When some of the latter are loosed to wreak havoc on Bulikov, the tone of `City of Stairs’  tips towards Horror but it remains a story with many layers of meaning. This novel makes you ask whether banning religion is ever justified and it examines, in a most original way, the old conundrum of whether God created man in his own image or vice versa.

Even if you are not much interested in questions like these, `City of Stairs’ is an absorbing mystery story about intriguing characters. Quite often I decide not to recommend an otherwise enjoyable  novel because the female characters are only there as love or lust-objects for the male characters. Bennett however writes strong and complex women. There is the honest soldier, Colonel Mulaghesh, the wily politician Vinya, and best of all super-smart Shara. Small, plain Shara is frequently underestimated by her opponents but she’s able to deal with almost anything. At first she seemed rather unlikable but, as I learned more about the idealism of Shara’s youth and her life as an exile from her home country, I began to respect and admire her. If it’s inspiring heroes you want, there is Vohannes, the debonair playboy with a tortured past, and there is strong, silent Sigrud who takes part in what is probably the best man versus monster fight since Beowulf met Grendel’s mother (see my post of June 2014). By the end of the book I’d become so fond of the leading characters that I found myself continuing their stories in my own imagination. There is to be a sequel though, called `City of Blades’,  and Bennett’s Continent is undoubtedly a Fantasy world rich enough to sustain a whole series of novels. If you only accept one of my recommendations this year, let it be `City of Stairs’.



This week instead of the usual book recommendation I’m issuing a plea for everyone to remember the original meaning of the word Isis.  When you Google Isis now instead of finding articles about the Egyptian goddess Isis, or the stretch of the river Thames that shares her name, the top listings are all about the terrorist group that I shall refer to as IS (Islamic State – though they have precious little in common with the noble teachings of the Prophet). As an Egyptologist, it makes me very sad that a cowardly bunch of murderers are blackening the name of a goddess who stood for all that was best about Ancient Egyptian religion. Some organizations and companies which are called after the goddess or the river are even having to choose new names because of the negative publicity.  This is trivial compared to the massacres committed by IS, but while I’m powerless to do anything about the atrocities in Syria and Iraq, perhaps I can do something to reclaim the good name of Isis by describing her on Fantasy Reads.

I’m sure most of my readers know that the Ancient Egyptians worshipped a wide range of male and female deities. From the late 3rd millennium BCE onwards, Isis was one of their most important goddesses. She embodied the throne of the pharaohs and she was most often shown as a woman wearing a throne symbol on her head. In myth, she is one of the children of the Sky Goddess and the Earth God. She and her brother Osiris were said to have fallen in love while they were still in the womb (they do things differently in myths) and they were destined to rule Egypt together after the Sun God, Ra, went to live in the heavens. The reign of Isis and Osiris was a Golden Age for humanity but it was brought to an end by the chaos-god Seth, who was jealous of his brother Osiris. Seth brutally murdered Osiris, tore his body in pieces and scattered them where he hoped they would never be found. Isis was distraught but she managed to recover nearly all the pieces and to resurrect Osiris for just long enough for her to conceive a child by him. Then she hid in the marshes to give birth to her miraculous son, Horus. Seth, who had seized the throne of Egypt, attempted to poison young Horus but Isis persuaded the Sun God to heal her son. When Horus was old enough, he challenged Seth to a series of combats. Isis used cunning and magic to help her son defeat Seth. So Horus became the ruler of Egypt, and the prototype for all Egyptian pharaohs, while his father Osiris ruled the Underworld.

The Egyptians thought of Isis as the ideal wife and mother but her life was full of suffering and struggles. You can tell from the outline above that Isis didn’t take those sufferings meekly. She always fights back and she is the dominant partner in her relationships with her husband and son. In the story known as `The Secret Name of Ra’, Isis uses her great knowledge of magic to create a snake which poisons the Sun God. Then she tricks Ra into telling her his true name so that she can cure him. This sounds ruthless but in mythological terms farsighted Isis is doing the right thing. She is making sure that her future son will have the power contained in the true name of Ra to help him win the battle between Order and Chaos. According to Egyptian texts, Isis was `more clever than millions of men’ and a better guardian of Egypt than `millions of soldiers’. To look at it another way, she’s the archetype of everything that the men of IS don’t want women to be – well-educated, independent-minded and strong.

Isis was believed to use her powers to protect the helpless and this is shown in images of the goddess enfolding her husband with winged arms or holding her baby son on her lap. Her maternal tenderness was ultimately extended to all humanity and she was thought to help both the living and the dead. The Egyptians sometimes reimagined Isis as an ordinary women mourning her husband and struggling to support her child and avoid her abusive brother. Traditional laments that Isis and her sister were supposed to have sung for Osiris were recited at Egyptian funerals and stories about Isis and Horus were used as part of spells to cure sick children. By the end of the first millennium BCE, Isis was widely worshipped as the compassionate Queen of Heaven who offered a happy afterlife to people of all ranks and nationalities. Her beautiful temple on the island of Philae (yes, the comet-probe is named after it) continued to function long after Egypt became a Christian country.

If you want to find out more about Isis, look at `The Great Goddesses of Egypt’ by Barbara S.Lesko or `Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses and Traditions of Ancient Egypt’  by Geraldine Pinch (that’s me when I’m wearing my Egyptologist hat). Or you could try Plutarch’s `Of Isis and Osiris’, possibly the best book on mythology ever written, or even Robert Graves’ translation of `The Golden Ass’, a very naughty novel by Lucius Apuleius in which the cursed hero is eventually rescued by Isis. So, I hope that the next time you see the word Isis you will think of the goddess who grieved rather than a callous terrorist organization. Do start calling the terrorists IS or Isil instead and, as a tiny act of defiance, why not mention Isis the goddess, Isis the river, or even Isis the cute dog from `Downton Abbey,’ in whatever social media you use? As the Ancient Egyptians would say, thank you a million times.