Archives for category: Romance fiction

As we’re coming up to Valentine’s Day I should probably be recommending something romantic. Well, this week’s choice does contain two love stories but it isn’t romantic in a slushy, happy-ever-after kind of a way. “The Reader” by Traci Chee is a Dystopian Fantasy written for Young Adults. It came out in 2016 and is Book One of the “Sea of Ink and Gold” series. A sequel, “The Speaker”, was published a few months ago. “The Reader” is easy to find in paperback or as an ebook; just don’t get it confused with “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink because that is a very different kind of novel.

Chee’s book is a complex multi-stranded story. It is set in Kelanna, “a wonderful and terrible world of water and ships and magic.” Many different races live in the five island kingdoms of Kelanna but none of them seem to have developed systems of writing. They remember their history by turning it into tales which pass “from mouth to mouth”.  One rare tale tells of “a mysterious object called a book, which held the key to the greatest magic Kelanna had ever known.”

The main story-line follows an orphan called Sefia who lives with the skilled thief she calls Aunt Nin. They are on the run from the people who murdered Sefia’s beloved father six years before. When assassins led by a woman in black catch up with them in the Forest Kingdom, Nin is carried off. Alone in the woods, Sefia opens a bundle which her father entrusted to her and discovers a book. Guided by memories of lessons from her late mother, Sefia teaches herself to read. She also learns how to enter a hidden world of golden currents which gives her strange powers.

In another strand of the plot, we meet a boy called Lon who also has the talent for dipping into this Illuminated World, where he is able to see past, present and future events. Lon is invited to become the new Apprentice Librarian in a secret Library run by by an order of Guardians dedicated to bringing “peace to an unstable world”. He forges friendships with other young Guardians and risks breaking the rules of the order by being strongly attracted to the Apprentice Assassin.

When Sefia rescues a prisoner from a crate it turns out to be a mute boy rather than her aunt. The boy, whom she calls Archer, has been tortured by the brutal Impressors and forced to fight other boys to the death. They travel on together. Sefia hopes to find and save Nin and she wants to investigate possible links between the woman in black and the cruel pirate who commands the Impressors. Her book sometimes shows Sefia stories about a very different pirate – Cannek Reed, the treasure-hunting, fame-seeking captain of  the Current of Faith. After an uncomfortably close encounter with a young assassin, Sefia and Archer are startled to find themselves on board the Current of Faith. They must win over Captain Reed if Sefia is to continue her quest for answers, redemption and revenge.

“The Reader” has sneaked onto Fantasy Reads even though I can think of a stack of reasons for not picking this book. For starters, the synopsis is a nightmare to write without giving away too much about the plot and structure of Chee’s novel. What begins as a fairly standard epic journey plus “teenager develops superpowers” plot soon deepens and divides. There are layers of stories within stories and Chee plays tricks with time and identity. Working out the connections between the various plot-lines and characters isn’t easy. By the end of this book some of Sefia’s questions about her heritage have been answered but there are revelations to come in the sequel which overturn most of what you think you’ve learned about Kelanna and the Guardians. If you prefer straightforward linear narratives, and don’t enjoy pitting your wits against an author, avoid “The Reader”.

Chee makes clever use of the traditional belief in a “Book of Life”, in which “everything that had ever been or would ever be” is recorded. Many of the characters in the “Sea of Ink and Gold” series challenge the idea that “What is written always comes to pass” and struggle to shape or reshape their destinies. The “secret library manipulating the world” part of the plot is not a particularly original idea. The less common libraries become in real life, the more popular they seem to be in fiction. There is Genevieve Cogman’s enjoyable but rather light-weight “Invisible Library” series and Rachel Caine’s grim and gripping “Great Library” series, which I’ve already recommended (see my November 2015 post on “Ink and Bone”).

Caine’s series has a more interesting central character than “The Reader” does. With her dark hair, golden skin and onyx eyes, Sefia is physically striking but she does seem a rather standard Young Adult Fantasy heroine. She’s brave, intelligent and compassionate but I did feel that I’d read about her before. Melodramatic problems which keep young lovers chastely apart (i.e. she’s human, he’s a vampire) are also standard in Paranormal Romance. There are plenty of obstacles for the two pairs of star-crossed lovers in this series but “The Reader” did score highly with me for its sensitive portrayal of a slowly developing relationship between two damaged young people – Sefia and Archer. Be warned that there is a lot of violence in this story. Some of it is comic-book style (high-leaping, bullet-stopping assassins) but Chee does explore the physical and mental effects of the horrific violence that Archer has both endured and inflicted.

You might assume that most of the violence in this story would be centred on the pirate-characters but the crew of the Current of Faith are the nicest, kindest, most equal-opportunity pirates ever to sail the seas. These freedom-loving outlaws never do anything as dreadful as the Guardians, who claim to be acting for the good of society. Captain Reed himself is an ambiguous character, obsessed with escaping the anonymity of death through daring deeds which will be remembered for ever. His adventures “for treasure and glory” at the edge of the known world are my favourite parts of “The Reader”. They are wonderfully romantic and inspire some of Chee’s best writing but also develop the theme of what kind of stories we choose to tell about ourselves and others.

“The Reader” isn’t a perfect book but it contains some dazzling scenes, such Sefia and Lon’s plunges into the rippling, shifting Illuminated World and Reed’s encounters with an island-sized turtle, the Cursed Diamonds of Lady Delune, and the ruby-red eyes of the dead. I’m still not sure if Chee will succeed in weaving all the strands of her plot together to create a satisfying conclusion but that uncertainty is part of what makes “Sea of Ink and Gold” an exciting read. Until next time…


How solid is the barrier between the genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction? I ask because novels which play games with genre divisions seem to be in fashion. In January I reviewed a book (Iain Pears’ “Arcadia”) which keeps readers guessing about whether it is Fantasy or Science Fiction. This week I’m recommending a novel in which the two leading characters seem to belong in different genres. “All the Birds in the Sky” by Charlie Jane Anders was first published in 2016 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook.

The story is set in an America in the near future and starts by describing the formative experiences of two unhappy kids who go to the same school. When six year old Patricia saves a wounded bird from her cruel sister, she discovers that she can understand the speech of birds and animals. The rescued bird takes Patricia to the Parliament of Birds which is held deep in the forest. At the Parliamentary Tree, Patricia is told that she is a witch and asked “the Endless Question” – which she fails to understand. Patricia is punished by her parents for wandering off and loses her ability to talk to animals. She soon wonders if the whole episode was a dream. Meanwhile, clever science-obsessed Laurence is getting bullied for being a nerd. One day Laurence goes off by himself to the MIT campus to watch a rocket-launch that he’s heard about. The launch is postponed but Laurence does get to meet a sympathetic rocket-scientist called Isobel and “maverick tech investor” Milton Dirth who is funding a new space programme. They tell Laurence to come back and see them when he is eighteen.

Patricia and Laurence are both picked on at school for being different and are persecuted by a guidance counselor who is not what he seems. They form a defensive alliance which is almost a friendship and confide in each other. Laurence secretly builds a sentient supercomputer called CH@NG3M3 and Patricia learns how to reawaken her magic. She finds Laurence an unreliable supporter. Even so, just before she is whisked off to attend a special school for the magically gifted, Patricia intervenes to help Laurence when his ambition to go to a science school is under threat.

The pair don’t see each other again until they are both grown up and living in San Francisco. Laurence has become a brilliant computer engineer and is working for Milton Dirth. He shares a house with Isobel and has a stunning girlfriend who builds “emotional robots”. He has got the life he wanted but Ecological catastrophes are mounting up and the whole world is under threat. Laurence and Patricia meet at a party and soon start confiding in each other again. She is in trouble with her group of witches for using her magic too often and breaking the rules about helping people. Laurence is working on a Doomsday Machine that could save humanity but the witches are dedicated to preserving the whole of nature. Patricia and Laurence find themselves on opposite sides in what could be the final conflict….

After the magical opening chapter, I found “All the Birds in the Sky” hard going for a while. Introverted Laurence and lonely Patricia are regarded as “losers” by their schoolmates at Canterbury Academy and it was painful to read about the physical and mental cruelty they are forced to endure. I do so hope that the hellish impression I get of American public schools from Fantasy novels, films and TV series is wildly unrealistic. I would rather take a bus trip through Mordor than spend a week at Canterbury Academy. The only place worse is the brutal Military Reform School that Laurence gets sent to by his inept parents. Anders deploys all the descriptive powers and depth of characterization of a top-notch literary novelist. Although their family and schoolmates are bizarrely awful, Patricia and Laurence seem intensely real – so you suffer along with them.

However, “All the Birds in the Sky” is not a conventional “coming of age” novel. Anders constantly takes the story off in surprising directions. For example, when Patricia and Laurence take turns to guess who people on an escalator are “based just on their footwear” it seems a perceptive account of the way childish imaginations work. Then on the next page, one of Patricia’s wildest guesses – that a man in “black slippers and worn gray socks” is “a member of a secret society of trained killers” – turns out to be true. Anders also catches you out with sudden shifts of tone. Some parts of “All the Birds in the Sky” are sharply funny; others achingly sad. Many elements of the story are treated in unexpected ways. Thus the assassin subplot is played for laughs, the natural disasters largely happen off-stage rather than being used to generate big dramatic scenes, Laurence’s potentially farcical relationships with woman are sensitively examined, and the inset story of CH@NG3M3, a computer with its own agenda, turns out to be more heart-warming than sinister.

Is it possible to please both Science Fiction and Fantasy fans in one novel? In “All the Birds in the Sky” Anders takes numerous popular plot motifs from both genres  and uses them in her own distinctive way. From Science Fiction there is a Time Machine (but one that only takes Laurence two seconds into the future), an Artificial Intelligence which starts to act independently of its human creator, a vault to store humanity’s scientific knowledge, creepy high-tech devices which seem to be controlling people’s lives, a world threatened by man-made disasters, an increasingly urgent mission to find a new planet for the human race to settle and a machine which might tear the earth apart. I suspect that some lovers of Hard SF will think Anders approach to these serious topics too playful and quirky for their tastes. I found it refreshing.

Among the Fantasy motifs included in “All the Birds in the Sky” are talking animals,the riddle which must be solved, the magical place that is hard to find again, the school for training witches and wizards, the spell that exacts a terrible price, the prophecy of doom and the witch who breaks the rules. Fantasy readers may feel that the magical part of the narrative isn’t given enough page time. We only learn about Patricia’s training in flashbacks, which is a pity because her dual-campus school sounds interesting. Students spend part of their time studying formal magic in Eltisley Hall and part experiencing a more intuitive magic in The Maze, where you can do whatever you like but learn through random ordeals. Patricia’s fellow witches in San Francisco are an intriguing bunch too, especially Ernesto who cannot leave his bookstore home and must not be touched and Dorothea who looks like a harmless old woman but can kill people with her whispered stories. I wish we saw more of them.

As I read “All the Birds in the Sky” I kept thinking that it couldn’t work because Anders was putting in things that should have been left out and leaving out things that should have been put in. Strangely, when I got to the end I realized that the novel had worked for me. I’d been charmed by Anders’ style and won over by her characters. The evolving relationship between Patricia and Laurence is one of the most convincing love stories I’ve ever read. Initially all they have in common is being outsiders. Laurence is embarrassed by Patricia and she feels crushed by his intellect but they go through a lot together. Both of them want to change the world for the better but fear that they may only make things worse. As an adult, Laurence realizes that he feels secure with Patricia because she has already seen him at his worst and Patricia comes to believe that Laurence is the one person who has earned her complete trust. They belong to opposing groups with very different visions of the future but together they have the strength to look for a less extreme third way. This isn’t a novel which argues that one side is right and the other is wrong. “All the Birds in the Sky” offers the hope that different philosophies and beliefs can be reconciled and that everyone can join together to do amazing things. This happens in the story in a most extraordinary fashion. To find out how, you’ll have to read this endearing novel. Until three weeks time….




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…












This month I had been planning to recommend Seth Dickinson’s “The Traitor” – a brilliant but exceedingly grim novel about a woman prepared to do anything to free her country from an oppressive empire. However I do try to keep this blog a politics-free zone and I suspect that all the terrible and tragic things which have been happening lately have left most of us wanting comfort reads. So I’m going for something lighter – “Spindle” by W.R.Gingell. She is an Australian Indie Author who likes to “rewrite Fairy Tales with a twist or two”.  “Spindle” is Book 1 of “The Two Monarchies Sequence” and you can get it as a Kindle ebook or as a paperback.

In a castle surrounded by a hedge of thorns a sleeping beauty is woken by a kiss. This sounds like the perfect happy ending but it is just the beginning of “Spindle”. Nothing is quite what it seems. Polyhymnia (Poly) has been woken by a young-looking man called Luck who is a powerful enchanter rather than a prince. Luck has been sent by the Head of the Wizard Council to rescue the lost Princess of Civet who has been in an enchanted sleep for over 300 years. Civet is now a Republic whose political parties are dominated by wizards but there are factions who want to restore the monarchy. That could be a problem because though Poly can’t remember how she she came to be lying in the royal bedchamber in a splendid dress, she is sure that she isn’t the princess.

Poly was a reluctant lady in waiting to the actual very unpleasant princess. Everyone she knew must now be dead but the wizard who is paying Luck to bring her to the capital has the same name as a man who features in some of her worst memories. Poly doesn’t know if she can trust the infuriatingly vague Luck and she daren’t reveal her true identity. To make matters worse, the curse on her hasn’t been fully broken so she keeps falling asleep and dreaming. Luck claims that Poly is full of strange magic but she insists that, inspite of coming from a magical family, she never had any powers of her own. As the enchanted castle crumbles, Poly is forced to leave with nothing but three books saved from her mother’s library and a small wooden spindle which surprises her every time she finds it in her hand.

The trip to the capital doesn’t go as planned and Luck blames Poly for making his Shift spells go wrong. They encounter a fictional hermit and Poly rescues a “snarl of magic” called Onepiece who is sometimes a puppy and sometimes a small boy.  She also discovers the bizarre fate of the royal family she once knew and finds out something extraordinary about her long-lost parents. Someone is setting lethal magical traps for Luck and Poly. When they take refuge in Luck’s home village, Poly gets to know the elusive enchanter better and learns about modern life and romance. All too soon threatening events force them to continue their journey to the capital where old and new enemies are waiting for Poly…

I’m grateful to Intisar Khanani for recommending Gingell’s consistently enjoyable work.  Both authors are inspired by traditional Fairy Tales but use them in innovative ways (I reviewed “Thorn”, Khanani’s version of “The Goose Girl” in March 2015).  I’ve read other novels based on “Sleeping Beauty”, such as Robin McKinley’s charming “Spindle’s End”, but this one is the most original. Instead of using a standard medieval or an updated modern setting, Gingell has set her story in an invented world lit by three suns known as the Triad.  In the oldest versions of “Sleeping Beauty” the princess’s problems are only made worse by the arrival of her prince since she wakes up to find that she’s given birth to twins and earned the murderous emnity of the evil sorceress who is the prince’s wife (for the gory details see the chapter on this story in Iona and Peter Opie’s “The Classic Fairy Tales”). Gingell is clearly familiar with these versions and picks out a few key elements to reuse in her own fashion. She very reasonably makes Poly highly suspicious of the man who has forcibly kissed her awake, and gives her an unexpected child – the cursed dog/boy Onepiece – to look after. The touching maternal relationship which Poly develops with Onepiece is one of the most attractive things in the novel.

I knew that I was going to enjoy “Spindle” when I read Gingell’s gracious acknowledgement of her debt to the work of one of own my favourite Fantasy authors – the late Diana Wynne Jones. Gingell writes on the dedication page that she “would have liked to bask in that sunshine a little longer.” I feel the same but reading “Spindle” was almost as good as discovering a new Wynne Jones novel. Gingell shares Wynne Jones’ talents for devising intriguing plots with an escalating sequence of startling twists (see my comments on `the Wynne Jones Twist’ in my November 2012 post on “The Lives of Christopher Chant”) and for creating distinctive forms of magic for her characters to use. Luck has magic that “was just a little bit too golden and strong and abundant to make him a mere wizard”. Truth be told, Luck is rather similar to Wynne Jones’ famous wizard Howl from “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Castle in the Air” but I still found him highly entertaining. This absent-minded enchanter can usually make people do what he wants but he meets his match in Poly, who turns out to be capable of using the much rarer powers of antimagic and unmagic. She has an arm that can unmake spells and her continuously growing magical hair is almost a character in itself. As Luck says, “Everything about Poly is beautiful and impossible.”

Like many of the heroes or heroines of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels, Poly is forced to pretend to be someone else while she struggles to work out what is going on and what kind of person she really is. Once she’s awoken, shy Poly has to learn to engage with the world in a way that she never did in her previous life. It’s a pleasure to watch her come out of her shell and into her powers. It is also nice to encounter a Fantasy heroine who wears glasses. The sparky relationship between Poly and Luck is a constant delight. She starts by kneeing her “rescuer” in the stomach and he calls her “a horribly violent princess.” Poly objects to Luck invading her personal space (which he does) and accuses him of never listening to what anybody says but she eventually realizes that he always takes notice of the things which are truly important. I finished the book wanting to see more of this quarrelsome couple but they don’t appear in “Masque”, the entertaining  second volume of “The Two Monarchies Sequence”.  This takes place some years later and features two of the minor characters from “Spindle”.  “Wolfskin”, another book by Gingell set in the same world, has a curse-breaking theme in common with “Masque” and “Spindle”.  If you enjoy forest settings and stories about good witches, you might want to try “Wolfskin” too. Until next time…














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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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










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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
















My recommended Fantasy read is something short and romantic. Short because I’m feeling guilty about recommending such a long book last time, and romantic because I’m writing this close to Valentine’s Day. Peter S. Beagle’s novella `A Dance for Emilia’ is both a love story and a ghost story. It was published in 2000 as a small hardback book of 87 pages with a beautiful cover drawing of an Abyssinian cat by Yvonne Gilbert. As far as I know, this is the only edition but copies are quite easy to find. Beagle is most famous for his 1968 novel `The Last Unicorn’ but his shorter works are well worth exploring.

Among other things, `A Dance for Emilia’ is a touching portait of a friendship. Sam and Jacob have been best friends since they were teenagers in Brooklyn. Drawn together by a mutual love of the performing arts, they both once had high ambitions. Sam intended to be a classical dancer and Jacob a great actor in serious theatre. Things did not go to plan. Told that he wasn’t good enough to get into a ballet company, Sam gave up dance completely and became a music critic. Jacob did go into the theatre, but has never been more than moderately successful as an actor. In middle age, Sam shares his small apartment in New York with an Abyssinian cat called Millamant, while Jacob is a jobbing actor in California with two failed marriages behind him. The two friends speak on the phone every week and joke about their `Museum of Truly Weird Relationships’ with `improbable women’. Then, on one of his visits to California, Sam confesses that he has met someone special – a young writer he calls Emilia.

Just as life seems to be on an upswing for the two friends, Jacob gets a phonecall to say that Sam has died of a heart attack. Jacob meets heartbroken Emily/Emilia at the funeral and for nearly two years they talk and write to each other about their memories of Sam. Emilia had taken in Sam’s cat and one day she arrives in California insisting that Millamant is behaving oddly. Jacob doesn’t understand until he sees the Abyssinian cat dancing in the way that Sam always longed to. Soon Jacob and Emilia are convinced that Sam has come back in Millamant’s body and is able to talk to them. At first they are both overjoyed but then they begin to ask disquieting questions. Has Sam become a dybbuk – a wandering soul that needs a body to hide in- and should they have snatched him back from death by `wishing for him so hard’?

I’ve felt free to reveal quite a lot of the plot of `A Dance for Emilia’ because the story starts with the haunted cat and works backwards. Sam’s death is announced as early as page 3. Then Beagle spends more than half of the novella describing how much Sam meant to his friend Jacob and his lover Emilia and how shocked and damaged they are by his sudden death. It is one of the most convincing depictions of grief that I know of. Sardonic Sam, with his mock English-accent, his `Italian gangster’ suit, and his wild flights of imagination, comes vividly alive as Jacob and Emilia remember him. The detailed realism of Sam’s life in New York helps to make the Fantasy element  of `A Dance for Emilia’ more credible. Even the magical way that Millamant, a cat with `the slouchy preen of a high-fashion model’,  dances in the moonlight is easy to believe. I’ve owned a number of long-haired Abyssinians and their balletic leaps and twirls are amazing.

Once the cat begins to speak, the tone of the story shifts back and forth between scariness and humour. As Jacob says, `Nothing in life – nothing even in Shakespeare – adequately prepares you for opening a can of Whiskas with Bits O’Beef for your closest friend, who’s been dead for two years.’  For once in a ghost story, the characters have really interesting conversations about the process of death and what it means to be a ghost. The intensity of Emilia’s love for Sam has brought him back to her but part of her knows that this isn’t fair to the cat whose body he is inhabiting. Emilia and Jacob are trapping Sam in their memories and preventing his essence from going on to a state he can’t describe in words – only in dance.

This is a story which asks when it is right to let go of lost loves and impossible dreams and make the best of what you do have.  Sam and Jacob’s one major quarrel was over whether Sam should have walked away from his dream of being a great dancer. Beagle leaves it up to the reader to decide who deserves the most respect – Sam who wouldn’t go on doing the thing he loved if he couldn’t achieve a high standard or Jacob for his life-long struggle to be the best he can. Emilia says that she always knew that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending for her and Sam but in a wonderfully romantic speech ghost-Sam promises that, `There’s no way in this universe that I could be reduced to something so microscopic, so anonymous, that it wouldn’t know Emilia Rossi’.  `A Dance for Emilia’ is a sad story about letting go but I promise that there is a beautiful twist right at the end. Until next time….


Fantasy based on the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table seems as popular as ever, so this week I want to recommend one of the great classics of Arthurian fiction – `Le Morte D’Arthur’ (The Death of Arthur) by Sir Thomas Malory. Don’t be put off by the French title or the fact that this book was written in the 15th century. It is in English and Malory’s prose isn’t too hard to follow. The two-volume Penguin Classics edition, edited by Janet Cowen, has modernised spelling and a useful glossary. You can also download the text for free via Project Gutenberg. That’s apt because`Le Morte D’Arthur’ was one of the first books to be printed in England. William Caxton published his edition in 1485 (only two copies from this print-run survive). In his introduction to Malory’s retelling of the legend of Arthur, Caxton wrote that, `herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue and sin.’ Few modern blurbs can promise as much.

Malory was working from various French and English poems and romances about Arthur and his court. The aim seems to have been to turn these often conflicting sources into a (relatively) coherent account of the whole of Arthur’s reign.  Malory wrote his story in eight parts but Caxton sub-divided it into 21 books. I have to admit that `Le Morte D’Arthur’ is dauntingly long – a thousand pages in the Penguin edition. I daren’t suggest that you should sit down and read it from cover to cover but it is a wonderful book to dip into when you want to find out more about the great figures of Arthurian legend. Think of `Le Morte D’Arthur’ as a dusty old treasure chest full of gems. To encourage you to rummage, I’ll summarize the contents of Malory’s eight books.

Book I explains the cruel deception which led to the birth of Arthur, why he was raised away from the court of his royal father, and how he became king by drawing a sword out of an anvil. With Merlin’s help, young Arthur establishes his rule over the whole of Britain but he casts a shadow over his future by sleeping with his half-sister, the Queen of Orkney, and fathering a son, Mordred. After Arthur is given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, he marries the beautiful Guenevere against Merlin’s advice, and establishes the Round Table at Camelot. Book II deals with Arthur’s battles in Europe. Arthur himself defeats a particularly large and brutal giant in Normandy and he and his nephew, Sir Gawaine of Orkney, lead a successful invasion of Italy. In Book III Sir Launcelot du Lake proves himself the greatest knight `in all tournaments and jousts and deeds of arms’. He falls in love with Queen Guenevere but this doesn’t stop him getting entangled with various damsels in distress when he goes off to have adventures in her honour.

Book IV tells the story of another  of Arthur’s nephews, Gareth of Orkney, who comes to court in disguise and undertakes a quest to rescue a lady from the Red Knight of the Red Lands.  Book V recounts the tragic tale of how dashing Sir Tristram manages to ruin the lives of two princesses called Isoud (Isolde). In Book VI many of Arthur’s knights go in search of the Sangreal (the Holy Grail) but only three, including Launcelot’s son Galahad, are deemed worthy to see it. Book VII deals with the increasingly reckless love affair between Launcelot and Guenevere. When this affair is exposed by Mordred in Book VIII it leads to a terrible civil war in which Arthur is mortally wounded. He is taken away in a ship by a group of enchantresses  but `men say that he shall come again’.

This brief summary doesn’t include the numerous subplots about the adventures of Arthur’s knights as they encounter feisty or treacherous damsels, wise hermits, wicked knights and spooky castles.  Nor can it do justice to all the memorable characters who flit in and out of the narrative, such as Arthur’s magic-wielding half-sister, Morgan le Fay, or his grumpy foster-brother, Sir Kay, King Pellinor and his Questing Beast, Nimue, the chief Lady of the Lake, and the lovelorn Saracen knight, Sir Palomides. Fortunately, Caxton makes it easy to find the inset stories by heading each chapter with a one sentence summary of the contents. Some of these summaries are rather enticing. Who wouldn’t want to read chapters entitled How Galahad and Percival found in a castle many tombs of maidens that had bled to death or How four Queens found Launcelot sleeping and how by enchantment he was taken and led into a castle or How Sir Tor overcame the knight, and how he lost his head at the request of a lady? Warning – a lot of beheading goes on in `Le Morte D’Arthur’. There are also plenty of sword-fights, jousts and battles. When Caxton introduces a chapter with the words, Yet more of the said battle… you wonder if he thought that too much of the book was taken up with detailed descriptions of fighting, but this is one of Malory’s special skills.

Who was Sir Thomas Malory? Even after reading an entire book about him (`Malory: The Life and Times of King Arthur’s Chronicler’ by Christine Hardyment) I can’t give you a definite answer.  At least three men called Thomas Malory lived in England at around the right period but it isn’t entirely clear which of them wrote `Le Morte D’Arthur’. The most likely candidate is the Thomas Malory who came from Warwickshire. He seems to have fought in France under King Henry V and his tombstone calls him a `valiant knight’ but he was accused of theft, rape and attempted murder and spent many years in prison as an `obdurate criminal’. This fits with the fact that the author of `Le Morte D’Arthur’ refers to himself as `a knight prisoner’ and with the emphasis throughout the book on flawed heroes and heroines who struggle to live up to the code of honourable behaviour and often fail. Arthur tries to be a just ruler and a champion of the oppressed but he causes innocent children to die when he attempts to get rid of his baby son. Launcelot should be the best knight in the world but he is cruel to the mother of his child and he betrays his best friend, Arthur, by sleeping with his wife. Malory writes with great sympathy about the wronged but ultimately forgiving husband and the guilty lovers. Launcelot is described as `the kindest man that ever struck with sword’ and Guenevere as a `sinful lady’ but `a true lover’ . Malory has the gift of making these legendary figures thoroughly human.

Once you get used to Malory’s style, it becomes quite addictive and his stately dialogue is a constant delight. If you imagined Arthur and his knights as strong, silent types, think again. Malory’s characters are highly emotional and they express their feelings with candour and eloquence. `Le Morte D’Arthur’ became a very influential book and its admirers include King Henry VIII, the poets Milton and Tennyson, William Morris, C.S.Lewis, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler and Lawrence of Arabia. I’m pretty sure that being a Malory fan is the only thing I have in common with Henry VIII. I have previously recommended two 20th century Fantasy classics which owe much to Malory – T.H. White’s `The Once and Future King’ (December 2012) and Naomi Mitchison’s `To the Chapel Perilous’ (November 2014). If you are familiar with the first of these novels, you have already read some of `Le Morte D’Arthur’ because White couldn’t resist frequent quotations. So, why not go back to the original source? On his last page, Malory asked `all gentlemen and gentlewomen that readeth this book of Arthur and his knights from the beginning to the ending’ to pray for his soul. If you boldly take up this recommendation, please spare a thought for a man whose failings as a knight helped him to become a remarkable writer. Until next time…



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….


I usually recommend books which are easy to get hold of but this week I’m making an exception to that rule for the sake of an unjustly neglected writer – Barbara Leonie Picard (1917-2011). She was a self-taught expert on the mythology and folklore of a wide range of cultures and her retellings of myths and legends remain popular. Many people, including me, were first introduced to classics such as`The Odyssey of Homer’  and the `Stories of King Arthur and His Knights’ through Picard’s work. It is her own fiction which seems to have been forgotten. Picard wrote some remarkable historical novels for children including `Ransom for a Knight’ (1956) and `One is One’ (1965), the story of a boy who runs away from a monastery to pursue his dream of becoming a knight. The latter is one of the saddest books I know but also one of the most inspiring.

Picard’s greatest contribution to Fantasy is the fifty or so original fairy tales she wrote between 1942 and 1950. These were published in a series of illustrated volumes, none of which is easy or cheap to obtain.  The titles alone made me want to track them down. There is `The Mermaid and the Simpleton` (1949), `The Faun and the Woodcutter’s Daughter’ (1951) and `The Lady of the Linden Tree’ (1954) both with wonderful drawings by my favourite illustrator, Charles Stewart, and `The Goldfinch Garden’ (1963). `The Lady of the Linden Tree’ was reprinted in 1968 with two additional stories under the title `Twice Seven Tales’.  In 1994 Oxford University Press finally brought out a mass-market paperback called `Selected Fairy Tales’ which contains sixteen stories from these collections, chosen and introduced by the author herself. Plenty of book-dealers offer this volume. Unless I say otherwise, you can assume that the stories I refer to below are in `Selected Fairy Tales’.

Fairy tales seem to have been a comfort to Picard during her lonely childhood (she was educated by a governess and hardly ever saw her French father) while as an adult she read, translated and retold hundreds of stories from all over the world. She knew exactly how fairy tales and medieval romances were put together and she used many of the techniques of traditional story-telling in her own short fiction. Picard’s crystal-clear prose is beautiful but not consciously poetic like Oscar Wilde’s (see my November 2013 post on his Collected Fairy Tales); it never impedes the flow of the story. Dialogue is sparingly used and the settings and characters for each tale are swiftly introduced in a straightforward manner. Magic is taken for granted and you can be sure of plenty of action and no boring bits.

Another traditional feature is the use of repeated motifs with slight variations: so a farmer may dream three times that he has been visited by the spirit of the corn-fields (`The Corn Maiden’), a king may perform three nearly impossible tasks for three witches (`The Third Witch’) or a nobleman may kill three beloved animals in the hope of working a spell (`Betrade and Dominic’). All the character-types you might expect appear in Picard’s fairy tales. There are kings and queens, princes and princesses, noble knights and beautiful ladies, plucky goatherds, kind shepherds and clever servant-girls, witches and wizards, mermaids and nixies, fairies and djinns, woodland spirits and talking animals. The leading characters often do traditional things, like getting lost in woods, going on quests for magical objects, and falling hopelessly in love at first sight.

Yet there are some differences between Picard’s carefully crafted stories and authentic folk and fairy tales. There is rather more description than a traditional story-teller would have used, partly because the rural backgrounds of many of the stories are less familiar to most modern readers than they would have been to the original audience. So Picard makes it clear exactly what a ploughboy (in `The Ploughboy and the Nixie’) or a milkmaid (in `The Milkmaid and the Water-Sprite’) does for a living and she is particularly good at evoking the colours and scents of the countryside by mentioning specific flowers. She also tells us more about the inner thoughts of her leading characters than a traditional story-teller would and there is a greater emphasis on character development. These are `transformative’ tales in which extraordinary events can change the whole outlook of the people involved. A flint-hearted witch may find that she is capable of love after all (`The Third Witch’) or an arrogant young ruler may discover the meaning of true friendship (`The King’s Friend’).

In the introduction to `Selected Fairy Tales’ Picard stated that she began writing fairy tales to amuse herself and `forget the sad war days’ while she was on duty as a firewatcher during the Second World War. So are these jolly morale-boosting stories in which good always defeats evil and everyone lives happily ever after? Mainly, no. There are a few light-hearted stories, such as `The Milkmaid and the Water-Sprite’ in which the sprite makes a hash of being a milkmaid, or the title story in `The Goldfinch Garden’ (about a lazy gardener and a wise old woman) but most of Picard’s fairy tales have a serious, even melancholy tone. They depict the world as a harsh place in which aristocrats mistreat their servants, princes fail to keep their promises, widows and orphans may be desperately poor and a mermaid can be sold to the highest bidder and kept in a cage (as in the title story in `The Mermaid and the Simpleton’). The endings of Picard’s stories are pleasingly unpredictable – sometimes joyful, sometimes sad.

I have noticed two recurring themes in Picard’s work which add depth to her stories. The first theme I shall call `the impossible couple’. In many of Picard’s fairy stories, two people fall in love but face terrible obstacles because of social or racial differences, ancient feuds or inflexible moral codes. So in `Heart of the West Wind’ there is no chance that a stableboy and an Emperor’s daughter will be allowed to marry; it is scandalous for a Christian young woman to want to run off with a pagan faun (`The Faun and the Wood Cutter’s Daughter’); and a boy and a water-spirit are kept apart by the physical differences between their worlds (`The Ploughboy and the Nixie’). Two tales depict the fairy people trying to prevent one of their own staying with a human (`Count Alaric’s Lady’ and `Diccon and Elfrida’) and the intense relationships between young men in some of the stories could now be read as `impossible couples’ too (try `The Ivory Box’). Sometimes a way is found for the star-crossed lovers to live together but almost as often flight or death seem the only options.

That brings me to the second recurring theme – escape from a cruel world. Some of Picard’s characters suffer overwhelming problems. In `The Corn Maiden’ a young farmer is about to lose everything he owns, while in `The Ivory Box’ a betrayed husband faces execution for a crime he didn’t commit, but magical escape routes are offered to both of them. Of all the stories by Picard which I read as a child, the one which had most impact on me was that of `Little Lady Margaret’ – a shy girl who escapes an arranged marriage by weaving herself into the beautiful world of a tapestry that she has created. Barbara Leonie Picard’s fairy tales seem to have been written to provide her with a refuge from the troubles of her own life. Perhaps they can do the same for you. Until next time….