Archives for category: Romance fiction

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….



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

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

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

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

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

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

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




This week I’m recommending – with some reservations – a collection of  fantastical stories from the Near East which may be even older than the famous `Arabian Nights’. `Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange’ more than lives up to its title. The collection survives in a single damaged manuscript found in Istanbul, which sounds like something out of a story in itself. The first translation from Arabic into English, by Malcolm C.Lyons, was only published last year. You can get it as an ebook but I splashed out on the sumptuous turquoise and gold hardback. A Penguin Classics paperback edition is due out in July.

In one of the `Tales of the Marvellous’ – `The Story of the Four Hidden Treasures and the Strange Things That Occurred’ – groups of treasure-hunters have to overcome a series of alarming obstacles, such as rock-throwing and sword-wielding statues, a steel-toothed serpent and a brazen lion, before they can get at the treasure. Before you reach the good bits of  `Tales of the Marvellous’ you will have to to get past the introduction and a first story with vital sections missing. The introduction by Robert Irwin is very erudite but seems designed to baffle and irritate readers in search of basic information. So, let me summarize. This collection was put together around the 10th century and may originally have contained 42 tales. Only 18 now survive in a manuscript which was produced in Egypt or Syria sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries. A few of the stories also occur in the much larger collection known as `The Thousand and One Nights’ or the `Arabian Nights’.

The`Tales of the Marvellous’ are more elaborate in style and structure than most folktales. During the introduction, Irwin sniffily refers to the language of these stories as `vulgar’ but all I can say is that it doesn’t show in this translation. Some of the stories include lengthy passages of poetry which don’t add much to the plot. I rather enjoyed the lush love poems but feel free to skip them. Ditto, the extremely dull prophecies of the Monk Simeon in `The Story of Sa’id Son of Hatim al-Bahili and the Marvels He Encountered at Sea’. Framing devices are a particular feature of Arab storytelling. The best known example involves Sheherazade saving her own life by telling her homicidal husband a story every night. In this collection, many of the stories are told to entertain a bored, depressed or grieving ruler. Within this framework, a number of characters may each tell their own  story – the complex tale of `Arus al-‘Ara’is and Her Deceit, As Well As the Wonders of the Sea and Islands’ has six narrators. These intricate sets of stories within stories mean that a mere 18 tales  can add up to quite a long book.

The collection features a variety of tale-types. There are love and adventure stories, tales about clever tricksters and people who suffer from bizarre misfortunes, and stories that belong to a tear-drenched sub-genre defined in the introduction as `Relief after Grief’. As you would expect from the title, there is a strong supernatural element in many of the tales. In these pages you will meet magicians and sorceresses, men and women transformed into animals and birds, good and evil jinn, mermaids and sea-monsters, killer statues and lethal enchantments. If you are wondering whether these stories are suitable for children, bear in mind that Arab folktales tend to contain more sex scenes than their European equivalents.  For example, in a story whose basic plot is similar to `Goldilocks and the Three Bears’, a prince hiding in a strange house eats a bite of food from each of 40 plates and sleeps with a different virgin in each of 40 beds. There are high levels of violence and cruelty too (the good get married, the bad get crucified) yet the stories often celebrate compassion and forgiveness. This book is an uncensored window onto a very different time and place. Be warned that some of the `Tales of the Marvellous’ contain passages which you may find offensive – hence the `with reservations’ recommendation.

Irwin suggests that the original compiler of the tales was probably a woman-hater, but in my view it is the male characters who come out badly. Few of the kings and caliphs are portrayed very favourably, not even the famous Harun al-Rashid who is shown as a jealous drunkard. The handsome heroes of many of the tales are passive figures who burst into tears when faced with misfortune and have to be rescued by their more intrepid mothers or girl-friends or by kindly older men. `Tales of the Marvellous’ is full of strong woman. Among them are  a `high-minded and open-hearted’ slave girl who risks a long journey to find her lost master, a clever princess who has been turned into a horse, Julnar of the Sea `the most skilful sorceress on the face of the earth’, and a weaver’s wife who comes up with a cunning plan to make her timid husband a rich man. One story begins with a rape but the victim is supported by her brother and goes on to become a warrior queen. The tale of `Arus al-`Ara’is (the Bride of Brides) is told in order to demonstrate how wicked and deceitful women can be, but its magnificent villainess behaves like the heroine of a Margaret Atwood novel – inventively punishing every man or jinni who treats her as sex object rather than a person.

The treasure-hunt tales, such as `The Quest for the Crown’ will have particular appeal for Fantasy buffs. Reading about a hero who endures ordeals of fire and water and battles magical enemies with the aid of a wise centaur in order to recover the crown that contains the `Stone of Victory’ is like finding the lost source of one of the great rivers of Fantasy. My favourite tale though is `The Story of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle’  – a splendidly loopy double romance (or triple if you count a pair of star-crossed lions who are important characters). The subtitle truthfully claims that `It Contains Strange and Marvellous Things’. The plot keeps veering off in unexpected directions and is full of exotic characters, such as an evil ruler who has a special death-dealing throne `for when he was angry’, a prince who has been suckled by a lioness, a queen who dresses up as her own vizier to woo the hero, and the surprisingly helpful King of the Ostriches. If you want to find out the true identity of the white-footed gazelle, what role is played by the malicious Queen of the Crows, or who turns our hero into a Nile crocodile – well you will just have to read `Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange’. Until next time….


Last week the Scotts voted to stay in the United Kingdom (I’m a quarter Scottish but I didn’t get a quarter of a vote). To honour their decision I’m recommending a Fantasy novel set in Scotland, or at least in a place that is usually part of Scotland. `The Silver Bough’ by American writer Lisa Tuttle was first published in 2006. It is currently available in paperback or as an ebook. Tuttle draws on the rich folklore of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland and on the Arthurian legend of Avalon – the mystical `Island of Apples’. Apples feature prominently in this book, so you might want to stock up with a few to munch while you’re reading.

This is a novel in which the place is as important as the people. Appleton is a small town situated on an apple-shaped peninsular on the western coast of Scotland. It was once a popular seaside resort and a great fruit-growing area, famous for an incomparably sweet apple known as `Appleton’s Fairest’, but the town’s fortunes have been in decline since the 1950s. The local factory has closed down, the apple orchards have been grubbed up and few tourists visit any  more. The town’s only asset is a grandiose library and museum built by the wealthy and eccentric Wall family. Into this failing community come four lonely strangers…

Divorced Kathleen has made a new start by taking the post of Librarian in Appleton. The library is said to be haunted by the ghost of Emmeline Wall and the attached museum has some very odd things in its collection (such as `fairy eggs’ and a unicorn horn) yet Kathleen loves the place. Mario is a teenager who because of an affair with a married woman has been sent away from his home in Sicily to work in his surly uncle’s fish and chip shop. Texan Ashley has dropped out of college after the sudden death of her best friend and doesn’t know what to do with herself.  Her late grandmother, Phemie, ran away from Appleton to America, even though she was engaged to the richest man in town. Now Ashley has come to stay with the Scottish relatives she’s never met before. Nell is a reclusive young widow who has restored derelict Orchard House and planted apple-trees in its walled garden. She has even found a seedling that might be the long lost `Appleton’s Fairest’. After a landslide cuts off the town from the outside world, this seedling produces a bough with silvery blossom and one perfect golden apple.

Trapped in a town with few young people, Ashley has little to do but make drawings and listen to local legends. She’s told that King Arthur sleeps in a nearby cave, that the area is inhabited by a fairy race who shrink as they age but never die, and that every 50 years a golden apple appears which can grant anyone who eats it their heart’s desire. She also hears about the strange and tragic history of the Wall family and learns that her grandmother Phemie was once chosen as the Apple Queen, who was supposed to preserve the luck of the town by sharing an Appleton’s Fairest with a handsome stranger during the annual Apple Fair. That never happened, but Ashley meets a handsome stranger of her own, the mysterious Ronan, who claims to have returned to Appleton after a long time away. Ashley, Kathleen, Mario and Nell all begin to have strange experiences as Appleton slips out of the ordinary world and into the realms of Celtic myth. The dead are seen walking and ancient dangers awaken. Can a pair of true lovers save the people of Appleton by sharing a magical apple, or will a sacrifice be needed?

Publishers tend to believe that book-buyers only want to read stories about characters who are very similar to themselves – same age, same gender, same race etc. Normally I find this depressing and contrary to the spirit of Fantasy fiction, which is all about exploring the different and the extraordinary. However, I must confess that the strength of my identification with Kathleen did help me to enjoy `The Silver Bough’. This character shares my temperament (`she `felt both stimulated and at peace in the company of all the silent books’), my taste in literature, and my own childhood dream of living in a library. Living in a Glasgow School Art Nouveau library packed with magical books and objects is my idea of heaven. You may prefer to identify with one of the other three viewpoint characters – artistic Ashley, romantic Mario, or secret gardener, Nell. `The Silver Bough’ isn’t a flawless book. For a novel set in Scotland, it has remarkably few Scottish characters. There seems no reason why Ashley, Kathleen and Nell should all be Americans (did Tuttle’s publishers insist on this?) when they only need to come from a few miles away to count as outsiders in Appleton. The male characters are less convincing and interesting than the female ones. Mario isn’t given enough to do and Dave, the famous singer-songwriter who provides the love-interest for Kathleen, seems a little too good to be true even in a Fantasy novel. Though, like Kathleen, I wouldn’t be able to resist a man who has actually read my favourite folklore collection – Campbell’s `Popular Tales of the West Highlands’.

Some people find Tuttle’s style too flat and her pace too slow but I think these are aspects of her chosen story-telling technique. She describes extraordinary things in an everyday manner in order to make them more credible. Tuttle also takes her time building up a detailed picture of Appleton, using pastiche newspaper cuttings and visitor guides and quotes from invented journals and books. By mid-way through this novel, I knew my way around this sad seaside town, with its derelict grand hotel and empty shops, and I had begun to care about its fate. Failing towns and cities are a topical subject but not one you often encounter in Fantasy fiction. Small oddities are gradually introduced – phone-calls that go unanswered, revellers glimpsed in the distance, a light shining through a window that shouldn’t be there. It seems to Kathleen that `the whole town was waiting for something wonderful that was about to happen’. When the wonders do start to happen, Appleton becomes a disturbing, even dangerous, place for ordinary humans to be. Kathleen’s view of the world is turned upside down during what starts off as a routine visit to an elderly librarian. Supernatural creatures manifest in a smell of burning, a woman beckoning from the sea, or a white horse beside a loch. The horror lies in what might have happened rather than what does.

Tuttle doesn’t stint on plot elements in `The Silver Bough’. There are plenty of past and present mysteries to be solved – Why did Emmeline Wall throw herself into the sea and who was the father of her illegitimate son? Is there a secret chamber in the Library and what does it contain? What made Phemie run away from Appleton and which new couple will share the golden apple 50 years later? The story contains quite a number of possible couples to keep readers uncertain about the answer to that last question. `The Silver Bough’ could be categorized  as Fantasy Romance. Widower Dave and widow Nell are set up to contrast with each other; the former ready to move on while the latter is trapped in a destructive spiral of grief. There is also a standard figure from Scottish folklore, the fairy suitor whose magical `glamour’ makes him attractive to every woman he meets. Yet on second reading, Tuttle’s novel is more subtle and less romantic than it appears to be. In `The Silver Bough’ the fairy suitor can attract lust but not love and the story asks what might happen if the fairy himself does not want to play his traditional romantic role. With the resonance of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the apple in the background, it is never entirely clear whether eating the golden apple is the right thing to do. Was it selfish of Phemie and her fiancé to refuse to follow tradition and share the apple, or did they have a right to try to make their dreams come true without any supernatural help? Will Appleton be saved by a time-shattering act of magic, or by ordinary people with the courage to commit themselves to each other and to their community? If you find these interesting questions, `The Silver Bough’ may be the book for you. Fantasy Reads will be back in two weeks time on the new regular day of Thursday.


One of  the aims of this blog is to challenge the idea that women don’t like Fantasy fiction. There are masses of keen and knowledgeable female readers of SF and Fantasy and some of the best adult Fantasy novels of recent years have been written by women. This week’s recommendation – `The Broken Kingdoms’ by American author N.K.Jemisin – is a shining example. Officially this is Book Two of `The Inheritance Trilogy’ – not to be confused with Ian Douglas’s SF `Inheritance Trilogy’  or Christopher Paolini’s dragon-centred `Inheritance Cycle’. The fictional world of Jemisin’s trilogy is a strange and intricate one. I suggest that you enter it via`The Broken Kingdoms’ and then go back in time to `The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ and forward again to `The Kingdom of Gods’.  All three books are available in paperback or as ebooks.

In the beginning there were three great deities, Itempas the Bright Lord, Nahadoth the Night Lord and Enefa the Goddess of Earth. The Three lived in harmony for aeons, creating innumerable gods, goddesses and mortals. After a terrible divine quarrel known as the Gods’ War,  Enefa was slain by her brother Itempas, while Nahadoth and the deities who supported him were condemned to become the slaves of a human family known as the Arameri. For thousands of years the ruthless Arameri enforced the worship of Itempas and ruled the world from the palace of Sky but in `The Broken Kingdoms’  there has been a great change. A new goddess, the Gray Lady, has arisen and created a gigantic World Tree which now dominates Sky. The enslaved deities have been freed and the power of the Arameri has been weakened but not overthrown. In Shadow, the city at the base of the World Tree, the human population must get used to living alongside the minor deities known as Godlings.

Oree Shoth has come to Shadow to earn a living selling her artwork to pilgrims. She knows that she is a beauty with unusual near-black skin and weird eyes because people have told her so. Oree is blind and can’t see herself but she can see gods, anything magical and her own paintings. She describes herself as `a woman plagued by gods’ and is trying to get over a love affair with Madding, the God of Debts. Oree’s other problem is the mute stranger she calls `Shiny’. She impulsively took him in after finding him in a rubbish dump but he isn’t an easy house-guest.  Shiny doesn’t seem to have any powers but he may be a Godling because he glows every morning and comes back to life whenever he is careless enough to get killed, which seems to happen rather often.

When Oree discovers the body of a murdered Godling in an alley it brings her unwelcome attention from the Order-Keepers, who punish unauthorised use of magic. After Shiny unexpectedly intervenes to save her from interrogation by a priest-magician of Itempas, Oree is forced to go on the run. She and her former lover, Madding, try to find out who is murdering and kidnapping Godlings before the Night Lord takes revenge by destroying the whole city. Soon Oree herself is kidnapped by a group who want to use her as a weapon and it becomes increasingly unclear whether the enigmatic Shiny will help or destroy her. If she and the Gods are to survive, Oree must learn to understand the true nature of her inheritance.

I have several reasons for suggesting that new readers start the series with this volume. The first is a personal one. I’ve just come back from Norway where I kept seeing references to Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Scandinavian mythology, and `The Broken Kingdoms’ has its own magnificent Tree of Life. Jemisin’s imagination is big enough to create a tree 125,000 feet high and make me believe in it. Secondly, `The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ and `Kingdom of Gods’ are epic novels  dealing with the entire history of the Divine Family of this universe and with the interlinked rise and fall of the Empire of the Arameri but `The Broken Kingdoms’ is on a more intimate scale and tells the story of a single relationship that will eventually influence the outcome of the main plotline. Thirdly, while each volume of the trilogy has a different first-person narrator, big-hearted Oree is the one who is easiest to like and understand. She’s no kind of super hero, just a smart, quietly brave young woman whose strong sense of compassion gets her into trouble. Oree has a nice line in self-deprecating humour about her failed love-life and she’s determined to be independent in spite of her disability. Jemisin handles the challenge of having a main viewpoint character who is blind very cleverly. Sharing Oree’s limited view of Shadow makes it easier for the reader to get to grips with this bizarre god-haunted city.

Both `The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ and `The Broken Kingdoms’ start off like standard `feisty girl in peril’ tales and then transform into `something rich and strange’ as a pantheon of deities joins the cast. Jemisin’s divine characters are much more like the gods and goddesses of ancient myth than deities in Fantasy fiction usually are. These are beings who are virtually immortal, can change forms, family roles and genders at will, have benevolent and destructive aspects and are not bound by any of the rules of human morality. Is it possible to imagine what the mental and emotional worlds of such beings would be like? I would have said no, but Jemisin has done it and made these extraordinary beings, and their complex relations with each other, almost comprehensible. Her portrait of Sieh, the capricious Trickster God of Childhood is particularly outstanding but he only makes a cameo appearance in this volume. Jemisin has also thought hard about what it would be like to be the god or goddess of a particular aspect of the world – whether it is something as great as Life and Death or as trivial as Junk. She asks whether the strength of a deity’s affinity makes him or her less free to shape their own life than the humblest mortal. For example,  can the God of Order ever learn to embrace change?

On another level, these troubled deities with their  role-playing and power struggles, intergenerational conflicts and fear of loneliness, aren’t so very different from us. I wasn’t too surprised to find out that Jemisin is a counselor as well as an author, though I hope that none of her clients have problems quite as dramatic as the incest and murder that goes on in these novels. The `Inheritance Trilogy’ is packed with all the magic, mystery and excitement that readers of Fantasy expect, but basically Jemisin is writing about relationships. In this fractured divine family there are no real villains because everyone has understandable reasons for they way they act and `Life is never one thing’. `The Broken Kingdoms’ could be classed as a Paranormal Romance but it examines many aspects of love, including whether it is possible to love one person (or god) without making others feel excluded. At the start of the story, Shiny believes that mortals are so unimportant that he won’t even speak to them. Oree gradually changes his mind by teaching him the meaning of friendship and self-sacrifice. Jemisin’s skill at characterization makes this an outstanding and moving  novel. Until two weeks time….