Archives for category: Steampunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



This week I’m celebrating the arrival of summer and William Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year by picking Poul Anderson’s “A Midsummer Tempest”. The novel is set in an alternate version of 17th century Europe in which everything that Shakespeare wrote was fact rather than fiction. It came out in 1974 and is an early example of a parallel worlds story and arguably of the Steampunk genre. There are plenty of cheap paperback copies of “A Midsummer Tempest” around and it’s also available as an ebook.

In 17th century England a civil war has broken out between King Charles I and the Parlimentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell. The royalist Cavaliers are gradually losing to the puritanical Roundheads. The most brilliant general in the royalist army is Charles’ nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine but he is captured by the Roundheads after the battle of Marston Moor. Rupert is imprisoned in the home of Sir Malachai Shelgrave. Although Shelgrave is a fanatical Puritan, he and Rupert share an interest in the new technology which is beginning to transform Britain. The prince’s imprisonment is made more pleasant by the presence of Shelgrave’s lively niece, Jennifer Alayne. She quickly falls in love with the handsome captive.

One of Rupert’s faithful soldiers, a West Country dragoon called Will Fairweather, persuades Jennifer to help him rescue the prince. Will leads them deep into the woods to meet some potential allies – the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania (from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). The fairies deplore the industrialization of England and see the repressive Puritans as their enemies. Oberon declares that “The Royal cause defends the Old Ways, knowing it or not.” He tells Rupert that the only way to stop the rise of the Puritans is to recover the spell books and staff of power which the great sorcerer Prospero (from “The Tempest”) left concealed on his hidden island. Titania gives magical rings to Rupert and Jennifer which will help them to achieve their quest, as long as they remain true to each other.

Shelgrave and his men are already in pursuit but Rupert and Will escape by stealing a steam train (yes really) and are allowed to take refuge for one night in the elusive Old Phoenix inn, a magical nexus between parallel worlds. After Rupert and Will reach the coast they hitch a lift to the Mediterranean on a ship belonging to the Tunisian ambassador and his beautiful young wife. There are complications and temptations ahead for Rupert. Meanwhile Jennifer’s part in the escape plot has been discovered. Her furious uncle sends Jennifer to Europe, guarded by Puritan soldiers and an odious clergyman, in the hope that her magic ring will lead them to the fugitive prince. Can Jennifer evade her escort and reach the mysterious island where the spirit Ariel and the monster Caliban await?

Poul Anderson (1926-2001) was a prolific author who worked in many different genres. He is probably best known for his Science Fiction but he was also a member of the group of Fantasy writers known as The Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guild of America. The 1960s and 1970s were something of a Golden Age for “Sword and Sorcery” tales (see my July 2014 post on Fritz Leiber’s “Swords and Deviltry”). Many authors of this period created thrilling plots full of fascinating concepts but their work can now seem cold, carelessly written, and lacking in convincing female characters. Anderson has none of these faults. He was both a stylist and an ideas man. His writing is full of wit and charm and many of his stories feature memorable female characters. Style first. In “A Midsummer Tempest” Anderson displays his passion for the glorious language of Shakespeare by sometimes letting his noble characters break into blank verse. This may sound off-putting but it soon seems natural. A bit more trying is Anderson’s fondness for writing dialogue in a variety of regional accents. Will’s z-filled West Country dialect is quite hard-going at first, but if you persevere you’ll find that his salty speeches are full of jokes and puns.

Anderson was also a founder member of the still flourishing Society for Creative Anachronism – “an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts, skills and traditions of pre-17th century Europe”. The phrase creative anachronism could equally be used to sum up “A Midsummer Tempest”. For the first few pages it reads like an ordinary historical novel. Then you realize that you are in an alternate 17th century in which historical events are taking an unexpected turn and the Industrial Revolution has arrived more than a century early. To be honest, the trains are not essential to the plot. I’m guessing they are there because Anderson liked steam trains – and the incongruous idea of Dashing Prince Rupert comandeering one. He also clearly loved Shakespeare and imagining the further adventures of characters from some of the Bard’s most magical plays. I wish the narrative got to Prospero’s island rather sooner because the scenes set there are so beguiling. There is a particularly sympathetic portrait of “witch’s whelp” Caliban, still pining for his lost Miranda.

He isn’t the only character in the novel who turns out to be rather different from what you might expect. Rupert the soldier prince could be an Heroic Fantasy stereotype but in real life he was also an inventor and an artist, whom his contempories called “the philosophic warrior”. It is this complex and thoughtful person whom Anderson deploys as the hero of “A Midsummer Tempest”. The diving bell that Rupert uses to try to retrieve Prospero’s drowned treasures sounds like one of Anderson’s anachronisms but is based on a machine which Rupert (a founder member of The Royal Society) actually designed. In the course of the story it is warm-hearted Jennifer who has to endure the harshest ordeals. Like all the best Shakespearean heroines, she displays great courage and loyalty and, once she is disguised as a boy, takes the initiative in completing the quest. Will Fairweather begins as a typical comic servant figure, much given to drinking and wenching, but becomes something very much more at the climax of the novel.

At The Old Phoenix Rupert has the chance to talk to travellers from two further alternate versions of history – the formidably clever Valeria Matuchek from “Operation Chaos” and Holger Carlsen the hero of Anderson’s best-known Fantasy novel “Three Hearts and Three Lions”. So, if you find that you enjoy “A Midsummer Tempest”, there is a whole interconnected fictional universe to explore. Have a good summer.











If subtle and sophisticated aren’t words which you associate with Epic Fantasy, you obviously haven’t yet read Ken Liu’s `The Grace of Kings’. This Silkpunk (the oriental equivalent of Steampunk) novel was published in 2015 and is Book One of `The Dandelion Dynasty’. It is just out in a paperback edition with rather small print, presumably designed to make a very long book look merely long (618 pages). The ebook version might be a more comfortable read. `The Grace of Kings’ is set in the Islands of Dara, a Fantasy realm which Ken Liu apparently co-created with his artist wife, Lisa Tang Liu.

For centuries Dara was divided into seven states, each with its own king, culture and patron deity. These quarrelsome rulers often went to war with each other over disputed territory. Then a King of Xana conquered the other states, killed or banished their ruling families and declared himself Emperor of the Seven Islands. As the story begins, Emperor Mapidere claims to preside over a new era of peace and unity but the people of his empire are suffering because of corrupt officials, heavy taxes, and vain-glorious building projects which cause the deaths of thousands of workers. When Mapidere dies, intrigues at court ensure that he is succeeded by a weak prince. Across the empire, strange prophecies encourage people to defy the government. Former royal families see a chance of getting their power and independence back. The deities of Dara watch events with interest but agree that none of them shall interfere directly in human affairs.

Caught up in the rebellion against the Xana Empire are two very different young men – Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu. Mata has been living as a fisherman on the coast of Cocru but he is heir to a noble line of generals. He has unusual size and strength and Mata’s uncle, Phin, has brought him up to avenge the slaughter of the Zyndu Clan and `restore clarity and order’ to Dara. When a shepherd who belongs to the old royal line, is suddenly proclaimed King of Cocru, Mata and Phin fight valiantly on his behalf. Elsewhere in Cocru, farmer’s son Kuni Garu grows up in the city of Zudi. He is brilliant but lazy and seems destined to be an easy-going rogue but a wealthy young woman sees great potential in him. After they are married, Kuni tries to settle down as a minor official of the Empire but a twist of fate turns him into a bandit chief and then a rebel leader. When Kuni seeks help to liberate his home city, he meets Mata and the two become close friends.

In the early days of the rebellion five states manage to break away from the Empire, but then Xana appoints  a more efficient commander-in-chief and the war begins to go against the rebels. Mata and Kuni become disillusioned with the bickering and incompetent rulers of the rebel states. Mata responds with ferocious military campaigns while Kuni and his advisors come up with a daring plan to strike at the imperial capital. Kuni’s success soon brings him into conflict with Mata. What began as a struggle for freedom turns into a ruthless contest for power. Ultimately, there can only be one winner.

I’m late with this recommendation because of illness but even when I was coughing and feverish this novel kept me enthralled. `The Grace of Kings’ seems very much a labour of love and it doesn’t follow the current rule that commercial fiction must consist of non-stop action and suspense. Something exciting does happen during the prologue but then Liu takes all the time he needs to establish his characters and their back-stories. He has created an intricate mosaic of a book and my brief summary can’t do justice to the full range of characters and subplots linked to the central duo. The story really gets going at the point where most Fantasy epics stop. The evil Empire is overthrown but what should replace it? Differing answers lead to painful conflicts and lost ideals. In the final two sections of the novel, there are plot-twists which made me gasp and personal tragedies which made me cry. Liu is terrific at battle scenes and seems to be a master of military strategy. Terrible things do happen in `The Grace of Kings’  – beheadings, burnings, drownings – but the violence is always described in a restrained way.

The elegance of Liu’s prose is one of the things which makes this novel stand out. Another is the colourful and original  setting, which melds  elements of Chinese and Polynesian culture, religion and history. Each of the seven island states has its distinctive features and the Lius are particularly good with landscapes, architecture and food. As in many ancient epics, shape-shifting gods and goddesses take sides in the human conflicts and bend the rules to help their favourites at crucial moments. In `The Grace of Kings’ though these interventions never absolve the humans from taking responsibility for their own choices and actions. The supernatural elements are sparingly used and Dara is a society in which war stimulates the development of technology. The warriors in this story fight on horseback with swords but they also use airships, submarines and explosives. Ironically, war is also shown as changing traditional gender-based roles and giving women new opportunities.

At first I feared that `The Grace of Kings’ might be flawed by a lack of strong female characters but there are some interesting and powerful women in the latter part of book, such as Kuni’s two wives, herbalist Jia and illusionist Risani, Gin, a street orphan who becomes a general and embroiderer, Mira, who speaks for all the families who have lost loved ones in the wars. The main focus of the novel though is on the two men who represent very different types of Fantasy hero – Mata the mighty warrior and Kuni the loveable trickster. Mata looks terrifying – he’s over eight feet tall and his eyes have double pupils – and he’s almost invincible in battle. He is proud, merciless and absolutely convinced of the rightness of his mission to restore the old order. In a lesser book, Mata would have been a monster but Liu makes us feel sorry for this unhappy loner who, unlike Kuni, finds it hard to understand or relate to other people. Kuni acknowledges that they are both idealists but says that Mata `wants to restore the world to a state that never was, I wish to bring it to a state that has not yet been seen.’

Charming Kuni constantly doubts himself and his ideas, which makes him more attractive to modern readers. He seems to be the plot’s `good guy’ and yet some of his decisions lead to terrible sufferings and betrayals. It is this ambiguity which makes the story so fascinating. `The Grace of Kings’ dramatizes two traditional questions – `Does the end justify the means’ and `Is an oppressive peace better than dangerous freedom? – and makes them seem more relevant than ever. If you are looking for something as thrilling as `Game of Thrones’ but more profound, do give this thoughtful epic a try. Until next time….



This week I’m recommending `Ink and Bone’, a riveting Fantasy novel by Rachel Caine. I have never been tempted to try Caine’s Morganville Vampires or Weather Warden series but I was attracted to this book because it was described as `Volume One of The Great Library’. I am a sucker for stories which feature libraries and this one is set in a version of our world in which the Great Library of Alexandria was never destroyed. `Ink and Bone’ was published this year (2015) and is already available as an ebook or a paperback. Which of these you choose may influence how you feel about this novel. To understand why, you will have to read this review…

Jess Brightwell and his family are citizens of London in an England that has been at war with Wales for many years. The most powerful organization in the world is the Great Library of Alexandria, which has `daughter libraries’ in every country. Thanks to the magic of the Alchemists who dwell in the Iron Tower, these libraries are protected by animated statues. The `Doctrine of Ownership’ states that `the Great Library must, for the protection and preservation of knowledge in trust for the world, own all such knowledge.’  Printing seems never to have been invented and only branches of the Great Library are allowed to keep original hand-copied books and manuscripts. It is a crime for ordinary citizens to possess originals but the discovery of `mirroring’  means that permitted knowledge can be accessed through `Library blanks’. In addition, everyone must use their personal Codex to write a daily record of their life which will one day be deposited in the Great Library.

The Brightwells appear to be respectable but are actually black market book-sellers. Callum Brightwell has already lost one son to this dangerous trade but he still forces his identical twin boys, Jess and Brendan to act as runners, delivering smuggled books to `ink lickers’. Jess has a genuine love for books and learning and at the age of sixteen he passes the entrance test which entitles him to be trained in the Great Library itself. Callum threatens to throw his son out on the street if Jess doesn’t agree to be the family’s spy inside the Library. As he leaves London, Jess witnesses a suicide bombing by a member of the anti-Library terrorist group known as the Burners.

During the train journey to Alexandria, Jess makes friends with two of his fellow `postulants’, gentle giant, Thomas, and Khalila, `the smartest girl in the world’. Scholar Wolfe, the formidable proctor in charge of the international group of students, makes it very clear that few of them will be good enough to be offered a contract by the Library. Jess works hard but lives in constant fear of being sent home for failing one of Scholar Wolfe’s tests or of being exposed as a book-smuggler. He falls for Postulant Megan, who has her own dangerous secret, but it isn’t clear whether he can trust her. When Wolfe is ordered to take the whole group on a perilous mission to war-torn Oxford to rescue some original books, nothing goes to plan. Wolfe and his students struggle to survive as they try to work out who it is that wants them dead…

Although it is set slightly in the future, `Ink and Bone’ has a Steampunk feel because the rulers of the Great Library have only allowed a limited number of technological developments. Instead Library-controlled Alchemy is used for tasks such as transmitting messages, tracking fugitives on maps and even transporting objects and people. Sometimes Caine’s magical equivalents of modern technology seem rather strained but she has obviously done her research on Ancient Egypt. Not many people know that Alexandria was once renowned for the mysterious art of theurgy – the summoning of divine manifestations – which could involve bringing statues to life. The lions, sphinxes and Horus falcons which guard Caine’s libraries are genuinely scary. Right from the first chapter we are left in no doubt that they will kill intruders. In this London,  royal statues can be threatening automatons and St Paul’s cathedral has been brilliantly reimagined as a `beautiful and deadly’ Serapeum – a temple of knowledge.

After a grim prologue, which illustrates the dangers and rewards of book-smuggling, `Ink and Bone’ tricks the reader into a false sense of security by imitating the opening chapters of the first Harry Potter novel. Like Harry, Jess is summoned to a London railway station to catch a special train which will take him to the school where he will study magic. However, Harry Potter didn’t have to cope with seeing someone burn themselves to death during his first visit to Platform Nine and a half. Jess’s train journey and the way that he befriends one boy and one girl and makes an immediate enemy of Dario, his aristocratic room-mate at Ptolemy House, all seem comfortingly familiar. Then Scholar Wolfe sets his students a potentially lethal test on their very first day. This is a dark and violent book, which paints a realistic picture of the horrors of war, terrorism and repressive regimes.

Given the plot of `Ink and Bone’, I should warn you against getting too attached to any of the characters but you probably will anyway because they are so well drawn. None of the teenagers is a mere stereotype. Dario, for example, is not just a snobbish bully. He’s allowed to be clever, brave, and loyal to his own honour code. Some of the postulants have hidden agendas, which only gradually come to light, and all of them change in the course of the story. Enigmatic Megan could have been written as a straightforward heroine but her fear of being forced into a life she doesn’t want makes her ruthless towards others.

`Ink and Bone’ has two outstanding heroes – yes, two. The first is viewpoint-character Jess; the second, more surprisingly is Scholar Wolfe. Jess has plenty of normal teenage problems to cope with, such as a dominating father, sibling rivalry, first love, and finding that he’s no longer the cleverest person in his group. He is also a reluctant spy and thief and a loner who longs to trust people and serve a worthy cause. At first, Jess only thinks of Wolfe as a harsh and terrifying teacher but he gradually comes to perceive the Scholar as a courageous fighter for truth and a man with a complicated family and love life of his own. Imagine what the Harry Potter books would be like if Professor Snape was the co-hero all along and you’ll get the picture. It is a clever way of making sure that this series can be enjoyed equally by teenagers and adults.

The other feature which makes this book stand out is Caine’s balanced treatment of the Great Library and its opponents. The Library’s motto is `Knowledge is all’ . Between-chapters quotations show that over the centuries an organization founded to preserve knowledge for all humanity has come to control and even supress knowledge. Through Jess’s eyes, we see what a great instituition the Library could and should be and that many of its staff are dedicated and selfless. So it is all the more horrifying when Jess discovers just how far the ruling elite of the Library will go to preserve their power. The anger of the Burners, whose motto is `A life is worth more than a book’ becomes understandable but their methods still seem pointlessly destructive. This is a novel which deals with very contemporary issues of freedom of information and mass surveillance. It reminded me that nothing I read on my Kindle is private, so I switched to a print copy half way through the story. In either medium, this is a series worth trying. 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….


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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