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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….



This week I’m recommending something by American author, Patricia A.McKillip. Over a long career, McKillip has produced many brilliant Fantasy novels, so it was hard to decide which one to write about. From among my favourites I’ve picked `In the Forests of Serre’ because, like last week’s choice (`The Brides of Rollrock Island’),  it is a non-Urban Fantasy which features a fascinating witch. This novel was first published in 2003 and is available in paperback or on Nook. McKillip is unusual among modern Fantasy authors  in mainly writing stand-alone novels. `In the Forests of Serre’ is one of these.

The story begins deep in the magical forests of the kingdom of Serre when Prince Ronan accidentally kills a white hen belonging to Brume, `the Mother of All Witches’. She warns him that he is going to have a very bad day and that the next time he leaves his father’s palace he won’t find his way home again unless he finds her first. Ronan feels that since the death of his wife and child, all days are bad. Back at the palace, Ronan is told by his brutal father, King Ferus of Serre, that he must marry again and that his chosen bride, Princess Sidonie of Dacia, will arrive soon. When the grieving prince glimpses an enchantingly beautiful firebird in the forest beyond the palace, he runs away to follow it.

Princess Sidonie was equally horrified when she first learned that she had to marry a prince she’s never met in order to save her country from being invaded by King Ferus. She appeals to the court wizard, Unciel, for help but he is dangerously weak after a magical combat that he will not talk about, even to Euan the young scribe who is writing his life story. Unciel asks a wizard and shape-shifter called Gyre, whom he once rescued from a horrible fate, to protect Sidonie during her dangerous journey into Serre. In the forest, Sidonie encounters a ragged madman who is following the song of the firebird. She treats him kindly and later realizes that this was her husband to be. King Ferus is determined that Sidonie shall marry his son because he covets the magic that is supposed to run in her royal line. Sidonie is imprisoned in the palace while Gyre is sent to join the search for the missing bridegroom.

Meanwhile back in Dacia, everyone is concerned that there has been no news about the princess. The old wizard risks his life trying to find out what is happening to her. As Euan learns more about Unciel’s relationship with Gyre, he fears that the princess has been sent into terrible danger. In Serre, Ronan gives up something that is more precious than he knows, Gyre’s clever plans go badly wrong and Sidonie endures a disastrous wedding day and then bravely sets out on a rescue mission. Amid treachery and temptation, all three of them must make a risky bargain with the Mother of All Witches and face the nameless apparition that is haunting the Forests of Serre.

McKillip’s fantasies are more intimate than epic. As in this novel, she generally concentrates on a small group of well-drawn characters whose fates intertwine at a time of crisis. She is also adept at creating exciting plots without the massive battles between good and evil which are the mainstay of so much Fantasy fiction. There aren’t many acts of violence in this novel but when they do occur they are all the more shocking. Though some of its characters display physical and moral bravery, `In the Forests of Serre’ is not Heroic Fantasy.  Traditional quests for magical objects or knowledge are shown to be useless unless they teach the seeker to understand her or himself. Shy scribe Euan barely figures in the plot summary but he is an important viewpoint character in the book. He longs to dash off and rescue the beautiful princess but instead he plays the unheroic but vital role of carer to the frail Unciel. As someone says to him at the end of the story, `Some days you battle yourself and other monsters. Some days you just make soup.’ Both are seen as equally important.

Confident wizard, Gyre doesn’t believe in the `fairy tales’ he is told about the goblins, ogres and witches of Serre so it is a nasty shock when he encounters the wild magic that inhabits the forests. McKillip particularly draws on Russian folklore for this novel, making use of the traditional characters of the Firebird and the witch Baba Yaga, who also feature in Peter Morwood’s `Prince Ivan Saga’ which I recommended in April of this year. The main word that I associate with McKillip’s writing is beauty. Her books are always a visual treat and she excels at describing `the woman who was a bird who was fire’ . Who wouldn’t be enchanted by `amber eyes, fiery hair tumbling down towards the water, a face carved of ivory, with cheekbones like crescent moons, a smile like bird’s wings angling upward…’ ? Yet McKillip is equally good at conjuring up the terrifying witch who seems to be the glorious  Firebird’s opposite. Like Baba Yaga, Brume has a reputation for enticing people into her moveable cottage and stewing them in her cauldron.Apart from her green-lensed spectacles, Brume is different every time we meet her in the novel. Sometimes she is a toad-woman, `massive, damp and slightly green’, sometimes she has `teeth as pointed as an animal’s’ and `knobby, calloused feet that broadened to an inhuman size when she picked up her cottage and carried it.’ Sometimes she is disconcertingly young and lovely. Anyone who encounters Brume will be given difficult choices to make and find out things about themselves that they may not want to know.

Detachable hearts are a common motif in fairy tales and Brume has quite a collection of  them in her cottage. Like the film `Gravity’, `In the Forests of Serre’ explores why and how a person can go on living after the worst has happened. Prince Ronan thinks that the only way to survive his bereavement is to live without a heart, but he is wrong. Uriel’s heart has been broken by a monster he could not kill because it was never truly alive. Gyre has stolen someone else’s heart and pays a high price for it. This young wizard’s confrontation with the darkness within himself is going to remind a lot of readers of  the plot of Ursula Le Guin’s classic novel, `A Wizard of Earthsea’. McKillip acknowledges the similarity with a fleeting reference to Le Guin’s hero, Ged, – see if you can spot it. It may be heresy, but I prefer McKillip’s novel to Le Guin’s, partly because there is more warmth and humour in the former’s writing and partly because `In the Forests of Serre’ has an attractive heroine in Princess Sidonie and the Firebird and the Witch are such memorable personifications of hopes and fears beyond the boundaries of normal experience. Some may feel that the deeper meanings of this story are spelled out too plainly and that a dark tale ends in too much sweetness and light, but McKillip is an author who makes happy endings seem attainable for almost everyone.  Until next time…


This week I’m recommending something suitably scary for Halloween – a collection of old-fashioned but far from cosy ghost stories. When I was student at King’s College, Cambridge it was a privilege to eat in the splendid Gothick hall but there was one portrait hanging in the hall that I didn’t like. If I sat facing it, there was something about the intense gaze of the man in the painting which bothered me. If I sat with my back to it, I had the uncomfortable feeling that his fat white fingers might start reaching out for me. It was a portrait of the eminent scholar and former Provost of King’s, Montague Rhodes James, who is now more famous for the ghost stories he wrote in his spare time. James composed his first ghost story in around 1893 and his last in 1935, a year before he died. The collected `Ghost Stories of M.R. James’, which came out in 1931, is still in print and available on Kindle. There are also paperback editions of selected stories published by Wordsworth or Penguin Classics. Audio versions are well worth considering because James wrote most of his stories to be read aloud. The BBC recordings narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi are particularly good.

The thirty tales in `The Ghost Stories of M.R.James’ are set in England or Europe and mainly take place in the 19th or early 20th centuries, though they often go back into earlier periods to explain the hauntings. Collectively, they create a world in which old sins cast long shadows, evil is manifest in terrible forms, and the unwary may meet with `persons walking who should not be walking’. James is my favourite writer of ghost stories, by which I mean that he’s the one who frightens me the most. Film and television adaptations of his work rarely do it justice because they can’t resist adding complications to James’ relatively simple plots. `Night of the Demon’ is an effective horror film but it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the brief story it’s based on (Casting the Runes). Atmosphere is everything  In an M.R. James story, and that atmosphere is created by the slow building-up of convincing detail. He loved to create spurious documentation for his ghosts and demons in the form of old manuscripts, letters, diaries or court records. Reading these may require some patience but if you let yourself become absorbed in the dusty worlds they evoke, the shocks to come will be all the greater. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that many of the stories were written to amuse school boys, the plots often involve the murder of children. There are scenes in these stories as nightmarish, and far more haunting, than anything in a modern horror film.

You won’t find screaming blondes or dashing action heroes in James’ stories. His leading characters tend to be rational, emotionally repressed, middle-aged men. They are not the sort of people who believe in ghosts or demons and that makes their bizarre experiences seem all the more real. James’ greatest talent was for infusing ordinary places and objects with horror. Some of his stories are set in traditionally spooky old libraries, manor houses or churches but, in many of the best tales, terrors are encountered in places you would normally think of as dull and safe, such as a hotel room (Number 13), a commuter train (Casting the Runes), a country inn (Rats) or a rose arbor (The Rose Garden).  He turns woods (A Neighbour’s Landmark) and shingle beaches (A Warning to the Curious) Into landscapes of menace and in  James’ dark imagination a doll’s house (The Haunted Dolls’ House), the puppets in a Punch and Judy show (The Story of a Disappearence and an Appearence), an engraving of a house (The Mezzotint) and even a pair of binoculars (A View from a Hill) become disturbingly sinister objects. He’s the only author I know who can make the pattern on a pair of bedroom curtains terrifying (The Diary of Mr Poynter), while the grotesque behaviour of the linen sheets in `Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ could put you off sleeping alone in a room with two beds for the rest of your life.

James wrote of his own work that, `The ghost should be malevolent or odious: aimiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story’. His apparitions are varied and memorable, including the ghost of a drowned woman singing in a dreadful squalling voice, a feline creature who comes to `fetch away’ a clergyman with blood on his conscience, the toad-like guardian to an ancient treasure, and a `great roll of shabby white flannel’ with an earth-coloured face and dry eyes `as if there was two big spiders in the holes’. James’ ghosts are disturbingly solid. They are not just  ghastly visions, they can sound, smell and feel horrible as well, and are capable of strangling, suffocating or even poisoning their victims.

One of the collections published in James’ lifetime was called `A Warning to the Curious’. It’s a title that might apply to all his work. In a number of stories, scholars are cruelly punished for morbid curiosity, perhaps because they are seeking knowledge for their own selfish ends rather than to share it. In `Count Magnus’, the over-inquisitive Mr Wraxall becomes fascinated by the legend of a wicked Danish Count and the creature he brought back with him from the `Black Pilgrimage’. In spite of warnings about men who’ve had the flesh sucked off their faces, Wraxell lingers near the Count’s tomb while one by one the locks fall off Magnus’ coffin. Wraxell flees to England, but it is inevitable that his doom will catch up with him, just as it is inevitable that I will once again give in to the dark lure of this grim story and go on reading past the point of safety. Have a horrifying Halloween…


This week I’m recommending `The Prince of Morning Bells’ by Nancy Kress, which was first published in 1981. Over the years I’ve seen  many dedicated Fantasy readers go misty-eyed when they mentioned this out of print novel. None of them would lend me their own cherished copies and I never came across one for sale. I began to think that `The Prince of Morning Bells’ didn’t really exist, but recently I discovered that it was reprinted in 2000 by FoxAcre Press as part of their list of Classic SF and Fantasy (see Now, there is a widely available ebook edition.

When the story starts, eighteen year-old Crown Princess Kirila of Kiril is bored with `all the customary princess things’ , such as conjugating verbs, working a tapestry and feeding strawberry tarts to the moat serpent. She decides to go on a Quest to discover the Heart of the World in order to find out what’s most important in life. The princess insists that `It will be a learning experience, as well as an adventure!’ She gets her way and rides north with only a jewelled dagger and an ill-tempered talking bat to protect her. When the bat turns nasty, Kirila is rescued by a purple Labrador dog called Chessie. He claims to be an enchanted prince – an old mind in the body of a young dog – but can’t remember anything else about his former life. Chessie is trying to reach the Tents of Omnium, the only place where his enchantment can be removed. He seems sure that the Heart of the World is also to be found in the Tents of Omnium, so Kirila and Chessie travel on together.

Their journey proves to be difficult, dangerous and full of diversions. Kirila spends a long time among a race of  subterranean creatures known as Quirks, studying their Model of how the universe works, and then living with a group of farmers who worship awe-inspiring bird-like deities called the Lielthien. Chessie eventually persuades her to continue her True Quest. Disguised as a minstral boy, Kirila learns the personal cost of fighting evil. When they encounter a Renkin, an enchanted being who is only conscious for three hours a month, they bribe it to tell them about the route to the Tents of Omnium and Chessie’s original identity.  Kirila gets an ambiguous rhyme for guidance, while the only clue to his past that Chessie is offered is the sound of bells. A chance meeting with a handsome prince distracts Kirila from her Quest again and this time there seems to be nothing that faithful Chessie can do about it. Will Kirila ever reach the Heart of the World and will Chessie ever remember who he was and become a man again?

Anyone who reads this plot summary and expects a neat `Beauty and the Beast’ style happy ending will be surprised and disappointed. `The Prince of Morning Bells’  isn’t a Romance, even though Kirila experiences various kinds of love during her travels. This was Kress’s first novel and, in an Afterword to the new edition, she admits that it was strongly influenced by Peter Beagle’s haunting book,`The Last Unicorn’. This shows in the cheery scattering of anachronisms to distance the reader from the standard Fantasy setting and the way that what is normally  the subtext (the quest as a journey of self-discovery) blatantly becomes the story. `Life’ we are told `has Ups and Downs, but its Charm is searching out and explaining the Strange’. This is a Quest with a capital Q during which Karila tries out the Truths offered by Science, Religion, Art and Family Life. These Truths are not condemned as false but they are all shown to have their drawbacks and limitations and none of them is a perfect fit with Karila’s vision of the Tents of Omnium. When family responsibilities finally allow, she is driven to keep searching.

If this description makes `The Prince of Morning Bells’ sound like a tedious allegory, I apologize. It is a highly entertaining read, full of dry wit and inventive humour. Kress writes sardonically about her heroine’s enthusiasms, especially during Karila’s religious phase when she treats the sceptical Chessie to `a smile so gentle, so inlaid with pity, that he almost bit her’. Chessie, with his purple fur and `burnt sugar’ eyes is a great comic character. He sings ballads about gentle knights being seduced and beaten up by fairies, tells outrageous stories, like the one about St Agnes developing an allergy to sacred lambs, and can mimic almost any accent `including that of a seraph disputing the right of way with an airborn buzzard’. Karila and Chessie are soul-mates who constantly argue but they keep each other going through thick and thin, until Chessie begins to lose his humanity and becomes more and more dog-like. This is a light-hearted story that turns heart-breaking.

The frivolity of the early chapters gives way to convincing descriptions of the misery of travelling in bad weather and the boredom of spending the winter in cramped quarters. The mock combat of Knightly jousting is contrasted with the sordid reality of sudden acts of violence and their aftermath. Karila is an unusual Fantasy heroine because she makes the kind of serious mistakes that so many of us make in real life and has to take the long-term consequences. She’s also unusual because the story follows her over a period of many years.  Karila chooses to give up her dreams of accomplishing a `True Quest’ and accept a conventional `ever after’ but in middle age she takes up the search for meaning again. That makes her story particularly relevant to middle-aged Fantasy readers who have never quite found what they were looking for in life. I’m guessing that’s a lot of us. What Karila eventually discovers amongst the Tents of Omnium isn’t what I would have chosen to put there, but that doesn’t matter. `The Prince of Morning Bells’ is a book worth arguing with and it has one of the most memorable endings in all of Fantasy fiction. Until next week…


This week I’m recommending a recently published Young Adult novel – Soman Chainani’s `The School for Good and Evil’, which is announced as the first volume of a trilogy.  In some countries it is only available in hardback or as a rather expensive audio download. In others, such as Britain, you can already get it in paperback or as an ebook. If you go for an audio version, you will miss out on the charming illustrations by  Iacopo Bruno. He is particularly good at drawing cockroaches, so anyone with a roach phobia should give this one a miss. `The School for Good and Evil’ combines two currently popular Fantasy sub-genres –  the modern take on fairy tales and the magical school story. This is a book which has found instant commercial success (the film rights are already sold) but has divided opinion. Is it fresh and delightful, or a cynical exercise in targeting teenage readers? Good or evil? I’m mainly coming down on the side of good, but keep in mind that I read this novel while recovering from an allergic reaction to a CT scan, so my judgement may be impaired…

The story begins in the village of Galvadon where every four years two children, one good and one bad, disappear. They are only ever seen again in the pictures in books of fairy tales. Rumour has it that a sinister figure known as the School Master takes the children to the School for Good and Evil where they are trained to become fairy tale heroes or villains. Everyone is terrified of the kidnapper; everyone except Sophie, the most beautiful girl in the village. Sophie longs to leave her dull home and become a fairy tale princess. To prove her goodness, self-centred Sophie has befriended plain and cantankerous Agatha who lives with her bald cat in the middle of a graveyard. Because she is different, everyone in the village thinks Agatha is a witch who is bound to end up at the School for Evil.  Agatha doesn’t believe that the School Master exists but she’s wrong. When the School Master comes for Sophie, Agatha tries to save her but they are both carried off into the forest.

Sophie is thrilled to be kidnapped until she is delivered to the Towers of Evil and Agatha to the Towers of Good. Both girls are convinced that a terrible mistake has been made but the wolves in charge of `The School for Evil Edification and Propagation of Sin’ won’t let Sophie go. She’s forced to endure grotesque room-mates and classes in Uglification, Curses and Deathtraps, and the History of Villainy. Meanwhile, Agatha isn’t finding it all sweetness and light in `The School for Good Enlightenment and Enchantment’ where she’s bullied by fairies and snubbed by beautiful girls who are mainly interested in the `Winning Your Prince’ class. Sophie and Agatha try to swap places but they can’t unless Sophie can prove that she is truly good and Agatha that she is truly evil. Once Agatha discovers the fate of children who fail their classes, she’s eager to escape from the school, but Sophie is determined to stay and be the one invited to the end of term ball by the dazzlingly handsome Prince Tedros. The prince is soon troubled to find himself falling for a girl who is supposed to be evil. Agatha tries to help Sophie get what she wants, even when it involves turning into a cockroach, but their plans keep going wrong. When Sophie is thwarted, she becomes very dangerous indeed. Agatha and Sophie are being manipulated by the School Master into living a story that can’t end happily for both of them…

`The School for Good and Evil’ is a darker book than this plot summary, and the rather twee cover, would suggest. Parts of it are very funny. Awkward Agatha gets into all sorts of ridiculous situations as the odd one out amongst the vapid `Evergirls’ and  I laughed at Sophie’s bizarre beauty routines (which involves fish eggs, pumpkin puree and cucumber juice), her inventive reworkings of Evil’s black school uniform, and her attempts to give make-overs to her fellow `Nevergirls’  – “Now remember, girls. Just because you’re ugly doesn’t mean you can’t be presentable.” This is a fantasy realm with all kinds of links to life in contemporary America and Chainani indulges in plenty of jokes based on references to popular culture.

As in traditional fairy tales, there is also pain, grief and cruelty. Sophie can’t bear to look at her mother’s grave and Agatha has been abandoned by her father. Both girls suffer horrible fairy tale punishments, such as being made to dance in red-hot iron shoes, and Sophie undergoes psychological torture in  the `Doom Room’. The sadistic treatment of children who come bottom of the class or fail to impress in the `Circus of Talents’  almost turns `The School for Good and Evil’ into a horror story. I wouldn’t give it to anyone under twelve. The dark edge to the writing does make the reader feel pity for `the losers’ – the young villains whose inevitable fate is to die at the hands of smug and self-satisfied `good guys’. Goodness is very clearly defined in this story, with the emphasis on forgiveness and the capacity to love others, but the Princes and Princesses destined to `live happily ever after’ are mainly shown as shallow creatures, more obsessed with good looks and worldly success than honour and virtue. Yet as one of the professors at the school says, “It’s not what you are; it’s what you do” that counts.

That applies to authors too. If I’d been asked to guess Chainani’s gender from the evidence of this novel, I would have got the answer wrong. He is disturbingly good at writing from the viewpoint of sixteen year-old girls. The current convention is that male authors should write books about and for men or boys, and female authors books about and for women and girls. Chainani triumphantly overturns this convention by creating two memorable female characters – Sophie, who longs to be different, and Agatha, who longs to be ordinary. His background in film helps to explain the visual flair of this novel but he is also someone with an academic training in the study of fairy tales. Chainani plays with traditional and contemporary story patterns in `The School for Good and Evil’ and hints that every generation of readers gets the heroes and villains it deserves. The beautiful girl who turns out to be the monster, has almost become a cliché of modern story-telling, but this book keeps you guessing about whether Sophie will become truly evil until the very last page. As a love-triangle element unfolds, the reader is seduced into wanting the plain girl to win the hero away from the pretty girl, before being made to question whether this actually would be a happy ending. Inspite of many romantic elements, `The School for Good and Evil’ is almost an anti-Romance. It is essentially a book about friendship. This friendship of opposites begins in self-interest but develops into an almost unbreakable bond. Sophie and Agatha’s relationship, with all its unspoken resentments and jealousies, is very realistically portrayed. No-one can hurt you like your best friend. I was surprised to find myself caring about the fate of both the girls and I shall follow them into the sequel. It’s going to be called `A World Without Princes’. Sounds promising. Until next week…


This week I’m recommending a novel, `Scholar’, by an author I’ve previously avoided – L.E.Modesitt Jnr. Because Modesitt has written so many different Science Fiction and Fantasy series, I assumed that he was just churning them out to a formula. I was attracted to `Scholar’ by the title and found it to be a much more thoughtful and interesting novel than I was expecting. `Scholar’ was first published in 2011 and is available in paperback and in ebook or audio formats. It is officially the fourth book in the `Imager Portfolio’, but since `Scholar’ is set centuries before the first three `Imager’ stories, this is a good place to start.

The continent of Lydar is split into rival states. Lord Bhayar, the young ruler of Telaryn, is concerned about the province of Tilbor, conquered by his father ten years previously. He wants to know why it still takes a large army to keep Tilbor pacified and he sends his friend and advisor, Quaeryt to find out.  Scholar and historian, Quaeryt is a foundling who was brought up in a Scholarium. Very few people know that he is also an Imager, someone born with the talent `to visualize something and then have it appear’. Imagers are limited in what they can do by the physical costs, but they are still hated and feared; something Quaeryt would like to change. Before he leaves the capital, Quaeryt is surprised to be summoned by Bhayar’s spirited younger sister, Vaelora who wants to discuss her thoughts on history. Quaeryt’s journey to Tilbor is unpleasantly eventful. He encounters pirates, and Patrollers who hate all scholars, and barely survives a shipwreck and an attempt to poison him. On the way he learns a little more about his own heritage as one of the outcast Pharsi.

In Tilbor, the local Scholarium should be a safe haven but some of the scholars who teach there clearly don’t believe Quaeryt’s cover story that he’s been commissioned to write a history of the province. He has to take drastic action to protect himself. Once he gets to the Governor’s Palace, Quaeryt is welcomed by Governor Rescalyn and his deputy, Princeps Straesyr, and given every opportunity to study how the province is being ruled. He immerses himself in old records to find out what really happened when Tilbor was conquered and struggles to answer some puzzling letters from Lady Vaelora.  When Quaeryt rides with the troops on what should be routine patrols, his role as observer turns out to be surprisingly dangerous. He begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Tilbor and there is no-one he can trust to help him. If Quaeryt’s mission fails, his country will be in jeopardy, but if he uses his hidden powers to avert the crisis, even his own lord may think that this particular scholar is too dangerous to live….

The first hundred pages or so of `Scholar’  are fast-paced and exciting but resemble many other Fantasy adventure stories. Initially, Quaeryt’s Imager powers don’t seem very impressive. It takes considerable concentration just to `image’ a few copper coins into existence. Yet when Quaeryt is forced to defend himself he can kill with something as mundane as a piece of bread, by vizualizing it inside the attacker’s throat.  The challenges he faces in Tilbor, stimulate Quaeryt into developing new magical defences; ones that mustn’t be detected if he is to pass as an ordinary scholar. His ability to use a concealment shield (basically our old friend the `cloak of invisibility’) makes Quaeryt the ideal spy. The middle part of this book does read like a spy thriller, as Quaeryt tries to discover the complex truth about Tilbor’s recent past and its current political situation.  Be warned that lame Quaeryt isn’t a natural action hero. His preferred methods are diligent research in the archives and careful questioning of everyone he meets. Some readers have complained that this section of the story is dull. I found it fascinating since this is where Modesitt’s unflashy but meticulous world-building comes into its own.

Tilbor, with its dismal climate and inhospitable hill country, may lack glamour but thanks to all the social and economic data which Quaeryt collects, it seems much more real than most Fantasy realms. Quaeryt is just as interested in the opinions of vegetable-sellers, ferrymen and seamstresses as he is in the behaviour of the two aristocratic groups, the `High Holders’ who mainly co-operate with the Telaryn administration and the fractious `Hill Holders’ who cause frequent trouble. The military governor is trying to integrate Tilborian officers and men with his Telaryn troops (shades of Afghanistan). Quaeryt gets to know these officers well. They are not gung-ho, gore-loving warriors but pragmatic professional soldiers. They kill when they have to but would rather be back in their comfortable barracks than out on patrol. This novel features some exciting fights and battles but there is no glorification of violence. Modesitt has invented an unusual belief system which is shared by the people of both realms, particularly the soldiers who face death every day.  In this culture people worship a creator deity `who cannot be named or known, only respected’ and gather in unadorned buildings to `affirm the quest for goodness and mercy in all that we do’. All forms of `Naming’ are thought to be restrictive and wrong and actions are deemed to be more important than words.

Quaeryt isn’t sure whether he believes in the Nameless One but he ends up acting  as a kind of chaplain to the troops. In a series of sermons he explores the ethics of leadership and the dangers of patriotism and pride. This story asks serious questions about whether it is possible to learn from history and whether constant conflict is too high a price to pay for freedom. If that makes it sound dry, I promise that `Scholar’ also becomes a gripping psychological duel between Quaeryt and an enemy whose identity is only revealed in the last few chapters. Quaeryt is my kind of hero. This quiet, clever man is much more dangerous than he seems. He’s a loner playing a long game, who is challenged to open up by a young woman he barely knows. He’s a doubter himself, but he’s good at giving certainty to others. With his lack of family, his strange colouring and his dubious powers, Quaeryt doesn’t fit in anywhere, but it is society which is going to have to change. Quaeryt grows in status during the course of the novel but he can still be knocked sideways by something he only discovers on the very last page. If you like `Scholar’ , two sequels have been published already. It made me feel tired just reading the list of jobs that L.E.Modesitt has done in addition to writing all those books. Does the man never sleep? Until two weeks time….


This week I’d like to recommend  `The Crane Wife’  by Patrick Ness, a book that Fantasy readers may have missed because it was promoted as a literary novel. In Britain, `The Crane Wife’  is available in paperback, ebook or audio forms. I’m afraid that there isn’t an American printed edition until 2014, but you can already get it on Kindle or as an audio download. Ness is an American writer who now lives in London. He’s written a powerful SF series for Young Adults (`Chaos Walking’) but his adult novels are harder to fit into any known genre. One British newspaper described Ness’s work as `heart-warmingly deranged’  and that pretty much sums up why I enjoy reading it.

The unlikely hero of `The Crane Wife’  is George Duncan, a middle-aged American who has ended up living in outer London. He runs a not very successful print-shop and no-one takes much notice of his hobby of making pictures out of pieces of text cut from books. George is decent and kind but he’s the sort of man who gets patronised or pushed around by everyone he knows – including his English ex-wife and her wealthy new husband, his troubled daughter, Amanda, and his Turkish assistant, Mehmet. One night, George is woken by a keening sound and is astonished to find a wounded Oriental crane in his small back garden. He warms the frightened bird with his own coat and manages to remove an  arrow from its wing. Then the heart-breakingly beautiful bird flies away, leaving George feeling desolate.

The next day a woman called Kumiko walks into George’s shop and shows him her artworks, which look as if they are made from `slices of an impossible array of feathers’. She is equally impressed by the paper crane that George has just made. George and Kumiko start dating and making cutwork `tiles’ together. George finds it hard to pin down Kumiko’s age or nationality but it isn’t long before he asks her to move in with him. This worries Amanda who is still bitter about her own divorce, but during an apparently chance meeting with Kumiko, she falls under the other woman’s spell. The best clue George has to Kumiko’s personality and history is a series of tiles she is making based on a creation myth about a compassionate  cloud-born crane goddess and the spirit of a volcano who fills the world with passion and violence. George and Kumiko’s joint artwork  soon begins to sell for ridiculous sums. One of George’s ex-girlfriends becomes obsessively jealous but the main threat to George’s new-found happiness comes from his own frustration at knowing so little about the woman he loves. Can he accept Kumiko on her own terms or must he uncover the secret she’s hiding? As the ancient myth plays out, will the story end in forgiveness or fire?

All over the world there are folktales about men who marry a beautiful and mysterious woman after performing some kindly act. The husband is told that there is one thing he must never do, such as seeing his wife on a particular day of the week or entering her innermost room. His curiosity always gets the better of him. The over possessive husband discovers his wife’s true nature and loses her as a result. In the Japanese version of this folktale, the husband finds out that he is married to a crane, who can take off her feathers at will. Throughout the novel, I hoped that gentle George wouldn’t make the same mistake as his folktale predecessors, even though it is only human nature to want to know everything about your beloved and to feel excluded if you don’t.

`The Crane Wife’  fuses two very different kinds of story – a spare mythic narrative, full of elegant ambiguity, and a semi-comic novel about an interconnected group of modern Londoners and their life crises. It takes a while for the two strands to come together convincingly. The dreamlike opening chapter of the novel, in  which George encounters the golden-eyed `great white bird’, is extraordinarily beautiful and moving.  Then the mood changes completely with a funny account of Mehmet deliberately messing up customers’ orders in the print shop. Next there is a long digression about incidents from George’s American childhood and then a chapter about rude, aggressive Amanda and her spiteful female co-workers. At this point, I was desperate to get back to George and the woman who might or might not be a crane. I nearly abandoned the novel but I made myself read on and by the end of the book I was very glad that I had persevered.

Ness writes amusingly about the petty annoyances of urban life, such as self-righteous cyclists, and there is some barbed satire about the market for modern art. In one scene wealthy art buyers are baffled by George’s ordinary suburban home and wonder if the whole place is some kind of  ironic `installation’ but there are also passages which celebrate the creativity which can transmute tragic experiences into uplifting art. Ness himself has a gift for creating characters from the inside out. As I got to know the people in the story better, I began to care about them, especially George who `is too aimiable to take quite seriously’  and has to learn that `If there is never a chance of hardness or pain, then softness has no meaning’. I even began to sympathise with sharp-tongued Amanda who realizes that `in her core she was broken, and life was just one long attempt to distract people from noticing’. All the main characters are  looking for new ways to give and receive love and elusive Kumiko is the catalyst. As the novel reaches a surprisingly dramatic climax, the supernatural element seems dominant again but this isn’t a story with just one interpretation. Every reader will take something different away from this updated fable. Until next week….hopefully.