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This week I’m recommending a novel set in a city I thought I hated – Venice. `The Undrowned Child’ by Michelle Lovric was published in 2009 and it’s easy to find in paperback. You can also get the text on most e-readers but that wouldn’t seem quite right for a novel which starts in `an old-fashioned Venetian bookshop’ and features a magical guidebook and a printing press run by mermaids. In theory this long and richly detailed novel is a children’s book, but whether you enjoy this story will probably depend more on your personality than your age. I was lured into reading `The Undrowned Child’ by chapter titles such `Life as a ghost’,`Beware Mahogany Mice’, `Vipers and hot chocolate’  and `The toenail spell’.

The story begins in 1899 when eleven-year-old Teodora arrives in Venice with her adoptive parents. It is a troubled time for the city built on the sea – Venice’s regular floods are getting worse, hot water is bursting out of  ancient wells, children are falling sick and sharks have been seen in the Grand Canal.  Teo’s parents are among the scientists who have gathered to try and find out what is going on.  Being knocked out by a book falling on her head is the first in a series of shocks for Teo. The book itself -`The Key to the Secret City’ – has an inscription welcoming Teo to Venice while the beautiful girl on the cover seems able to move and speak. Teo hears strange voices, falls ill, is attacked in hospital by a statue and wakes up in a graveyard to find that her parents have  reported her missing. She soon discovers that she has gone `Between-the-Linings’ and can only be seen by children, animals, ghosts and other supernatural beings.

Teo wanders around Venice, with `The Key to the Secret City’ as her guide, and witnesses a gruesome theft from a tomb. She attracts the attention of Renzo, a local boy who loves books as much as Teo does but despises anyone who isn’t Venetian. When `The Key’ steers the two children to the House of the Spirits, they meet the original of the girl on the cover – Lussa, Queen of the Venetian mermaids. Lussa warns them that the angry ghost of the medieval traitor Bajamonte Tiepolo is stirring. He has already stolen a human skin and if he recovers his whole skeleton and his Spell Almanac he will be strong enough to wreak a terrible revenge on the city that once condemned him to death.  The mermaids send Teo and Renzo to recover the Spell Almanac, because they are the Undrowned Child and the Studious Son who are destined to save Venice from the traitor. In the Bone Orchard, Teo learns about her extraordinary  family history but as Tiepolo summons an army of evil ghosts and monstrous creatures, saving Venice looks more and more impossible…

The plot of `The Undrowned Child’ is inspired by its setting. Venice is famously one of Europe’s loveliest and most romantic cities but as a tourist I found it a dank and sinister place and the Venetians cold and unwelcoming. One of the things I like about `The Undrowned Child’ is that Lovric lets her young heroine discover both good and bad aspects of Venice.  The Venetians she meets are devoted to their families and to their unique home but arrogant towards outsiders. Teo’s Venice is beautiful and grotesque and full of the sounds and smells of the sea, pleasant and unpleasant. In the fine buildings, rich people live in splendour and safety on upper floors while the poorer people below suffer disease-ridden damp conditions and constant fear of deadly floods. Venice is shown as place of great achievements and dazzling art but with a history full of dark secrets of slavery, torture and murder.  Some of Tiepolo’s army of ghosts have good reason to hate the city. Lovric has used many real places and people in this story and there is an excellent appendix on `What’s True and What’s Made Up’. Children reared on `Horrible Histories’  will probably take a Doge being flayed alive and a child-eating butcher in their stride. As a mere adult, I found these nasty nuggets of Venetian history pretty scary. Still, as Renzo says to Teo, `Nothing in this world is perfect….But there is more that could be perfect about Venice than any other city.’

Undersized vegetarian bookworm, Teo, is an appealing heroine. She is also a Vedeparole but you’ll have to read the book to find out what that means. During much of the story, Teo isn’t quite sure whether she has become a ghost. Finding out who she is and where she belongs eventually restores her zest for life. Teo doesn’t work well with Renzo at first and she makes plenty of poor decisions. I sometimes felt that Lovric was allowing her smart heroine to behave stupidly just to get her into yet another dangerous situation, but what situations they are – swimming with sharks, attacks from tentacled monsters, dismembered ghosts and Vampire-eels – even ice-cream and a chief librarian prove dangerous. Although there is a lot of humour in the writing, this isn’t a safe or cosy fictional  world. The innocent and the good sometimes die, as they do in real life, and Teo’s enemies and their `Baddened Magic’ are cruel and relentless.

An endearing feature about this book is the diversity of the forces of good. Queen Lussa’s mermaids all look sweet sixteen but these `Pretty Ladies’  speak in  salty language they have learned from eavesdropping on sailors over the centuries ( `Ye bilge-sucking blaggards!’).  Being half-fish themselves, they don’t eat other sea-creatures. Mermaid cuisine includes mouth-watering dishes such as Fenugreeked Fiddlehead Ferns and Twice-Fried Chilli-Cucumber in Amber Sauce. As well exploring mermaid culture, Lovric has created three different kinds of ghost. Vengeance-obsessed Tiepolo is a rare `in-the-Meltings’ ghost and the mutilated `in-the-Slaughterhouse’ ghosts are mainly on his side, but Teo and Renzo have a chance of persuading the sad `in-the-Cold’ ghosts to atone for their sins by fighting for their city. In the spectacular final battle,  the children of Venice’s gondoliers, the stone lions and bronze  horses of St Mark’s, the relics of Saints,  English Sea-Bishops, Nereids on South Sea dolphins, kingfishers, pigeons and winged cats all come together to protect the city and her people.

If you like this story there is a sequel set in Venice and London and all the seas between. Since reading `The Undrowned Child’ I’ve become quite addicted to Lovric’s novels for children and adults set in Venice. I’m even thinking of giving the city itself another try. Until next week….



This week’s recommendation is a tribute to Jack Vance, who died last month at the age of 96. `The Dying Earth’ , which came out in 1950, was his first book. Vance is a writer who makes the distinction between Fantasy and Science Fiction meaningless. This book is set very far in the future when the earth’s sun is nearly dead. `A million cities have fallen to dust’, strange creatures and cultures have arisen, and magic has largely replaced science. You can get `The Dying Earth’ on Kindle, as an audiobook, or in old paperback copies, but I’d suggest going for a paperback omnibus volume called `Tales of the Dying Earth’ which includes Vance’s three other `Dying Earth’ novels – `The Eyes of the Overworld (1966)’, `Cugel’s Saga’ (1983), and `Rhialto the Marvellous’ (1984).

`The Dying Earth’ is a short book comprising six interlinked stories. The first story tells how the sorcerer Turjan travels to Embelyon `the Land None Knows Where’ to discover how to make a perfect human being. He encounters T’sais, who has been created with a terrible flaw which makes her hate all that is good and beautiful. After carrying out a dangerous task, Turjan is able to create T’sain, a gentle sister for T’sais. In the second story, T’sain distracts an evil magician who is holding Turjan captive, and in the third T’sais explores earth, determined to find beauty or die. The fourth story describes how Liane the Wayfarer, a character who behaved very badly in the previous story, meets a nasty fate. In the fifth story a novice magician is sent to recover the legendary magic of an ancient ruler of the mysterious city of Ampridatvir, while in the sixth an insatiably curious young man seeks out the Curator of the Museum of Man.

Last June, I recommended Lord Dunsany’s Fantasy short stories set `beyond the fields we know’. Vance freely acknowledged that Dunsany was a substantial  influence on his early work.  The first series of `Dying Earth’ stories has the same mix of  eerie beauty, dark humour and delicate horror as the best of Dunsany’s `tales of wonder’. Both men invented their dream worlds while they were serving in terrible conflicts – World War I in Dunsany’s case and World War II in Vance’s. Perhaps this is why their stories are  more intense and poignant than any plot summary makes them sound.

Right from the start, Vance had the language skills to match his wonderful visual imagination. The Dying Earth is one of the most colourful and tuneful worlds I’ve encountered in fiction. For example, in Mazirian the Magician’s garden `Certain plants swam with changing iridescences; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow…Here blooms like bubbles tugged gently upward from glazed green leaves, there a shrub bore a thousand pipe-shaped blossoms, each whistling softly to make music of the ancient Earth, of the ruby-red sunlight, water seeping through black soil, the languid winds.’  Wherever Vance’s characters wander, from Embelyon with its blurred air and rippled sky to Ampridatvir with its ruined skyscrapers, or from the dark Lake of Dreams to the misty Land of the Falling Wall, place and atmosphere are perfectly evoked.

Short as these stories are, they are packed with delicious detail that leaves you longing to know more. Can you resist spells with titles like the Excellent Prismatic Spray, the Call to the Violent Cloud or the Charm of Untiring Nourishment? Or creatures such as the dragon-fly riding Twk-men, the prowling erbs, pelgrane with wings `that creak like rusty hinges’, or Chun the Unavoidable? Sometimes you feel that there is a whole story behind a throw-away line. Why do people stand `looking into a sunken pool where a pair of captured Deodands, their skins like oiled jet, paddled and glared’ and what is the history of the dreamy-eyed witch who `dwelt on the Cape of Sad Remembrance and waited at night on the beach for that which came in from the sea’? Any answers are left for the reader to imagine. Vance’s formal but zesty dialogue is also a constant delight. To take a favourite example,  a professional auger tells a potential customer, `I respond to three questions…For twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and actionable language ; for ten I use the language of cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity; for five I speak a parable which you must interpret as you will; and for one terce, I babble in an unknown tongue.”

The people in `The Dying Earth’ belong to an era in which there is no future and the past seems much more glorious than the present – `humanity festers rich as rotten fruit’. Society has broken down, moral codes have failed, selfishness reigns and extreme cults flourish. In the fifth story, the Grays and the Greens, followers of rival cults, share a decaying city but refuse to recognize each other’s existence. All this has resonance for our own time, as does the profound sense of alienation endured by some of the characters. Vance wasn’t noted for writing strong heroines but fiery innocent, T’sais who feels `as if the entire universe had been expressly designed with an eye to jarring her, provoking her to fury’  is a memorable figure. She can’t appreciate the wonderful crystalline structures of Mathematics perceived by her creator but she is eventually helped to find beauty even amongst evil and suffering by a man cursed with extreme ugliness. As a character in the final story says, `only when the brain is without love will the eye look and see no beauty’.

Vance himself said that the three later `Dying Earth’ novels `are quite different from the original tales in mood and atmosphere’. They are ingeniously plotted black comedies following the fortunes and misfortunes of duplicitous anti-heroes. These books are highly entertaining in their sour way, but for me, nothing compares with those six original tales. However, as this is my 50th post on Fantasy Reads, here’s a bonus recommendation. If you think you might enjoy `The Dying Earth’, or already know that you do, there is also a recent anthology called `Songs of the Dying Earth’ edited by George.R.R.Martin and Gardner Dozois. After a preface by Vance himself, this book contains 22 stories, inspired by the `Dying Earth’ series, from authors such as Robert Silverberg,  Tad Williams, Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman. It will take you to the end of the world and back again. Until next week….


After the coldest Spring in England for fifty years I think we should go someone warm, so this week I’ve chosen a novel set on a Greek island. `Travels in Elysium’ by William Azuski came out this year and is available in paperback or as an ebook. I should declare a connection at this point. I’ve never met the author but I did read two earlier drafts of this novel and there is a recommendation from me on the back cover – `This extraordinary novel, part murder mystery, part metaphysical thriller, kept me guessing until the very last page.’  At the front of this book are two definitions of Elysium  – `the home of the blessed after death’ in Greek mythology and any `blissful place or condition’. Take this as fair warning that `Travels in Elysium’ is a novel with more than one level of meaning.

The story begins with a vision of destruction by fire and water which may be only a dream. The dreamer is 22 year old Nicholas Pedrosa. Stuck in a dead-end job in a dreary town, Nicholas is overjoyed when he’s offered the chance to work for famous archaeologist Marcus Huxley on the island of Santorini in the southern Aegean. Known as Thera in ancient times, the island was once devastated by a massive volcanic explosion. Now Huxley is uncovering a city that has been hidden under the volcanic ash for three and a half thousand years. On the day he arrives on Santorini, Nicholas stumbles on the funeral of Huxley’s previous apprentice, Benja Randal, who fell to his death in the ancient city. Huxley’s main instruction to Nicholas is to observe everything and try to understand it. As Nicholas observes the dig and his fellow team members, pompous Hadrian, kindly Anna and bitter Sam, he finds much to trouble him. Huxley is a brilliant maverick, distrusted by other archaeologists. Even his loyal team are unhappy at the way Huxley is obsessively searching for something he won’t name amongst the ruins of Theran civilization. Santorini may seem a peaceful place but this is the 1960s and Greece has come under the rule of a brutal military dictatorship. Superstitious islanders oppose Huxley’s excavation and some of them claim that Benja Randal has become a vrykolakas – one of the restless undead.

Nicholas is captivated by the vibrant paintings uncovered during the excavations but he begins to doubt his own sanity when he sees startling resemblances between figures in the ancient paintings and people he has come to know on modern Santorini. One mystery appears to be solved when Huxley declares that he was looking for proof that Thera was Plato’s lost city of Atlantis, but when Nicholas meets the secretive group who sponsor the excavations it becomes clear that they have a very strange agenda. After a failed attempt to flee the island, Nicholas is goaded by Huxley into asking a series of impossible questions. What happened to the original inhabitants of Thera, and how much truth is there behind the legend of Atlantis?  Did Benja commit suicide or was he murdered, and why are people seeing his ghost? What is the fabled Oracle of the Dead and can it transport people to a place where their deepest longings are realized? Can ideas create reality, and if so, would that be the most dangerous thing of all?

Never been to Santorini? If you read this book, you’ll feel as if you have. There are wonderful descriptions of the island’s dramatic landscapes throught the seasons. Azuski writes about its rust-red cliffs and black sands,  the fitfully sleeping volcano and the vast sea-filled crater with its `charred islets of solidified lava like great heaps of coal, strange obsidian sculptures and the occasional plume of drowsy, sulphurous smoke.’   He evokes the traditional  island way of life, with its archaic  beliefs and strong sense of community,  which largely  vanished when Santorini became a tourist-trap; a place of `Atlantis sunset bars, discos and nightclubs’. The  paintings of handsome young fishermen and  beautiful girls gathering saffron that feature in the novel really do exist. Azuski uses them to conjure up a deceptively idyllic picture of life on ancient Thera. He is equally good at describing strange realms of the imagination such as the Isles beyond Sunset `A place beyond time, or space, where every object in the universe exists in a pure, perfect form’.

This book contains many of the elements you would expect to find in a supernatural thriller – suspicious deaths and unexplained disappearances, an obscure manuscript which may be the key to an ancient secret, a buried statue and a hidden cavern, a rift in reality and love stories that transcend time. Being a writer in the intellectual  European tradition, Azuski doesn’t just use these elements to thrill. This is a novel that also makes you think. When Huxley warns Nicholas to `Trust no one. Believe no one. Question everything…’ it’s a challenge to the reader as well. The legend of Atlantis has inspired many bad books and films but Azuski has gone back to the original source material, asked what the philosopher Plato meant by telling the story of the downfall of Atlantis, and come up with an alarming answer. In `Travels in Elysium’,  truth is an elusive concept. Nicholas keeps thinking that he has discovered what his mentor and tormentor, Huxley, is really up to but there is always more to find out. An epilogue may offer a rational explanation for Nicholas’ extraordinary experiences in ancient and modern Santorini, or it may raise even bigger questions.

Although this is a novel of ideas, all the people in it seem remarkably real. Local characters, such as `the spindle-thin schoolmaster…, his face sorry as a cracked teapot’ and `the postmaster…sporting a pair of checked knickerbockers and stout brogues, ready for the grim task of negotiating the snake-infested rocks’ are brought to life in a few choice phrases and we get to know the small band of archaeologists very well indeed. There are no outright heroes or villains among this group, just flawed and inconsistent men and women. As Anna tries to explain to Nicholas, `People are contradictory. They say one thing and do another…They act out one reality and dream another.’  When Anna’s dream of a second chance with the love of her life seems to come true, it proves to be one of the most poignant stories I’ve ever read. `Travels in Elysium’ is a demanding book but it’s a journey well worth taking. One final warning, if you do get to the end of this novel, you’ll probably want to go straight back to the beginning and read it all again. Until next week….


This week another book that features angels and demons and their half-human descendants. When it’s cold, gloomy and wet (as it is in England now) I feel like curling up with an old-fashioned romance. Cassandra Clare’s `Clockwork Angel’ is just that. This novel came out in 2010 and is the first volume of `The Infernal Devices’ trilogy, which is widely available in paperback, ebook or audiobook forms. Clare is best known for her Young Adult series `The Mortal Instruments’ in which Shadowhunters battle demons in modern New York. A film of the first book in this series, `City of Bones’, is due out soon. `The Infernal Devices’ is a prequel to `The Mortal Instruments’. It is mainly set in Victorian London, but a London whose inhabitants include demon-slaying Nephilim and the vampires, werewolves, goblins and half-human warlocks collectively known as Downworlders.

As the story starts, sixteen year old Tessa Gray arrives in England from New York. Quiet bookish Tessa is an orphan with little in the world except for a clockwork angel necklace which once belonged to her mother. Tessa has come to join her brother Nate, who seems to be making his fortune in London,  but she is kidnapped by the sinister Dark sisters. With torture and threats to kill Nate, the sisters force Tessa to use a power she didn’t know she had, the power to change shape. They tell Tessa that they are preparing her to be the bride of `The Magister’ .  She is desperate to escape and she’s helped to do so by a dashing young man called Will Herondale who takes Tessa to the Shadowhunters’ London Institute. The Shadowhunters are clans of demon-hunters who are descended from angels and have angel-given magic embodied in the runes marked on their bodies.  As Nephilim, the Shadowhunters tend to look down on the ignorant humans they protect and they have an increasingly uneasy Accord with the Downworlders.

The fortress-like London Institute is presided over by Charlotte Branwell and her absent-minded inventor husband. There Tessa also meets reluctant Shadowhunter Jessamine and Will’s devoted friend and demon-fighting partner Jem. Charlotte has never encountered a shape-shifter before. Tessa insists that her parents were human yet her power marks her as half-demon. She’s still given sanctuary and begins to search for her missing brother but terrifying automatons are stalking the streets of London. In order to discover the identity of the mysterious Magister, Tessa has to use her shape-shifting ability to infiltrate the dangerous world of the London vampires and discover the secrets of the Pandemonium Club. As Tessa struggles to cope with startling revelations and cruel betrayals she finds herself increasingly drawn to both reckless Will and gentle Jem.

Readers familiar with `The Mortal Instruments’ will enjoy finding out more about long-lived bisexual warlock, Magnus Bane, and meeting the ancestors of some of their favourite characters. However, no knowledge of the other series is necessary to appreciate `Clockwork Angel’.  I prefer this Victorian series to Clare’s contemporary novels. This could be because I’m a bit of a Victorian myself but I think it’s also because Clare’s love of 19th century poetry and fiction comes across so strongly in this series. Like characters in Jane Austen, Tessa and Will bond through a shared love of particular writers, and every chapter starts with an apt literary quotation. As if that wasn’t enough, naming one of your characters after two Bronte siblings is a bit of a clue. When American authors write period novels set in Britain (or vice versa) they can be full of false notes. Not in this case. This may not be London as it really was in the 19th century but it is the irresistible London of Gothic and Romantic fiction and Clare writes about it with panache.

There are a few evil characters in this book but in general the moral landscape of the series is pleasingly ambiguous. Some Downworlders are shown as acting decently within their own codes of behaviour while the Nephilim can be arrogant and selfish. Centuries of dedicating their lives to the destruction of demons have given the Shadowhunters an enormous sense of entitlement and a dangerous conviction that they are always right. Separated from their natural families, the Shadowhunters in the London Institute (and their equally well characterized servants) form a close but disfunctional family. Amidst all the bickering and misunderstandings, Tessa has to discover who and what she is and whether she has a place in this family.

I suspect that fellow book-lovers will find lonely Tessa a very easy heroine to identify with. The plain girl who wins the hero through sheer force of personality is as popular a piece of wish-fulfillment today as it was when Charlotte Bronte first wrote `Jane Eyre’. Tessa manages to attract not one handsome hero but two. Of course there are well-placed obstacles on the path to happiness. For reasons which don’t become clear until Volume Two, Will pushes away anyone he starts to get too fond of, while Jem is slowly dying of an incurable disease. Does it matter that blue-eyed Will is impossibly beautiful and impossibly Byronic, or that Jem seems almost too sweet and selfless to be true? Not a bit. In a Fantasy Romance I don’t want to read about normal everyday men. Will and Jem are the Bad and Good boys of girlish dreams and, as long as you don’t take this type of fiction too seriously, none the worse for that. Moreover,  if you stick with this series you will eventually come to an unusual and highly satisfying solution to the eternal triangle. Until next week….


This week I’m recommending a novel by an underrated  British author, Sarah Ash. I’d been planning to pick `Lord of Snow and Shadows’, the first volume in her `The Tears of Artamon’ trilogy but this isn’t widely available as an ebook. So instead I’ve chosen  `Tracing the Shadow’, which came out in 2008.  This is the first book in a two-part series called `The Alchymist’s Legacy’. You can get this in paperback and on most ereaders (for details see the author’s website at Not only is `The Alchymist’s Legacy’ set in the same world as `The Tears of Artamon’, it features many of the same characters. `Tracing the Shadow’ is a kind of prequel in which minor characters from `The Tears of Artamon’ become the leading players. As such, it forms a good introduction to Ash’s mythos.

The islands in Ash’s post-medieval world have much in common with various European and Asian countries. At the start of `Tracing the Shadow” Guerriers from Francia are on a crusade to capture the fortress-citadel of Ondhessar to recover the relics of St Azilia. The Francians slaughter the citadel’s guardians but the most precious relic, a crystal known as the Lodestar, is stolen by a wind-mage called Linnaius. This is an act that will change the world.  When the mage returns to the College of Thaumaturgy  in Francia, only his young apprentice Rieuk seems able to get a response from the singing crystal. Rieuk, Linnaius and his alchymist colleague Hervé de Maunoir are all blessed with magical powers because they have angel blood, but in Francia such powers are regarded as evil and have to be concealed. Rieuk accidentally frees an aethyrial spirit from the Lodestar but de Maunoir manages to bind her in his book of spells. Imri, a mage of Ondhessar who was sent to retrieve the Loadstar, seduces Rieuk into returning to Enhirre with him. Rieuk is painfully initiated into their cult and acquires a familiar in the form of a shadow hawk.

Meanwhile the Inquisition swoops on the College of Thaumaturgy. Linnaius appears to have betrayed his colleagues and then left to serve the ambitious ruler of the kingdom of Tielen.  All the college masters are burned as heretics. Klervie, the little daughter of de Maunoir, loses her home and her mother too. She has nothing left but her father’s book. Klervie is rescued from the streets by the kindly Guerrier, Ruaud de Lanvaux , who persuades a convent to take her in. She is given a new name- Celestine – and becomes a star singer in the convent choir. Celestine dares not tell anyone her true identity and an even deeper secret is the beautiful Faie who inhabits her book and acts as her protector. Ruaud later helps a second child, a boy called  Jagu who has seen a schoolfriend murdered by a shadowy mage. The Guerrier is forced to use one of the precious Angelstones to save Jagu from another attack. In the years to come, musical talent and a beloved teacher will bring Celestine and Jagu together but both of them are obsessed with finding the mage who ruined their lives. In order to save Imri’s soul, Rieuk has been forced to take a much darker path. He is looking for lost Klervie and the book that may contain Azilis, the Eternal Singer, whose task is to keep the balance between the realms of the living and the dead. Now that the Lodestar is broken terrible things are beginning to happen. The dead cannot find rest and the whole world is at risk…

I do relish a well made plot. The numerous people and places in this summary may sound confusing but they are just a taster of the complications to come as Rieuk, Celestine and Jagu get involved in political  intrigue and espionage, royal  feuds, human wars and a struggle for power between ancient daemons. Ash clearly enjoys devising many-stranded plots featuring a huge cast of characters in multiple locations. `Tracing the Shadow’ is actually one of her simpler books, since it mainly focuses on the parallel stories of the three young people: Celestine the gentle singer who longs to avenge her father, Jagu the gifted musician who becomes a warrior monk, and Rieuk the crystal mage who misuses his magic. I found it fascinating to trace the links between the three leading characters and watch their lives converge. Ash stirs all manner of things into her plot, from magical tattoos and heretical manuscripts to dragon-spirits and opera singers, but by the end of the second volume these diverse plot elements come together in an immensely satisfying way.

Ash gives the impression of being someone who writes out of love for her invented world rather than for money or fame. Northern Europe in the 18th century seems to be a particular source of inspiration but Ash draws on a wide knowledge of  history, art, music and folklore to colour in the backgrounds to her story. She is equally at home in convents and fortresses, palaces, prisons and opera houses. Her various types of magician aren’t particularly original but Ash writes interestingly about the sources of supernatural power and the moral and psychological costs of  using them. Many of her characters are deluded about, or wilfully ignorant of, the true nature of the powers they draw on. Ghosts go unrecognized, daemons from another realm are mistaken for saints and angels, and men who claim to be following divine guidance, or to be in control of captive spirits, are taken over by their darkest desires.

Anyone familiar with `The Tears of Artamon’  trilogy will see some of its characters in a new light after reading `Tracing the Shadow’ . The story should work just as well for those who are new to Ash’s world. I can think of Fantasy writers who give greater depth and complexity to their characters but few who write with such empathy. Ash handles all her viewpoint characters with affectionate understanding, so that characters who might be branded as villains by the plot are sympathetically treated. Ambitious loner Rieuk does some terrible things in the course of the story but I was still touched by his devotion to the one person he was briefly close to. In the first scene of the book, the Guerrier Ruaud is involved in the brutal slaughter of the `pagan’ defenders of Ondhessar but the reader learns to see him as a good man serving a bad cause.  Ash’s fondness for her own characters leads her to be a little too indulgent towards the power-mad Emperor of New Rossiya (if you prefer your Emperors decadent go for `Sea of Ghosts’, which I reviewed on April 17th, or my own `Prince of the Godborn’) but there are limits. Even Ash can’t work up any sympathy for her heretic-burning Chief Inquisitor.  If you find yourself liking the people you meet in `Tracing the Shadow’ , I would suggest reading `The Tears of Artamon’ trilogy next and then finishing with `Flight into Darkness’. That should keep even the keenest Fantasy reader happily occupied for a week or two. Until next time…


It’s a cold wet miserable day in southern England and I’m in bed with flu. I’m not up to doing my usual review this week so I’m just going to list some of my favourite `Chicken Soup Stories’  – Fantasy Reads that always make me feel better.

`The Canterville Ghost’ by Oscar Wilde

`Prince Prigio and Prince Ricardo’ by Andrew Lang

`The Reluctant Dragon’ by Kenneth Grahame

`Five Children and It’ by E.Nesbit

`The Man Who Was Thursday’ by G.K.Chesterton

`Mistress Masham’s Repose’ by T.H.White

`The Stone Cage’ by Nicholas Stuart Grey

`The Book of Three’ by Lloyd Alexander

`Stardust’ by Neil Gaiman

`Archer’s Goon’ by Diana Wynne Jones

`Mothstorm’ by Philip Reeves

`Un Lun Dun’ by China Miéville

Further suggestions for books to read when you’re down would be very welcome. I’ll be back when I’m better.


This week I’m recommending a collection of folktales retold by a famous Fantasy author who has rather gone out of fashion – Richard Adams. `The Iron Wolf and other stories’ was first published in Britain in 1980 but elsewhere this book was known by the more apt title `Stories and Fables – The Unbroken Web’.  If you avoid the first edition, old copies in hardback or paperback can be picked up cheaply. Both have black and white illustrations by Jennifer Campbell and stunning colour plates by Yvonne Gilbert. If you try to order `The Unbroken Web’ on Kindle what you will get is an interesting interview in which Richard Adams talked to Dale Andrew White about story-telling.

In the introduction to this book, Adams imagines the collective unconscious as a shining`gossamer-like sphere – the unbroken web’  enveloping our planet. He suggests that this web soaks up human experience and emotion and has been drawn on by story-tellers all over the planet so that traditional tales can by understood and enjoyed by anyone in any place or time. This collection contains eighteen  myths, fables and folktales from a variety of cultures, plus one story about a mouse who goes to the moon which I’m guessing is Adams’ own invention. The settings range from Bora-Bora to Alaska, and from China to the Isle of Man.

Adams notes that folktales may not be the most sophisticated form of literature but they make you eager to know what happens next and are full of surprises and marvels. You will find plenty of  both in `The Unbroken Web’. Let yourself be surprised by what happens when a hero fights a giant eel, a Welsh lord threatens to hang a mouse, a crow goes in search of daylight and God decides to paint all the birds he’s created; or marvel at the `Horse of Dust and Thunder’, a crimson parrot who is full of clever advice, an egg that contains a remarkable gift and a peasant canny enough to outwit a greedy dragon. These were not stories originally meant for children so some of them contain adult themes such as sexual jealousy.  Gods and royalty feature in a few of the tales but the heroes are mainly the underdogs of their society – poor men living on their wits, a blind boy who has no-one but his dog, and `an old tatter-feathered stork’ who turns out to be braver than all the other storks. The eventual triumphs of these underdogs give hope that there can be a happy ending to any life.

Richard Adams is an author I admire for his integrity. He refused to go on writing the same bestseller (`Watership Down’) over and over again. He’s a true English eccentric who stubbornly goes his own way. I don’t always like what he writes but I do always find it interesting. In `The Unbroken Web’ he takes an unusual approach to retelling folktales. The people within the stories may be types rather than individuals but Adams has created a wide range of narrators. Each story in this collection is told by a particular man or woman to a specific audience. These varied `voices’  allow Adams to demonstrate that he can write in a wide range of dialects. Non-British readers may find these tricky to follow but the reward is  charming turns of phrase, such as `cats in the sea’s no more plentiful than bears on a ‘bus’ or `blimey! she never ‘ad such a shock in all ‘er flippin puff’. The `top and tail’ to the story  may just set the scene (whether it’s an English country churchyard or a Russian inn) or amount to a miniature narrative in itself.

Adams’ matching of narrators to tales can be puzzling. I still can’t work out why a story from `The Mabinogion’ (see my blog of November 15th 2012) about an enchanter’s curse is related by a teacher to a group of children who are about to sing for Benjamin Britten. Is Adams comparing this slightly sinister composer with the enchanter in the story? In other cases the framing device adds poignancy to the original story. `The Blind Boy and His Dog’ is told by a mother struggling to earn a living in a foreign land to a son who is unlikely to honour his parents like the boy in the story. In `The Crimson Parrot’ a poor orphan finds wealth, power and a beautiful bride but you know that the young African soldiers who are listening to the story will probably die far from home. Adams wrote that he felt like a jeweller or a clockmaker as he took the stories in `The Unbroken Web’  apart and then fitted them together again. I don’t know whether you will find his story-telling technique captivating or annoying. Try this book and see. Until next week….