Archives for category: Young Adult Books

This week I’m recommending a story which begins with a pig bursting out of what should be an empty cupboard. It makes for an unforgettable opening page and yet Penelope Farmer’s “A Castle of Bone” is no longer as well known as it should be. When this short book was first published in 1972 it was described as being for “readers of eleven and over” but “A Castle of Bone” could also be seen as a story about teenagers for adult readers. Thankfully, most of Farmer’s fiction remains in print. You can get this novel in paperback or as an ebook.

“A Castle of Bone” is centred on four school-age teenagers: Hugh and his sister Jean and their next-door neighbours, Penn and his sister Anna. Aspiring artist Hugh is in trouble with his mother for having too much clutter in his room. She decrees that he must have a cupboard, so Hugh’s father takes him out to look for one. In a local junkshop, Hugh spots an ugly wooden cupboard and, “Immediately he had never wanted anything as much as he wanted that, not even his first box of proper oil paints”. On the first night that the cupboard is in his bedroom, Hugh dreams about walking through a wood, meeting a strange black-haired girl and seeing a distant castle which he longs to reach.

Since Penn and Hugh are close friends, the four teenagers spend a lot of time hanging out together. They are in Hugh’s room when he hears strange noises coming from inside the new cupboard. All of them see the large white sow emerge and chase her into the local park. After this impossible pig evades them the friends can’t agree about what has happened. Anna points out that the only thing in the cupboard was a pig-skin wallet which she had tossed in there. Hugh is willing to believe that the cupboard has transformative powers but Penn and Jean are sceptical. When Anna puts a sweater inside the cupboard and reopens the door to find it reduced to a pile of wool, everyone has to admit that something very strange is going on. Over the next few days, Hugh tries putting different things in the cupboard. Each night, his dreams about the ominous wood and the white castle become more vivid and they seem to be affecting how Hugh experiences the world in daytime.

When the cupboard turns a cat back into a kitten, Penn doesn’t want to believe it out of pride and Jean out of fear. They all know that they ought to be more careful but a stupid quarrel leads to a shocking transformation of one of the group. The remaining teenagers are left with a major problem to conceal from their parents. As his dreams become ever more real, Hugh seeks answers from the old man who sold him the cupboard. Can its magic be reversed and what will happen when Hugh finally enters the Castle of Bone which haunts his dreams?

If this story was being published for Young Adults today, Farmer would probably have been pressured to make it longer, more sequel-friendly, and less intellectually demanding. The original novel packs a great deal into its 154 pages. I would call it more short and sour than short and sweet. The writing is full of sharp observation and unsparing character dissection. Many extraordinary things happen in “A Castle of Bone” but Farmer provides few explanations. She sets up parallels between contemporary events and the wilder fringes of Greek and Celtic myth and then leaves it up to her readers to notice and interpret the patterns.

This is similar to the way that Alan Garner used a story from “The Mabinogion” (see my post of November 2012) as the underlying plot in his famous novel “The Owl Service” (ditto). “A Castle of Bone” doesn’t have the powerful sense of place (a wet Welsh valley) which you get in Garner’s masterpiece but I prefer Farmer’s more fluid and elusive use of myth. The central image of the castle keeps changing, as the shadowy Spiral Castle does in Celtic myth. Inside you might find a magical apple tree, the Cauldron of Rebirth, witch-queens and goddesses, all of which make it a dangerous place for male intruders.

If I’d simply summarized the plot of this novel without trying to convey the tone, it might sound like a comedy. Spells that go wrong, or have unintended consequences, are common in light-hearted Fantasy fiction for children. Some of the events in “A Castle of Bone” reminded me of the kind absurd things which happen in E.Nesbit novels such as “Five Children and It”. In Nesbit’s work (see my March 2016 post on her “The Book of Dragons”) the magical mishaps are played for laughs but in Farmer’s novel they seem part of something sinister and increasingly dangerous. Some episodes in “A Castle of Bone”, such as the wild chase after the pig and an embarrassing  trip to the chemist where Hugh has to buy things that a teenage boy definitely shouldn’t need, are told with a humorous edge but they remain disturbing. The feeling of dread is closest to the surface in Hugh’s brilliantly described dreams which begin to bleed into his waking life, making him see new threats and possibilities in familiar places and people.

In “A Castle of Bone” the story is mainly told from Hugh’s point of view. We get an in-depth portrait of this rather uptight young man whose creative side is stimulated by the extraordinary potential of the magical cupboard. Farmer is more interested in psychological realism than in making Hugh likeable. He’s a believable self-centred teenager, who despises his irresponsible mother and finds his sensible sister boring. Hugh and his family seem emotionally repressed in a typically English way when contrasted with the flamboyant Celtic temperament of Penn and his family. The two boys are both friends and rivals. In the course of the story, Hugh comes to realize that Anna isn’t a nice person but there is latent attraction between them. For much of the book I was rather irritated by the way that Jean is portrayed as a timid traditional homemaker – a Good Girl to contrast with Anna’s daring and capricious Bad Girl. However, at the climax of the novel, it is decisive action by Jean which determines her brother’s fate. Anyone who is experiencing, or who remembers, the painful changes that all teenagers have to go through will find “A Castle of Bone” an interesting read. Fantasy Reads is taking September off but I’ll be back with Ghost Month in October.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

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I apologize that this post is later than planned but I’ve been unwell.  Now I’m recommending a Fantasy novel full of colour and warmth which was just the tonic I needed. “The Star-Touched Queen” is by Roshani Chokshi, an American author of Indian descent, and it taps into a rich tradition of female story-telling in India. This novel was published in 2016 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. A sequel called “A Crown of Wishes” has recently come out but this has different central characters.

“The Star-Touched Queen” is the story of seventeen year-old Princess Mayavati (Maya) one of the many children of Raja Ramchandra of Bharata. Her mother died shortly after she was born and Maya has been brought up in the royal harem by her numerous step-mothers. Due to a hideously inauspicious horoscope, Maya is treated like “a dead girl walking” and regarded as unlucky. Her only friend is her younger half-sister, Gauri, who loves the fairy stories that Maya tells her about extraordinary Otherworld places such as the Night Bazaar.

Raja Ramchandra, knows that Maya is exceptionally intelligent and that she understands how Bharata is suffering after many years of war. Maya longs for love but because she is “a girl with dark skin and a darker horoscope” she assumes that her fate is to become a scholarly old maid. Her father has other ideas and involves her in a ruthless plan to save his kingdom. When that plan goes wrong, Maya is carried off by a mysterious bridegroom called Amar. He takes her through supernatural realms to his strangely empty kingdom of Akaran.

Amar swears that Maya is his beloved and that they are destined to rule Akaran together but claims that he cannot yet tell her any of the secrets he is obviously hiding. Maya yearns to trust him but a woman who claims to be a friend from a past life warns her not to. During her search for the truth, Maya makes dark discoveries and is forced to go on a perilous journey with a flesh-eating demon. The fate of Bharata and many other realms will depend on whether Maya has the courage to survive her ordeals and recover everything that she has lost.

Chokshi is a captivating storyteller. If my synopsis is a little vaguer than usual it’s because I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises which she springs on the reader during the early chapters of “The Star-Touched Queen”.  However, regular Followers of this blog will probably have already spotted that the plot of this novel is loosely based on the romantic myth of  “Cupid and Psyche”. Elements of this myth, such as the princess who is sacrificed to save her country, the girl who doesn’t know whether she’s married a prince or a monster, the jealous sisters, a broken promise followed by exile and a series of magical ordeals, also feature in Fairy Tales from all over the world. I’ve already recommended one retelling of the Psyche story – C.S. Lewis’s extraordinary  novel “Till We Have Faces” (March 2013). As I wrote in that post, “Most authors would have used the Cinderella-like Psyche as the viewpoint character” but Lewis chose to make her “ugly sister” Orual the focus of his novel. Orual is one of the most complex and memorable villains in all of Fantasy fiction. She is well worth seeking out.

“The Star-Touched Queen” is less original than “Till We Have Faces” but it’s still packed with interesting features. Chokshi has written her novel entirely from the Cinderella-like Maya’s point of view and I have to admit that it works very well. In Bharata, Maya is treated like an outsider in her own family and in the Otherworld she has to learn everything anew. This makes her an easy character for readers to identify with. In the original story (the earliest version is found in “The Golden Ass”, a Latin novel written in the 2nd century CE), Psyche is a rather feeble heroine who is easily influenced and makes stupid mistakes. Chokshi’s Maya is pleasingly strong-minded and cleve but she has been deprived of vital memories. In these circumstances, it’s understandable that “cursed” Maya makes some disastrous misjudgments.  “Till We Have Faces” is about leaps of faith; “The Star-Touched Queen” is more concerned with what is at the core of a person’s identity and how far we are able to shape our own destiny.

The unusual setting is an outstanding feature of “The Star-Touched Queen”. The story takes place in an Indian-based Fantasy world rather than in India itself. Chokshi is clearly very knowledgeable about the cultures and religions of the Indian subcontinent but she uses her sources with freedom and panache. Standard religious ideas such as the concept of Reincarnation and belief in horoscopes are crucial to the plot of “The Star-Touched Queen” but Chokshi has invented her own pantheon of supernatural beings. She’s also plucked dramatic incidents and exotic creatures from a range of Indian Myths and Fairy Tales. I enjoyed this novel because it reminded me of one of my favourite collections of Fairy Tales, a book called “Old Deccan Days or Hindoo Fairy Legends “. These are stories that a South Indian woman called Anna Liberata de Souza remembered being told by her grandmother at the beginning of the 19th century. They are full of magical transformations, terrifying Rakshas (demons), unlucky Rajahs and brave and resourceful heroines. Some of these heroines have to cope with a whole harem full of jealous or spiteful step-mothers and half-siblings – just as Maya does. Depth is added to this standard Fairy Tale situation late in the novel when Maya learns to see things from her most hated step-mother’s point of view.

Chokshi’s ornate prose style won’t please everybody but she has a wonderful visual imagination. “The Star-Touched Queen” is the sort of book which makes you wish that all novels came with illustrations. In the early chapters , Chokshi’s descriptions of the Raja’s court filled my head with vibrant images of multi-coloured silks and shimmering jewels. Maya is adorned for her sinister wedding with henna-patterns of mango blossoms on her skin, a blood-red sari, amethyst earrings, golden hair ornaments and bangles as heavy as shackles. Chokshi is even better at describing her Otherworld. Chapter titles such as “The Palace Between Worlds”, “The Garden of Glass”, “A Room Full of Stars” and “The Memory Tree” hint at the enchantments in store for readers of this novel. Best of all are the sights, scents and sounds of the Night Bazaar where daydreams that look like spun-glass, bones for telling the future, dancing conch-shells, and pearls that taste of “ripe pears and rich honey” are all on offer “beneath a split-sky leaking with magic”. This is a Fantasy world I wanted to explore further and I was pleased to learn more about Maya’s intrepid sister, Gauri, in “A Crown of Wishes”.

One small niggle – Author’s Acknowledgements are now getting as lengthy and emotional as Oscar acceptance speeches and Chokshi’s is a particularly gushing example. I love novels because they represent individual human voices rather than group efforts. Chokshi’s distinctive voice is hers alone and she should be proud of that achievement. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

 

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….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

Necromancers are Fantasy’s favourite villains but there are both good and bad necromancers in this week’s recommendation  – a new book in the popular `Old Kingdom Series’ by Australian writer, Garth Nix. `Clariel’ was published in 2014 and is easy to find in paperback or as an ebook. The first three novels in the series – `Sabriel’, `Lirael’ and `Abhorsen’ featured two courageous heroines, two captivating magical creatures, a unique form of magic involving seven bells, and more zombies than `The Walking Dead’. `Clariel’ is a prequel, set around 600 years before the start of `Sabriel’, so it provides a good introduction to Nix’s Old Kingdom – a country where technology doesn’t work and there is a constant threat from the returning dead and Free Magic elementals. Only Charter Magic can protect the living.

When this story begins, the Old Kingdom is enjoying a time of relative peace and the importance of Charter Magic has almost been forgotten. Seventeen-year-old Clariel has been forced to leave her beloved forest, and accompany her parents to Belisaere, the capital city of the Old Kingdom. Lady Clariel is a very well connected young woman. Her mother has just become a High Master of the Goldsmiths Guild and Clariel is related to the reigning king and to the current Abhorsen, the powerful Charter Mage whose task is to banish the dead and defeat demons. Clariel wants to become a Borderer and spend her life patrolling the Great Forest but her parents insist that she goes to an elite school where she will mix with the `best people’, including her friendly cousin Bel.

At school, Clariel begins to understand that the Guilds are now more powerful in Belisaere than the royal family and that the Abhorsen and his clan no longer practise their hereditary magic. Bel is the only member of the family striving to be a true Abhorsen. When Clariel is sent to Magister Kargrin for some token lessons in Charter Magic, he discovers that she has an affinity with Free Magic and a powerful rage within her. Kargrin enlists her help to track down and capture a Free Magic creature which is loose in the city but the encounter does not go as planned. Clariel is warned that the whole kingdom is in danger but she focuses on avoiding an arranged marriage and getting back to her chosen way of life.

When the power-struggles in Belisaere erupt into violence, Clariel flees the city with the help of Bel. Clariel is taken to the ancient House of the Abhorsens where she meets Mogget, an elemental being in the form of a cat who is compelled to serve each Abhorsen. The House is staffed by ghostly servants known as Sendings and protected by powerful magics. Clariel is safe there but she doesn’t want safety – she wants action and revenge. She decides to risk using Free Magic; a choice which sets her on the path to an extraordinary destiny.

This is a difficult review to write because I can’t tell you about some of the things which make this novel so good without spoiling the story. I shall have to choose my words as carefully as Mogget does. Anyone who enjoyed the previous `Old Kingdom’ books will be delighted to meet the charming but utterly unreliable Mogget again. He may look like an ordinary white cat but he is something very different if anyone is foolish enough to remove the collar which binds him. Without breaking the rules of his servitude, Mogget can deceive and beguile innocents like Clariel into very deep trouble but he’s also capable of forming real attachments to some humans. You never know which way he’ll jump and that is what makes him a fascinating character.

Nix usually writes as if all the monsters he’s invented were snapping at his heels, so he daren’t pause for a reflective moment. Most of his novels are packed with thrilling non-stop action scenes, leaving little room for character development. The one exception is `Lirael’ , which describes all the formative events in the shy young heroine’s life before sending her off on a difficult and dangerous mission. `Clariel’ is similar in that the reader is allowed plenty of time to get to know the central character and understand her hopes and dreams. Clariel’s unhappy relationships with her weak father and dominating mother, her frustration at the lady-like role she’s expected to play and her fear of being manipulated, are all very well portrayed. It is because we see the politics of Belisaere through her naive eyes, that the descent into  extreme violence is particularly shocking. Clariel suddenly finds herself fighting to survive.

I suspect that some readers of this blog will be thinking, `Please, not another story about a feisty teenage girl finding her true destiny and saving the world!’ I have several responses to this complaint. Firstly, Fantasy Fiction was dominated by male characters for a very long time, so now it’s the girls’ turn to take the leading roles. Secondly, it is every teenager’s job to discover their destiny and save the world because they have reached the age when they can see what the previous generation has done wrong. Teenagers burn to put it all right but they may end up making things worse. There are two teenagers in `Clariel’ who seize the initiative because they think that they know better than their elders but their actions have very different results. This is a `finding your destiny’ story with a bitter twist.

If you are not yet convinced that `Clariel’ is worth reading, here are more reasons. Nix takes risks with the character of Clariel. She isn’t particularly likeable and she is definitely not your typical Fantasy Romance heroine. She has tried sex and didn’t think much of it and she isn’t interested in relationships. Clariel is critical of everyone around her but blind to her own faults and the mistakes she makes aren’t the sort which teach neat life-lessons. The motto of the `Old Kingdom Series’  is `Does the Walker Choose the Path, or the Path the Walker?’ `Clariel’ is a serious exploration of the question of how much character shapes destiny. At the end of this novel you will probably look back at the choices Clariel has made and wonder whether things could have turned out differently. So, if you want a change from the usual `follow your dream and save the world’ format, try this introduction to one of modern Fantasy’s darkest domains. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

 

This week I’m recommending a book published for Young Adults – `Forest Born’ by Shannon Hale (2010). Nowadays there is a huge amount of Young Adult Fantasy written about and for, and occasionally by, teenage girls. People who aren’t inclined to be young or female often avoid this type of fiction as if it was a sparkly pink plague, which means that they sometimes miss out on a good book. `Forest Born’ does feature a teenage heroine but it’s a novel worth reading whatever your current age or gender. Available in paperback or as an ebook, `Forest Born’ is the fourth of Hale’s `Books of Bayern’. The series began with `The Goose Girl’, which was inspired by the Grimms’ Fairy Tale of the same name  (see also my recent post on `Thorn’) and continued with `Enna Burning’ and `River Secrets’. Each of the `Books of Bayern’  is a complete story centred on a different viewpoint character, so there is no need to have read the other three before trying `Forest Born’.

In the great Forest of Bayern lives a girl with six brothers. Rinna (Rin) Agget loves her forest-home and feels a strong affinity with its trees. She helps to look after the whole Agget clan and is her mother’s favourite child but Rin has a secret. Sometimes she can make people do things they don’t want to do. Convinced that she has a `bad core’ and that even the trees have turned against her, Rin is desperate to leave home before her family discover what she is really like. She cannot confess her fears even to her favourite brother, Razo, but he and his foreign girlfriend, Dasha, can see how unhappy Rin is. They take her back with them to Bayern’s capital city. Razo was once just a shepherd but he became a loyal friend to a Goose Girl who turned out to be a princess in disguise. Now the Goose Girl, Isi, is married to King Geric of Bayern and Razo belongs to the elite regiment known as Bayern’s Own.

Razo gets his sister a job in the palace helping to look after Geric and Isi’s young son. Rin adores the little prince and comes to admire the gentle queen but Bayern and its royal family are under threat. Villages near the border with Kel have been burned and when Geric goes to investigate he and his men are attacked by fire-speakers – men or women who can summon fire and use it to maim and kill. Queen Isi, who is a wind-speaker, is determined to find out who has trained these fire-speakers and ordered them to destroy Bayern. On her secret mission she takes her friend Enna, who is a very powerful fire-speaker, and Dasha, who is a water-speaker. Rin yearns to be like these `fearless women’ and runs away to join them. When they encounter a formidable enemy from Isi’s past, Rin must choose between using the powers she hates or losing the people she loves.

Acting on a hint in the original `Goose Girl’ story about the princess being able to summon a wind to do her bidding, Hale has created a mythical Golden Age in which all beings and elements of the universe could communicate with each other in the divine language. By Rin’s time, that age is long past but there are still people born with the gifts of people-speaking, animal-speaking or nature-speaking. Nature-speakers like Isi, Enna and Dasha can communicate with forces such as a air, fire and water and wield them as weapons. Hale has worked out the details of this well, but superficially nature-speaking sounds like one of those convenient powers that people acquire in Fantasy role-playing games. What makes Hale’s treatment of these powers stand out is the sensitive way she describes the drawbacks and long-term emotional effects of using this kind of magic. Enna, for example, has never recovered from the horror of having to use her fire-speaking to destroy an invading army. Isi, Enna and Dasha`balance’ their power by learning each other’s magical languages. It’s a lesson in avoiding extremism by following more than one path.

Another distinctive feature of the `Books of Bayern’ is that people-speaking is presented as by far the most dangerous and corrupting gift to have. People-speakers can make other people `listen to them, and believe them, and love them’. In `Forest Born’ the consequences of this are shown to be toxic. A people-speaker who is obsessed with gaining power ruthlessly manipulates her followers into doing terrible things for her unworthy cause. It is all too easy to think of contemporary parallels. This novel is honest about how difficult it can be to help victims of such brain-washing to recover from it. No wonder poor Rin is horrified by the idea that she might be a people-speaker. She is overcome by the kind of self-loathing that so many teenage girls now seem to suffer from. Fortunately Rin has the three women she thinks of as the `fire sisters’ – Isi, Enna and Dasha – to hearten and inspire her. This is a book in which there are lots of interesting conversations between women which aren’t about men.

The novel also contains plenty of action and suspense but essentially `Forest Born’ is about the inner life of  a young woman who wants to be a heroine but fears she’s a villainess. Rin wonders if everyone secretly feels lost and like a stranger in their own home. It’s a state of mind which many people will be familiar with. Rin thinks she’s only `half a girl’ in comparison to brave Isi, Enna and Dasha but the `fire sisters’ are far from invincible. Discovering their vulnerabilities in a crisis helps Rin to accept her own weaknesses and to build on her strengths. When talking about storytelling, Queen Isi says that `in order to see the story it has to be a bit removed from what is actually real’. Hale’s story of magical gifts gives a clear picture of some dangerous psychological states and the strength of will needed to overcome them. Teenagers can be fascinating to read (and write) about because their characters are still being formed, or deformed, by internal and external pressures. Everything is still to play for, so please don’t reject a novel simply because it’s about a teenage girl. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

 

I think it is about time that I recommended something by Ursula Le Guin, who is one of the most respected figures in modern Fantasy and Science Fiction with a `World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement’ to prove it. Le Guin is a prolific author so it hasn’t been easy to choose just one of her books. I thought of picking `The Tombs of Atuan’, which I find the most interesting of her Earthsea novels, but this is very well known. So instead I’ve decided on `Gifts’ – the first in a loosely-linked trilogy known as the `Annals of the Western Shore’. The original hardback edition, published by Harcourt in 2004, is a handsome book in every way. Cheap paperback or ebook editions are also easy to find. In theory, `Gifts’ is a novel for teenagers but it refuses to follow most of the conventions of Young Adult fiction.

In the bleak northern Uplands live families who each have a special `gift’ which they can use to protect or enrich their domains. Some of these gifts, such as the power of female members of the Barre family to summon and control animals, seem benevolent enough. Others, such as the ability of the Geremant family to twist limbs or the Rodds to maim or kill with a spirit-knife, are dangerous and cruel. No wonder that the Lowlanders accuse Uplanders of being witches, even if they don’t quite believe all the stories about them.

Young Orrec is the only son of Canoc, the Brantor (leader) of Caspromant, whose gift is `undoing’. This terrible gift can destroy people, animals and things but Cannoc uses it to defend his domain from aggressive neighbours such as Ogge of Drummant, who has the sinister gift of `slow wasting’. Canoc’s wife, Melle, is a Lowlander with a talent for story-telling. Theirs is a very happy marriage but Canoc is anxious to know whether his son has inherited the Caspromant gift. Orrec enjoys watching his `cradle-friend’ Gry Barre use her gift to call animals but he has no desire to try destroying things with a look. Gry and Orrec seem made for each other but their families have other plans for them.

Canoc keeps testing his son. When Orrec is a teenager his gift does show itself but it seems to be `Wild’ – a power that cannot be controlled. After he loses his temper, Orrec has to wear a blindfold to stop him accidentally killing someone with a glance. He daren’t even look at his beloved mother or the dog who helps him to get around. As the threat from Ogge of Drummant increases, so does the pressure on Orrec to control his power. After a time of tragedy, it is Gry who helps Orrec to understand the extraordinary truth about his gift.

Novels for modern teenagers are expected to be fast-paced and action-packed. `Gifts’ is neither of these things and Le Guin doesn’t try to grab the reader’s attention with a dramatic opening. Instead, this thoughtful story begins with a long conversation, in which Orrec tries to explain the Upland way  of life to a sceptical Lowlander. You may feel that I’ve given rather a lot away in my synopsis but most of this plot information is revealed in the very first chapter. `Gifts’ doesn’t have a complicated plot and Le Guin disdains to build up suspense in an obvious way. What she does do is establish an air of menace and cleverly needle the reader into asking lots of questions about Orrec and Gry’s strange situation.

If Le Guin’s work is more admired than loved it may be because she always seems in total control of her material, using her immaculate prose to create new worlds with the minimum of fuss. This story isn’t cluttered by masses of background detail but the Uplands, with their bleak mountains, feuding clans and men in kilts, have a vaguely Scottish feel. The fact that Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists may account for her special talent for inventing convincing cultures and societies. She has obviously put much thought into how the Brantors’ powers, and the fear they evoke, would influence the hierarchy within domains and the interaction between domains. She describes a society living with a balance of terror and the effect is chilling. It is quiet Gry who works out how the original powers may have been distorted. This challenges every reader to think about whether they have misused any of the gifts they were born with. An uncomfortable question.

The narrative voice in `Gifts’ is that of Orrec, so the reader is forced to share his blindness for much of the novel. Le Guin often writes about very unconventional family groups but the Caspromant family has deceptive air of normality. Orrec has a tempestuous but always plausible relationship with his father, full of anger, resentment and guilt. For much of the book it is hard to tell whether Orrec has a real grievance, or if he’s just being a typical teenager refusing to make an effort because he’s afraid of failing to meet his parents’ expectations. Fantasy fiction isn’t generally big on mother-son relationships but there is an outstanding one in `Gifts’. Melle is touchingly portrayed as a woman who deeply loves both her husband and her son but feels unable to intervene in their dispute about a power she cannot comprehend. What she can do is to teach Orrec to read and write and leave a him a legacy of stories and poems.

Melle’s stories aren’t factual but they contain the kind of truths that people can live by. The power of stories and poems to enrich individuals and sustain or even change whole civilizations is explored throughout `The Annals of the Western Shore’. In Volume Two – `Voices’ (which has a different narrator and setting) you can follow Orrec and Grys into a conquered city where the Taliban-like new rulers drown people for possessing books. Le Guin’s fantasies always have strong connections to the real world. If you are looking for a story with lasting resonance, try `Gifts’. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

 

 

This week I’m recommending Joan Aiken’s `The Stolen Lake’, which is probably the only Arthurian Fantasy to be set in the Andes. Joan Aiken (1924-2004) was a daughter of the American poet, Conrad Aiken but she was born and brought up in England. `The Stolen Lake’ was first published in 1981, with murky illustrations by Pat Marriott. There are recent paperback editions and it’s also available as an ebook. Aiken wrote in many different genres for readers of all ages. `The Stolen Lake’ is part of a twelve-volume sequence of children’s novels featuring Cockney girl, Dido Twite, a heroine who was feisty long before it was fashionable. This sequence is sometimes known as `The Wolves Chronicles’ and sometimes as `The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Series’. Chronologically, `The Stolen Lake’ is the fourth of these novels but Aiken pointed out in a preface that `you don’t need to have read any of the others to understand it.’ I’ve chosen this book because it is my favourite of the Dido stories and the one with the strongest Fantasy element.

`The Wolves Chronicles’ are set in the early 19th century in a world in which the Ancient Romans conquered South America and the Stuart Dynasty still rules Britain. When this story opens, twelve year-old Dido has recently left North America after thwarting a dastardly Hanoverian plot against the Stuarts (see `Night Birds on Nantucket’). She is travelling home in a British warship called the `Thrush’. Dido tries to keep out of the way of crusty Captain Hughes but enjoys the company of his remarkably well-educated steward, Mr Holystone. Captain Hughes suddenly gets orders to change course for Roman America where Britain’s ally, Queen Ginevra of New Cumbria, requires assistance. Hearing that the Queen is `devotedly Fond of Young Female Children’, Captain Hughes decides to include Dido in the party from the `Thrush’ who will travel to New Cumbria’s remote capital, Bath Regis.

When Dido is kidnapped on her first day ashore, it  becomes apparent that New Cumbria is a very dangerous place, especially for young girls. She escapes and is helped to rejoin her friends by a mysterious minstrel called Bran. During the unpleasant trip to the capital, Dido and the Captain rely on the advice of Mr Holystone, who was brought up in nearby Hy Brasil, but as they approach Bath Regis, Holystone grows weak and forgetful and falls into a trance. Dido and Captain Hughes visit the revolving palace of the `White Queen’ and are told two very strange things. Firstly, the Queen claims to be thirteen hundred years old and secondly she insists that a neighbouring monarch, Mabon of Lyonesse, has stolen the sacred lake which the Cumbrians brought with them from Britain. Queen Ginevra is convinced that one day her husband Arthur, the once and future king, will return to her from Lake Arianrhod, so she will stop at nothing to get it back. She wants Dido to pretend to be King Mabon’s lost daughter and persuade him to return the stolen lake. When Captain Hughes protests he is thrown into prison, so Dido and her companions have no choice but to set out on a perilous journey through steaming quagmires and icy mountains. On the way, Dido will encounter man-eating birds, evil witches, a crazed priest and a captive princess. She will discover the terrible truth about how Ginevra has stayed alive so long, and seeing an old friend in a new light will nearly break Dido’s heart.

`The Stolen Lake’ is fast-paced enough to appeal to modern children – something thrilling or astonishing happens every few pages – but there is plenty in the novel to interest adults as well. Aiken loved to create extraordinary plots bursting with inventive details, such as the secret of how to steal a whole lake or a series of frantic messages  written on pages from Dr Johnson’s Dictionary and attached to the collars of copper-coloured cats. She threw together some elements you might expect to find in a South American setting, such as llamas, piranhas, human sacrifice and erupting volcanoes and some that you probably wouldn’t, like Roman legionaries, supernatural owls, sedan-chairs and a Snow Leopard. It could be said that all the books in `The Wolves Chronicles’ have a basic `plucky children defeat forces of evil’ plotline but thanks to the astringent qualty of the writing, they come across as being about isolated children struggling to survive in a largely wicked world. Some innocent characters meet grim deaths in `The Stolen Lake’ and even love is shown to have its dark side. Queen Ginevra/Guinevere is not a romantic figure in this story. Surrounded by spiders and shrunken heads and almost too fat to walk, she has become grotesquely unlovable by the time her Arthur returns.

Like last week’s author (Avram Davidson), Aiken had great fun rearranging history and myth to suit her own passions and prejudices. The England of her novels is inhabited by Dickensian villains and Gothic horrors, such as the packs of wolves who have entered the country through an early version of the Channel Tunnel. Aiken came up with an ingenious explanation for her Celtic kingdoms in the Andes (after all there really was a Welsh settlement in Patagonia) and boldly relocated the civilised town of Bath Spa to a chilly hollow surrounded by smoking volcanoes, and its ancient goddess Sul to a sinister mountain-top temple. The White Queen’s revolving silver palace is borrowed from Celtic myth and there is even a guest appearance by the Thirteen Treasures of Britain and the Four Oldest Creatures from `The Mabinogion’ (see my post of November 2012). Fans of Arthurian literature will enjoy spotting Aiken’s versions of the traditional characters. Truth-telling Bran, with his wooden leg, harp and cockatoo, is as wild and unpredictable as the prophet Merlin in Early Welsh legend. The puzzling stories that he tells to Dido add an extra dimension to the novel.

Much of the humour in the book comes from the contrast between the formal speech of the officers of the `Thrush’ (e.g.`Miss Twite- I must delay no longer in telling you how creditable – exceedingly creditable indeed – are the accounts of your behaviour during this expedition that I have received…) and Dido’s unconventional but colourful use of language (e.g. `Jemima! What a havey-cavey cove. He looks as if he’d sell his own ma for cats’ meat.’) There are also some pleasingly absurd situations, such as tomboy Dido (`Needle-work’s a mug’s game!’) being taught to curtsey and forced to dress like a court lady (`I don’t half look a sight’). Dido is charmingly unimpressed by wealth and grandeur; she thinks the Queen’s silver palace `looks like an outsize milk-churn.’ She’s a brave and resourceful heroine but she has a tough time in this book.  It’s not just that she keeps getting kidnapped. Dido has been carelessly brought up as an unloved youngest child in a dishonest and disfunctional family but she finally finds a suitable father-figure in the wise and kind Mr Holystone. Then a spell makes him forget all about her. Nothing is quite the same again and Dido disovers that relationships can go on causing pain long after they are broken. This  gives the story greater depth than some of the other books in the series, but  writing about `The Stolen Lake’ has made me want to reread the entire `Wolves Chronicles’.  I’ll be back in two weeks time.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk