Archives for category: Young Adult Books

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….



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….



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…



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….



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….




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.


This week I’m recommending `Lord of the Changing Winds’, the first volume in a trilogy by American author, Rachel Neumeier. It came out in 2010 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. If you like the sound of this one, I’d suggest getting the paperback which contains all three volumes under the title of `The Griffin Mage Trilogy’. Neumeier writes for both adults and young adults. `Lord of the Changing Winds’  was published as a novel for adults but might also appeal to patient teenagers – if there are any.

`Lord of the Changing Winds’  is set in a world divided into small realms whose rulers are served by powerful mages. Contrary to the blurb, the novel tells the story of two people – a shy teenage girl called Kes and a young nobleman called Bertaud. Kes, who has some natural skill as a healer, lives with her older sister, Tesme in the village of Minas Ford. She is thrilled by the rare sight  of griffins flying overhead but griffins are creatures of fire who bring the desert with them. A stranger who calls himself  Kairaithin asks Kes to go with him to heal his people. She perceives that he isn’t human but lets him take her. Kes finds herself among a host of wounded griffins who have been driven out of their homeland by the Cold Mages of Casmantium. Kairaithin himself is Lord of the Changing Winds and the only surviving Griffin Mage. He has no ability to heal but he is able to tranform Kes into a Fire Mage. She consents to use her new power to heal the Griffin King, the Lord of Fire and Air, and all the other wounded griffins but discovers that she is the Griffin Mage’s prisoner.

Kes fails to return home and more and more of the land close to Minas Ford is turned into desert by the presence of the griffins. The villagers ask their king, Iaor of Feierabiand, for help. He decides to send troops and an Earth Mage to drive out the griffins but puts his best friend Lord Bertaud in charge. The expedition ends in disaster when the Earth Mage refuses to negotiate with the Griffin Mage and Bertaud fails to trust his own judgement. Kes has felt at home among the griffins but she is horrified to see them killing humans. After healing the wounded Bertaud, Kes runs away from Kairaithin but is captured by the Casmantiums and their Cold Mage, Beguchren. She learns that driving out the griffins was just the first step in a plan of conquest by the ambitious King of Casmantium. Rescue comes from an unexpected quarter, but Kes still fears being used as a weapon. Meanwhile, Bertaud risks losing his king’s friendship and being branded as traitor, when he tries to forge an alliance between Feierabiand and griffin-kind. In the end he is faced with a terrible choice – should he use a power he knows to be wrong in order to save his country?

Some Fantasy novels are admirable for the same reasons as ordinary novels – they may be beautifully written or tell a particularly compelling story. `Lord of the Changing Winds’ however excels at something which only Fantasy and Science Fiction do – the creation of convincing non-human characters. This book is worth reading for the griffins alone. There are hundreds of Fantasy novels about dragons but only a few which give griffins the leading role. One of the human characters in `Lord of the Changing Winds’ describes a griffin as, `Half lion, half eagle, and all killer!’ For much of the story we see the griffins from a human point of view as terrifying metallic monsters who can tear men to pieces with their talons and reduce fertile land to desert with their fiery winds. When Kes and Bertaud become involved with the griffins, we begin to see them in a different light, as beautiful and intelligent creatures who value courage and are fiercely proud. The desert that is so deadly to humans is `a garden that blooms with time and silence’ to the griffins. Kes is adopted as a little sister by one of the female griffins, Opailikiita Sehanaka Kiistaike (all the griffins have splendidly complex names) but these `wild, brilliant-hearted griffins’ always retain a sense of `otherness’ which makes their actions excitingly unpredictable. As the young Fire Mage becomes increasingly  griffin-like herself, she understands more about the human nature that she is giving up.

Some readers have given up on this trilogy because they don’t like Kes, finding her too passive, timid and unemotional. Neumeier has bravely chosen to write about a girl who in our world would probably be labelled as having Asperger Syndrome. Frail Kes is one of life’s outsiders who finds it difficult to understand other people’s feelings or behave according to their expectations. She isn’t fashionably feisty but her behaviour felt more real to me than that of the standard Fantasy heroine who instantly accepts her superpowers and gets on with saving the world. Kes is painfully slow to adjust to her new role and when she is captured by an experienced Mage and a lot of big strong men she doesn’t slash and burn her way out, she’s just sensibly scared. What Kes does do is to think very carefully about the implications of her powers, She starts making her own choices and bravely standing up to the kings and mages who want to exploit her. Kairaithin’s decision to turn Kes into a Fire Mage is crucial to the plot of the entire trilogy but she isn’t a viewpoint character throughout the series. Each volume has different central characters, who provide a new perspective on the people (and griffins) we’ve already met. If Kes doesn’t appeal to you, the heroine of the second volume is a brilliant `Maker’ who specializes in engineering. There aren’t many female engineers in real life and even fewer in Fantasy novels.

The `Griffin Mage Trilogy’ may look like Epic Fantasy but the battles are relatively small scale and Neumeier is more interested in peace-makers than warmongers. One of the things I like best about these books is the lack of stereotyped villains. In `Lord of the Changing Winds’ the Casmantiums are the aggressors and the griffins appear to be injured (though still lethal) innocents, but the Casmantiums are not some evil horde. In Volume Two, the engaging leading characters are both from Casmantium and we see the sufferings inflicted on ordinary people by the continuing war with the griffins. Even Beguchren, the Cold Mage who can kill with ice, shows a more sensitive and vulnerable side in this part of the story. He’s still focused on destroying the enemies of his king and country though. Only those who can see beyond narrow patriotism to a greater good have a chance of stopping the escalating conflicts. A theme running throughout the trilogy is the importance of trusting  people with the freedom to make their own decisions, even if you may not like the result. The plot of `Lord of the Changing Winds’ is full of difficult moral choices, so if you like your Fantasy to be subtle and complex, this could be the trilogy for you. Until next week…..