During December I’ll be recommending two feel-good Fantasy novels for children, one fairly old and one fairly new. I’ll start with the modern one – “Flood and Fang” (2009)  by Marcus Sedgwick. On the cover this is called Goth Froth (is that a genre?) but I’m going to classify it as a Gothic Comedy. “Flood and Fang” is Book I of The Raven Mysteries and there are five volumes in the series so far. You can get “Flood and Fang” as an ebook but because the witty illustrations by Pete Williamson are such an important part of the story print copies work better. There is though a spiffing website to go with the series – http://www.ravenmysteries.co.uk

“Flood and Fang” is narrated by a raven called Edgar and set in Castle Otherhand – “home to all sorts of oddballs, lunatics and fruitcakes”. The castle is owned by Lord Valevine Otherhand and his wife Lady Euphemia, known as Minty. Valevine is an unsuccessful inventor who spends most of his time in his laboratory in the East Tower, reluctantly assisted by Flinch the butler. Minty used to be a witch who specialized in curses but now she’s obsessed with baking the perfect spongecake. The Otherhands have four children – twin toddlers, Fizz and Buzz, wimpy son Cudweed, and teenage daughter Solstice who writes gloomy poems with titles such as “Why aren’t I dead?” The wise old raven thinks that, “The Otherhands are all so very stupid, even for people,” but he does have a soft-spot for raven-haired Solstice.

The Otherhands are looked after by many servants; so many that when housemaids start disappearing it takes a while for anyone to notice. Edgar has already been alarmed by a glimpse of the huge slimy tail of a “hideous, horrible, hateful thing” in the castle gardens and has spotted what looks like a new tunnel in the rock the castle is built on. Unfortunately as none of the Otherhands speak Raven they pay no attention to his warnings. When Edgar discovers that the castle  cellars have mysteriously flooded and that the water is still rising, he has to devise a cunning plan, involving pork crackling and Cudweed’s malicious pet monkey, to get the family to notice. Even then, Solstice is the only one who really helps Edgar to investigate the horrid fate of the missing maids. As the waters keep on rising, the castle itself seems to have turned against the Otherhands putting everyone in terrible danger. Can Edgar work out what is going on before it is too late?

Marcus Sedgwick’s compelling Young Adult Fantasy novels, such as “The Book of Dead Days” or “The White Crow”, are usually described as dark, chilling or bleak – never as funny and cheerful. Sedgwick is the last author I expected to make me smile and laugh a lot, but writing for younger readers obviously brings out a different side of him. The Raven Mysteries are rather like Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” played for laughs. As in Peake’s books, the castle itself almost counts as the main character. In “Flood and Fang” each decorative chapter heading contains interesting facts about the history of Castle Otherhand. There is, for example, information about the exact number of arrows fired during 32 sieges of the castle, about the legend of its Lost Jewels, and about the castle’s most terrifying inhabitant – “fearsome, foul and flatulent” Nanny Lumber. During the story, Edgar describes various parts of the architectural nightmare that is Castle Otherhand including the Great Hall, the Lost South Wing and the sinister cellars. He suspects that the castle “has its own views on things” and sometimes acts in its own defence. In “Flood and Fang” Castle Otherhand has a plan for defeating an invader. It just happens to be a stupid one…

Like the Tower of London, Castle Otherhand has Raven guardians, except that Edgar is the only one left and he is old and tired. Ravens have a strong presence in Myth and Fantasy. They can be birds of ill-omen and bringers of war, symbols of collective wisdom, Trickster gods or divine messengers. I can think of several notable ravens in children’s literature such as melancholy Marshall in “The Stone Cage” by Nicholas Stuart Gray or the anarchical Mortimer in Joan Aiken’s “Arabel and Mortimer” stories. Excitable Edgar is a welcome addition to the list of leading ravens and his peppery narration is a joy to read. He can quoth rather more than “Nevermore” but words such as rock and rack aren’t often useful in general conversation and most humans can’t interpret raven noises such RURK! “which is not as rude as FUTHORK but still a bit”. Fortunately, Edgar explains to us what he’s thinking and saying, which allows young readers to feel superior to the ignorant adults in the story – always an enjoyable experience.

Much of the humour in this book arises from the daft behaviour of the Otherhand family. Lord Valevine is wasting time and resources trying to prove that frogs cause thunder and lightning – his gruesome experiments will probably horrify older readers and delight younger ones. Lady Minty is so keen to find the right cake tin that she fails to notice the perils her adventurous twins are exposed to amongst the sharp knives and roasting pits of the castle kitchens.  Cudweed eats too much and is “…amazingly, award-winningly scared, all the time,” while Solstice loves excitement and is prone to dash into danger. Compared to the others though, Goth Princess Solstice is the smart one.

The plot of “Flood and Fang” is wonderfuly wild and absurd but clever characterization make you think of the Otherhands as a real family, not so far removed from the sort of eccentric neighbours or relatives everyone has some experience of.  A monstrous threat brings this family together in a very literal way but they are still slow to grasp Edgar’s brilliant plan to save them. At one point, exasperated Edgar considers abandoning the castle but part of him still cares about the people who live in it in spite of their foolishness. Choose to help people whether they deserve it or not seems like a good motto for the Christmas season. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week I’m looking at some Fantasy series which have been continued or completed since I first recommended them. There have been a few disappointments. I have mixed feelings about Rachel Hartman’s  “Shadow Scale”, the follow-up to her much praised “Seraphina” (see my post of January 2013) and the promised sequel to Saladin Ahmed’s “Throne of the Crescent Moon” (see April 2013) hasn’t yet appeared. In Catch Up Week (Part One) I’m going to concentrate on four series that have kept up a consistently high standard.

I’ll begin with P.C.Hodgell’s long-running God Stalker Chronicles which follow the fate of the three peoples of the Kencyrath who are trapped on an alien world and face an ultimate battle against the chaotic force known as Perimal Darkling. The first novel, “God Stalk” (see my post of July 2012) was published in 1982 and the series currently includes seven novels and a number of short stories. The leading characters are Torison, the haunted Highlord of the Kencyrath and his much younger twin sister, Jame (you will have to read the books to find out how that can happen). Warrior and thief, Jame, remains one of my most admired Fantasy heroines. The main story-line about the promised rise of the three who will lead the fight against encroaching darkness is progressing extremely slowly but that’s fine by me. I’m happy in the company of rule-breaking Jame with her stupendously dysfunctional family and her dazzling leadership qualities. The most recent novel, “The Sea of Time” (2014), has all the qualities I enjoy in Hodgell’s work – a complex time-twisting plot, extraordinary places and fascinating cultures, and a pantheon of peculiar deities who interact with mortals in very surprising ways. Long may this imaginative series continue.

In October 2012 I recommended Benedict Jacka’s “Fated”, a contemporary Urban Fantasy about a mage whose special power is seeing possible futures. There are now seven novels in the Alex Verus series and an eighth is due out next year. In this fictional universe, magic-users are rigidly divided into Dark and Light mages who maintain an uneasy truce. Diviner Verus was once apprenticed to a Dark Mage but he rebelled against his cruel Master. He runs a magic shop in London and tries to be independent of both the Dark and Light Councils. In all the novels, Verus tells his own story, so we get to know him really well. Many Fantasy series have heroes or heroines who don’t develop much during their adventures. Jacka’s books stand out because Verus’ situation and character change dramatically as it becomes harder and harder for him to shake off his past and stay neutral. He tries to find better ways of training the magically gifted and, partly to protect his own apprentices, throws in his lot with the Keepers – the police force of the Light Council. Even this isn’t enough to save him from those who believe that a former Dark Mage can never change. The latest novel, “Burned” (2016), starts with terrible news for Verus and ends with a shocking turn of events. This increasingly dark series asks whether someone who is treated as a villain is doomed to become one. I really don’t know what the answer is going to be but I shall keep reading to find out.

Later the same month (October 2012) I recommended Catherine Fisher’s “The Obsidian Mirror”, which was then called the first novel in the Chronoptika Sequence. There are now three more novels in this sequence (“The Box of Red Brocade”, “The Door in the Moon” and “The Speed of Darkness”), which has been renamed The Shakespeare Quartet. Even more confusingly, in some editions Volume Two has the alternative title of  “The Slanted Worlds”. Don’t let this put you off a truly exciting read. The series is made up from diverse elements such as a haunted English manor house (Wintercombe Abbey), a wood ruled by the Shee (fairies), a mirror that enables time travel to any historical period, a magician from the past and a messenger from a Dystopian future. It shouldn’t work but it does. Among the well-drawn central characters are a man determined to bring his wife back from the dead, a boy searching for his lost father, a changeling desperate to escape from the Shee and a girl trying to save her entire world from destruction. The plot is extremely tense because they cannot all succeed. One person’s triumph will be another person’s tragedy. The concluding volume, “The Speed of Darkness” (2016), begins with a mighty tempest and never lets  up. Only start reading Fisher’s series when you have plenty of time to spare because you probably won’t want to stop until you’ve found out what happens to all the troubled people (and spirits) gathered at Wintercombe Abbey.

In November of 2012 one of my choices was Jasper Fforde’s Young Adult Fantasy “The Last Dragonslayer”, the first of The Chronicles of Kazam. This novel is set in one of the Ununited Kingdoms of Britain at a time when magic is at a low ebb. It introduces a most appealing heroine – sensible foundling, Jennifer Strange, who struggles to organize the “sorcerers, movers, soothsayers, shifters, weathermongers and carpeteers” employed by Kazam Mystical Arts Management. During an eventful week, Jennifer appears in a vision and on TV, is threatened with prison and death, becomes famous and discovers her destiny as a Dragonslayer. It’s a destiny she is determined to avoid, especially after she meets the last of the dragons. This is one of the funniest Fantasy novels I know. It is stuffed with eccentic characters and extraordinary creatures, such as the Transient Moose and Jennifer’s fearsome pet, the Quarkbeast who looks “like an open knife drawer on legs”. The sequel, “The Song of the Quarkbeast” (2011) is equally amusing and inventive but in the third volume, “The Eye of Zothar” (2014), both the heroine and the series grow up with a vengeance during an action-packed journey through the hideously dangerous Cambrian Empire (Wales). I’ve always hoped that someone would dramatize Fforde’s novels and now my wish has come true. Sky Television has made a film of “The Last Dragonslayer” and is going to show it over Christmas. It should be one of the highlights of the Holiday Season for Fantasy readers. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

November can be a nasty month so as a countermeasure I’m recommending a warm-hearted story about a very nice dragon. Rachel Aaron’s “Nice Dragons Finish Last” is the first book in her “Heartstriker” series. It came out in 2014 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. This novel is set in the late 21st century, 60 years after magic has surged back into the world reawakening the spirits of the land and empowering human mages. I’d classify “Nice Dragons Finish Last” as Urban Fantasy. Most of the action takes place in a bizarre version of Detroit, a city which deserves a break but doesn’t get much of one in this plot. Oh and as a hangover from “Ghost Month” this novel features a ghostly cat who may or may not be a Death Spirit.

Twenty-four year-old Julius is a junior member of the powerful dragon-clan known as the Heartstrikers. He is a kindly soul who lacks the ambition and aggression of most of dragonkind. This is a problem when you are a grandson of the mighty feathered dragon, Quetzalcoatl, and a son of the ruthless Bethesda. She murdered her own father to take over the Heartstriker clan and has hatched more clutches of eggs than any other female dragon. Bethesda doesn’t tolerate failure in her children. She suddenly seals Julius into his human form, depriving him of most of his powers, and throws him out of his Nevada home. Julius is dumped in the notoriously dangerous DFZ (Detroit Free Zone) and warned that Bethesda will eat him if he doesn’t do something truly draconic by the end of the month.

His only chance seems to be a job offered by his devious elder brother, Ian. All Julius has to do is track down a runaway dragoness in a city where humans have few legal rights and full-form dragons are killed on sight. Julius does have two allies among his numerous siblings: his much stronger clutch-brother Justin, and his oldest brother, the Great Seer Brohomir, known as Bob. The trouble is that Justin is none too bright and Bob is generally thought to be mad. Bob can see possible futures but his only advice to Julius is to behave like a gentleman and help desperate women. Julius soon meets one – a young human mage called Marci Novalli who is desperate for a paying job. Julius hires her to help him infiltrate a group of shamans and find Katya, the missing dragoness.

Marci is a mage powerful enough to bind a Death Spirit but she’s on the run from the man who killed her father. Murderous thugs and mages are after her and they keep on coming because of a prophecy. Julius soon has to cope with a malicious Seer from another dragon-clan,  gun-wielding gangsters, sewer and cave-dwelling monsters, and his scary sister Chelsie whose job is to punish any Heartstriker who steps out of line. Justin’s efforts to help only attract the unwelcome attention of both Chelsie and Algonquin, the terrifying Spirit of the Great Lakes who rules the DFZ. Julius is reluctant to complete his mission and force Katya to go back to her clan. He’s sick of being told to be a good dragon if that “is just another name for a cold-blooded sociopath.” Can Julius find a way to come out on top but still stay nice?

Regular readers of Fantasy Reads will know that I am keen on dragons. I loved this novel even though most of the dragon-characters stay in their drop-dead gorgeous human forms throughout the story. This book is more about draconic states of mind than fire-breathing monsters. The sudden return of magic to earth after a “thousand-year drought” and the history of the two dragon groups we get to meet – the black-haired, green-eyed Heartstrikers and the snow-pale, all female Three Sisters clan – are rather sketchily described in “Nice Dragons Finish Last”. Fortunately, the details are filled in – complete with some fascinating surprises – in the two sequels: “One Good Dragon Deserves Another” (2015) and “No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished” (2016).

What you do get in this very American take on Urban Fantasy is a wonderfully atmospheric portrait of a city that has risen again after a great catastrophe. I’ve a soft spot for Detroit (a favourite aunt of mine used to live there) and the decay of huge areas of this once prosperous city seems to have captured the imagination of artists and writers. In Jim Jarmusch’s intriguing Fantasy film “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013), cool vampire Adam hangs out in a decayed Victorian mansion in Detroit. Marci squats in a similar, rubbish-filled, cat-infested house in “Nice Dragons Finish Last”. In Aaron’s version of American history, most of Detroit was destroyed by a tidal wave on the night that magic returned when Algonquin took vengeance for the pollution of her lakes. The “Lady of the Lakes” then built a new city of “blindingly white, thousand-floor superscrapers rising from a beautiful  whimsically spiraling lattice of elevated skyways” over the “rotting carcass” of the old city. Tens of thousands of people live in almost total darkness among the underground ruins in “the chaos of capitalism gone crazy”. With virtually no laws restricting business or magic, this Detroit is a place of unlimited opportunity and unlimited peril. The perfect mean-streets setting for gritty magical adventures.

Though these books contain plenty of thrilling action scenes, the Heartstriker Series is also a Family Saga centred on a hero who has always felt the odd one out. Julius has spent most of his life hiding in his room from bullying or competitive siblings and from his selfish and manipulative mother. Many unhappy teenagers will be familiar with this scenario but it is all so much worse when you have nearly a hundred siblings and your mother is likely to kill members of the family who disagree with her. In 2014 I recommended a novel which features a monstrous mother in law (Erick Setiawan’s “Of Bees and Mist”). Now I’m nominating greedy, power-mad Bethesda as one of the worst mothers in Fantasy fiction. We get to know her better as the series progresses, along with many of Julius’ brothers and sisters. Chelsie isn’t the greatest name for a character who develops into a tragic heroine but we can blame that on Bethesda since she’s supposed to have vulgar tastes in everything from jewellery (gold, gold and more gold) to her children’s names.

Bethesda has done the right thing in kicking Julius out to force him to stand on his own two feet (or four feet when in dragon form) but this isn’t accidental. She’s been nudged into it by Bob who sees gentle Julius as a vital player in the version of the future he’s trying to create. Charming Bob, with his crazy dress-sense and his strange relationship with an intelligent pigeon, seems to be a force for good in the story but may not be. Aaron keeps us guessing. An on-going battle between Dragon-Seers to shape the future is one of several intertwining plot-strands in the Heartstriker series. It is typical of Aaron’s clever plot-making that quirky details in “Nice Dragons Finish Last”, such as Bob’s pigeon or Marci’s ghost-cat, turn out to be of vital importance in the later volumes.

Two other important plot-strands involve Marci’s discovery of her huge potential as a mage and her developing relationship with Julius. To most dragons, a human is at best a pet and at worst lunch but Julius is won over by Marci’s warmth and courtesy. They become business partners and friends with a hint of more to come. Aaron shows that this partnership is successful partly because human Marci isn’t quite as nice as dragon Julius. She can be secretive and vengeful and she’s utterly determined to make the most of her talent for magic, whatever the cost. Nevertheless, it is Marci’s support which gives Julius the strength to break with draconic tradition and start doing things his way. He tries to solve problems by diplomacy and negotiation rather than physical or magical force. Whether you’re human or dragon, or a bit of both, this series could cause you to think about what sort of society you want to live in.

Each volume of the Heartstriker series contains one complete story-arc but leaves several issues unresolved. The cliff-hanger at the end of the third volume is of the kind that makes you want to kidnap the author, lock her in an attic and tell her she’s not coming out until she’s finished the sequel. Don’t worry Rachel, I have a very nice attic. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My second October book – “Slade House” by David Mitchell – is a very different haunted house story from my previous choice (“Frost Hollow Hall”). I know this recommendation is going to cause me some problems. The first of these is that there are two well known British writers called David Mitchell. Just to be clear, “Slade House” is not by bearded comedian David Mitchell (who always makes me laugh) but by the David Mitchell who grew up in my own home county of Worcestershire and is best known as the author of “Cloud Atlas”. “Slade House” was published in 2015 and is available in paperback (though the hardback cover is creepier) or as an ebook. My next problem is that the unusual structure of David Mitchell’s novels tends to make their plots rather hard to summarize but here goes…

“Slade House” is set in London and tells the stories of five visitors to a house that shouldn’t exist. During World War II Slade House was bombed to rubble and yet every nine years, on the last Saturday in October, somebody finds a small iron door in a wall in Slade Alley. Through it they’ll discover an idyllic garden and a beautiful old house. Once they are inside the house, it is unlikely that they will ever be seen again. In 1979, schoolboy Nathan Bishop is invited to Slade House with his musician mother. In 1988 the house is investigated by Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds and in 1997 by student Sally and her friends in a university Paranormal Society. In 2006 journalist Freya Timms tries to discover the truth about her sister Sally’s disappearance while in 2015 a doctor called Iris Marinus-Fenby is lured through the iron door. All of these people have something in common but only one of them knows what it is.

In the section about Freya, she sets out to interview an old man who is probably a lunatic but who might hold the key to the Slade Alley mystery. She is told an extraordinary story involving a pair of twins with a telepathic link, an occult master of “the Shaded Way” who lived in a secret valley in Algeria, the journey which souls take when they cross “the Dusk between life and the Blank Sea”, and beings known as Atemporals who can create spaces which are immune to time and survive by draining people of their psychovoltage. Freya is being lied to, but not in the way that she thinks. Visitors to Slade House are doomed to learn about how vulnerable and how resilient human souls can be.

The next problem on my list is that David Mitchell is what we’d call in Britain a “Marmite author” – someone you either love or hate. I’m sorry I don’t know what the equivalent term is in other countries; perhaps somebody can enlighten me? I manage to both love and hate Mitchell, often in the course of the same book. At some moments, I think he’s the most profound of writers and at others, the most pretentious. Even when I hate Mitchell’s work I never find it boring and I do think that he often gets a raw deal from professional critics. Reviewers of literary fiction don’t like it when someone they regard as a “serious writer” strays into the realms of Science Fiction or Fantasy (see my April, 2015 post on Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”). Mitchell’s novels are often regarded as somewhere on a scale between difficult and incomprehensible but I’m confident that the super-smart Followers of this blog can cope. Fantasy readers are used to large cast lists and complex time-bending plots.

As well as being a “Marmite author”, Mitchell is a “Magpie author” (feel free to substitute an equivalent bird). He snatches up bits and pieces from myth and folklore, science and philosophy, and a wide range of genre fiction and then puts them together in unexpected ways. The opening chapter of “Slade House” deliberately echoes H.G.Wells’ famous short story “The Door in the Wall”, which features a child discovering “A door leading through a real wall to immortal realities.” Wells’ story is beautiful and sad but not dark. Mitchell’s version rapidly becomes very dark indeed when young Nathan finds a portrait of himself inside Slade House – a portrait with no eyes. As innocents suffer and predators triumph, the novel takes on the tone of a Horror story.

It can also count as a Ghost Story, since Slade House is haunted by remnants of its victims. Contrary to most Ghost Stories, the apparitions are there to warn not threaten. The innocent dead are contrasted with the greediness of souls who will do anything to cling on to life.  An overarching plotline about two battling groups of immortals, which also featured in Mitchell’s previous novel “The Bone Clocks” (2014), could come straight out of many a Young Adult Fantasy novel. It is ingeniously worked out but not particularly original. So there is my fourth problem, how do I persuade you that “Slade House” is still worth a try?

Well, you might find it fun to pit your wits against Mitchell as he tries to mislead and wrong-foot his readers. You may think that you already know how this good versus evil plot is going to work out but you need to stay alert and look out for repeated incidents or details which may be more significant than they seem. Just to give you fair warning, my synopsis contains a similar piece of misdirection. In “Slade House” Mitchell makes use of one of the traditional rules which are supposed to govern interactions between humans and supernatural beings. See if you can spot which one before it’s explained to an unlucky visitor to Slade Alley. Mitchell also springs surprises by making minor characters from one plot strand (such as a passing window-cleaner) vitally important in another. Though he is famous (or infamous) for complex multi-stranded plots, I’d say that Mitchell’s greatest talent is for creating fully-rounded characters -both old and young, female and male. All the background details of his characters’ lives are very convincing, whatever period of history they come from.

In some of his books, Mitchell writes with equal confidence and vividness about everyday life in the near or far future. In “Slade House” he cleverly employs a standard motif from folklore and Fantasy fiction – the traveller ensnared by a false vision – to get to the heart of his characters. Each of the visitors to Slade House is presented with a scenario which seems to fulfil their secret hopes and longings. For example, nervous Nathan is reunited with his estranged father and shy Sally, cruelly nicknamed Oink, suddenly finds herself the most popular girl at a party. The betrayal of these hopes is heartbreaking but this isn’t a depressing novel because it also contains examples of great love and bravery. Unsympathetic characters redeem themselves in their final moments and even the two villains are allowed a genuine bond with each other. Mitchell is a writer who seems to have faith in the amazing potential of the human race.

One final problem – all of Mitchell’s novels are interconnected in strange and complex ways. A character, object or idea from one book may pop up in another and there are fictions within fictions. “Slade House” could be regarded as a sequel to “The Bone Clocks” but there isn’t a straightforward chronology in Mitchell’s fictional universe. Only in the final section of “Slade House” will it make any difference whether or not you’ve read “The Bone Clocks” and the experience is equally good both ways. So, if you’ve been nerving yourself up to try a David Mitchell novel, this relatively simple and short (233 pages) example might be the one to go for. Have a scary but safe Halloween…

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Ghost Month on my Fantasy Reads blog. Prepare to be chilled by some very unquiet spirits. I’ll start by recommending a classic haunted house story – “Frost Hollow Hall” by British author Emma Carroll. This  novel, which came out in 2013, is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. It was published as a children’s book but is multi-layered enough to appeal to adults as well. The story is set in South-West England in 1881 and moves between a grand country house and the cottages of the local village.

Teenager Mathilda (Tilly) Higgins lives in the village of Frostcombe with her Ma and her older sister. Tilly’s Pa has been away for a long time. If he doesn’t come home soon, the Higgins family will be turned out of their cottage because of unpaid rent. On the day that her Pa is expected back, Tilly is dared by annoying Butcher’s Boy, Will Potter, to come skating with him on a frozen lake in the forbidden grounds of Frost Hollow Hall. Tilly falls through the ice and nearly drowns but is guided to the shore by a vision of a beautiful golden-haired boy. She soon identifies her golden boy as the ghost of Kit Barrington, the young heir to Frost Hollow Hall who drowned in the same lake ten years previously.

Tilly begins to dream about Kit who tells her that he “can’t rest in peace until the truth is known”. After Tilly and her Ma suffer a betrayal, Tilly asks for work at Frost Hollow Hall in order to earn some money and investigate the death of Kit Barrington. At the hall, the intimidating housekeeper, Mrs Jessop, offers Tilly a job as a housemaid. Tilly makes friends with a maid called Gracie but it quickly becomes clear that Frost Hollow Hall is a very unhappy household.

Lady Barrington cannot get over her grief for Kit and has her son’s room kept exactly as it was on the day that he died. Tilly can’t sense Kit’s ghost in his room but she and Gracie encounter a spiteful poltergeist who smashes china and haunts the back stairs. Risking everything in her quest for the truth, Tilly learns about a second untimely death and discovers that someone at Frost Hollow Hall has been keeping a terrible secret. How can the dead rest in peace while the living are crippled by guilt and remorse?

This is a ghost story which manages to be both frightening and moving. It deals with two very different types of haunting: one that seems benevolent and one that seems malevolent. Tilly sees Kit’s ghost as gentle and sad and she is flattered that he has entrusted her with the important task of uncovering the truth about his death. This gives Tilly new confidence in herself but as she becomes increasingly obsessed with solving the mysteries of Frost Hollow Hall, the reader begins to wonder if Kit’s influence might be a dangerous one. The way that Lady Barrington insists on a fire always being kept alight in Kit’s bedroom to warm her frozen son is extremely creepy. Yet it is the absence of Kit’s ghost from his old home which Tilly finds troubling. Instead, Tilly has to endure what seems to be an alarmingly physical manifestation of someone’s unresolved anger. An episode in which Tilly and Gracie are trapped in the dark with a being that whispers, pinches and smells strongly of honey, certainly scared me.

The supernatural elements in “Frost Hollow Hall” work because the late 19th century village and country house settings are convincing and the leading characters are credible individuals. I believed in the ghosts because I believed in Tilly and her world. If you enjoyed watching “Downton Abbey”, this novel may appeal to you but it has a less romanticized view of the past than the popular television series. Carroll shows the Higgins family living in grim poverty. Pa is forced to take labouring jobs a long way from home and Ma does sewing and mending seven days a week even though “it paid little and hurt her eyes”. Most of the village is dependant on the whims of the local aristocrats. There is a telling incident when Tom fails to back Tilly because he knows that his family will be ruined if they lose the custom of the Barringtons. Tilly isn’t ill-treated at Frost Hollow Hall but her work as a housemaid is exhaustingly hard and she can be unjustly sacked at a moment’s notice.

Sharp-tongued, fierce-tempered Tilly Higgins is a distinctive heroine. She is sometimes surly and unreasonable but she never lost my sympathy. Tilly is convinced that she is far less attractive than her blonde elder sister and her critical mother makes her feel worthless. In the course of the story, Tilly has to face the hard truth that the father she adores has chosen to abandon her in order to follow his dream of a new life. She longs to be needed and trusted, if only by a ghost. Tragic Kit Barrington is the kind of romantic youth that girls dream about but ordinary Tom’s friendship proves solid and real. The prickly relationship between Tilly and Tom is beautifully observed. Tilly’s viewpoint dominates the narrative but Carroll sometimes gives us glimpses of the way that other characters see her – as a courageous wild rose of a girl.

Carroll is good at making the reader think that they know what kind of people her characters are and then changing that perception with a single speech or incident. Tilly’s Ma seems harsh and her Pa feckless but I ended up feeling some sympathy for both halves of this incompatible couple. At Frost Hollow Hall, Mrs Jessop at first appears to be a standard sinister housekeeper and Lady Barrington a typical selfish and capricious aristocrat but there is much more to both of them than that. The hauntings don’t arise from some ancient evil but from a plausible sequence of events in which understandable actions have disastrous consequences. Tenacious Tilly uncovers a story of the strength of maternal love and the healing power of forgiveness. You might find it worthwhile to explore the mysteries of Frost Hollow Hall alongside her. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you ever get tired of reading pseudo-Medieval Fantasy novels? If so, you might want try this week’s recommendation – a story set in Euterpe, a magical version of 18th century Europe. “Goblin Moon” by Teresa Edgerton is Volume One of the “Mask and Dagger” duology. Copies of the 1991 paperback, and its sequel “The Gnome’s Engine”, are quite scarce but thankfully both novels are now available as ebooks. In this new edition, “The Gnome’s Engine” has been renamed “Hobgoblin Night”. These novels are set in a world in which humans, dwarfs and gnomes have lived peacefully together since the fall of two opposing empires. However, there are other races, such as fairies, trolls and goblins, which can be more dangerous to humans….

“Goblin Moon” tells the story of three interlocked families who live in the city of Thornburg. Caleb Braun and his grand-nephew, Jed, are boatmen who scavenge the tidal river Lunn. Young Jed hates this trade and Caleb used to be a high-ranking servant in a nobleman’s house. One night they recover a coffin which proves to contain the strangely well-preserved body of a sorcerer and some spell-books. They take it to Caleb’s old master, the bookseller Gottfried Jenk, a nobleman reduced to poverty by his obsessive study of alchemy and his search for the mystical stone Seramarias. The only other thing that Jenk cares about is his eighteen year-old granddaughter Seramarias (Sera). She has been sent to live with her wealthy relations the Vorders to act as a companion to their delicate daughter, Elsie. Jed has grown up thinking of “obstinate, headstrong” Sera as a sister. He bashfully adores the beautiful Elsie but she is being courted by the handsome Jarl Skogsra, a friend of her godmother, the Duchess of Zar-Wildungen.

The sorcerer’s books reignite Jenk’s passion for magical research and he and Caleb embark on a secret project to create an homunculus, a miniature living being. Jenk wants to sell the homunculus to fund his search for the Stone Seramarias but Caleb has other ideas. Meanwhile, Jed has gone to work for a kindly dwarf who belongs to the Glassmakers Guild. Caleb warns his great-nephew that the Glassmakers still “remember the magic and the mystery at the heart” of their secret ceremonies. One of  the Guild’s more unusual members is Imbrian nobleman, Francis, Lord Skelbrooke, who is famed as a poet and dandy. Skelbrooke is said to be the exquisite Duchess of Zar-Wildungen’s latest lover but he seems curiously interested in independent-minded Sera.

Sera has too many problems to pay much attention to how she feels about Lord Skelbrooke. The health of her beloved cousin is failing and the bizarre treatments which Elsie’s mother insists on only make Elsie worse. Jarl Skogsra has increasing influence over Elsie but something about their relationship seems wrong to Sera. Sinister things happen and Sera begins to fear that there is a plot against Elsie. The one person who might be able to help the cousins is Lord Skelbrooke but he has a hidden agenda of his own and a talent for making dangerous enemies. Can he arrive in time to help Sera save Elsie from a cruel fate?

Don’t let the mention of goblins and gnomes fool you into thinking that this is a children’s book. “Goblin Moon” is a dark-hued story for adult readers. It has one of the creepiest openings in Fantasy fiction and the civilised delights of polite society in Thornburg are contrasted with a seamier underworld.  The book is full of memorable scenes. At a fashionable funeral the mourners are served a delicious picnic by footmen in the graveyard but the “deceased” is too busy to attend. At an equally unusual wedding, an aristocratic young woman marries a criminal just before he is executed. During the wedding banquet the groom is represented by a wax effigy with “a tastefully arranged hempen noose around his neck”. This isn’t battle-heavy Heroic Fantasy but there is no shortage of action and excitement since the intricate plot has room for a reanimated corpse, vampires, witches, evil magicians, brutal trolls, marauding hobgoblins, vengeful Fees (fairies), serial killers, people-traffickers and pirates.

Edgerton is an underrated writer. If you haven’t heard of her it is probably because her career hasn’t been nurtured by commercial publishers as it should have been. In my view Edgerton is one of the best `world-makers’ in modern Fantasy. Her novels are set in a variety of superbly detailed worlds, including one with a basis in a Welsh myth (see her “Green Lion” trilogy). The “Mask and Dagger” books feature unique versions of several European cultures and, in Volume Two, of 18th century America. Edgerton is particularly strong on creating cities and towns with distinctive history, architecture and atmosphere. She is also wonderful at describing the food, furnishings and fashions of the late 18th century. If I was drawing up a list of Best Dressed Fantasy Characters, “Mask and Dagger” would be second only to E.R.Eddison’s “Worm Ouroboros” (see my post of February 2014). Who could resist the Duchess of Zar-Wildungen “splendid in diamonds and heliotrope satin, and a cartwheel-sized hat loaded with plumes enough to outfit an army of ostriches”?

I’m also impressed by the beliefs, customs and rituals which feature in “Goblin Moon”. They suggest that Edgerton has a sound knowledge of the history of Magic and Alchemy and of the new philosophies and religions which sprang up during the Enlightenment. For example, the secret rituals of the Glassblowers Guild are based on the kind of Masonic initiation rites that Mozart portrayed in his “Magic Flute” (one of my favourite operas), while Lord Skelbrooke hunts down the murderous Knights of Mezztopholeez – a version of the Hellfire Club who notoriously dabbled in the demonic. The dainty female homunculus “born” in Jenk’s bookshop is eerily convincing and the fall of the island-based empires (which adds an Atlantis plot-line to the series) is celebrated by tossing two wickerwork giants into the river Lunn. Worship in the cathedral centres on the Father, the Seven Fates, or planetary intelligences, and the Nine Powers, or seasons. This adds another dimension to some of the novel’s characters. Sera hopes for a “sober and sensible existence” free of superstition and magic but beautiful images of the Fates and Powers never fail to inspire her “to higher and better thoughts”.

Two other features which make this novel particularly enjoyable are the romantic element of the plot and a fascinating villainess. I’m guessing that Edgerton admires the great Romantic and Mystery novelist, Georgette Heyer and that the “Mask and Dagger” stories are influenced by some of the novels which Heyer set in the late 18th century, such as “Powder and Patch”. Dashing master of disguises, Lord Skelbrooke, who rescues Sera from social embarrassment at a ball, is the perfect Heyer-hero. The other members of the central quartet, Sera, Jed and Elsie are all appealing characters. Sera is a rational young woman in denial about her latent powers, loyal Jed is a young man discovering his own potential and though Elsie is mainly a helpless victim in “Goblin Moon” she comes into her own in “Hobgoblin Night”.

Then there is the striking figure of Marella, the tiny Duchess of Zar-Wildungen, with her gorgeous clothes and her indigo ape who may, or may not, be only a pet. Marella is a rare human-fairy hybrid, compelled by strong loves and hates – it’s a real shock when you suddenly realize which Fairy Tale motif Edgerton is using to power her plot. The Duchess’s motives remain intriguing and her actions unpredictable right up to the end of the second book. She is reason enough in herself to recommend this novel. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My last recommendation was a big and colourful novel (“The Rook”) so this time I’m choosing something small and delicate – “The Ghost’s Child” by Australian author Sonya Hartnett. She is best known for her Young Adult fiction but she has also written books for adults and for children. “The Ghost’s Child”, which came out in 2007, has won prizes as a children’s book but I would call it a fable which you need to read at the right point in your life. That point might be when you are ten or ninety; it depends on the individual. “The Ghost’s Child” is available as an ebook but print copies are better for appreciating the exquisite black and white illustrations by Jon McNaught.

The story begins in an Australian seaside town when an elderly lady called Matilda comes home to find a strange boy sitting on her settee. Matilda (Maddy) has lived alone for a long time with only her dog for company. She is pleased but puzzled by her unexpected visitor. “He was like a strong bold bird that had flown into the room and, finding itself cornered, was bored, but unafraid.” Over tea and biscuits, the boy asks some very direct questions, such as, “Isn’t it horrible, being old?” Maddy struggles to explain how she feels about being old and looks back at the history of her life and loves.

Born in the late 19th century, Maddy was the only child of wealthy parents. She was a shy and lonely girl who never seemed able to please her mother. Many children have imaginary friends whom their parents can’t see. Maddy’s friend was the nargun; a cynical monster “old as the hills, larger than a draught horse”. When sixteen year-old Maddy finishes school her father asks her, “What is the world’s most beautiful thing?” Unsatisfied by her answer, he takes Maddy on a grand tour to see the world’s greatest buildings, works of art and natural wonders. They return to Australia when Maddy is eighteen. She is still unable to choose one thing that “is lovelier than anything else combined” until she meets a mysterious young man called Feather.

Feather lives on a beach, talks to birds, and spends most of his time gazing out to sea. Maddy is soon desperately in love and insists that she and Feather belong together. For a while their life in a secluded cottage seems idyllic but a force that Maddy doesn’t understand is driving them apart. Feather warns her that, “There is somewhere else I need to be – someone else I have to be.” Maddy’s search for understanding will take her on a voyage through seas inhabited by lost souls, talkative fish and battling monsters, to the Island of Stillness where a person’s deepest desire is granted. But one person’s paradise may be another person’s nightmare…

“The Ghost’s Child” does have something in common with my previous choice, “The Rook”, in that both books are by Australian authors. There is a great richness and diversity in Australian Fantasy fiction at the moment. Other examples I’ve recommended include “Spindle” by W.R.Gingell (July 2016) and “The Brides of Rollrock Island” by Margo Lanagan (November 2013). If you assume that Australian culture is still a bit rough and ready, please think again. Both Lanagan and Hartnett write particularly elegant prose. “The Ghost’s Child” is a book you may want to read aloud to savour Hartnett’s poetic use of language. There are dazzling descriptions of extraordinary events such as the battle between two sea-monsters  (“Round and around the two legendary creatures careered, the leviathan tangled in tentacles and bellowing, the kraken silent as a tomb, its huge eyes flatly reflecting the clouds and the sea”) but Hartnett also captures the essence of ordinary things in a few simple words. When the boy tells Maddy that old people smell “Like coats in mothy cupboards…Like taps dripping for years and years.” you just know that he is right.

This short novel has some unusual shifts of tone and genre. The opening chapter and most of the scenes involving elderly Maddy and her young visitor seem to belong to a well-observed realistic novel.  The unnamed visitor looks like a normal boy and mainly behaves like one. He’s easily bored, embarassingly direct and squirms when Maddy talks about love. Yet there are chilling hints that his presence is transforming the narrative into some kind of ghost story. Maddy’s account of her childhood and of her successful professional life as a grown woman could come from a historical novel similar to “My Beautiful Career” but her teenage years belong firmly in Fantasy fiction. Maddy and Feather are described as “the lonely fairytale princess and the wondrous being chained to the ground” and Maddy’s second voyage takes her into a dream-like realm where she can converse with whales, the spirits of the drowned and the west wind. Jon McNaught’s drawings, which are more like patterns inspired by the text than conventional illustrations, are particularly magical in this section.

I found the shifts between realism and Fantasy a bit disconcerting at first but then it struck me that for many people the teenage years do stand out from the rest of their life like an era of legend. It is the time for meeting your prince or princess, fighting the dragons of the established order and going on quests for the meaning of life. Fables that try to teach important lessons about how to live your life are fragile things. One false step by the author and belief fails and trust is lost. I found it jarring that the child which Maddy miscarries is always coyly referred to as `the fay’. Apart from that, the story worked for me because it isn’t a rigid allegory with just one set of meanings. The title of the book raises more questions than answers and the character of free-spirit Feather remains open to a variety of interpretations. He seems to be a young girl’s dream boyfriend, desirable because he is unattainable, but is he as imaginary as Maddy’s monster-friend? Even if Feather is real, does he represent the kind of spiritual longings that cannot be satisfied in the material world? Every reader has to come to their own conclusions.

“The Ghost’s Child” is inspiring without being relentlessly upbeat and it doesn’t offer easy solutions to life’s problems. Hartnett believes in being honest with children about the “hard laws and complicated outcomes” of the adult world and she writes unflinchingly about love. Maddy explains to her young visitor that “Love isn’t always a good thing, or even a happy thing. Sometimes it’s the very worst thing that can happen. But love is like moonlight or thunder, or rain on a tin roof in the middle of the night; it is one of the things in life that is truly worth knowing.” This is a story of failed love and incompatible desires but it also shows how Maddy survives rejection and loss by having faith in her own worth and courage. Young Maddy doesn’t always behave wisely or well but I’ve added mature Maddy to my list of favourite older characters in Fantasy fiction. Perhaps you would enjoy meeting her too. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk