As the Scots are so good at celebrating the arrival of New Year, I’m choosing a Scottish author for my first recommended Fantasy Read of 2017. Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was a journalist, critic, poet and novelist who is now best remembered for the twelve anthologies of Fairy Tales which he edited, starting with “The Blue Fairy Book” (1889) and ending with “The Lilac Fairy Book” (1910). Lang himself was prouder of two original  stories for children which he wrote – “Prince Prigio” (1889) and “Prince Ricardo” (1893). These two novellas, and a sequence of short stories called “Tales of a Fairy Court” (1907), are set in the invented kingdom of Pantouflia and are collectively known as “The Chronicles of Pantouflia”. You could get the two novellas under this title as a very cheap ebook or search out  an anthology called “My Own Fairy Book”, which includes all of Lang’s original Fairy Tales. Another good choice would be “Prince Prigio and Prince Ricardo”, a 1961 edition which has pictures by D.Watkins-Pitchford and an excellent introduction by Roger Lancelyn Green. Old copies of this, and paperbacks based on it, are quite easy to find.

Lang begins with a potted history of Pantouflia, an ancient kingdom somewhere “up the Danube” and its peace-loving royal family, whose crest is a dormouse, dormant. After relating the story of the spirited founder of the dynasty, Lady Dragonissa, he skips forward to the birth of her ever so many times great-grandson, Prince Prigio. The prince’s rational mother refuses to believe in fairies, so none are invited to the christening party of her first-born son. The fairies come anyway, bringing magical gifts, but one of them puts a curse on Prigio that he “shall be too clever!” Prince Prigio grows up to be the ultimate know-all. He argues about everything and is always right – which makes everyone detest him.

The King and Queen have two ordinary younger sons, Alphonso and Enrico, who are universally liked. When a terrible Firedrake, made of red-hot iron, threatens Pantouflia, the King promises his throne to whichever of the princes succeeds in killing the monster and bringing back its horns and tail. Prigio refuses to try, because he knows that it is traditional for the eldest son to fail , and suggests that this is a job for Enrico. Both the younger princes enthusiastically go off to fight the monster but neither of them returns. Prigio is then shunned by his family and left behind in an abandoned castle, where he finds the fairy gifts and learns to use them. When Prigio falls in love with the English ambassador’s daughter, the idea of being a hero becomes more attractive. With a little magic and a lot of ingenuity, can Prigio kill the monster, save his brothers, win the right girl and make people like him?

The seven stories in “Tales of a Fairy Court” tell us more about the relationship between Prigio and his father King Grognio, and describe some of the adventures which Prigio fitted in before his marriage. The second novella is set 17 years later when Prigio is King of Pantouflia and he and Queen Rosalind have a son called Ricardo. Prince Ricardo is always off fighting “dragons, giants, cannibals, magicians”. He has rescued lots of princesses, including a clever one called Jaqueline, but he isn’t interested in marrying any of them. The trouble is that the quests and fights are too easy for Ricardo because he always uses his father’s fairy gifts, such as the sword of sharpness, the seven-league boots, the magic carpet and the cap of darkness. Through a spell known as Drinking the Moon, Jaqueline discovers that Prigio plans to swap the fairy gifts for ordinary objects. The princess soon has to use more of her magic to protect Ricardo when he goes up against fearsome enemies such as the evil Yellow Dwarf  and The Giant who does not Know when he has had Enough. After Jaqueline is imprisoned by a monster, Prigio goes on an extraordinary journey as part of his plan to save her.

The more I’ve read about the life of Andrew Lang, the more I feel that Prince Prigio was a self-portrait. He knew from his own experience that while the canny Scots admire cleverness, the English tend to distrust it. In one of the “Tales of a Fairy Court”, young Prigio is described as picking up every language he heard and knowing “more ancient Greek and Latin than his tutor before he was six”. Moreover, “he knew the history of everywhere, and all the fairy-stories in the whole world.” Much the same could be said about Lang. He was a Classical scholar, renowned for his translations of Homer, but he also edited the work of British poets and was an expert on Scottish history. He was a pioneer in the field of Psychic Research, wrote adult books on the interpretation of mythology and folklore and the development of religion but he thought it just as important to introduce children to the riches of traditional storytelling. Lang was a man of strong opinions whose sarcastic wit made him many enemies – just as Prigio’s conceited cleverness does. In “Prince Ricardo”, Prigio uses the weight of Stupidity (particularly the stupidity of learned writers on Shakespeare, Homer and the Bible) as a weapon to crush a monster. Lang was a life-long fighter against ignorance and stupidity.

One of his battles was against influential educators of the late 19th century who claimed that Fairy Tales were irrational, violent and bad for young minds. Does that argument sound familiar? In every age well-meaning people have wanted to ban or censor Fairy Tales but, with help of scholars like Andrew Lang and his wife Leonora, the stories survive. Lang didn’t collect directly from oral storytellers and he credited his wife with much of the work of translating and adapting stories from foreign sources. His great contribution to children’s literature was to provide easily accessible, entertaining versions of Fairy and Folk Tales from all over the world. Nobody knew more about the structure and rules of traditional tales than Lang. In his original writing he plays with those rules in what seems a very modern way. “The Chronicles of Pantouflia” are both enjoyable stories in their own right and amusing commentaries on the way that Fairy Tales function.

Lang hated it when other Victorian writers produced moral tales in which pretty-pretty fairies preached at children. The only preaching in his own stories is done tongue-in-cheek. “The Chronicles of Pantouflia” are the work of a serious scholar having fun with his own special subjects. For this reason Pantouflia is not the most consistent of Fantasy realms. Lang borrows magical objects from “The Arabian Nights”, tosses in episodes from his beloved Scottish history (Ricardo has an encounter with Bonnie Prince Charlie) and provides new endings for some Fairy Tale characters.  He mocks Prigio’s scientific-minded mother for refusing to accept anything that doesn’t fit with her world-view and the very English Ricardo for treating quests as a form of big-game hunting. A scene in which Ricardo hacks up a giant but the pieces cheerily keep on fighting reminds me of the anarchic humour of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. Other characters refuse to be constrained by the conventions of the Fairy Tale world – Jaqueline (who turns out to be an Inca princess) is consistently braver and smarter than her beloved Ricardo, while Prigio has no intention of being the disposable elder brother who loses out to the lucky youngest son.

Of all the Fairy Tale princes I read about when I was a child, Prigio was the only one I wanted to marry. He uses brain-power rather than force to solve problems and he doesn’t care if this approach makes people call him a coward. In fact, Prigio is an early example of the Nerd as hero. His method of dealing with the Firedrake is particularly ingenious but you will have to read the story to find out what it is. Prigio does have to learn what we would now call people-skills before he can become a good ruler. In “Prince Ricardo”, King Prigio is shown as a worried father, failing to let his son make his own mistakes, but he still saves the day with panache. Lang gave Prigio his own hatred of violence and cruelty. In a new version of “The Goose Girl”, which is one of the darkest of Fairy Tales (see my March 2015 post on “Thorn”), Prigio intervenes to stop the villain being executed in a horrible way. Pantouflia represents the world as Lang would like it to have been rather than as it actually was. You might enjoy his dream-world too. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

The beginning of a new year is the traditional time to reflect on the past and make plans for the future, so I’m recommending a thought-provoking novel which plays with our concepts of past and future. “Arcadia” by English author Iain Pears is a book about writing Fantasy and creating Utopian worlds. Whether the novel itself should be classed as Fantasy or Science Fiction turns out to be crucial to the plot. Pears is famous for creating intricate literary puzzles which challenge his readers to work out how the pieces fit together. “Arcadia” (2015) is available in paperback or as an ebook but you can also download an “Arcadia app”  which will give you “the freedom to put the tale together in your own way.”

The construction of this novel makes it difficult to write a conventional synopsis so I’ll just give a taster of what goes on in the main plot strands. The story opens in Oxford, England, in 1960 as an academic reads an extract from his unfinished novel to a group which has succeeded the famous Inklings. Professor Henry Lytten is in the process of creating a very detailed Fantasy realm called Anterwold which is loosely based on the idyllic pastoral world of Sir Philip Sidney’s “Arcadia”. The scene he reads out involves a curious boy called Jay who strays across a forbidden boundary and encounters a beautiful young woman whom he thinks must be a fairy. Lytten is a scholar with an interesting past and he is still actively involved in Cold War espionage. He lives alone but has befriended a bright fifteen year-old girl called Rosie who comes in regularly to feed the professor’s malevolent cat, Jenkins.

An old friend of Lytten’s has left some junk in his cellar. When Rosie goes down there searching for Jenkins she steps through a metal arch and finds herself in a different world. On her second visit, Rosie discovers that this is Professor Lytten’s Anterwold, whose inhabitants believe that they are there “because of the great Return from Exile” led by a hero called Esilio. Their lives are dominated and defined by the Story, which is said to contain everything they need to know. Rosie is taken to a place called Willdon and treated as an honoured guest by its ruler, Lady Catherine. Among the people she meets are Jay, who is now an apprentice Storyteller, and his wise teacher Henary who knows that her visit has been foretold in an ancient document. In her new persona as Lady Rosalind, she is attracted to a mysterious stranger. He turns out to be the outlaw-leader Pamarchon, who is suspected of murdering his uncle, the previous Lord of Willdon. Rosie is torn between returning to the safety of Oxford and following Pamarchon into the forest.

In a polluted and overcrowded future ruled by Technocrats, a group of scientists has been working on a machine to transport people to alternate universes. Zoffany Oldmanter, the most powerful man in the world, is keen to exploit this new technology but there is a problem. The most brilliant member of the research group, psycho-mathematician Angela Meerson, doesn’t believe that alternate universes are possible. She thinks that what they have invented is a time machine and she ruthlessly experiments on people to prove it. Rather than let her work be taken over, Angela destroys her records and uses the machine to escape into the past. Security officer Jack More is tasked with investigating Angela’s disappearance and is sent to find her Renegade daughter and an ancient letter in “The Devil’s Handwriting”. Back in 20th century Europe, Angela has encountered Henry Lytten – a meeting which could have momentous consequences for the entire world.

Confused? You won’t be alone. Readers have to work hard to keep up with the interlocking plot lines in “Arcadia”. The book follows the stories of a great many characters, some of whom appear in more than one version of themselves. Spotting the time-travelling characters and their descendants is another challenge. Only semi-crazed genius Angela is given a first person narrative – a move which emphasizes her egotism and her pivotal role in the plot. She is balanced by two more sympathetic female characters. Lady Catherine is a brave and dignified woman hiding a very significant secret. Clever and sensible Rosie blossoms in two different contexts. One version of her seizes the possibilities of her future in Oxford; the other responds to being treated as an adult in Anterwold and develops into a forceful heroine modelled on Shakespeare’s Rosalind in “As You Like It”.

It is a running joke throughout “Arcadia” that Lytten’s invented world is very derivative, drawing on Classical and Elizabethan visions of a rural paradise but with bits and pieces from many other sources thrown in. Lytten is meant to be part of the British tradition of Fantasy-writing academics but he wants to distinguish himself from famous predecessors like Lewis and Tolkien by producing a world with no goblins, elves, monsters or talking animals. His aim is “to construct a society that works”. Rosie rightly points out that this makes Anterwold rather dull, especially as Lytten hasn’t even put in any love stories. He is the type of author that we editors dread – one who focuses on a mass of background detail but fails to create a compelling plot for his characters. This causes problems when Anterwold takes on a life of its own. In the funniest scene in the book, Lytten (in his bath-robe) is suddenly expected to sort out the lives of his characters but can’t remember what he’d decided about a crucial plot point. He wisely allows the characters to take charge of their own destinies.

I was amused by the idea of a writer renowned for his plot-making skills creating an author character who is hopeless at plots. Pears is an Art Historian who has written novels in a number of different genres. I’ve enjoyed his multi-stranded historical novels, such as “An Instance of the Fingerpost” and “The Dream of Scipio” (one of my favourite books) and his seven Art Mysteries set in modern Italy. There is a murder mystery in “Arcadia” and solving it gradually becomes more and more important. Near the end of most of Pears’ novels he  reveals a piece of information which changes your perception of everything that has gone before. This kind of twist can be difficult to bring off but the one in “Arcadia” is a zinger. There is an additional sting in the tail connected to Lytten’s desire to create “a beautiful, open, empty landscape” which he believes is the English “ideal of Paradise”. This is indeed the kind of paradise often described in English literature but it automatically excludes most of humanity. There are many stories about the consequences of time-travellers tampering with the past. This one stands out because it asks how responsible each of us is for reworking the past and creating the world of the future.

I don’t think that every aspect of “Arcadia” works. The mole-hunting espionage subplot doesn’t seem to add much and Pears hasn’t quite solved the problem of how to represent the speech of the inhabitants of Anterwold. This doesn’t really matter because Pears’ work demands a critical response rather than bland enjoyment. Some novels are private pleasures. This one I immediately wanted to discuss with other people but only those who have read it to the very last line. If you belong to a reading group, “Arcadia” would be an excellent choice. It will either provoke the best discussion ever or cause a flaming row. Happy New Year!

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

The second of my choices for December is a haunting children’s story about a mid-winter journey by English poet and novelist, Walter de la Mare (1873-1956). “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” was published in 1910 and remains one of the best animal-based Fantasy novels ever written. The first edition, with illustrations by Dorothy P. Lathrop, is a stunningly beautiful book which now sells for equally stunning prices. You don’t really need illustrations because de la Mare’s word-pictures are so vivid, so you could download the original text for free from Internet Archive or go for a cheap ebook. In 1935 the novel was reissued, with new illustrations by Mildred E.Eldridge, under the title of “The Three Royal Monkeys”. Copies of this edition are much easier to find, especially after it came out as a Puffin Paperback (1979) with a charming cover by Pauline Baynes. A story about monkeys set in a strange version of East Africa may not sound very Christmassy but most of the action takes place in frosty forests and snowy mountains.

By the edge of the Forest of Munza a lonely Fruit Monkey called Mutta-matutta lived in a hut with the skeleton of a long dead explorer for company. One day she took in a sick traveller called Seelem, who claimed to be a Mulla-Mulgar (a royal monkey), and nursed him back to health. Seelem told her that he was own brother to the Prince of the Valleys of Tishnar but he’d left his idyllic home to explore the world beyond the mountains. He and Mutta-matutta lived together for thirteen years and had three sons – Thumb, Thimble and Nod. Then grim and broody Seelem began to long for his home and decided to go on the long return journey “through dangers thick as flies” to the Valleys of Tishnar. He promised to come back for Mutta-matutta and their sons but seven years passed without any sign of him.

Mutta-matutta sickened and when she heard the voice of the goddess Tishnar calling, she knew that she was dying. She told her sons to seek the country of their father and the palace of their royal uncle. Then Mutta-Mututta gave weapons and red jackets to stout Thumb and strong Thimble but their little brother received a sheep-skin coat and his father’s milky Wonderstone because Nod was marked as a “a Nizza-neela, and has magic in him.” She warns Nod never to lose, give away or even lend the Wonderstone to anyone because if he rubs it in times of danger, Tishnar will send help.

Even after their mother’s death, the brothers are reluctant to leave the safety of their home but that changes when Nod accidentally burns down the hut. The three monkey-princes enter the frosted forest. On this first stage of their epic journey they face greedy pigs, prowling leopards, speckled tree-spiders, a mighty bull-Ephelanto, a gigantic Gunga-Mulgar and the even more dangerous flesh-eating Minimuls. When Nod is separated from his brothers he is snared by a lone Oomgar (a man) whom he helps to protect against Immanala – the Wandering Shadow. Once the monkey-princes are reunited they face even greater challenges as they try to cross the Peak of Tishnar with the aid of the agile monkeys known as the Men of the Mountains. Perils and enchantments lie ahead. Even with the help of the Wonderstone, can Nod and his brothers ever reach the fabled Valleys of Tishnar and be reunited with their father?

Walter de la Mare is now best remembered for volumes of poetry such as “Songs of Childhood” and “Peacock Pie” which capture the imaginative worlds of children. His most famous poem “The Listeners” (“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door…) can, like most of his work, be summed up by two words – magical and eerie. As a young reader I was quite traumatized by some of the sinister imagery in “Songs of Childhood”, such as John Mouldy sitting in his cellar “Smiling there alone” while rats creep over him. Less well known are de la Mare’s ghost and horror stories and his quirky Fantasy novels for adults and children. Each of these novels is very different but for me “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” is his masterpiece. Richard Adams, author of “Watership Down”, has been quoted as saying that “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” is his favourite book and I think I can detect its influence on Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”.

I love the beauty and inventiveness of  de la Mare’s language. His sentences shimmer and dance  -“Away went the three travellers, bundle and cudgel, rags and sheep’s coat, helter-skelter, between the silver breaks of the trees, scampering faster than any Mulgar, Mulla, or Munza had ever run before.” Characters often break into lively verse, sometimes in invented animal-languages, and the text features many familiar words twisted into strangeness, such as Zevveras for zebras or Babbabooma for Baboon (be warned that in one case de la Mare adapted a word which is no longer acceptable). The book is full of lovingly described animals, birds and plants. Some are real species; others are imaginary. Among my favourites are the birds who talk with tree-spirits “the tiny Telateuties, blood-red as lady-birds, that ran chittering up the trees” and the sad-faced, silken-haired Men of the Mountains who form living chains which look “like a long black-and-white caterpillar, clinging to the precipice with tiny tufts waving in the air.” Africa is used as a distant place which could contain anything that de la Mare wanted, including a wise Witch Hare and a dark-eyed, flaxen-haired water nymph.

The world of this novel is a frightening and melancholy one. The only human in the story, a lost English sailor who comes to like and respect Nod, is almost certainly doomed to die alone and a very long way from home. The various monkey tribes represent many of the vices and virtues of humanity. Some are cruel, greedy and violent; others are capable of kindness, courage and unselfishness. The three monkey-princes themselves are far from heroic. They try to follow their mother’s instructions never to taste blood, walk on all fours, or climb trees, but there are constant quarrels and mistakes. Thumb and Thimble are often proud and foolish and sweet friendly Nod is hopeless at keeping hold of the vital Wonderstone.

Yet Nod does have faith in Tishnar -who is not just a goddess but “that which cannot be thought in words, or told, or expressed.” In the most magical scene in the book, he uses the Wonderstone to allow the weary band of travellers to enjoy a heavenly feast in a scented meadow. This is a quest story which doesn’t have a conventional ending. Whether the brothers survive their journey over and under the mountains is a matter of interpretation and what they will find in the beautiful Valleys of Tishnar is mainly left to the individual reader’s imagination. I promised to recommend another “feelgood” novel before Christmas. “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” isn’t sentimental or cheery but it may make you feel braver and more hopeful about what Walter de la Mare called “the journey that has no end.”  I wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a happy Holiday Season. Until next year…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

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