As winter bites I’m recommending a dark book for a dark time of year – “Grendel” by John Gardner. My previous choice (“Black Ships”) was a novel based on an epic poem in Latin (Virgil’s “Aeneid”) retold from a woman’s point of view; this time I’ve gone for a novel based on the great Anglo-Saxon poem “Beowulf” (see my Fantasy Reads post of June 2014) told from a monster’s point of view. “Grendel” was first published in 1971 and reprinted in the Fantasy Masterworks series in 2015, with a perceptive introduction by Adam Roberts. You can get this as an ebook but I cherish my battered Picador paperback which has a wonderfully sinister cover illustration by Michael Leonard and semi-abstract illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Like the complex poem it is based on, “Grendel” doesn’t have a straightforward linear narrative. The story is told by the monster himself as he looks back on the events and encounters which led to his reign of terror. In Dark Age Daneland (Denmark), in caverns below a lake filled with fire-snakes, a wordless water-hag gave birth to a son called Grendel. As he grows, this son becomes bored with the clinging company of his devoted mother and the “putrid stinking hole” they live in. He begins to explore the forest surrounding their lake. An attack by a wild bull leads to Grendel’s first meeting with a group of humans led by a warrior called Hrothgar. Grendel’s attempts to communicate with them fail and he has to be rescued by his mother.

Grendel spends years secretly watching the humans who encroach on his forest. He learns about murder and war as he sees rival groups destroy each other. Most ruthless of all is Hrothgar who gradually makes himself the greatest power in the area. A blind harpist arrives at Hrothgar’s meadhall and sings of the glories of the ancient kings of Daneland. King Hrothgar is inspired to believe that he is the ruler destined to bring peace and prosperity to his country. He decides to build a magnificent new meadhall on a hill overlooking the sea. When the hall is finished, the harpist, whom Grendel calls the Shaper, sings of God’s creation of the world and how an ancient feud between brothers (Cain and Abel) first “split all the world between darkness and light”. Grendel, a descendant of Cain, longs to come into the light but when he tries to enter the hall people perceive him as a monster and drive him away.

Grendel still yearns to believe in “the hopeful dreams” of the Shaper but is disillusioned during a conversation with the great dragon who can see past, present and future. The dragon claims that nothing Grendel does will make any difference in the end but still encourages him to scare people “into glory” by acting the monster. When Grendel next gets into a fight with Hrothgar’s soldiers, he discovers that he has become almost invulnerable. For twelve long years Grendel makes murderous night-attacks on Hrothgar’s hall and no-one is able stop him. Then fifteen strangers arrive in Daneland and their mighty leader offers to guard Hrothgar’s hall. Suddenly, “it’s a whole new game” for Grendel….

Is it worth trying this novel if you haven’t read “Beowulf”? My answer is – yes. It helps if you have a basic knowledge of the legend of “Beowulf versus the monsters” but even this isn’t essential. Plot-wise, Grendel himself tells you all you need to know. You may also be worrying that the characters in “Grendel” will speak in archaic and poetic language that is hard to understand. Well, there are some passages of poetry but most of the time Grendel pokes fun at the human tendency to make speeches that are “long-winded, tediously poetic, all lies”. John C.Gardner (1933-1982) was a professor of English literature who specialized in Old and Middle English but he wasn’t a tweedy type – he died in a motorbike accident. He was capable of producing brilliant pastiches of Anglo-Saxon poetry but “Grendel” is also full of contemporary language and deliberate anachronisms. So the dragon explains his views on the universe in scientific terms and a rebellious peasant uses modern political jargon. Though short (120 pages) “Grendel” is a very wordy book but one in which the impact of every word is carefully calculated.

At first glance the original black and white illustrations in “Grendel” look like meaningless squiggles but once you examine them carefully you begin to see the shape of a huge hairy beast. Antonucci’s drawings don’t just show you the monster they illustrate the main theme of the story – Grendel’s search in an uncaring universe for something which would give meaning to his life and death. As he looks back on his “idiotic war” with Hrothgar, Grendel calls himself a “Pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of dead men”. Grendel envies animals who simply live their lives without reflection while he is condemned to observe and question everything.  In the course of the novel he explores and rejects many of the ideals and beliefs which people live by, such as patriotism, heroism, revolutionary politics, loyalty to family, romantic love and faith in benevolent or all-powerful deities.

Gardner finds characters in the original poem to embody most of these ideals and beliefs. He uses Hrothgar’s champion Unferth, who is infamous for killing his own brothers, to illustrate the “shoddy reality” of men who claim to be selfless heroes and he allows Grendel to idealize Hrothgar’s beautiful queen for a while before being repelled by her sexuality. Hrothgar is presented as a thug who foolishly comes to believe his own myth. His shining meadhall has a doom-laden atmosphere because a monster within Hrothgar’s family is as dangerous as the one prowling outside. While telling his own story, Grendel exposes and jeers at most of the illusions people cling to but he never quite rejects the power of the Shaper to create beauty and meaning through his poetry. In a controversial book called “On Moral Fiction” (1978), Gardner himself argued that fiction ought to be a force for good. He also criticized contemporary authors for not caring enough about their characters.

It is very clear that Gardner cared about Grendel. The narrative voice he created for this outcast driven mad by poetry is extraordinarily convincing. Grendel describes his own brutal deeds in gruesome detail and with the blackest of humour. He whinges and rants but there are moments of lyrical beauty. This monster’s actions and ideas are fascinatingly unpredictable. He goes through extremes of emotion yet there is always a detached part of his mind mocking his own feelings. Gardner shows Grendel enduring the loneliness of the psychopath who finds it hard to believe that anyone else is real. He cannot even relate to his mother, whom he describes as a “horrible, humpbacked, carp-toothed creature, eyes on fire with useless, mindless love.” The hero (never named in this novel) who is destined to be Grendel’s nemesis accuses the monster of shaping his own dark world. “Grendel” could be read as Horror but like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” it is also story about what makes us human. Gardner’s Grendel is one of Fantasy Fiction’s great anti-heroes. Meet him if you dare. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

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This week I’m recommending a gripping Historical Fantasy based on Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. “Black Ships” by American author, Jo Graham, was first published in 2008 and is still easy to find in paperback or ebook editions. This novel is the first in the `Numinous World’ series, which currently runs to six books, but it can be read as an entirely self-contained story following the life-history of a woman called Gull.

“Black Ships” is set around 1200 BCE. After the brutal conquest of the great city of Wilusa (Troy), many of its women were taken to Greece as slaves. Gull was born to one such slave in Pylos. She was crippled in an accident when she was only six years old, but Gull’s gift for seeing visions causes her to be adopted by the Pythia, the priestess of the Lady of the Dead. Gull’s first vision is of black ships and a burning city. As she is taught the mysteries of the goddess, Gull learns that the Greek lands are under a curse because of an unforgivable murder.

In time, Gull becomes the new Pythia but she fears that the goddess will never speak through her. One morning Gull notices nine black ships heading towards Pylos. Most of the men are away raiding so the city is almost defenceless. Gull is inspired to intervene and discovers that the attackers are men from Wilusa who have come “for the captives, for our wives and children taken in slavery”. The small fleet is all that is left of the people of Wilusa. Its reluctant leader is Prince Neas (Aeneas). He is the last of King Priam’s royal line and has the special favour of the Sea Goddess. Gull knows that she must go with Prince Neas to serve as his Sibyl but she only has glimpses of their journey’s end.

The search for a new home leads the exiled Wilusans to many different places at a time when all the countries around the eastern Mediterranean are in turmoil. Neas and his closest comrade, Captain Xandros, are both men who have suffered terrible losses but now they face fresh dangers and difficult decisions. The Wilusans endure storms, sea-battles and a relentless pursuit by the cruel son of Achilles. The wealthy and civilized kingdom of Egypt seems to offer a safe haven but at what price? Can Gull help Neas to become the great leader his people need and guide him to fulfil his destiny in Italy?

I decided to read this book after noticing that the dedication mentioned one of my favourite novels – Mary Renault’s “The Last of the Wine”. Graham cites Renault’s Greek-based Historical novels as one of her formative influences. I wouldn’t claim that “Black Ships” is as profound as the greatest of Renault’s novels but the two authors do have some qualities in common. Both are skilful story-tellers with the gift of writing deceptively simple prose. “Black Ships” is most similar to the “The King Must Die”, the first of  two novels in which Renault retold the myth of  Theseus. These books both treat a legendary hero as an historical figure, living in an era when religions centred on goddess-worship are waning. Renault stripped the story of Theseus of all its supernatural elements. Graham rationalizes aspects of the Aeneas myth – making him the son of a priestess of Aphrodite rather than a direct child of the goddess – but gives Gull genuine prophetic powers and a close if intermittant connection with the goddess she serves. Gull longs for divine guidance but most of the time she has to rely on her own wisdom.

Some readers have complained that “Black Ships” ought to be categorized as Historical Fiction rather than Fantasy. If you are expecting sea monsters and fighting skeletons you will be disappointed but the deities and divine realms of the late Bronze Age seem as real as the people who believe in them. To me, that is what makes a good Historical Fantasy. There are a few drawbacks to basing a novel on Virgil’s “Aeneid”. Many people have never heard of this epic while plenty who have hate it after being forced to translate the dull bits during Latin lessons. The poem is full of historical inaccuracies and, worst of all, features one of the least appealing of all ancient heroes. Aeneas is best known for abandoning women – his first wife after the fall of Troy and lovelorn Queen Dido in Carthage. It’s not surprising that Fantasy novels based on “The Aeneid” are rare – though Ursula le Guin’s “Lavinia” came out in the same year that “Black Ships” was published.

Graham tackles the problems with her source material by telling the story of the Trojans who became the legendary founders of Rome from an anti-heroic, female point of view and by making the background more consistent with history.  Her biggest change is to substitute New Kingdom Egypt for Carthage and an imperious Egyptian princess for the wronged Queen Dido. The princess is turned into a largely unsympathetic character so that Aeneas doesn’t seem such a jerk for leaving her. In my view, this is the weakest point in the plot. What does work well is linking the epic journey of the Wilusan survivors with the migrations of the “Sea Peoples”. This was a mass movement of groups from Asia desperate to settle in Mediterranean lands. It is easy to see parallels between the ancient Sea Peoples and today’s migrants and refugees who are struggling to make new lives for themselves in Europe. Graham writes with great compassion about displaced people who have been traumatized by the horrors of war.

Gull is quite a cool and detached character but I found her narrative voice compelling. She is a child of rape who was still much loved by her mother. Her story is full of examples of women facing grim circumstances with courage and resilience but most of the male characters are sympathetically treated too. This version of Aeneas is implausibly nice but he’s given enough guilt and self-doubt to make him interesting. An important element of the plot is the unusual love triangle that develops between Gull, Aeneas and Captain Xandros – a man with a complicated emotional history. Like Renault before her, Graham writes movingly about gender-blind forms of love which blurr the boundaries between friendship and passion. If you like the main characters in “Black Ships” you can meet them again in the other `Numinous World’ novels when they are reborn as “Companion Souls” into other historical periods. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

I’m continuing Ghost Month by recommending “Women and Ghosts”, a collection of ten supernatural stories by American author and academic, Alison Lurie. Since her field of study has been Children’s Literature and Fairy Tales, she knows a thing or two about story-telling. Professor Lurie is best known for her witty novels, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Foreign Affairs”, but she also has the knack of writing unsettling short stories. This collection dates to 1994. “Women and Ghosts” doesn’t seem to be available in ebook form but there is a good audio version (ideal for ghost stories) and cheap paperbacks are easy to get hold of.

As you would expect from the title, all of the stories feature female characters who go through some kind of supernatural experience. The settings are contemporary rather than Gothic. They range from sunny Florida to the rain-drenched English Lake District and from India and Africa to small and college town America. The supernatural elements are equally varied. Ghosts of the “wronged dead” type manifest themselves in unusual ways and apparitions of the living are just as frightening. Some of the stories involve haunted objects; others describe bizarre visions or inexplicable happenings. All of the supernatural encounters are life-changing for somebody but not always in a negative way.

In “Ilse’s House” a young woman is haunted by visions of her fiancé’s former girlfriend while in “The Pool People” a little girl can see more than shadows in her nasty grandmother’s swimming pool. Ever felt that inanimate objects have a grudge against you? Then you’ll respond to “The Highboy”; the story of a piece of antique furniture with a will of its own. In “Counting Sheep” a professor comes up with an extraordinary explanation for the mystery of a missing student. During “In the Shadow” a diplomat is haunted by a dead boyfriend who tells her unpleasant truths about her lovers. “Waiting for the Baby” follows an American woman who has come to India to adopt a baby and has a strange experience in a local temple. In “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” a bride’s feelings are transformed by a garment she is given to wear on her wedding day. “Fat People” lives up to its title when a reluctant dieter starts seeing monstrously overweight people everywhere. In “Another Halloween” a guilty woman realizes that there is always one Trick or Treater too many, while in “The Double Poet” a writer learns that she has a doppelganger who seems to be stealing her life.

I would classify the stories in “Women and Ghosts” as delayed-impact fiction. Some of them seem quite slight on first reading but they linger in the mind and gradually provoke new and disturbing interpretations. Alison Lurie’s fiction has sometimes been compared with that of Jane Austen. Like Austen, Lurie produces perfect prose and dissects human nature in a ruthless but amusing way. She is the mistress of fine detail. When Lurie writes about a particular sheep with “dense yellowish-drab wool, incurled grey corrugated horns, long pale narrow face, and liquorice eyes” (Counting Sheep) I can see it so vividly. She can describe anything from the exact effects of light on water at different times of day (“The Pool People”) to a gaudy group of “glaringly new…half-comic, half-sinister deities” in an Indian temple (“Waiting for the Baby”). Thanks to the power of Lurie’s prose, the supernatural elements in these stories seem as real as the mundane ones.

Lurie also has the gift of summing people up in a few barbed sentences (“She had the sort of cool manners that always made me think of words like pleasant and cordial. She never had much to say, or raised her voice, and she didn’t like it when somebody else did.” Another Halloween) . In Britain, Ghost fiction has been dominated by male writers and male characters (see my October 2013 post on the work of M.R.James) but females have had a stronger voice and presence in American Ghost fiction. It is refreashing to read a collection of Ghost stories centred on female characters who aren’t just there to scream when the ghost appears. At the start of  “In the Shadow” we’re told that successful diplomat “Celia Zimmern was about the last person she, or anyone else would have expected to see a ghost”. This is true of most of the women in “Women and Ghosts”, who include a Professor of English Literature, a market-research analyst and a Poet in Residence. None of these intelligent women frighten easily but they don’t behave like dauntless Fantasy heroines either. Their flaws are woven into the stories. Is Celia’s haunting caused by her greed for fine things and her sense of superiority? It’s left to the reader to decide.

An outstanding feature of this collection is that the living people in the stories are often scarier than the ghosts. The first story, “Ilse’s House”, contains a chilling portrait of Gregor, a man whose charm masks an abusive personality. During this story a confident young woman is haunted by a vision of the cowed housewife she will become if she marries Gregor. In “The Pool People” the villain is a monumentally selfish old woman, who fails to notice the catastrophes she has caused.  The central character in “The Double Poet” is a monster of egotism who despises her readers. “Another Halloween” is, on the surface, more like a conventional Ghost or Horror story than the rest of the collection. It shows how a failure to accept responsibility comes back to haunt a woman whose motto is “I wasn’t involved”. After a possibly preventable tragedy, the narrator says, “Now I believe women have to take responsibility for other women, even ones they don’t much like.” It’s a conclusion that lets none of us off the hook. Have a thoughtful Halloween.

Geraldine

www. chalcedon.co.uk

 

Fantasy Reads is back from its holidays and ready to celebrate Ghost Month. I’m going to break my own rule about featuring a different author in every post so that I can recommend my favourite ghost story – “The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde. This novella was first published in 1887 and has been in print ever since. Cheap paperback or ebook editions are easy to find or you could download the text for free. You may have seen one of the numerous film or TV adaptions but nothing compares with reading Wilde’s original prose. “The Canterville Ghost” is the funniest ghost story I know but also one of the most poignant.

The tale is set in the English countryside and begins when wealthy American, Hiram B.Otis decides to buy Canterville Chase, the ancestral home of the aristocratic Canterville family. Lord Canterville, “who was a man of the most punctilious honour” feels obliged to warn Mr Otis that the house is severely haunted. Mr Otis doesn’t believe in ghosts so he moves to Canterville Chase with his family – wife Lucretia, elder son, Washington, fifteen year-old daughter, Virginia, and the twin boys known as “The Stars and Stripes”.

On their first evening, Mrs Otis notices an unpleasant stain on the library floor. The housekeeper explains that this was the very spot where Sir Simon de Canterville murdered his wife in 1575. Sir Simon disappeared a few years later but the bloodstain has always proved impossible to remove. That is until Washington cleans it off with “Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover”. The next morning the stain is back. It keeps on reappearing in the locked library everytime Washington removes it – though not always in the same colour. The family won’t listen to the housekeeper’s warnings about the ghost but soon they have all seen and heard him – “an old man of terrible aspect”  with red eyes, matted hair and clanking chains.

The Canterville Ghost is proud to have terrified generations of the house’s inhabitants in ghastly guises such as “the Suicide’s Skeleton”, “Martin the Maniac” or “The Headless Earl” but he has no luck with the Otis family. The adults refuse to be frightened by him and the twins delight in ambushing and persecuting him. Only kind Virginia shows the distressed ghost any sympathy. On the library window is painted a prophecy about how peace will come to Canterville “When a golden girl can win, Prayer from out the lips of sin”. In order to help Sir Simon, Virginia must discover the gruesome secret behind his disappearance and risk her own life to plead with the Angel of Death…

“The Canterville Ghost” was one of Oscar Wilde’s first published works. Enduringly popular, it has inspired two operas and been turned into a graphic novel, a stage play, a musical, live-action and animated films, and radio and television dramas.  Among the famous actors who have played Sir Simon de Canterville are Charles Laughton, David Niven, John Gielgud, Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart. These adaptations tend to emphasize the humorous aspects of the story and many of them fail to do justice to the subtle shifts of mood in the original novella.

Parts of “The Canterville Ghost” do read like a spoof of a Gothic Horror story. The Otis family display robust common sense – a quality rarely found in characters in Horror stories. Mr Otis’s first confrontation with the ghost descends into farce when he offers Sir Simon some lubricating oil for his noisy chains. The ghost’s previous haunting triumphs are narrated in a deliciously heartless manner. We are told, for example,  that pretty Lady Barbara broke off her engagement to a Lord Canterville after seeing the hideous phantom at twilight and eloped with handsome Jack Castleton. “Poor Jack was afterwards shot in a duel by Lord Canterville on Wandsworth Common and Lady Barbara died of a broken heart at Tunbridge Wells before the year was out, so, in every way, it had been a great success.”

The stately homes of Britain are famous for their ghosts. One near to where I live boasts a phantom hearse with a headless driver (Chavenage House). Wilde clearly enjoyed creating a “Horrible History” of hauntings for the Cantervilles in which generations of the family and their guests are scared in inventive ways. Some of these incidents, such as the experience of the French lady “who having wakened up one morning early and seen a skeleton seated in an arm-chair by the fire reading her diary, had been been confined to her bed for six weeks with an attack of brain fever” manage to be both funny and chilling. Finding anyone reading your private diary would be disturbing but a skeleton… That’s truly creepy.

Wilde didn’t label his novella as a ghost story but as a “Hylo-Idealistic Romance”.  The Romance part is easy enough to understand. This isn’t meant to be a realistic tale and there is a charming inset love story – courageous golden girl Virginia deservedly wins the heart of a young Duke. I must confess that I had to look up Hylo-Idealism, which turns out to be the concept that reality only exists by virtue of our belief in it. At the start of “The Canterville Ghost” it looks as if Wilde is mocking nouveau riche Americans who know nothing about European culture. He isn’t – or only in the most affectionate way. Mr Otis may be wrong in thinking that “there is no such thing as a ghost” but he and his family prove to be smart and adaptable when faced with new experiences. Centuries of local belief have kept the Canterville Ghost going but because these free-thinking, forward-looking Americans aren’t chained to the past, Sir Simon has no power over them.

For a ghost, Simon de Canterville is a surprisingly nuanced character. Wilde doesn’t allow him to be a romanticized villain – Sir Simon didn’t murder his wife in some great fit of passion but because she “never had my ruffs properly starched and knew nothing about cookery.” He is vain, cowardly and insecure but puts real artistry into his hauntings. Like any creative artist he is devastated when his performances are jeered at. Wilde gradually makes you feel sorry for lonely Sir Simon, who longs to sleep for the first time in three hundred years. In my post on the collected Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde (November 2013) I praised Wilde’s poetic use of language and the way that his stories blend comedy and tragedy. The same is true of “The Canterville Ghost”. There are wonderful descriptions of the idyllic grounds of Canterville Chase and the quiet beauty of the Garden of Death. I know that this story will make you laugh but it may also cause you to shed a tear at the fate of the Canterville Ghost. Until next time…

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

This week I’m recommending “Rotherweird”, a debut novel by Andrew Caldecott set in a very peculiar English town. Since “Rotherweird” has only just been published, the choice is between hardback and ebook. The novel comes with a striking cover design by Leo Nickolls and monochrome illustrations by Sasha Laika, which sounds like an argument for buying the hardback. Sadly, the illustrations are so blurry you might as well go with the ebook version. “Rotherweird” is a difficult book to classify, so I’ve had to invent a new subgenre for it – Cosy Horror.

Ever since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Rotherweird Valley and the town of Rotherweird have been set apart from the rest of England. The town is ruled by an elected Mayor and an hereditary Herald and has “a legendary hostility to admitting the outside world”. Most of Rotherweird’s inhabitants never leave the valley and outsiders are rarely allowed in but in 2017 several exceptions are made. Corrupt Mayor Snorkel has been bribed to permit ruthless multi-millionaire Sir Veronal Slickstone to restore the town’s Elizabethan manor house, which has been empty for centuries. Slickstone arrives in Rotherweird with an actress and a juvenile thief whom he has hired to impersonate his wife and son.

Another new arrival is Jonah Oblong, a young history teacher who is desperate enough to apply for a post at Rotherweird School. He agrees to take the job but is warned that he must only teach the modern history of the outside world. Any study of the history of Rotherweird itself is strictly forbidden. Once Oblong moves to Rotherweird he is perturbed to discover that his predecessor, another outsider called Mr Flask, vanished without trace after being sacked for looking into the early history of Rotherweird. Oblong soon meets a wide range of eccentric locals, including chivalrous Games Master, Gregorious Jones, fiery scientist, Vixen Valourhand, ex-teacher and biologist Godfrey Fanguin and frustrated shop-assistant Orelia Roc. When Orelia buys a set of four mysterious stones and resells them to Slickstone, who seems to know their purpose, a sinister series of events is set in motion.

With Fanguin’s help, Oblong investigates his predecessor’s disappearence and the meaning of the cryptic notes he left behind. After he witnesses Slickstone display some extraordinary powers and stumbles on the body of a murder victim, Oblong becomes part of a diverse group who are determined to uncover the truth about the town’s origins and foil Slickstone’s evil plans. Some of this group are already surprisingly knowledgeable about the strange history and even stranger geography of Rotherweird. That knowledge will lead the companions into a hidden world of beauty and horror haunted by monstrous beings and the sins of the past. All of Rotherweird is in danger and the Midsummer Fair may be the last chance to save it…

I ought to be cautious when reviewing this novel because the author is a barrister who specializes in defamation and libel law but I must admit that I dithered about whether to recommend “Rotherweird”. Followers of Fantasy Reads may imagine that I take a Pollyanna approach to fiction – seeing the upside of every book and liking everything. This is far from the truth. I only recommend about 20% of what I read and there are plenty of Fantasy novels which I find disappointing or positively hate, such as… No, I vowed not to waste words on bad or boring books so I won’t name them. Books that feature on Fantasy Reads don’t have to be perfect (see my August 2015 post on “The Paper Magician”) but they do need to have some distinctive quality which makes them worth recommending. At first, I believed that “Rotherweird” was going to fail this test because I kept thinking – this is very like Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” but not as good. Caldecott lacks Peake’s emotional intensity and gift for poetic language and he hasn’t created powerful leading characters to compare with Steerpike and Titus Groan.

In fact “Rotherweird” doesn’t really have leading characters since it is a story about a place. I’ve chosen to make outsider Oblong the central figure in my synopsis because he is the easiest character for readers to identify with but the novel isn’t like that. Caldecott’s narrative has more than a dozen viewpoint characters and a complex double structure. Events in the town’s present day are interspersed with enigmatic scenes set in the 16th century. Rotherweird’s mix of quaint old-fashioned customs (at one point Oblong finds himself competing in a coracle race dressed as a grasshopper) and cutting-edge Science never seems entirely plausible. For much of the book the numerous story-lines don’t seem to be getting anywhere. The self-consciously eccentric locals can be hard to empathise with – authors please note that coining funny names is not a substitute for proper characterization – and gangling Oblong is not exactly hero material. He is more like a hapless character from a novel by Evelyn Waugh or even P.G.Wodehouse. Caldecott has fun giving Oblong a disastrous love-life but the social comedy in “Rotherweird” tends to work against the Horror elements when these finally arrive. I was disturbed by a creature who is part good woman and part malicious spider but to be honest you can terrify me with the tiniest of spiders.

“Rotherweird” seemed like one for the reject pile until I noticed that I was ignoring my husband at breakfast in order to finish reading this novel. At some point, I’d been hooked by Caldecott’s wayward plot and charmed by his setting. So, what is good about “Rotherweird”? Caldecott does have a strong visual imagination. His style may not be poetic but it is highly readable and pleasingly precise – when Sir Veronal sends for some “flavourless biscuits” they are served “in a white napkin, lined up like poker chips.” Caldecott writes entertaining dialogue which is more literary than natural but that helps to establish Rotherweird as a timeless place, set apart from the rest of the world. It’s an extreme version of the kind of small provincial town often celebrated in English literature – think Cranford or Tilling with added zany machines and weasel-men. Rotherweird lacks some of the main annoyances of modern life, such as traffic jams and mobile phones. This is a place I should like to visit and I got a strong sense that creating Rotherweird was a labour of love for Caldecott.

If you enjoy plots put together like a jigsaw puzzle and intriguing mysteries, “Rotherweird” is the book for you. This novel has mysteries galore. Why has Sir Veronal restored the manor house and what is he trying to remember? Who is the scholarly Countrysider known only as Ferensen and what happened to missing teacher, Flask? What is the purpose of the set of stones and the meaning of some mysterious murals in the church? Why did Rotherweird have to be sealed off from the rest of England and what kind of monster once came to its Midsummer Fair? These questions are answered in the current novel but there are plenty more mysteries left to be explored in the impending sequel, “Wyntertide”. “Rotherweird” is a book to be read for the range of its characters rather than their depth. Sir Veronal Slickstone is a standard Fantasy villain but, due to a last minute plot twist, this doesn’t matter. What I really like is the variety of the “good guys”. The companions are female and male, young, middle-aged and old, and include a cheery pair of inventors, a reckless scientist, a warm-hearted cleaner, a reclusive scholar, a timid bureaucrat who learns to take risks and an authority figure brave enough to break with tradition. I’m looking forward to reading more about this group. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

This week I’m recommending a subtle story to enjoy during the languid days of high summer. Yes, Fantasy can do subtle; especially when the author in question is Caroline Stevermer. Her novel “When the King Comes Home” was published in 2000 with a wonderfully atmospheric cover illustration by David Bowers. I’m sorry to say that this book is currently out of print but cheap second-hand copies are easy to obtain. “When the King Comes Home” is set in the same invented realm (Galazon) as two of Stevermer’s other novels – “A College of Magics” and “A Scholar of Magics” but this story takes place hundreds of years earlier.

In Stevermer’s version of late Renaissance Europe there is a country you may not have heard of called Galazon. It was once the centre of an empire ruled by powerful kings, of whom the most famous was Julian IV. At the time this story begins, the reigning monarch is an elderly figurehead and the real power in the land is the prince-bishop of Aravis. In the rural northwest of Galazon lives the Rosamer family. They are hard-working sheep-farmers and wool-merchants but the youngest child, Hail, knows from an early age that she wants to be an artist. When Hail is fifteen, her father takes her to the ancient capital city of Aravis to become an apprentice to the famous painter Madame Angelika Carriera.

Hail quickly settles down in Aravis and gets on well with her fellow apprentices, except for the malicious Gabriel. During visits to the palace, Hail learns more about Galazon’s greatest rulers, Good King Julian and his beautiful Queen, Andred, and their Champion, Sir Istvan. Julian has been dead for over 200 years but people in Galazon still speak of how everything will come right “when the king comes home”. By the time she is eighteen, Hail has become a skilled painter and metal-worker but she is obsessed with the work of an artist called Maspero who served King Julian. When Hail copies Maspero’s famous “Siege Medal”, Gabriel persuades her that she has committed a serious  crime. Hail flees the city to find her father, but on her journey she encounters a beggar who looks just like the surviving portraits of Good King Julian. This is a meeting which will change the course of history.

The beggar claims to be “a damned spirit” and wants a priest to exorcise him. When Hail and her family take the beggar to Aravis it quickly becomes a political matter. A ceremony carried out by the prince-bishop’s exorcist proves that the beggar is not Julian but rumours of the return of the Good King have already spread. Hail is held in the palace because she has acquired some dangerous knowledge. She knows that a sorceress is using ancient relics to bring back the dead and that the works of Maspero contain more magic than she ever imagined. When Hail does leave the palace again she will be exposed to the dangers of sorcery and civil war…

I originally became aware of Stevermer when I read, “Sorcery and Cecelia”, the first of three Regency Romance/ Fantasy novels which she co-wrote with Patricia C. Wrede. These delightful books, which take the form of letters exchanged by “Two Young Ladies of Quality”, are full of wit and charm. There is a vein of humour in “When the King Comes Home” but this story is deeper and darker than most of Stevermer’s work. For the first 70 pages it reads like a well-researched historical novel, albeit one set in an invented country. As an amateur painter, I found all the detail about an artist’s training fascinating but other readers may get impatient. Only a brief conversation about the possibility of fetching back dead people if you have something that belonged to them, suggests that there is powerful magic ahead. Stevermer takes time to make the country of Galazon and her heroine Hail Rosamer seem very real before the discovery of the man who looks like King Julian sparks off a series of extraordinary events.

All these events are seen through Hail’s eyes and “When the King Comes Home” is written as a first-person narrative. It worries me that many male readers may refuse to try this novel simply because the narrator is a teenage girl for most of the plot. Please think again. I promise this isn’t a “girly” sort of book and it could almost be classified as an Anti-Romance. The most important thing about Hail is not that she is female but that she is an artist with a true vocation. The novel explores the joys, pains and responsibilities of such a life-long vocation. The narrative is a sophisticated one because Hail is telling her story looking back from old age. This allows Stevermer to drop intriguing hints about the way that the history of Galazon is going to develop.

Hail is a distinctive and sometimes exasperating heroine. Intelligent but naive, she ignores good advice, talks herself into trouble, and does things her own way – whatever the consequences. A possible romance between Hail and a young officer never develops because she has different priorities. Stevermer conveys the poignancy of the “road not taken” in a few lines of ostensibly trivial conversation. With equal subtlety, Stevermer draws parallels between headstrong Hail and the ambitious sorceress, which Hail herself doesn’t seem to perceive. What distinguishes Hail from the sorceress is her compassion and her tenacious loyalty. She goes on helping two heroes who have been forced back from death, even when she isn’t rewarded by any kind of emotional response from them.

All over the world there are stories about great leaders who, after many signs and portents, will return in their nation’s hour of need. In Britain, this legend is most often told about King Arthur. The return of the true king or queen is also a popular theme in Fantasy fiction, generally featuring as a triumphant climax to thumping great epics. Stevermer on the other hand has used this theme to create a short, sharp novel which examines the way that some people try to exploit the real or imagined glories of the past to manipulate the present. This “return of the king” doesn’t go to plan, partly because the long dead heroes cannot engage with an era that is not their own. They are locked into their original behaviour patterns and relationships and little else matters to them. These walking dead aren’t the monsters of Zombie fiction but there is a deep wrongness about their second lease of life. “When the King Comes Home” is a book which doesn’t provide simple answers to difficult questions. Hail’s story has lingered in my mind long after more conventional Fantasy novels have been forgotten, so I commend it to you. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk