Archives for posts with tag: Book Review

This week I’m recommending `Of Bees and Mist’, a novel by Erick Setiawan which features a character who may be the world’s most sinister mother-in-law.  Some reviewers called this book `an adult fairy tale’ but I would put it on the Magical Realism shelf.  `Of Bees and Mist’ was first published in 2010 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. Setiawan was born in Indonesia to Chinese parents and moved to America when he was sixteen. He acknowledges his mother’s stories as one of the main inspirations for his debut novel. Some of them must have been ghost and horror stories.  Before we go any further – a health and safety warning. If  you happen to be pregnant, you might want to avoid this book. It is full of gruesome childbirth scenes and dead babies.

In an unnamed town a young girl called Meridia grows up in an unnaturally cold house where ghosts haunt the mirrors and an ivory mist always hovers over the front door. Her scientist father, Gabriel, seems to despise her and her bitter mother, Ravenna, doesn’t even remember that she has a daughter most of the time. Meridia is troubled by a recurring nightmare about something terrible that happened when she was small. Her nurse tells Meridia that Gabriel and Ravenna were once a loving couple who only began to quarrel after a mysterious wind got into the house. Before she can explain any further, the nurse is banished and Meridia is even more alone.

At thirteen, Meridia realizes that the ivory mist, and the yellow mist that surrounds her father whenever he leaves the house, are created by the  anger and jealousy Ravenna feels because Gabriel spends every night with his mistress. Meridia longs to be a comfort to her mother but the distance between them seems greater than ever. At fourteen, Meridia finds a friend whom nobody else can see, which gives her the confidence to explore her home town. At sixteen, she meets handsome Daniel during the Festival of the Spirits and falls `into devastating love’. Ignoring some sinister omens, Daniel proposes and introduces Meridia to his family – his father, Elias who runs a jewellery shop, his vibrant mother Eva, and his two very different younger sisters. Gabriel opposes the match so Ravenna supports Meridia but warns her, `do not repeat my mistakes.’

Meridia and Daniel’s `fairy tale’ wedding is not the end of the story. Meridia soon finds herself treated like a servant by her domineering mother-in-law.  She learns some dark secrets about Daniel’s family and struggles to help the victims of Eva’s domestic cruelty. When the young wife asserts her independence, it triggers an obsessive feud between Eva and Meridia. A feud which only worsens when Meridia gives birth to a son. Eva uses her distinctive form of magic to harass Elias and Daniel and bend them to her will. As the links which bind the two unhappy families become plainer, Meridia’s own marriage is threatened. Is there any hope that Meridia and Daniel can escape the curses that have blighted their parents’ lives?

`Of Bees and Mist’ has all the passion of Latin American Magical Realism without the politics. This is a novel more interested in families than nations, and the characters and setting are more important than the plot. In contrast to the speed and sparseness of traditional fairy tales (see my recent post on `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’), this narrative is slow moving and filled with luscious descriptions which build up an exotic atmosphere. Setiawan pulls off the clever trick of making the setting both very vague and very specific. Vague because we are never told the era and country in which the story takes place, just that Meridia lives `in the only part of the world where snow fell but never chilled, where the sun blazed with tropical intensity but never scorched’.  I pictured the period as early 20th century, since photographs and silent films are mentioned but there seems to be little else in the way of technology.

Meridia’s home town and its inhabitants display the odd mixture of eastern and western elements you often find in Japanese manga and animé. The names of the characters come from a variety of cultures and their physical characteristics from a variety of races. This gives the story a universal quality but could also have made it bland. That’s avoided through all the specific detail about what people eat and wear and about the objects, buildings and gardens which reflect the differing lifestyles of Meridia and Daniel’s families. Food is particularly well used in this book. One market-trader grows herbs on her own body and another swallows radishes and `spits them out chopped, seasoned, and pickled’, Meridia learns to enjoy life with her alter ego Hannah while feasting on strawberry sandwiches, deep-fried potato cakes, cinnamon pastries and preserved mango slices, and Ravenna furiously cooks for her husband eighteen dishes, such as `broiled snowfish sprinkled with nutmeg’ and `veal garnished with peaches and palm sugar’,  to mark `Eighteen years of grief and regret’. It’s the Fantasy version of fusion cusine.

The inhabitants of Meridia’s town (which almost counts as a character in its own right) also have a weird mix of beliefs, customs and superstitions.  The older generation at least still lives in fear of ghosts and spirits, so when someone is ill exorcists and soothsayers are summoned as well as doctors, fires are always kept burning in the Cemetery of Ashes and people hope to be transformed into light so that their souls will `drift like fireflies’ in an Immortal Forest. Setiawan draws on the Oriental concept of ghosts and demons being created by unfulfilled desires and uncontrolled emotions – especially those of women (see also `Peony in Love’ my Halloween recommendation for 2012). The envy of the townspeople physically strikes at happy couples, the chill that sets into Gabriel and Ravenna’s marriage after Meridia’s birth literally lowers the temperature of their home and Eva’s emotional abuse of her family manifests itself as a swarm of bees, buzzing with malice. Eva also uses pet animals to manipulate their owners’ feelings and blind them to the truth, but objects given with love can be imbued with the power to dispel this dark domestic magic.

In spite of all the magic there is nothing unrealistic about the emotional history of the two families at the heart of this story. They argue about money and the proper way to bring up children, and face common dilemmas such as how can a marriage survive when the wife goes off sex after having a baby? Setiawan makes it clear that his characters are vulnerable to magic because of their human failings. Gabriel and Ravenna are too proud to discuss their problems, Elias nearly always takes the line of least resistance, and Meridia’s secretive nature allows Eva to make her look like a disloyal wife. Eva herself becomes a monster because she demands that each member of her family love her far more than anyone else. The men in this book seem weak besides the central trio of strong-willed women – Meridia, Ravenna and Eva. The two older women change considerably in the course of the story. Eva misdirects all her energies into power-struggles and revenge but it’s a delight to see jealous Ravenna softening into the role of protective mother and loved grandmother. Meridia may be a rather reserved heroine but her constant fear of slipping into invisibility will strike a chord with many readers. `Of Bees and Mist’ is a family saga enriched by the Fantasy elements. If you like this novel at all, you will probably want to read it several times. Until two weeks time…




This week I’m recommending the ultimate in Urban Fantasy – Mark Helprin’s `Winter’s Tale’, which was first published in 1983. Out this year are paperback and ebook editions under the title of `A New York Winter’s Tale’, to coincide with the release of a film adaptation by Akiva Goldsman. This is a sweet, romantic, and visually beautiful film, but with a two-hour running time it could never hope to do justice to Helprin’s very long and complex novel . If  you’ve just seen the film and, baffled by fleeting references to fallen angels, wondered if bits of the story are missing, the answer is a resounding yes. Whether or not you enjoyed `A New York Winter’s Tale’, it is well worth giving the original novel a try.

In the late 19th century, in a city very like New York, a baby boy is found floating in a miniature boat called City of Justice by the primitive Baymen who live in the marshes. They call him Peter Lake and care for him until he is twelve years old before sending him to Manhatten to find his own path. Peter ends up in an orphanage where a strange clergyman called Reverend Mootfowl encourages Peter’s love for all types of machinery. Peter and his friend Cecil are delighted to be chosen to work on a new machine for a bridge-building project until the dreadful day when they think they have accidentally killed Mootfowl. Peter and Cecil run away and are forced to join the Short Tails gang led by the terrifying Pearly Soames. Peter grows up to be an accomplished burglar and is content enough until one of Pearly’s criminal schemes involves wiping out the Baymen. Peter foils this plan but is soon on the run from Pearly and the brutal Short Tails. He only escapes because he finds a marvellous white horse who can sometimes fly.

Peter’s life changes again when he meets the beautiful Beverly Penn, a young woman who is dying of consumption. She is the daughter of wealthy newspaper owner and philanthropist, Isaac Penn. Peter follows her to the Penn’s country house on the Lake of the Coheeries, a place that doesn’t quite seem to be on any map. Beverly is somehow able to protect Peter from Pearly’s malicious power, but their happiness is not destined to last. Peter is a broken man but he cannot die until he has helped to bring about a miracle. As the year 2000 approaches, Peter’s destiny is linked to a new generation of the Penn family  and to Virginia, a young journalist and mother from the Lake of the Coheeries and her husband, Hardesty, who is driven to search for `a perfectly just city’. The trouble is, Peter Lake doesn’t remember who he is or know what he is meant to do.  Meanwhile the city of New York has become a battleground between the forces of order and chaos and a miraculous bridge of light is being built which could mean the end of everything….

Some reviewers of the film `A New York Winter’s Tale’ complained that the plot was too strange and complicated for them to follow. Goodness knows how they would have coped with the original novel and its huge cast of eccentric characters. I’m assuming that the discerning readers of my Blog enjoy strangeness and are well used to dealing with multi-layered, time-bending plots. However, if you normally like fast-paced fiction, you will have to slow down and learn to enjoy the side-shows as much as the main story. The 799 pages of `Winter’s Tale’ contain far more than I could pack into a conventional plot summary. Athansor, the creature of legend who can appear as a white horse, gallops into the story at key moments. Pearly and the grotesque Short Tails are a perpetual part of the criminal underworld, always waiting for the chance to rob, kill and burn. Yet Jackson Mead, the mysterious bridge-builder served by Cecil and Mootfowl, may be even more dangerous to the city. Peter and Beverly’s doomed but glorious romance is just the first of several memorable love stories in the book, including one in which two people fall in love talking through a wall before they’ve seen each other. Peter’s actions are vital to the over-arching storyline but he is absent for much of the book, while the focus shifts to characters such as quirky writer, Virginia and her `dumplingesque’ mother, Mrs Gamely, and Hardesty Marratta a young man who has to choose between inheriting a vast fortune or a single gold salver inscribed with the intriguing words: For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.

Helprin has re-imagined his fictional city with extraordinary intensity. His singing prose makes the suspension bridges and skyscrapers of New York as beautiful and magical as the castles and forests of conventional Fantasy and the derelict docks, claustrophobic silt- chambers and garbage-strewn alleys as sinister as anything in Mordor.  If I hadn’t been there, I  would think that Helprin had made up the zodiac-painted dome of  Grand Central Station. It certainly makes the perfect hiding place for the elusive Peter Lake. Much of the novel is about the continuous struggle for the soul of this version of New York, a struggle that is sometimes represented by the contrast between the city’s two leading newspapers – `The Sun’ run by the Penn family (British readers will have to forget about our own `Sun’ newpaper which is very far from being `a beacon of light’) and `The Ghost’ owned by dim rival press-baron Craig Binkey. Near the end of the book an election is fought between the corrupt `Ermine Mayor’ and `retrogressive’ idealist, Praeger de Pinto, one of whose policies is to condemn `electronic slavery’ and `reassert the primacy and sacredness of the printed page’. Some of the arguments in this section of the novel concern the best way to live the `American dream’ but the book has other themes which are more universal. It even tackles the big question of whether human suffering has a purpose.

Jackson Mead wants to put a stop to the chaos of human life and impose divine justice and endless peace on the city but even his helpers can see that it is the on-going war between good and evil which stimulates `the wonderful small triumphs of the soul’. Pearly Soames, a villain with a curious passion for pure colour, argues that love is finite and that what you give away, you lose. Peter Lake comes to believe that love lasts for ever as it is passed from soul to soul and that nothing is ever lost in the giving. In `Winter’s Tale’, miracles aren’t seen as divine interventions in human affairs, but as acts of cosmic justice eventually brought about through the sacrifices of individuals. Some readers may feel that there are a few too many earnest discussions in this deeply serious novel, but you will find plenty of thrilling action scenes as well. At the climax of the story, New York suffers an exceptionally cold winter and then faces destruction in storms of fire. Sadly, the film-makers don’t seem to have had the budget for these apocalyptic scenes, but nobody describes dramatic weather better than Helprin. His clouds alone are worth the price of the novel.

`Winter’s Tale’ isn’t for everyone. Some people find it incomprehensible or overblown and pretentious, but for other readers this is the book they keep coming back to, the book that gives them hope in dark times or makes sense of their lives. It might be worth finding out whether `Winter’s Tale’ could be your `desert island book’. Until two weeks time.


This week I’m recommending a flamboyant Fantasy Classic – `The Worm Ouroboros’ by E.R.Eddison. This was first published in 1922, with darkly atmospheric illustrations by Keith Henderson. Copies of the first edition and its one reprint are now very expensive indeed but more recent paperback editions can be had for as little as a dollar. Some free downloads are available but I’m not sure how legal these are because Eddison’s work is still in copyright in most countries. As the `The Worm Ouroboros’ is set on the Planet Mercury, this novel could be regarded as Science Fiction but since the plot involves a war between Demons, Witches, Imps and Goblins , I think we can all agree that we are dealing with Fantasy here. Contrary to what you might expect, the Demons are the good guys and Eddison’s  Goblins are decent chaps, if a bit unreliable.

The book begins with a man named Lessingham sleeping in the mysterious Lotus Room so that he can go on a spirit-journey to Mercury and observe the inhabitants of its two principal kingdoms, Demonland and Witchland. We can now forget about Lessingham, since the author does. Demonland is ruled by the noble Lord Juss with his brothers, Spitfire and Goldry Bluszco. During Juss’s birthday feast an ambassador arrives from King Gorice XI of Witchland. Juss and his brothers are insultingly summoned to kiss King Gorice’s toe and acknowledge him as overlord of Demonland. The Demons respond by challenging Gorice to a wrestling match with Goldry. If Gorice wins they will acknowledge him as overlord but if Goldry wins the king is to leave Demonland in peace. King Gorice ignores the advice of two of his most faithful counsellors, Lord Corund of Witchland and the Goblin Lord Gro, and accepts the challenge. After a brutal match, Gorice XI is killed but a new King Gorice immediately arises in Carcé, the chief fortress of Witchland.  He wears a ring in the shape of a serpent swallowing its own tail  – the Worm Ouroboros, symbol of eternal regeneration.

With the help of Gro, Gorice XII works a terrible spell against the Demons while they are at sea. Goldry Bluszco is carried off and Juss and Spitfire and their cousin Lord Brandoch Daha are nearly drowned. After a failed attack on Carcé, Juss dreams that he will only find news of his lost brother in Koshtra Belorn, a remote mantichore-infested mountain in Impland. Juss and Brandoch Daha set out for Koshtra Belorn and encounter two very different sorceresses but King Gorice has sent Corund with an army to pursue them. Meanwhile, Spitfire and Brandoch Daha’s brave sister struggle against the quarrelsome nobles of Witchland who have invaded Demonland.  Before the story ends, monsters must be slain and evil spells overcome, dreadful battles will be fought and kingdoms will rise and fall.

At first sight, this novel contains a lot of the things that many people hate about Heroic Fantasy, including archaic language and silly names, over-detailed descriptions of costumes and weaponry, a simplistic conflict between the forces of good and evil, female characters who mainly stand around looking beautiful and aristocratic male characters who show total disregard for the lives and rights of ordinary people. The key to enjoying this book is not to take it too seriously. Apparently, the world in which `The Worm Ouroboros’ is set was first invented by Eddison when he was around ten years old – hence the silly names. He went on making up stories for his own amusement during his distinguished career in Public Service.  While Eddison was presiding over meetings at the Board of Trade, some part of his mind must have been off catching hippogriffs and slaying Witch-Lords. He also became an expert on the Icelandic sagas and on Jacobean literature and that clearly influenced the way he wrote.

For better or worse, Eddison’s swashbuckling literary style is pretty much unique in Fantasy fiction. His characters speak pseudo-Shakespearean English, as in “Kinsman, what ails thee? Is all high heart and swiftness to action crushed out of Demonland and doth but the unservicable juiceless skin remain to us?” Lovers of Jacobean drama will spot quotations from famous plays and Eddison adapted a number of well-known British poems (such as `Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?’)  for use by his characters.  In contrast to the earnest pseudo-medieval language of  William Morris’s Fantasy epics  (see my October 2012 post on `The Well at the World’s End’), Eddison seems to be writing this way purely for fun. If he wasn’t, would he really have one of the wicked characters cry, “Rhubarb! Bring me rhubarb to purge away this choler!”?

You may find the lengthy and ornate prose descriptions harder to cope with than the zesty dialogue, but you could just relax and enjoy how wildly excessive everything is. So, King Gorice flaunts his wickedness in a chain-mail tunic set with black opals, black cross-gartered hose `with bands of sealskin trimmed with diamonds’, a cloak `woven of the skins of black cobras stitched together with gold wire’ and the `Iron Crown of Witchland’ shaped like a crab with erect claws.  If there were awards for `Best Dressed Fantasy Characters’, Eddison’s heroes, heroines and villains would probably win most of the categories. For palace furnishings it would be hard to beat Lord Juss’s solid gold four-poster bed `hung with curtains of dark-blue tapestry whereon were figured sleep-flowers’ and its canopy with a mosaic of gem-stones each representing a particular star and `shining of their own light…like dead wood glimmering in the dark.’  If I could choose to attend any feast in Fantasy fiction it would probably be the one held by the Red Foliot (whose `skin is as scarlet as the head of a green woodpecker’) in Chapter III. Who could resist an entertainment which includes a Pavane of White Peacocks to the music of a nightingale, two capering dormice `fat as butter’, and the joyous dance of the Cat-Bears with their `black bellies, round furry faces and innocent amber eyes’ ?

In a brief introduction, Eddison wrote that `The Worm Ouroboros’ was `neither allegory nor fable but a Story to be read for its own sake’. That story contains three elements which have been common in Fantasy fiction every since – a magical quest, court intrigues, and a war between good and evil. In this novel, the quest to find Goldry Bluszco and rescue him from his supernatural prison involves climbing unconquered mountains, overcoming a murderous mantichore, and taming a flying horse.  It’s exciting stuff but Eddison seems more interested in the treachery and intrigue among the nobles of Witchland, which ends in a typically Jacobean bloodbath. It is in this section of the book that the female characters are most prominent, especially the beautiful Prezmyra who is touchingly faithful to her elderly ugly husband, Corund. Prezmyra’s courage and determination allow her to outshine the Demon Lords who are the official heroes. Indeed, as the story develops it becomes less and less clear whether there is a right and a wrong side in this conflict. There are men and women of honour on both sides and, like the flawed heroes in the Icelandic sagas which Eddison loved, the `good’ Demon Lords mainly fight for the love of fighting.

The most interesting character in the novel is the clever serial traitor, Lord Gro. He is a melancholy philosopher who always feels compelled to switch sides to support the losing party. He frequently speaks out against the honour code and suggests cunning plans which might be ignoble but which could save many innocent lives. No-one ever takes his sensible advice because this is Heroic Fantasy but Gro’s central place in the story makes `The Worm Ouroboros’ a more subtle book than you might expect. Until next week……


This week I’m recommending a book which contains some of the most convincing magic in all of Fantasy fiction.`The Phoenix and the Mirror’ by Avram Davidson was originally published in America in 1966. Davidson, who died in 1993, was an erudite man who wrote in many different genres. `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ was the first in his series of novels and short stories about the Roman poet Virgil, who was transformed in later tradition into a great mage and alchemist. This novel is available in paperback, on Kindle, or as an audio download. The `Fantasy Masterworks’ edition of `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ has a perceptive introduction by Adam Roberts which suggests that this is a novel which deserves to be read at least three times.

The story is set in a version of Renaissance Europe which is still dominated by the Roman Empire. In the city of Naples, in a house guarded by a Brazen Head, lives Vergil Magus. After an expedition into the tunnels under Naples goes wrong, Vergil finds himself in the palace of the Dowager Queen Cornelia. He allows himself to be seduced by the beautiful Cornelia who steals part of his soul. She will only give it back to him if Vergil succeeds in making her a virgin speculum, a magic mirror in which Cornelia can disover the whereabouts of her lost daughter, Princess Laura. Vergil has no choice but to agree, even though he knows that this is an almost impossible task.

With the aid of his jovial friend the alchemist Clemens, Vergil begins to assemble the materials he will need to forge the bronze mirror. They must have tin ore, but this is only found in the mysterious Tinland that lies somewhere beyond Tartis in the Great Dark Sea. Vergil visits the gloomy castle of  the Captain-Lord of the Tartismen, where he meets a Phoenician sea-farer known as the Red Man. After he saves the life of the Captain-Lord, Vergil is promised some tin-ore, but to obtain pure copper ore he will have to get to Cyprus, which is `cut off by the ships of the fierce Sea-Huns.’ The Red Man agrees to take Vergil in his own ship. Guided by strange dreams and the ravings of a madwoman, the Magus sets off on a dangerous voyage. When he reaches Cyprus, a place of rival cults and dark secrets, his problems only increase. Even when Vergil has all the materials he needs to make the magic mirror, questions remain. Is Princess Laura truly lost? What does Cornelia really want and who is the Red Man?

`The Phoenix and the Mirror’ is a short novel packed with original ideas and fascinating details. Reading this book is rather like eating a small slice of chocolate cake and finding that it fills you up because of its rich ingredients. Davidson was a master of the Fantasy and Science Fiction short story so perhaps it isn’t surprising that his novels tend to be rather episodic. My brief summary may have made the plot of `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ sound straightforward. It isn’t. The plot veers off in unexpected directions and there are stories within stories, some of them left tantalizingly open-ended. If Davidson’s work isn’t as popular as it should be, this may be because he seems to have taken an impish delight in breaking the normal rules of good story-telling and baffling his readers.

`The Phoenix and the Mirror’ begins excitingly with a man lost in a maze being chased by manticores `like great bloated weasels, hair a reddish yellow..and shaggy as goats, eyes bulging and glowing and rolling every way, showing an intelligence…far more than merely animal.’ However, it rapidly becomes less clear exactly what is going on. Mysteries are raised about Vergil and his mission which are never explained away. The reader has to guess what kind of man Vergil is from small clues scattered throughout the book. Even Vergil himself doesn’t seem to know. There are puzzling gaps in the time-line and important things sometimes appear to have happened between the scenes. The pace of the narrative is considerably slowed down by learned digressions: lectures on alchemy and metallurgy (dismissed by Clemens as `tedious recapitulation of details known to every apprentice’), strange anecdotes about past events, and a wealth of information about magical texts and objects. Sometimes you may wish that Davidson would just get on with the story, but if you skip the apparent digressions you could miss something vital. `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ is a page-turner, but you will often be turning the pages backward, to try and make sense of what you are reading. I probably ought to disapprove of this novel but I was won over by its eccentric characters – such as Dame Allegra, the ultimate in crazy cat-ladies, or Tildas, a Shaman who has been turned into a bear – and by all the mind-boggling background detail.

The title of one of Davidson’s other books – `Adventures in Unhistory’ could also apply to this one. Vergil is a citizen of an Empire that is part of the Great Economium but don’t expect helpful maps and family trees and appendices full of potted history. The reader is bombarded with references to deities and doges, temples and castles, tribes and kingdoms, and left to make sense of it all. The Renaissance seems to be in full swing but there is still an Emperor in Rome who uses the title of August Caesar – or there would be if he hadn’t run off to Avignon with his new girlfriend.  In this Roman empire, most of the religions of the Ancient World are still flourishing, magic and proto-science are hard to distinguish and monsters from Classical myth (a four-armed cyclops) and medieval Bestiaries (a blood-orange eating gargoyle) co-exist. Davidson obviously did an enormous amount of research and then picked out his favourite bits from a multitude of cultures and jumbled them together. This may not be the most logical approach but it makes for a very colourful fictional world. Horse-Jewelers Street, where Vergil lives, comes vividly alive, with its traders in beads and bells to ward off the Evil Eye, its Fountain of Cleo where women gather to fill their water-jars, its noisy wine-shop, the Sun and Wagon, the hut of rubble and rushes where Dame Allegra lives with her `covey of cats’ and the evening smells of wood-smoke, fish, oil and garlic.

Talking heads made of bronze, like the one by Vergil’s front door, were said to have been owned by many famous philosophers and magicians. This is just one indication that Davidson knew a great deal about the history of magic. As I know from my own research (see `Magic in Ancient Egypt’ by Geraldine Pinch) real-world magic required a lot more effort than simply waving a wand and shouting a few Latin words. Spells usually involved assembling a range of bizarre ingredients and performing ritual actions at propitious times, as well as speaking the right words in the appropriate language.  All this is portrayed in the immensely complex process of making the magic mirror, right up to finding blind men to do the final burnishing because only the first person to look in the finished mirror can use it to see whatever they desire. The cost of using magic is shown to be high. There is a chilling scene in which Vergil reluctantly uses an homunculus made from a mandrake root – `it might have been the tiniest of mummies ever seen’ to sniff out a wind.  He barely stops its fatal scream in time, is left with a `gray and purulent spot’ on one finger and knows that he must never perform that spell again. Throughout the book, Davidson reminds the reader that alchemy wasn’t just about turning base metals into gold; it was a search for hidden meanings and ultimate truths. `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ suggests that the same can be true of Fantasy fiction. There were two sequels, `Vergil in Averno’ and `The Scarlet Fig, or Slowly Through the Land of Stone”, but don’t expect a continuous story. Davidson didn’t write conventional Fantasy trilogies, or conventional anything. `The Phoenix and the Mirror’  may either  infuriate or delight you. Surely it’s worth finding out which? Until next week…


I hope that you all had a good Christmas, or Midwinter Holiday, but if you didn’t, if there were quarrels and mishaps and disappointments, console yourselves with the thought that it can’t have been as bad as the terrifying Christmas endured by the characters in this week’s recommended novel – `The Greater Trumps’ by Charles Williams. Williams was a poet, critic and novelist who became a valued member of the Inklings; the group of Oxford writers which included C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien. `The Greater Trumps’ was first published in 1932. Paperback editions brought out by Faber and Faber (UK) or Regent College (USA) are still in print but second-hand copies may be cheaper. The old Eerdmans paperback (1977)  has a particularly fine cover showing the `The Fool’ from a Tarot card pack. Sadly there doesn’t yet seem to be an ebook version of this novel.

This story involves two very different families, the Coningsbys and the Lees. Lothair Coningsby is a pompous and conventional legal officer – a Warden in Lunacy – who lives with his serene older sister, Sybil, and his grown up children, Nancy and Ralph. Two things are troubling Lothair, a valuable collection of antique playing-cards that he’s recently been left by a friend and the engagement of his daughter to barrister, Henry Lee. Tall, dark and handsome Henry makes no secret of his gypsy ancestry. Nancy finds this romantic but she has no idea that Henry’s family are the hereditary guardians of a secret treasure. When Lothair shows off his card collection, Henry recognizes that it contains the original set of Tarot cards which his family have been seeking for centuries. The `Greater Trumps’ in this set correspond exactly with the dancing gold figurines guarded by the Lees. Henry pursuades the Conninsbys to visit his grandfather Aaron’s country house over Christmas and to bring the Tarot cards with them. On their way, they encounter a mad old woman who believes that she is the goddess Isis, looking for her lost divine child. She turns out to be Henry’s great-aunt, Joanna, who has long been estranged from her brother Aaron.

On Christmas Eve, Aaron and Henry unlock the treasure-chamber and show their visitors a set of shining golden images which seem to be in perpetual motion. All except the figure representing The Fool who stands in the centre. Only Sybil can see that this figure is also moving, quicker than all the rest. Henry has already demonstrated to Nancy that the four Lesser Trumps in her father’s very special Tarot pack represent earth, water, fire and air, and that, `When the hands of man deal in a certain way with the cards, the living thing comes to exist.’  Now he urges Nancy to bring the cards and the images together in order to tell her fortune. Nancy has a strange vision of the cards as `the great leaves of some aboriginal tree’ and feels a sense of destiny. Henry interprets the cards she has chosen as meaning that Nancy will soon be facing danger – `you’ll come under a great influence of control and you’ll find your worst enemy in your own heart.’  Lothair is dismissive of everything he has seen and makes it clear that he won’t give the Tarot pack to Henry. Aaron longs to reunite the cards and the golden images so that the `great dance which is everything that exists’ can be better understood but Henry wants to enter the dance and use its power to influence events. He is prepared to go to almost any lengths to get the Tarot cards. On Christmas Day, Henry raises a great snow-storm of magic to achieve his ends. When Nancy intervenes, the wild power of the Trumps is unleashed and the whole world is in danger.

Don’t worry if you know little or nothing about the Tarot cards traditionally used to tell fortunes. Williams has Henry Lee explain their meaning and purposes very clearly and there are brilliant descriptions of the images on the cards, such as the Juggler, the Lovers, and the Hanged Man, as these come to life. At first, the Coningsbys and the Lees seem to belong in two different kinds of novel. Peevish Lothair Coningsby (who hates his romantic name) is a comic character worthy of  P.G.Wodehouse or Jane Austen. He is exasperated by his children, who fail to show him any respect, and irritated by his sister, Sybil,because she seems to enjoy everything while he enjoys nothing. There is a very funny scene in which Sybil rescues her brother from a supernatural snow-storm while letting him believe that he is rescuing her. Lothair misinterprets the behaviour of most of the other characters and resolutely refuses to recognize the magic happening all around him, but he does have a life-changing moment of heroism when he finally understands that his daughter is in danger.

The nineteen-twenties and thirties seem to have been the great age of formidable aunts in English literature and there are two scary specimens in `The Greater Trumps’. At first sight, Sybil is a dull and ordinary maiden aunt but as Henry says to her, “You’re everything that is nice, of course, but you’re terrifying as well.” Terrifying because she has dedicated her life to `adoring the Mystery of Love’ and accepts everything that happens to her with equanimity. Someone else remarks that Sybil could even be happy in a torture chamber, as long as she was the one being tortured. I’m not sure that Williams entirely succeeds with this saintly character. I sometimes find her as annoying as her brother does.  Yet Sybil’s inner peace doesn’t prevent her from knowing that the world is a place of suffering. When Great-Aunt Joanna rants about the murder of Osiris and the terrible loss of the divine child, Horus, Sybil is the only one who thinks that the old woman is talking sense. Like most gypsy-women in fiction, Joanna is much given to cursing people but she transcends the stereotype because of the depth of her mental anguish. The loss of her child has the full weight of the loss of all innocent lives behind it, just as in the original myth of Isis and baby Horus. When she is seen through Lothair’s eyes, Joanna seems a ridiculous `old hag’, wandering around clad only in a blanket, following a feral  kitten. So it is a shock when her delusions nearly turn Joanna into a murderess. In some of Williams’ novels, women play rather subservient roles. In this one, they dominate the story. Guided by Sybil,  Nancy takes up the challenge of continuing to love people even after they have done terrible things. Henry is in love with Nancy but had planned to use her to get what he wanted.  As everyone is drawn into the golden cloud that emanates from the images, Henry realizes that courageous Nancy must lead and he must follow. Williams’ novels are more about the way his characters change than the extraordinary events which are the catalyst for these inner changes.

`Imagine that everything which exists takes part in the movement of a great dance…all that seems alive and all that doesn’t seem alive…everything that changes, and there is nothing anywhere that doesn’t change.’ The central concept of this novel is a majestic one. Henry recounts how the cards and the figurines were created by a visionary who `talked of the dance not with words but with images,’ and made the principles of thought and the realities of existence visible. When these archetypes take shape in the human world they are both beautiful and terrifying. Williams writes very convincingly about magic, probably because he was fascinated by esoteric knowledge and may have dabbled in `White Magic’ himself while he was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. What he doesn’t do in this, or any of his other novels, is to use magic as part of a standard Good versus Evil plot. Williams was always unnervingly adept at playing `Devil’s Advocate’ , so in `The Greater Trumps’ ruthless Henry Lee is treated quite sympathetically while virtuous Nancy’s faults are cruelly emphasized. As Humphrey Carpenter wrote in his book `The Inklings’, `Williams’ ideas of right and wrong often seem extremely odd’.  Perhaps Williams’s novels should come with a spiritual health warning. I still can’t make up my mind about him. Sometimes I feel that Williams was a great moral teacher and sometimes that he must have been a very dangerous man to know. Could it be this sense of danger which makes `The Greater Trumps’ still worth reading? At the end of their `deliciously thrilling nightmare’ Christmas, many of the characters are inspired to live in  new ways. Let me wish all of you an inspiring New Year. Until two weeks time…


Before there was `Toy Story’  there was `The Mouse and his Child’. This week I’m recommending an early novel by Russell Hoban, an American author who spent the second half of his life in England.  `The Mouse and his Child’ was published in 1967, with illustrations by Lillian Hoban. It’s easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. An animated film `The Extraordinary Adventures of the Mouse and his Child’ came out in 1977 and Hoban himself helped to turn the novel into a play. Like most of Hoban’s work, this multi-layered book is hard to classify. It was originally published for children but much of the satire it contains is aimed at adults. Hoban was inspired to write this story by a friend’s collection of clockwork toys, which were only taken out of their boxes for a few days each year at Christmas time.

In a toy shop live a group of wind-ups (clockwork toys) who are allowed to speak to each other between midnight and dawn. There is a proud elephant, who regards the magnificent dolls’ house on the shop counter as her own, a seal who balances a ball on her nose, and a mouse and his little son who are joined by the hands and do a circular dance.  Just before Christmas, the mouse and his child are sold to a family. For five years they are brought out each Christmas to perform their dance. After the mouse-child breaks one of  the rules of clockwork by crying while `on the job’, the toy is damaged and thrown away. A tramp rescues the toy and mends it so that the father-mouse can walk forward when wound up. The mouse and his child don’t get far before they are captured by a rat called Manny and forced to join his work-gang of salvaged wind-ups.

They manage to escape with the help of a prophetic bull-frog, who warns them that they have a long hard road ahead of them and that, `The enemy you flee at the beginning awaits you at the end.’   They venture into the wild woods, with the angry Manny in pursuit. Father-mouse is determined to gain independence by becoming `self-winding’ while the mouse-child longs to be part of a family again, with the elephant as his mother and the seal as his sister, and to live in the beautiful dolls’ house he remembers. During their journey, the mouse and his child are threatened by warriors and hunters, become part of a bizarre theatrical troupe, and meet two very different thinkers. They endure many trials and encounter old friends and enemies. Even when a happy ending seems in sight, there is still danger…

Hoban spent over three years writing and re-writing `The Mouse and his Child’. It shows in the meticulously researched and crafted world inhabited by his toy and animal characters, which exists un-noticed alongside the ordinary human world. From his lair in an old television set, Manny dominates a `city of rats and other vermin’ at the local dump, where market traders offer `Fancy moulds – green, white and black!’ or `Bacon grease, guaranteed two months old..’; gambling dens and taverns are `crudely built of scraps of wood and cardboard boxes’, and dancehalls are filled with the sounds of `tin-can drums, reed pipes, and matchbox banjos’. I’m particularly fond of the `Meadow Mutual Hoard and Trust Company’, a bank made of actual earth where chipmunk tellers count sunflower seeds and the vaults are full of valuable treacle toffee. If you think that makes the book sound twee, you’ll get a shock when you read the bank-robbing scene. This is a brutal eat or be eaten society, where animals fight over tiny territories until bigger predators come along. `The Mouse and His Child’ is a lot darker in tone than classic animal fantasies such as `The Wind in Willows’ or `Charlotte’s Web’.

This book reminds me of one of those Charles Dickens novels in which an innocent young hero learns how to survive in a dangerous world, but with animals and clockwork toys instead of people. As in Dickens, there is a mingling of the grotesque and the beautiful, startling leaps from comedy to tragedy, and a large cast of eccentric characters. Among the most memorable are Manny Rat, the Fagin-like villain who is plagued by self-doubt, Uncle Frog, a dealer in potions and prophecies who wears a tattered glove as a coat and is not quite the fraud he thinks himself to be; playwright C.Serpentina, a snapping turtle who contemplates infinity with the aid of a can of dog-food,  and the dignified she-elephant who endures cruelty and humiliation because `deep within her tin there blazed a spirit that would not be quenched.’

The clockwork mouse and his child complain of `the futility of dancing in an endless circle that led nowhere’, and anyone who feels unable to control their own destiny will sympathise with them. When the mice do break free, they have to keep moving forward with faith and courage to find the place where they will ‘ feel all safe and strong’ . There prove to be many obstacles in their path. They seek advice about becoming self-winding from `wise’ animals who are based on absurdist writers and existentialist philosophers, but get little practical help. At this point, the story is in danger of becoming merely a clever allegory.

I think `The Mouse and his Child’ is saved from that dry fate by the tender way in which Hoban writes about his clockwork characters. He makes their fragile bodies and indomitable spirits seem so real that it is truly distressing when the elephant is reduced by Manny to a shabby and pathetic figure, and the mouse and his child are trapped at the bottom of a pond while their clockwork stiffens and their glass-bead eyes grow dimmer. But trust me, I wouldn’t be recommending `The Mouse and his Child’ as a Christmas treat if the story didn’t end with forgiveness, peace and goodwill. As for the identity of the mysterious tramp who appears at the beginning and end of the book – well I leave that up to you to decide. Merry Christmas to all my readers and I’ll be back with more recommended Fantasy reads in the New Year.


This  week I’m recommending a short novel that inhabits the shadowy region where Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction meet. `The House on the Borderland’ by  William Hope Hodgson was first published in 1908. Hodgson was a visionary writer who deserves to be better known. After all, this is a man whose stories H.P.Lovecraft found scary. You can download `The House on the Borderland’ for free or there are plenty of paperback editions available. I’d suggest getting ` The House on the Borderland and Other Novels’ in the Orion `Fantasy Masterworks’ series, as this has a provocative introduction to Hodgson’s work by China Miéville. Since no-one reads Hodgson for the beauty of his prose, you could even try the graphic novel version adapted by Simon Revelstoke and illustrated by Richard Corben.

A summary of the story won’t take up too much space because Hodgson rarely went in for complicated, or even coherent, plots. An introduction to `The House on the Borderland’ claims that the author is merely editing a diary found in 1877 in the ruins of an old house in a remote part of Ireland. Most of the book consists of  entries in this diary, kept by an un-named man referred to by the editor as `the recluse’.  This recluse bought the old house, even though the locals claim it was built by the devil, and lived there with his sister, and his dog Pepper for some years before odd things started to happen. He relates how one night he seemed to be snatched from his body and taken as `a fragile flake of soul-dust’ on a long journey to a desolate place where the ancient deities of myth exist in `eternal watchfulness’. At the centre of a vast arena stands a replica of his own house and a huge pig-faced monster lopes around it, trying to find a way in.

Some months after this strange episode, the recluse hears a `half-human, half-pig-like squeal’ coming from the ravine known as the Pit which adjoins his house.  He glimpses hideous white `Swine-Things’ and terrifies his sister by shooting at them. When the Swine-Things attack the house at night, the recluse manages to keep them out. Perilous explorations reveal that the great Pit extends under the house, but he will not leave because of a comforting vision of the woman whose death turned him into a recluse. The next vision he has seems to take him forward in time to the death of our galaxy and shows him a terrifying secret at the centre of the universe. Can the recluse return to his own time and will he escape the evil forces which perpetually threaten the House on the Borderland?

Novels and stories which purport to be based on long-lost manuscripts are common in the genres of Fantasy and Horror, but even during the brief `Introduction to the Manuscript’ Hodgson makes the recluse’s diary seem very real as he describes `the queer, faint pit-water smell of it’ and `the soft “cloggy” feel of the long-damp pages’. As he tells his own story, the recluse doesn’t try to ingratiate himself with his potential readers. He is a bitter man who has selfishly condemned his sister, Mary, to share his solitude and claims that his only friend is his old dog, Pepper. This loyal dog is a major character in the novel. Pepper behaves with courage and good sense throughout, unlike his master. In his role as `editor’ Hodgson describes the diary as a `simple, stiffly given account of weird and extraordinary matters’ but in fact the narrative is far from simple. Right at the beginning, the recluse declares that the locals think him mad. The novel is written ambivalently enough to make madness a strong possibility, especially as Mary doesn’t seem to see the Swine-Things so feared by her brother. Or, and this is a much nastier thought, it could be that the mass of humanity is blind to the horrible truth that the recluse perceives.

The recluse’s narrative consists of two different strands; the first being a relatively standard `peril in a haunted house’ tale, and the second a sequence of spirit-voyages or cosmic visions depending on how you interpret them. The `haunted house’ tale is still one of the best of its kind. I find Hodgson’s pallid and malignant pig creatures far creepier than Lovecraft’s giant luminous penguins (see `To the Mountains of Madness’). At first, the recluse only hears sinister noises in the ominous landscape surrounding the old house. No-one does sinister noises and unbearable silences like Hodgson (one of his Carnacki the Ghost-Finder tales, `The Whistling Room’, may well be the most frightening ghost story ever written). In `The House on the Borderland’ there is the `stealthy pad, pad,pad’ of the monster in the arena, and the Swine-Things’  `half-human grunts’, and `bestial shrieks’ which still  resemble a `glutinous and sticky’ form of human speech. These nightmare creatures can think and plan. The emergence of the Swine-Things from the Pit is horrific but the episode in which they try every possible way of getting into the recluse’s house after nightfall is even more chilling, though we only see them peering in through windows and hear them scratching at doors. It was a big mistake to re-read this novel while I was alone in a dark old house myself. I made very sure that the doors were locked and bolted before I went to bed.

Hodgson was a real-life hero who wrote brilliantly about fear, possibly because he had plenty of opportunities to experience fear during his adventurous life. He intrepidly ran away to sea at the age of 13, won a medal for saving a fellow sailor from drowning, and later taught martial arts. He continued to fight during World War One even after being seriously wounded and  was killed in battle in 1918. The states of terror Hodgson describes so convincingly aren’t just caused by things that go bump in the night. His recluse suffers from a kind of metaphysical horror about the nature of existence. There is a real grandeur in his apocalyptic visions of the road to dusty death. Some critics have complained that the recluse’s passion for his dead beloved is the least original part of the story but Hodgson’s depiction of the afterlife, in which souls float in luminous spheres in the `Sea of Sleep,’ is far from conventional. The ambiguous ending of the novel doesn’t suggest that a happy reunion is in prospect. The recluse’s soul seems to be headed for a darker destination as he feels compelled to let in `the Terror that is on the other side of the door’. Hodgson hints that in turning his back on humanity, the recluse has created his own grim version of reality but, as the introduction says, `The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire.’ Be careful what you desire. Until next week….