Archives for posts with tag: Fantasy

I apologize for the longer than usual gap between posts, which was due to the disruption caused by having painters in my house. During all the moving of books I rediscovered a novel that I am making this week’s recommendation. The ugly cover of  `The Fishers of Darksea’ (bald men waving spears) nearly made me put it on the `going to the charity shop’ pile. Then I glanced at the first few pages and remembered why I had kept this book for so long. `The Fishers of Darksea’ is one of two novels with a Fantasy feel but some Science Fiction elements written by British author Roger Eldridge (1944-2007). Both are out of print and unavailable as ebooks but it is still easy to find cheap copies of the 1984 Unwin Unicorn paperback edition of `The Fishers of Darksea’.

In a version of our world, an Arctic tribe live on a volcanic island which they call Darksea. The tribespeople hate and fear Old Churny (the sea) and try to prevent the winter ice from ever touching their island. The strict rules which govern life on Darksea are enforced by Glorkas, the rarely seen Water Sorcerer, and Nemu, the Curer. As the story begins, two young men known as Mirth and No-Mirth, are trying to prove that they are worthy `to be admitted to the deep-house of the Fishers’ and join the elite of the tribe. Mirth and No-Mirth are Others, bound together from early childhood;  they share a wife and a destiny. Others are supposed to behave as one person but No-Mirth sometimes thinks and acts independently. This nearly costs Mirth his life during their struggle to kill a fang-walker (a walrus).

In the deep-house, Mirth sings the story of their conquest of the fang-walker. Nemu suspects that parts of the story are untrue, but the Others are accepted as Fishers and each receive a piece of the sacred Liferock to wear. Mirth is delighted to join the Fisherhood, even though it will involve hard and dangerous work. No-Mirth is unhappy that his new status sets him apart from his family and from his childhood friend, Anselm. He surprises everyone by giving the walrus-tusk he won in the hunt to his share-child, Mirth’s little daughter Liss-eht. When walking the cliffs by himself, No-Mirth sees a gigantic Fish circling the island. He is sure that this monster poses a terrible threat to Darksea but no-one will believe him.

No-Mirth tries to send a vision of what he has seen to the Water Sorcerer and makes an enemy of jealous Nemu. Mirth presses his Other to conform but when No-Mirth realizes that he has true-sight he begins to question the Seven Fear-laws of Darksea. Is it really true that his tribe are the only flesh-folk (humans) in the world and that everything that lives in or floats on the sea is evil? After a confrontation with Nemu, rule-breaker No-Mirth has to flee from the angry Fishers. In the bone-house, No-Mirth encounters a creature from the Warm. He learns the truth about his island and has an almost impossible choice to make…

With a hero named No-Mirth you can’t expect this to be a cheery novel but it is an interesting one and not as gloomy as my synopsis suggests. A major plot-twist about two-thirds of the way through the book is pretty clearly sign-posted right from the start.  You will probably think, `I know what’s going on here – it’s a people with superior technology observe and exploit a primitive society situation.’ This was indeed a popular plot-line in Science Fiction stories and television series of the 1970s and 80s but the variant in `The Fishers of Darksea’ does not develop in the way you might expect. One of the themes of this story – the dangers of exploiting wild places like the Arctic – seems more topical now than it was when the book was first published.

The great selling points of this novel are the intensity of Eldridge’s writing and the way that he completely immerses the reader in this isolated hunter-gatherer society. From the very first sentence, the physical setting of the story is astonishingly vivid – `A light wind idled across the rocky heights of Darksea, gathering steam from the spout-holes and making pale ghosts whirl across the water towards the fishwalk.’ With its mists, blizzards and unpredictable spouts of scalding steam, this barren island is a terrible place where the tribe is slowly losing its struggle to survive. Eldridge belonged to what I would call the anthropological school of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He builds up a detailed picture of how the people of Darksea think and behave and he invents convincing rituals, traditions and myths for the tribe. No-Mirth tells his Other-daughter the story of how the island was created when the radiant goddess Liferock emerged from her prison beneath the ocean `in a great fire-burst that made the brine boil’ and the ancestors of the tribe were born.

Anthropologists will tell you that not all tribes live in harmony with nature. The people of Darksea believe that they are alone in a hostile world. They think that the ocean is their enemy and that anyone who falls into the poisonous brine will die and become a nixie. The fate of each child in the tribe is decided by the Water-Sorcerer examining the guts of a fish. The children themselves have no say in what they will do when they grow up. The one person who questions his preordained role in the tribe and tries to find a new identity for himself is No-Mirth. He is unhappy being paired with Mirth when the real link he feels is with Anselm, whose fate is to live in the common-house rather than becoming a Fisher. No-Mirth has a grim outlook but he is humanized by his love for his share-daughter `the joy of his waking life’. The adult women in No-Mirth’s life, such as his share-wife, are too worn down by daily tasks to be interested in the status games that the men play.

At first it seems obvious that the ways of the tribe are primitive, brutal and ignorant and that No-Mirth is a hero for thinking as an individual but the story is more nuanced than that. The Fishers are brave and resourceful and the novel explores the benefits of thinking collectively as well as the drawbacks. No-Mirth himself recognizes that many of his actions have been selfish and that he is partly responsible for his disastrous relationship with his Other. When No-Mirth encounters beings from a very different culture, it gives him a better understanding of his own society. Some anthropologists claim that all cultures can be divided into just two types – ones that can cope with change and ones that can’t. `The Fishers of Darksea’ is a novel which makes you wonder if your own tribe will survive in an era of massive changes. Until next time….






Last week the Scotts voted to stay in the United Kingdom (I’m a quarter Scottish but I didn’t get a quarter of a vote). To honour their decision I’m recommending a Fantasy novel set in Scotland, or at least in a place that is usually part of Scotland. `The Silver Bough’ by American writer Lisa Tuttle was first published in 2006. It is currently available in paperback or as an ebook. Tuttle draws on the rich folklore of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland and on the Arthurian legend of Avalon – the mystical `Island of Apples’. Apples feature prominently in this book, so you might want to stock up with a few to munch while you’re reading.

This is a novel in which the place is as important as the people. Appleton is a small town situated on an apple-shaped peninsular on the western coast of Scotland. It was once a popular seaside resort and a great fruit-growing area, famous for an incomparably sweet apple known as `Appleton’s Fairest’, but the town’s fortunes have been in decline since the 1950s. The local factory has closed down, the apple orchards have been grubbed up and few tourists visit any  more. The town’s only asset is a grandiose library and museum built by the wealthy and eccentric Wall family. Into this failing community come four lonely strangers…

Divorced Kathleen has made a new start by taking the post of Librarian in Appleton. The library is said to be haunted by the ghost of Emmeline Wall and the attached museum has some very odd things in its collection (such as `fairy eggs’ and a unicorn horn) yet Kathleen loves the place. Mario is a teenager who because of an affair with a married woman has been sent away from his home in Sicily to work in his surly uncle’s fish and chip shop. Texan Ashley has dropped out of college after the sudden death of her best friend and doesn’t know what to do with herself.  Her late grandmother, Phemie, ran away from Appleton to America, even though she was engaged to the richest man in town. Now Ashley has come to stay with the Scottish relatives she’s never met before. Nell is a reclusive young widow who has restored derelict Orchard House and planted apple-trees in its walled garden. She has even found a seedling that might be the long lost `Appleton’s Fairest’. After a landslide cuts off the town from the outside world, this seedling produces a bough with silvery blossom and one perfect golden apple.

Trapped in a town with few young people, Ashley has little to do but make drawings and listen to local legends. She’s told that King Arthur sleeps in a nearby cave, that the area is inhabited by a fairy race who shrink as they age but never die, and that every 50 years a golden apple appears which can grant anyone who eats it their heart’s desire. She also hears about the strange and tragic history of the Wall family and learns that her grandmother Phemie was once chosen as the Apple Queen, who was supposed to preserve the luck of the town by sharing an Appleton’s Fairest with a handsome stranger during the annual Apple Fair. That never happened, but Ashley meets a handsome stranger of her own, the mysterious Ronan, who claims to have returned to Appleton after a long time away. Ashley, Kathleen, Mario and Nell all begin to have strange experiences as Appleton slips out of the ordinary world and into the realms of Celtic myth. The dead are seen walking and ancient dangers awaken. Can a pair of true lovers save the people of Appleton by sharing a magical apple, or will a sacrifice be needed?

Publishers tend to believe that book-buyers only want to read stories about characters who are very similar to themselves – same age, same gender, same race etc. Normally I find this depressing and contrary to the spirit of Fantasy fiction, which is all about exploring the different and the extraordinary. However, I must confess that the strength of my identification with Kathleen did help me to enjoy `The Silver Bough’. This character shares my temperament (`she `felt both stimulated and at peace in the company of all the silent books’), my taste in literature, and my own childhood dream of living in a library. Living in a Glasgow School Art Nouveau library packed with magical books and objects is my idea of heaven. You may prefer to identify with one of the other three viewpoint characters – artistic Ashley, romantic Mario, or secret gardener, Nell. `The Silver Bough’ isn’t a flawless book. For a novel set in Scotland, it has remarkably few Scottish characters. There seems no reason why Ashley, Kathleen and Nell should all be Americans (did Tuttle’s publishers insist on this?) when they only need to come from a few miles away to count as outsiders in Appleton. The male characters are less convincing and interesting than the female ones. Mario isn’t given enough to do and Dave, the famous singer-songwriter who provides the love-interest for Kathleen, seems a little too good to be true even in a Fantasy novel. Though, like Kathleen, I wouldn’t be able to resist a man who has actually read my favourite folklore collection – Campbell’s `Popular Tales of the West Highlands’.

Some people find Tuttle’s style too flat and her pace too slow but I think these are aspects of her chosen story-telling technique. She describes extraordinary things in an everyday manner in order to make them more credible. Tuttle also takes her time building up a detailed picture of Appleton, using pastiche newspaper cuttings and visitor guides and quotes from invented journals and books. By mid-way through this novel, I knew my way around this sad seaside town, with its derelict grand hotel and empty shops, and I had begun to care about its fate. Failing towns and cities are a topical subject but not one you often encounter in Fantasy fiction. Small oddities are gradually introduced – phone-calls that go unanswered, revellers glimpsed in the distance, a light shining through a window that shouldn’t be there. It seems to Kathleen that `the whole town was waiting for something wonderful that was about to happen’. When the wonders do start to happen, Appleton becomes a disturbing, even dangerous, place for ordinary humans to be. Kathleen’s view of the world is turned upside down during what starts off as a routine visit to an elderly librarian. Supernatural creatures manifest in a smell of burning, a woman beckoning from the sea, or a white horse beside a loch. The horror lies in what might have happened rather than what does.

Tuttle doesn’t stint on plot elements in `The Silver Bough’. There are plenty of past and present mysteries to be solved – Why did Emmeline Wall throw herself into the sea and who was the father of her illegitimate son? Is there a secret chamber in the Library and what does it contain? What made Phemie run away from Appleton and which new couple will share the golden apple 50 years later? The story contains quite a number of possible couples to keep readers uncertain about the answer to that last question. `The Silver Bough’ could be categorized  as Fantasy Romance. Widower Dave and widow Nell are set up to contrast with each other; the former ready to move on while the latter is trapped in a destructive spiral of grief. There is also a standard figure from Scottish folklore, the fairy suitor whose magical `glamour’ makes him attractive to every woman he meets. Yet on second reading, Tuttle’s novel is more subtle and less romantic than it appears to be. In `The Silver Bough’ the fairy suitor can attract lust but not love and the story asks what might happen if the fairy himself does not want to play his traditional romantic role. With the resonance of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the apple in the background, it is never entirely clear whether eating the golden apple is the right thing to do. Was it selfish of Phemie and her fiancé to refuse to follow tradition and share the apple, or did they have a right to try to make their dreams come true without any supernatural help? Will Appleton be saved by a time-shattering act of magic, or by ordinary people with the courage to commit themselves to each other and to their community? If you find these interesting questions, `The Silver Bough’ may be the book for you. Fantasy Reads will be back in two weeks time on the new regular day of Thursday.


Inspired by the brilliant `Ming’ exhibition at the British Museum, this week I’m choosing a Chinese Fantasy novel with an irresistible central character – a naughty monkey who wants to live forever. Monkey’s story was written down in the 16th century, probably by a poet called Wu Ch’eng-en. The original title of this novel is `The Journey to the West’ but I’m specifically recommending the abridged translation by Arthur Waley which is just called `Monkey’. You can get this in paperback or as an ebook. There have been numerous adaptations of `The Journey to the West’ including a jokey Japanese television series `Magic Monkey’, which was a surprise hit in the late 1970s. This kitsch classic, available dubbed on DVD, is still fun to watch. Set in Tang Dynasty China, `Monkey’ tells how a priest and his three monstrous disciples made an epic trip to India to fetch some Buddhist scriptures. You may think that sounds worthy and dull. Don’t worry, `Monkey’ is riotously entertaining.

`Monkey’ literally starts with a bang as a magical monkey bursts out of a stone egg on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. This stone monkey soon becomes king of the local monkeys. He seems to have everything a monkey could want but King Monkey knows that one day he will weaken and die and then be born again in some other form. He yearns to cheat Death and `live forever among the people of the sky’. Monkey seeks out a Taoist holy man who who teaches him how to ride clouds, transform himself into 72 different things and change every one of his 84,000 hairs into a warrior monkey. Next he forces the local Dragon King to give him a magical weapon, an iron club that can be as big or small as Monkey wishes. When the Judges of the Dead eventually come for Monkey, he’s ready for them. He makes so much fuss about dying that the Jade Emperor who rules the sky agrees to admit Monkey to heaven as a minor Immortal.

Monkey isn’t content with a lowly job in the Jade Emperor’s stables and continues to make trouble even after he’s awarded the grandiose title `Great Sage, Equal of Heaven’. When he eats the Peaches of Immortality, which he’s meant to be guarding, and steals the Elixir of Long Life, brewed by Lao Tzu the founder of Taoism, Monkey becomes almost indestructible. Whole armies fail to subdue him but he’s finally caught by the Buddha of the Western Paradise and imprisoned inside a mountain.

Five hundred years later, Buddha decides that the people of China are in desperate need of spiritual enlightment. He sends the compassionate Kuan-yin to China to find a priest brave enough to travel to the Western Paradise in Gandhara and fetch the scrolls which contain Buddha’s teaching. She chooses a virtuous priest with an unusual family history who takes the name Tripitaka. It’s clear to Kuan-yin that unworldly Tripitaka will never survive his dangerous journey without supernatural help, so she picks three extraordinary disciples for him. Pigsy, Sandy and Monkey are all monsters who have been thrown out of heaven for bad behaviour but now they have a second chance. Tripitaka is destined to suffer 81 tribulations on his journey, including dragons, ogres, demons and ghosts. Can Monkey get his new Master all the way to the Western Paradise and achieve true Enlightenment?

`The Journey to the West’ is a marvellous literary mish-mash -an intricate quest story spanning the human and divine worlds, told in both prose and poetry (Waley doesn’t translate much of the poetry). It is part satire and part religious allegory, and incorporates a wealth of myths, folk tales, ghost and horror stories. In modern terms you might call it Dark Comic Fantasy; if you enjoy Pratchett’s Discworld novels you will probably find Monkey’s adventures appealing. There is a lot that seems surprisingly modern about Wu’s narrative. He plays with the conventions of traditional story-telling ( another disaster has to be arranged for Tripitaka at the last minute when Buddha notices that the priest hasn’t had the correct number of adventures); he throws together characters from different eras, cultures and belief-systems (the Buddhist goddess Kuan-yin arrives for a dinner-party with the Queen Mother of the West from traditional Chinese religion and the Taoist Immortal, Lao Tzu and only intervenes in the struggle to overcome Monkey when she discovers that `no drinks are going’); he makes grand and powerful beings such as Dragon Kings and Emperors speak in everyday language (`You lying quack,’ bawled the Dragon King `Your divining is a fraud and all your talk is lunatic twaddle.’), he affectionately addresses his central character as `Dear Monkey’ during moments of high emotion and he provides a teaser at the end of each chapter to keep his readers turning the pages (`If you do not know how the Emperor came to life again, you must read what is told in the next chapter.’)

The tale of Tripitaka is based on an actual journey along the Silk Road made by a monk who lived in the 7th century CE but you don’t need to be any kind of expert on Ancient China in order to enjoy the novel. Many of the things that Wu pokes fun at, such as useless government officials in pointless jobs and greedy priests and pompous or fraudulent holy men, have equivalents in most cultures. Wu didn’t let himself be constrained by real geography when writing about Tripitaka’s journey. Instead, he created a series of Fantasy kingdoms inhabited by creatures from the darkest corners of the Chinese imagination. The dragons, ghosts, and demons encountered by Monkey and Tripitaka don’t necessarily behave in the way that their Western equivalents would. The underwater domains of various dragons are described in delightful detail (one Dragon King has shrimp soldiers, whitebait guards and crab generals) but the dragons themselves don’t fare too well – one gets beheaded for not making enough rain and another is humiliatingly transformed into a horse for Tripitaka to ride. The ghost stories inset into the main narrative are pleasingly unpredictable. Let’s just say that you can’t always rely on the dead staying dead. Tripitaka and his disciples get to fight a wide range of monsters and demons. The key to defeating these monsters often lies in discerning their true forms and discovering their stories. If you want to find out how a pet goldfish was able to terrorize an entire district you’ll have to read `Monkey’.

Waley’s sparkling translation is a joy to read but he did leave out many of Tripitaka’s adventures on the road to Gandhara, including some of the naughtier encounters with seductive demons. If you fancy tackling all one hundred chapters of  `The Journey to the West’ (after all it’s not much longer than `The Lord of the Rings’) try the four-volume translation by Anthony C. Yu. If, like me, you are an arachnophobe, you may want to omit the chapter about the cave of the spider demons. Waley’s short version will still give you a clear picture of the four leading characters – Tripitaka, Pigsy, Sandy and Monkey. The virtuous Tripitaka is a bit of drip, as Monkey is fond of pointing out. Tripitaka’s standard  response to dangers and difficulties is to burst into tears but he’s terrific at meditation and scripture-reading. It’s a nice irony that Tripitaka forces Monkey to be non-violent by reciting the pain-inflicting `Headache Sutra’. Pig-faced Pigsy is a creature of insatiable appetites who was expelled from heaven for groping one of the celestial maidens during a Peach Banquet. He’s a formidable fighter who wields a magical muck-rake and constantly quarrels with Monkey. Reformed water-ogre Sandy is a rather self-effacing monster who wears a necklace of skulls as a reminder of his cannibal days.

Monkey himself is a `little guy’ who acquires superpowers – leading to some cracking battle scenes. He’s full of energy and enthusiasm and for much of the book he refuses to let anyone tell him what to do. In a culture which values deference, politeness and concealment, Monkey says exactly what he thinks and feels and he’s recklessly rude to everyone from woodcutters and monks to kings and deities. Monkey’s faults are mainly loveable ones. He does get too big for his `cloud-stepping shoes’ and his desire for instant gratification often lands him in trouble – it wasn’t smart of the Jade Emperor to put a monkey in charge of a peach-orchard. Monkey may be vain and impatient but during the journey to Gandhara he frequently battles monsters in order to save innocent or oppressed people. He is beginning to display the most important of Buddhist virtues – compassion. Some of the satire on religion in `The Journey to the West’ is still quite shocking. When the four pilgrims finally reach the Western Paradise even Buddha’s most famous disciples are on the take, demanding a bribe before they will hand over the scriptures. Wu does not mock the Buddha’s teaching, only the people who fail to live up to its spiritual ideals. His novel can be seen as a plea for religious tolerance. He allows `Dear Monkey’ to explain to a foolish king that China’s three great religions (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism) are really one and that wise or holy men and women should be revered whichever group they belong to. By the end of the story, Monkey almost lives up to his once ridiculous title of `Great Sage’. Wu ends his book by wishing that anyone who reads it may be `born again in the Realms of Utter Bliss’. With a promise like that, how can you resist trying `Monkey’? Until next time…


Most of us have seen J.M. Barrie’s famous  play `Peter Pan’,  or one of the many films based on it, but did you know that Barrie developed the play into a novel called `Peter and Wendy’? I recently read this novel for the very first time and found it much more interesting than I was expecting. So, `Peter and Wendy’ is this week’s recommendation. It was first published in Britain in 1911 and has been reprinted many times. You can often find old copies on ABE though I’d suggest avoiding editions which have Mabel Lucie Attwell’s excruciatingly twee illustrations. Alternatively, you can download the text of `Peter and Wendy’  for free. Try to make sure that you are getting the full novel, since there is also a shorter version aimed at younger children which is usually called `Peter Pan and Wendy’. Barrie gave all the royalties for `Peter Pan’ to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London. If you enjoy this book, perhaps you might consider sending a donation to this remarkable hospital.

Everyone knows the basic story of Peter Pan. Around 1900, three children – Wendy, John and Michael – are living in London with their parents, Mr and Mrs Darling, and their Newfoundland dog, Nana. `There never was a simpler happier family until the coming of Peter Pan.’ Wendy has dreamed about a strange boy called Peter Pan, just as her mother did when she was a child. When Peter flies into the children’s nursery one night, Nana scares him off and Peter’s shadow is caught as she closes the window. Peter returns a week later with his companion, the tiny fairy Tinker Bell (Tink). Nana tries to warn Mr and Mrs Darling that something is wrong but they take no notice and go out for the evening. Peter retrieves his shadow but can’t work out how to re-attach it. When Wendy wakes up she sews it back for him and is fascinated to hear about the magical island known as the Neverland (or Never-Neverland) where Peter lives with the Lost Boys. He soon persuades Wendy and her brothers to come and have adventures in the Neverland. After teaching them to fly (`You just think lovely wonderful thoughts’), Peter leads the children on the long journey to the Neverland (`Second star to the right, and then straight on till morning’). Mr and Mrs Darling come back to find the nursery empty.

Due to the jealousy of Tink, Wendy only just survives the trip to the Neverland. Once she meets Peter’s six Lost Boys, they are captivated by her story-telling skills. The boys build Wendy a little house (hence the name Wendy-House for children’s playhouses) and she is happy to play at being a loving Mother to the lonely boys while Peter acts the role of strict Father. Life on the island is exciting but full of dangers. There are unreliable fairies, unfriendly mermaids, fierce Red Indians ruled by the intrepid Princess Tiger-Lily and a crew of dastardly pirates led by the infamous Captain James Hook. It was Peter who cut off Hook’s arm in a sword-fight and flung it to a passing crocodile, which is now keen to eat the rest of the pirate captain. Hook plans to capture and kill Peter Pan, Tink plots against Wendy, and Wendy, John and Michael are slowly forgetting who they really are. Meanwhile, back in London, Mr Darling blames himself for the children’s disappearance and Mrs Darling keeps the nursery window always open…

`Peter and Wendy’ has a haunting opening sentence -`All children, except one, grow up.’ Like Kenneth Grahame’s `Dream Days’ (see my post of August 2013 ) or William Golding’s `Lord of the Flies’, this book is more about children than for them. It includes events which happen before and after the action of the play `Peter Pan’ and the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters are described in some detail. Barrie becomes a character in his own right in his role as narrator and commentator. His style isn’t a bit pompous and I found myself laughing aloud at some of the jokes. At times the narration seems playfully post-modern – as when Barrie pretends to consider which of several adventures to relate (such as the `sanguinary affair’ of the redskins at Slightly Gulch or the story of `that cake the pirates cooked so that the boys might eat it and perish’)  before  settling on the `Mermaid Lagoon’ episode which appears in the play. He also makes it very plain that these are story-book `redskins’ and pirates, not realistic ones. They are equivalent to the stereotypes which  children now encounter in Fantasy war-games.

`Peter Pan’ is famous for its seething subtext, which has provoked all manner of psychological interpretations. `Peter and Wendy’ shows that Barrie was not as unconscious of this subtext as many people suppose, since it contains a scene in which Captain Hook argues with his own `ego’. With his death-dealing iron-hook for a hand and his `curdling’ smile, Hook is one of Fantasy’s most memorable villains, especially as he is followed around by a gigantic crocodile who has swallowed a ticking clock. Wendy finds Hook `enthralling’ and he is played to perfection by tall, dark and handsome Jason Isaacs in the 2003 film of `Peter Pan’. The pirate leader is full of evil schemes and even manages to flummox the redskins by not following the proper literary conventions during a battle scene. Yet he lacks self-confidence and is prone to fits of depression. Like Britain’s current Prime Minister, Captain Hook was educated at Eton and his failure to fit in there has left him permanently traumatised. It becomes obvious in`Peter and Wendy’ that Barrie had more than a little sympathy for his arch-villain.

Barrie’s hero, Peter Pan, seems to be a character who took on a life of his own. He first appeared in several chapters of a novel by Barrie called `The Little White Bird’ (1902) as a boy who has run away from his parents to live with the fairies in Kensington Gardens. After the success of the play about Peter (1904 ) these chapters were reprinted in book form as `Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’.  If you visit the real Kensington Gardens in London, you can see a bronze statue of Peter Pan with animals and fairies. Peter’s motivation for running away from home is `always to be a little boy and to have fun’. In the play, Peter sparkles with wit, energy and charm and is endearingly conceited (`Oh, the cleverness of me!’). He’s an exciting, if unpredictable, friend to have. In the novel, Barrie makes it clearer how much Peter is giving up in return for perpetual fun. He is running away from all adult responsibilities and emotions. Peter is a leader who may change sides in the middle of a battle because the fighting is all he cares about. He bullies the Lost Boys, who are missing their families, and doesn’t allow them `to know anything he did not know’. He fails to understand how the passionate Tinker Bell feels about him and is incapable of having a lasting relationship with anybody. In one chilling passage, when Peter believes that Wendy has been killed he thinks of `hopping off in a comic sort of way till he was out of sight of her, and then never going near the spot anymore.’ In another, Barrie hints that if  Peter ever did grow up he might become another Hook.

`Peter Pan’ is a play about `The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’. `Peter and Wendy’ is a novel about a girl who does choose to grow up. Much of the book explores the female view of the story and wise and loving Mrs Darling is the dominant figure in the opening chapters. Modern readers may cringe at the old-fashioned gender divisions in the children’s games – the boys get to fight redskins and kill pirates while Wendy is stuck with the housework – but Wendy does have a pet wolf and is shown to be every bit as brave as the boys. Peter can live in the Neverland because he remains `innocent and heartless’. Wendy is all heart. At first she’s just playing at being a mother. She enforces `nursery rules’ even when they are absurd in the circumstances (the pirates sneak up on the boys while they are taking their after-lunch nap). Then Wendy develops a real sense of responsibility for her new family of Lost Boys. Once that happens, she can’t stay in the Neverland. She loves Peter but she is forced to lead a rebellion against him and return to the pains and pleasures of real life. The last chapters of the novel deal with the adult Wendy’s poignant encounters with ageless Peter and describe how each new generation finds its way to their own personal Neverlands. Reading `Peter and Wendy’ may make you wonder if our current, internet-based, generation is permanently lost in the Neverland. Until next time…


I think it is about time that I recommended something by Ursula Le Guin, who is one of the most respected figures in modern Fantasy and Science Fiction with a `World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement’ to prove it. Le Guin is a prolific author so it hasn’t been easy to choose just one of her books. I thought of picking `The Tombs of Atuan’, which I find the most interesting of her Earthsea novels, but this is very well known. So instead I’ve decided on `Gifts’ – the first in a loosely-linked trilogy known as the `Annals of the Western Shore’. The original hardback edition, published by Harcourt in 2004, is a handsome book in every way. Cheap paperback or ebook editions are also easy to find. In theory, `Gifts’ is a novel for teenagers but it refuses to follow most of the conventions of Young Adult fiction.

In the bleak northern Uplands live families who each have a special `gift’ which they can use to protect or enrich their domains. Some of these gifts, such as the power of female members of the Barre family to summon and control animals, seem benevolent enough. Others, such as the ability of the Geremant family to twist limbs or the Rodds to maim or kill with a spirit-knife, are dangerous and cruel. No wonder that the Lowlanders accuse Uplanders of being witches, even if they don’t quite believe all the stories about them.

Young Orrec is the only son of Canoc, the Brantor (leader) of Caspromant, whose gift is `undoing’. This terrible gift can destroy people, animals and things but Cannoc uses it to defend his domain from aggressive neighbours such as Ogge of Drummant, who has the sinister gift of `slow wasting’. Canoc’s wife, Melle, is a Lowlander with a talent for story-telling. Theirs is a very happy marriage but Canoc is anxious to know whether his son has inherited the Caspromant gift. Orrec enjoys watching his `cradle-friend’ Gry Barre use her gift to call animals but he has no desire to try destroying things with a look. Gry and Orrec seem made for each other but their families have other plans for them.

Canoc keeps testing his son. When Orrec is a teenager his gift does show itself but it seems to be `Wild’ – a power that cannot be controlled. After he loses his temper, Orrec has to wear a blindfold to stop him accidentally killing someone with a glance. He daren’t even look at his beloved mother or the dog who helps him to get around. As the threat from Ogge of Drummant increases, so does the pressure on Orrec to control his power. After a time of tragedy, it is Gry who helps Orrec to understand the extraordinary truth about his gift.

Novels for modern teenagers are expected to be fast-paced and action-packed. `Gifts’ is neither of these things and Le Guin doesn’t try to grab the reader’s attention with a dramatic opening. Instead, this thoughtful story begins with a long conversation, in which Orrec tries to explain the Upland way  of life to a sceptical Lowlander. You may feel that I’ve given rather a lot away in my synopsis but most of this plot information is revealed in the very first chapter. `Gifts’ doesn’t have a complicated plot and Le Guin disdains to build up suspense in an obvious way. What she does do is establish an air of menace and cleverly needle the reader into asking lots of questions about Orrec and Gry’s strange situation.

If Le Guin’s work is more admired than loved it may be because she always seems in total control of her material, using her immaculate prose to create new worlds with the minimum of fuss. This story isn’t cluttered by masses of background detail but the Uplands, with their bleak mountains, feuding clans and men in kilts, have a vaguely Scottish feel. The fact that Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists may account for her special talent for inventing convincing cultures and societies. She has obviously put much thought into how the Brantors’ powers, and the fear they evoke, would influence the hierarchy within domains and the interaction between domains. She describes a society living with a balance of terror and the effect is chilling. It is quiet Gry who works out how the original powers may have been distorted. This challenges every reader to think about whether they have misused any of the gifts they were born with. An uncomfortable question.

The narrative voice in `Gifts’ is that of Orrec, so the reader is forced to share his blindness for much of the novel. Le Guin often writes about very unconventional family groups but the Caspromant family has deceptive air of normality. Orrec has a tempestuous but always plausible relationship with his father, full of anger, resentment and guilt. For much of the book it is hard to tell whether Orrec has a real grievance, or if he’s just being a typical teenager refusing to make an effort because he’s afraid of failing to meet his parents’ expectations. Fantasy fiction isn’t generally big on mother-son relationships but there is an outstanding one in `Gifts’. Melle is touchingly portrayed as a woman who deeply loves both her husband and her son but feels unable to intervene in their dispute about a power she cannot comprehend. What she can do is to teach Orrec to read and write and leave a him a legacy of stories and poems.

Melle’s stories aren’t factual but they contain the kind of truths that people can live by. The power of stories and poems to enrich individuals and sustain or even change whole civilizations is explored throughout `The Annals of the Western Shore’. In Volume Two – `Voices’ (which has a different narrator and setting) you can follow Orrec and Grys into a conquered city where the Taliban-like new rulers drown people for possessing books. Le Guin’s fantasies always have strong connections to the real world. If you are looking for a story with lasting resonance, try `Gifts’. Until next time….




When J.R.R.Tolkien wrote, `There are many heroes but very few good dragons’ he was referring to the dragon who appears in the Anglo-Saxon poem known as `Beowulf’, which is this week’s recommendation. We’re lucky to have this epic about one hero’s fights with three monsters, since it only survived into modern times in a single, badly burned, manuscript. `Beowulf’ is set in Dark Age Denmark and Sweden but it was composed in England around 1200 years ago. I’ll suggest some translations in prose or verse at the end of this post, so don’t let the strange language or the great age put you off.  `Beowulf’  may not be an easy read but this poem has inspired many modern writers of Fantasy and there is plenty in it for Horror-buffs and lovers of Heroic Fantasy to enjoy.

The original poem doesn’t have a straightforward linear narrative but here is the main storyline – After ruling in Denmark for many years the aged King Hrothgar builds a splendid banqueting hall which he names Heorot. All the feasting and music-making in this hall arouses the envy and anger of Grendel, a semi-human creature who lives in a nearby lake. Under cover of darkness, Grendel comes to Heorot and slaughters and eats many of Hrothgar’s warriors. He returns night after night and no weapon is able to stop him. News of the curse on Heorot spreads throughout Scandinavia.

After twelve terrible years a group of Geats from Sweden visit Hrothgar’s court. They are led by Beowulf, the strongest man alive, who vows to kill Grendel or die trying. A Dane called Unferth is sceptical of Beowulf’s claims to be an experienced monster-slayer but King Hrothgar allows the Geats to spend the night in Heorot. When Grendel comes, he and Beowulf wrestle. Grendel flees after Beowulf rips his arm off. Everyone assumes that the monster will soon be dead but their joy is short-lived. The next night Grendel’s equally monstrous mother attacks Heorot and carries off Hrothgar’s favourite adviser. Borrowing a famous sword from the treacherous Unferth, Beowulf tracks the monsters to their underwater lair. He endures a terrible battle with the water-witch but it is not the most dangerous fight of his life.  Many years later, when Beowulf is King of the Geats, a runaway slave is foolish enough to steal a cup from a dragon’s hoard. The fiery dragon wakes and Beowulf finds that he must face it alone…

You can tell from this summary  that `Beowulf’ features early examples of story-elements that have become standard in Horror fiction, such as the outsider who becomes a serial killer, the creatures who can’t be kept out by locks and bars or killed by ordinary methods, and the group of people who dare to spend a night in a haunted house. Nobody in the poem actually says, `There’s a monster around somewhere so let’s split up…’ but most of the Geats are daft enough to fall asleep in Heorot. What happens next is as gruesome as anything in contemporary Horror films. Grendel tears open the door with his talons, seizes one of the sleepers, rips him apart, drinks the blood and then devours the body `even the hands and the feet.’ Most film adaptations of `Beowulf’ add unnecessary complications to the plot and fail to replicate the tension and doom-ridden atmosphere of the original (`Outlander’, which is only loosely based on `Beowulf’,  is probably the best of the bunch). The scene in the poem in which Beowulf finds the severed head of Hrothgar’s friend beside a lake boiling with blood and swarming with reptiles is one of the creepiest in all Fantasy.

Grendel is particularly scary because he doesn’t belong to any of the standard types of mythical beast. We’re only told that this `unhappy being’ was forced to live in a fog-shrouded marsh because he is descended from Cain, the first murderer. Thereafter, the reader must put together a picture of Grendel from his victims’ horrified glimpses. The `Beowulf’  poet (we don’t know his name) seems to get under the skin of his villain and shows the pain Grendel feels at being excluded from the joys of human life. Besides, you have to feel sorry for an adult monster who is still living with his mother (There is a powerful novel, `Grendel’ by John Gardner, which retells the `Beowulf’ story entirely from the monster’s point of view).  The sudden appearance of Grendel’s mother is a brilliant `second monster’ twist and her anguish at the fate of her son is treated as very real. This `enormous water-hag’ proves a formidable opponent for Beowulf. Contrary to the daft 2007 film, she doesn’t go in for seducing heroes and looks nothing like Angelina Jolie. Beowulf seems to win a stunning victory over the monsters but we are told right at the start of the poem that Heorot is still doomed. Throughout `Beowulf’ the characters tell stories about contests, quarrels and wars that have taken place in the past or which may happen in the future. These `digressions’ all emphasize human pride, greed and treachery. A savage family feud is destined to destroy Hrothgar’s hall. Ultimately, the people in the poem are more destructive than the monsters.

Anglo-Saxon poetry is all about courage in the face of inevitable defeat. At the peak of Beowulf’s success, Hrothgar warns him that even the greatest of heroes grow old and that one day Beowulf’s great strength will fail him.  It does. The gloomy and cautious Beowulf who struggles to save his people from a rampaging dragon is very different from the boastful and confident young warrior we meet at the start of the poem. The actual dragon-fight is brilliantly done. If you’ve read `The Hobbit’ or seen the films, you’ll notice several borrowings from Beowulf, but it’s typical of Tolkien’s inventive use of his source material, that he chose to centre his story on the lowly `burglar’ who steals from the dragon, rather than on the aristocratic dragon-fighters.

I hope I’ve given you enough reasons to read `Beowulf’, or at least skim through it to find the best bits. If you fancy  a verse translation, why not go for the one by Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest poets of recent times? You can get this as an ordinary paperback but there is also an illustrated edition with splendid photographs of Dark Age treasures and an essay on `Visualizing Beowulf’. It’s easy to find cheap paperback copies of the excellent prose translation of `Beowulf’ by David Wright, which has a helpful introduction and notes. Just out in hardback is `Beowulf  A Translation and Commentary’ by J.R.R.Tolkien. This volume (edited by Christopher Tolkien) contains the prose translation of `Beowulf’ which Tolkien produced as a young man and highly specialized notes put together from his lectures on Anglo-Saxon poetry. As a charming bonus there is a previously unpublished `Tolkien poem – `Beowulf and the Monsters’ – and `Sellic Spell’ – a story he wrote to `reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon tale that lies behind the folk-tale element in Beowulf‘. If you want to learn more about this extraordinary poem , I suggest that you look at Tolkien’s famous essay `Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ which includes a defence of Fantasy literature in general. Until next week…


This week my choice is a children’s story which I would only recommend to adults. `The Bone Dragon’ by Alexia Casale came out in 2013 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. Casale has lived and worked in both Britain and America but this novel is set in England.  Be warned that the author herself describes it as a `wicked little book. `The Bone Dragon’ was published as Fantasy fiction for older children but it could equally have been marketed as a psychological thriller for adults. It all depends on how you interpret what you are reading…

Fourteen year-old Evie tells her own story, beginning with an operation to repair an old injury to her rib-cage. Evie lives in the Fens near Cambridge with her adoptive parents, Amy and Paul. When she is presented with a piece of her own rib after the operation, her Uncle Ben suggests that they carve it into `something pretty amazing’. Evie chooses a dragon. When it is done, Evie passionately wishes that the Bone Dragon would come to life. Her wish seems to be granted.  When they are alone together, the Dragon speaks to her. He promises her that `When you are strong, we can do anything you wish’ and encourages her to creep out of the house each night to explore the surrounding countryside.

Evie gradually reveals that her natural parents are dead and that she suffered terrible abuse in the house of her grandparents. She is very unwilling to talk about what happened, even to the sympathetic teacher  who is helping her to catch up with her school-work. Amy makes a loving mother to Evie, but she, her husband Paul and her brother Ben are all still suffering from the aftermath of a dreadful family tragedy. They are also frustrated that the law has done nothing to punish Evie’s abusers. So, when Evie learns that Paul and Ben are going on mysterious late night missions, she wonders if they are planning to take the law into their own hands. Evie grows stronger and copes with being bullied at school but the Dragon still tells her that she must wait for the special `night of our dark moon’ before she can make her secret dream come true…

`The Bone Dragon’ is a deceptively clever novel. This review will have to be shorter than usual because I’m anxious not to give too much away.  Casale weaves several storylines that are common in children’s literature into her plot but does something dark and different with them. In Fantasy novels, sad or lonely children often wish for a magical companion who will take them on adventures (see my December 2013 post  on `The Cuckoo Clock’). At first, the Bone Dragon seems a typical example as he shows Evie `the beauty and wild magic in the  night’. The way that Evie learns to use all of  her senses to appreciate the unique landscape of the Fens is beautifully described, which distracts you from thinking about what other purpose these nocturnal rambles might have. Like many mentors in Fantasy, the Dragon is fond of making cryptic pronouncements. As Evie says `the whole `riddle me this’ thing is very annoying sometimes’ but there turns out to be a very good reason for it.

If, like me, you loved Mark Haddon’s `The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ you will probably enjoy this book. Both novels have young outsider narrators who look at life in a very unusual way.  Parts of  `The Bone Dragon’ read almost like a standard mid-Atlantic school story, as Evie worries about fitting in, tries to share the interests of her two best friends, and has a misunderstanding with a boy who fancies her. Almost, but not quite because the reader gets to share the intensity of Evie’s feelings and her desperate need to protect herself. What might normally develop into a romantic subplot spills over into unexpected violence. Casale keeps the reader guessing about whether this is going to be a novel about revenge or forgiveness.

As if she was the heroine of a Victorian novel, Evie helps to sort out the emotional problems of the adults who have taken her to their hearts, but this only makes Evie more aware of the difference between herself and them. She feels like `one of those changeling creatures from a fairy tale’ because she lives in a world where some people are wicked and terrible things happen. She can’t unknow this, but can she learn to live with her knowledge of evil? `The Bone Dragon’ has the scariest happy ending since the original Grimm (in every sense) version of `Snow White’. Whether it is Fantasy fiction or a novel about living out your fantasy is up to each individual reader to decide. Either way, Evie’s story is a mesmerising read. Until next time…