Archives for posts with tag: Historical Fantasy

For my first post of 2018 I’m recommending a novel by K.M.Briggs based on the British Fairy Tale known as “Kate Crackernuts”. The unusual thing about this story is that “ugly stepsister”, Kate, is the main heroine. In case you’re wondering, Kate’s nickname is due to her habit of hoarding nuts like a squirrel. The novel “Kate Crackernuts” was published in 1963 and reprinted in the Faber Finds Series in 2009. Katharine May Briggs (1898-1980) was an expert on the Folklore and Fairy Tales of the British Isles. The story of “Kate Crackernuts” probably originated in Scotland but was also known in the north of England. You can find a version of it in Dr Briggs’ wonderful scholarly book “A Dictionary of Fairies” (1976).

This novel is set in the mid 17th century and the story begins in a small castle in Galloway (south-west Scotland) which is the home of Andrew Lindsay, the Laird of Auchenskeoch. Andrew is a widower with one daughter, a beautiful fair-haired child called Katherine. At five years old Katherine first encounters dark-haired, green-eyed Kate, the only daughter of a haughty widow called Grizel Maxwell. The two girls seem opposites in every way but they become fast friends and see each other whenever they can. When Katherine is twelve, her beloved nurse leaves her to get married. Andrew feels that his daughter needs a minnie (mother) so he decides to marry Grizel Maxwell.

The two girls are delighted to become stepsisters but Grizel despises her meek stepdaughter. She resents the fact that Katherine has had a more luxurious upbringing than Kate and that everyone thinks the Laird’s daughter is prettier than her stepsister. Grizel is determined that the two girls shall be treated exactly alike but this only makes them happy because they love each other like real sisters. As time passes, Grizel’s obsessive hatred of Katherine increases. This frightens Kate who knows her mother’s dark secret – Grizel Maxwell is the Queen of the local witches. Grizel wants her daughter to become a witch too but Kate tries to resist the lure of the wild magic that is in her blood.

When Andrew leaves Auchenskeoch to fight for King Charles II in England, Grizel seizes her opportunity to harm her stepdaughter. She conspires with evil Henwife, Mallie Gross, to cast a cruel spell on Katherine. Can Kate help her stepsister without betraying her mother’s secret? Even when the two girls flee to England there is no escape from sorcery. Kate must defy the Seven Whistlers (the Wild Hunt) and risk entering a fairy hill in her battle to save two innocent souls from malign magic.

No 20th century scholar knew more about the Fairy Lore and Folktales of the British Isles than Katharine Briggs. She wrote a thesis on folklore in 17th century literature and published important books such as “The Anatomy of Puck”, “The Personnel of Fairyland” and her four volume “Dictionary of British Folktales and Legends”. If you can’t tell a boggart from a banshee or you want to find out about the King of the Black Art, the Gurt Vurm of Shervage Wood or the ghostly Drummer of Airlie, you need to consult Briggs’ work. She combined formidable scholarship with an easy to read style. Her reputation as a Folklorist remains high but few people remember that she also published two novels – “Hobberdy Dick”, the story of a hobgoblin who faithfully guards a manor house during the English Civil War, and “Kate Crackernuts”.

I suspect that these novels have failed to gain a wide readership because they were originally published as stories for children. When a scholar writes fiction about their academic subject there is always a danger that it may come out reading too much like a textbook. Briggs was determined to give her characters the mindsets of 17th century people and she was reluctant to simplify any aspect of their lives, even in the interests of good story-telling. Initially, “Kate Crackernuts” seems more like serious Historical Fiction than Fantasy. Children often enjoy reading about everyday life in the past (see my recent post on “A Traveller in Time”) but they’re less likely to be fascinated by a mass of detail about the history, religion and politics of 17th century Scotland. I love the use of Scots words in the dialogue (e.g. “The maid’s a silly fushionless tawpie” or “My poor wee whitterick!”) but young readers might find them baffling. So, I’m not sure that “Kate Crackernuts” works as a children’s story but it does now fit happily into a genre that hadn’t been invented in 1963 – the female-centred Young Adult novel.

“Kate Crackernuts” is a book in which the female characters are far more forceful than the males and the plot is driven by their actions. Free-spirited Kate, who loves to roam the countryside and hates being constrained by the conventions of lady-like behaviour, is a remarkably modern heroine. She has the courage and cleverness to protect her stepsister and rescue a young man who has been reduced to a helpless state by a curse. Pretty blonde Katherine gets most of the masculine attention in the story and it would have been easy to make her into an unlikable character. Briggs didn’t do that because “Kate Crackernuts” is primarily a story about female friendship. Katherine may not be feisty but she is utterly loyal to Kate and very much in charge when it comes to choosing a marriage partner.

The novel also features a difficult mother-daughter relationship. Kate and Grizel are shown as being very much alike but their wild streaks manifest in different ways. Grizel is a wicked stepmother you can admire as well as hate. She resents her poverty and despises the men around her, who are mainly much less intelligent than she is. Grizel claims to be indignant on her daughter’s behalf but seems mainly motivated by jealousy of the unbreakable bond between Kate and Katherine. Briggs makes memorable use of the wealth of 17th century material about belief in witchcraft. She weaves both humorous and horrible stories about witches into her narrative and makes you understand the attractions of witchcraft as well as its evils.

The spell placed on Katherine – which makes her believe that she is monstrously ugly – is truly chilling. Sadly it has a modern equivalent in the cruel bullying of young women which often takes places on social media. I wouldn’t be recommending “Kate Crackernuts” as my first book of the new year of it didn’t have a positive message about the power of female solidarity to defeat malice. This is a novel which deserves to win a new generation of readers. Until next time…


My seasonal recommendation this year is a time-slip story which ends with Christmas celebrations in two different eras. “A Traveller in Time” by Alison Uttley is a very English Children’s Classic which was first published in 1939. I don’t think it has ever been out of print so there are numerous editions out there. This novel has been illustrated by many different artists but I like the detailed drawings of Faith Jaques (1977). You can also get “A Traveller in Time” as an ebook or an audio book and a BBC television dramatization from the 1970s is now available on DVD.

“I, Penelope Taberner Cameron, tell this story of happenings when I was a young girl.” Penelope begins by looking back to her childhood in the early 20th century when she lived in London with her parents and her older brother and sister. This sickly and imaginative child alarms her mother with stories about people no-one else can see. All three siblings are sent to stay with their Great-Aunt Cicely (Tissie) and Great-Uncle Barnabas Taberner in rural Derbyshire. The Taberners live at Thackers Farm, an ancient building which was once part of a grand manor house belonging to the Babington family. The children enjoy learning about old-fashioned country ways and helping their great-uncle with his farm-work.

Penelope is the only one to discover “the secret of Thackers”. She glimpses a strange girl in her bedroom mirror and when she opens an upstairs door she encounters four women in elaborate period dress playing a game with ivory counters. Penelope is convinced that the women were real and that they could see her too. Great-Aunt Tissie tells her that some females in the Taberner family are able to see and interact with people who lived at Thackers in past centuries. From time to time, Penelope finds herself slipping back into the 16th century. She meets various members of the Babington family and their housekeeper, Dame Cicely, who is the image of Great-Aunt Tissie. Penelope is accepted as a niece of Dame Cicely, who occasionally visits from London.

Though she cannot control her travels in time and fears being trapped in the past, Penelope becomes deeply involved in the lives of the Babingtons and their devoted servants. The Babington family are Papists (Roman Catholics) living under the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. They are forced to practice their religion in secret. The head of the family, Anthony Babington, is a courtier of Queen Elizabeth but his true loyalty is to the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots. Anthony risks the safety of everyone at Thackers by plotting to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne. Penelope becomes a witness to a daring plan to free Mary Queen of Scots from nearby Wingfield Castle. As the year 1584 draws to a close, the Babingtons are in danger of being arrested for treason and Penelope herself is at risk from an accusation of sorcery….

When you were a small child, did your parents read you any of Alison Uttley’s “Little Grey Rabbit” books? Mine did and I adored these gentle stories – the literary equivalent of a comfort blanket. Later, I identified strongly with the heroine of Uttley’s “A Country Child”, a semi-autobiographical story about a girl growing up on a farm. Most of all though I loved “A Traveller in Time”, a book I borrowed over and over again from my school library. Until recently I’d never known much about Uttley herself. When I looked up accounts of her life, including one on the website of the Alison Uttley Society ( I was fascinated by the apparent contradictions in her character.

She was brought up in a Derbyshire village and remembered every detail of her rural childhood with astonishing clarity. Uttley seems to have clung to country ways, such as belief in the existence of fairies, yet her passion was science. In 1906 she was one of the first women to get a Physics degree from Manchester University and she became a science teacher. Uttley married and had a son but her husband’s mental health never recovered from his experiences fighting in the First World War. After he committed suicide, Uttley started writing children’s books to support herself and her son. Much of her fiction is sweet and tranquil but she had the reputation of being a difficult woman to get on with. I like difficult women.

Knowing something about Uttley’s life has helped me to understand why I have always found “A Traveller in Time”  so convincing. Uttley spent her early years on a farm close to the manor house which she calls Thackers and she grew up hearing stories about “the Babington Plot”. She gives Penelope a childhood similar to her own and the domestic details of country life are lovingly described. Penelope may be frail and bookish but she enjoys feeding chickens and pigs and helping with the haymaking. Uttley’s account of everyday life in the 16th century manor house rings just as true. She is particularly good at gardens – “Pale lilies-of-the-valley and blood-red primulas were out with bees hovering round them from the straw skeps perched on stone stools” and food – “ham baked in honey syrup and spiked with cloves, and brawn and pigs’ pettitoes soused, and tansy puddings.” Uttley makes her readers into time-travellers by transporting us back to the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the 16th century.

In her preface to “A Traveller in Time”, Uttley made the startling claim that, “Many of the incidents in the story are based on my dreams” in which she “talked with people who lived alongside but out of time, moving through a life parallel to my own existence.” Many of the time-slip episodes do have a dream-like quality, especially when Penelope sees people from different eras occupying the same space – “Each set of figures kept distinct, neither was aware of the other, and the farmer walked through them as if they were films of smoke”. However, it’s also clear that this story has been influenced by scientific theories about time and space which Uttley must have studied as part of her Physics course. Time travel isn’t just a plot device in this novel and the heroine isn’t just a plucky girl who has adventures in a more exciting era than her own. Penelope thinks very hard about what is happening to her and what it might tell her about the nature of reality.

I nearly recommended this book during “Ghost Month” (October) on Fantasy Reads because, essentially. “A Traveller in Time” is a reverse ghost story. Modern girl Penelope is haunting the 16th century characters, sometimes frightening them with glimpses of their future. In the most poignant scene in the book, Penelope tries to warn doomed Mary Queen of Scots against agreeing to Anthony Babbington’s plan but Mary only sees her as a sorrowful phantom and complains that, “The world is full of ghosts for me. There is no peace or happiness left.” The more time Penelope spends in the past, the harder she finds it to remember her knowledge of the future. This seems logical and adds tension to the story. When she is in the 16th century, Penelope is charmed by the captive queen and it almost seems as if history can be altered but when she returns to her present, Penelope is reminded of the terrible consequences of Mary’s reckless behaviour.

Penelope’s account of her childhood experiences is tinged with sadness – she cannot stay in the past with people she has come to love and she cannot change their ultimate fate – but this isn’t a depressing book. The story leaves the Babbingtons enjoying their last “glorious Christmas”, complete with Yule Log, garlands of fir, holly and bay, a Wassail Cup, a Boar’s Head and a model of Thackers made out of marchpane (marzipan). History remembers the Babbingtons as wicked or tragic but Penelope has shared their hopes and joys. The novel suggests that somewhere in the layers of time these golden moments continue to exist. Penelope comes back from the past able to live more intensely because she has learned that life itself has “a power behind it that carries folk on to struggle and not give in.”  If you are looking for a beautiful and thought-provoking Christmas read, “A Traveller in Time” may be the book for you.

My treat this Christmas will be reading a new time-travel story in Jodi Taylor’s delightful “Chronicles of St Mary’s” series. Whatever you are doing over the holiday season, I wish you many golden moments.








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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




During this cold week I’m recommending a novel inspired by Russian history and folklore. “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden has only just been published, so the choice is between hardback and ebook editions. The charming cover of the British hardback looks more tropical than Russian. The American cover features a dramatic snow scene which is truer to the atmosphere of this dark and wintry book.

On the edge of a forest in medieval Russia lived a boyar (lord) called Pyotr Vladimirovich and his wife, Marina. She was a daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow but because her mother was rumoured to be a witch, she was married off to a boyar in a remote northern province. This happy marriage produced three children but as Marina’s health failed she longed for a special daughter who would inherit her grandmother’s magic. Marina died after giving birth to a baby girl called Vasilisa (Vasya). Little Vasya was looked after by her older sister and by nurse and storyteller, Dunya.

After six years Pyotr decides that his older daughter needs a husband and his spirited youngest child needs a stepmother. He returns from Moscow with another royal bride, but the neurotic Princess Anna dislikes Vasya and soon has a daughter of her own to favour. The villagers who live on Pyotr’s estate are devout Christians but they also respect the spirits who inhabit the forest and lakes and leave offerings for the ones who protect houses and stables. Vasya has the rare gift of being able to see these spirits. She even befriends some of them, such as the beautiful but dangerous rusalka in the nearby lake and the squat brown domovoi who guards her family home. Her stepmother can see spirits too but she interprets them as demons and is terrified. Princess Anna is grateful when an ambitious young priest, launches a crusade to stop people following the old ways.

As Vasya grows up she has more encounters with spirits and learns to understand the language of horses. When the local people begin to fear Vasya as a witch, her only choices seem to be marriage or a convent. Evil is stirring deep in the forest and dark forces are threatening the village. Weakened by the lack of belief and offerings, the ancient spirits can no longer offer protection against wolves, fire and the walking dead. Vasya, and a magical jewel given to her by a mysterious stranger, may be the only hope…

This debut novel has been launched with much publicity and endorsements from big name Fantasy authors such as Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik. I think the hype is mainly justified. “The Bear and the Nightingale” isn’t as distinctive as Catherynne M.Valente’s mesmerizing Russian-based Fantasy “Deathless” but it is beautifully written and has a most appealing heroine. I was hooked as soon as the old nurse began telling the tale of King Frost. I’ve always been attracted to Russian Fairy Tales, which abound in forceful female characters and magical creatures. I have already recommended one trilogy based on them – Peter Morwood’s “Prince Ivan Saga” (April 2013). Morwood’s novels are primarily dramatizations of specific Russian Fairy Tales with added historical elements. The early chapters of “The Bear and the Nightingale” read more like an historical family saga with added Fairy Tale elements.

Arden has spent some time living and studying in Moscow and it shows in her vivid descriptions of the Russian landscapes and climate. Through young Vasya’s eyes, we see the beauty of the great forests which cover much of northern Russia but it also becomes clear that this is a harsh land. In a bad season, even the wealthy are reduced to living on black bread and cabbage soup for months on end. Weather is very important in this novel. Vasya and her family endure suffocatingly hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Family life is literally centered on the kitchen stove, which everyone sleeps around in freezing weather. Arden is excellent on domestic detail and family dynamics. All the members of the Vladimirovich family are well-rounded individuals. I was sorry when Vasya’s kindly elder sister and interesting oldest brother disappeared from the plot to go and live in Moscow but there is plenty of precedent for that kind of exit in Russian literature.

It is now more or less compulsory in historical Fantasy for the heroine to be a bold rule-breaker who refuses to accept the limited roles available to women. Vasya does fit this profile but she is also convincing as a child of her era. She tries to be a dutiful daughter but cannot conceal her unusual abilities. The men in Vasya’s family may find her hard to understand but they aren’t shown as oppressive  and the author doesn’t criticize Vasya’s gentle sisters for choosing more traditional female roles. The plot requires a cruel stepmother but Arden made me feel sorry for the hysterical Anna who has been deprived of the quiet convent life which was her heart’s desire and forced into marriage. I sometimes felt that Arden was torn between writing a realistic historical novel exploring the plight of women and writing Fantasy. Vasya is told several times that she can’t escape a woman’s usual fate because she isn’t living in a Fairy Tale but it turns out that she is.

The tone of this novel becomes much darker about three-quarters of the way through and the supernatural elements escalate. There are gruesome episodes which could come from a Horror novel when Vasya finds herself facing a demon who wants “to eat the world” (The Bear) and dealing with the walking dead. Anna suddenly behaves like a Fairy Tale stepmother and demands that Vasya find snowdrops in midwinter or be banished from her family home. From this point on, Vasya is immersed in a thrilling Fairy Tale world of danger and magic. We finally meet the Nightingale character and learn more about the enigmatic Frost King. The story ends back in the heart of a changed family but there is plenty of scope for a sequel. I would gladly follow brave Vasya on another adventure. Until next time…


As today marks the start of the new Lunar Year (a Year of the Sheep), my thoughts have turned to something oriental. So I am recommending a Fantasy novel set in a version of Song Dynasty (960-1279) China. `River of Stars’ by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay was published in 2013. The story takes place around 400 years later than Kay’s previous China-inspired novel, `Under Heaven’. `River of Stars’ is available in ebook and audio editions but I think it’s best suited to being read in traditional book form. Am I the only person to find it depressing that European book covers rarely feature the leading characters if they aren’t white?

This multi-stranded epic features two fascinating leading characters – an intelligent young woman named Lin Shan and a brilliant soldier named Ren Daiyan. They both live in Kitai, a once glorious empire that is now in decline. The Twelfth Dynasty still rule in Hanjin but Emperor Wenzong is more interested in creating an extraordinary garden than in recovering the fourteen districts lost to the `barbarian’ tribes of the steppe. Shan is the only child of a gentle scholar who has educated her as if she was a boy and arranged for her to marry a man who will tolerate her unconventional ways. When her father is threatened with banishment, Shan appeals directly to the Emperor. He is intrigued by Shan’s talents and summons the family to court. There, in very unusual circumstances, she meets Daiyan and falls in love with him.

Daiyan was once an outlaw, supporting oppressed peasants against cruel and corrupt officials, but twists of fate have led to him becoming a member of the Imperial Guard. Daiyan has always dreamed of being a great general and after an encounter with a Fox Spirit he becomes convinced that it is his destiny to recover Kitai’s lost territory. Meanwhile, war has broken out on the steppe as the Altai tribe strives for dominance. Rival factions in Hanjin, and the Emperor’s neglect of political affairs, lead to some disastrous decisions being made. Kitai is brutally invaded and the capital itself is attacked by the Altai.  Shan and Daiyan are thrown together in these dangerous times and embark on a journey that will have momentous consequences for all Kitai. Daiyan becomes a leader out of legend but will the Empire demand too great a sacrifice from him?

Guy Gavriel Kay’s name on a book is always a guarantee of quality. In my view, he’s our best current writer of  Historical Fantasy. I suspect it’s because he undertakes the kind of in-depth research that an historical novel requires before using his imagination to transform the facts into a new fictional world. `River of Stars’ is loosely based on real people and events but Kay doesn’t follow the original history and chronology in a slavish way. He feels free to invent or simplify in the interests of a good story. The people in this story don’t bear historical names, allowing Kay to interpret their characters as he chooses without anyone being able to say that he is wrong. For the reader, the advantage is that it really doesn’t matter if you don’t know a thing about Song Dynasty China. Kay has lovingly recreated it for you as Twelfth Dynasty Kitai. As a bonus, the types of supernatural beings that people of this place and period would have believed in – such as ghosts and seductive Fox Spirits – also appear in the story.

My plot summary concentrates on Shan and Daiyan but `River of Stars’ is a complex novel told from many different points of view. Among these viewpoint characters are the wily prime minister of Kitai and his great rival, the ambitious deputy prime minister, an exiled poet and his diplomat brother, Shan’s homosexual husband, the ferocious war-leader of the Altai, a ritual-master who may or may not be a charlatan, and a military official who becomes Daiyan’s most loyal follower. From time to time an unnamed narrator nudges the reader into understanding how all of these people come to play a significant role in the fate of Kitai. Kay is a writer of great empathy who seems to have no difficulty getting inside the heads and hearts of his characters, whether they are heroes, villains or a bit of both. Nobody in the book is just a spear-carrier. Even when an a unfortunate soldier or sentry is doomed to die after one scene, Kay tends to give us the man’s whole back-story and innermost thoughts. Sometimes I would mutter, `Just die already’, because I was keen to get back to what was happening to Shan and Daiyan.

At a time when women were increasingly expected to stay at home being decorative and helpless, Shan is unusual in wanting a more challenging life, but she never seems like a modern feminist in historical dress. She expresses her individuality through calligraphy, music and writing song lyrics and her arranged marriage to dedicated antique-collector Qi Wai is a surprisingly successful one. Kay has written books based on a range of cultures but he seems particularly inspired by Chinese poetry and art. Clever pastiches of melancholy Chinese poems are used to great effect in this novel and the character of the principled poet Lu Chen seems to embody the soul of Kitai. Kay conveys both the cultural achievements of his Twelfth Dynasty and their terrible human cost. The Emperor’s garden is an exquisite work of art but thousands of people have been killed or injured dragging giant rocks to Hanjin in order to make it.  I shall never look at classic Chinese gardens in quite the same way again.

In `River of Stars’ all the plotting and intrigue at the hapless Emperor’s court is both entertaining and appalling. There is a memorable scene in which Emperor Wenzong only finds out about a catastrophic defeat for his forces when he asks one of his gardeners why he is crying. The many fights and battle scenes are brilliantly described and Daiyan is convincing as a formidable archer and ingenious military strategist. These parts of the novel reminded me of one my all time favourite films, John Woo’s epic `Red Cliff’ (2008-2009 – make sure you see the uncut two-part version). `River of Stars’ and `Red Cliff’ both have grandeur and nobility. They honour the courage of men fighting to save their homeland without glorifying carnage. Kay shows unexpected acts of heroism when people in desperate situations discover what really matters to them, such as Qi Wai deciding that the antiques which shed light on the history of his country are worth dying for.

One of the things that I admire about Kay is that he refuses to take part in what I would call the `brutalization’ of Fantasy. As readers get harder to shock, many modern Fantasy novels are packed with ever more extreme scenes of sex and violence. Terrible things do happen in `River of Stars’, such as a court official quietly deciding that he must poison his wife or a barbarian ruler suffering death by fire-ants, but Kay never dwells on the gory details more than is necessary to make his point. To me, the most shocking thing in this story is the political betrayal of Daiyan’s ideals. Kay has said that `the legend-building process’ is one of the major themes of this novel and Daiyan becomes a victim of his own legend. `River of Stars’ has all the action you could want from Heroic Fantasy but it’s also subtle and moving. The only thing this story lacks is sheep. So, if you’re keen to celebrate the Year of the Sheep, I suggest that you also go to the new Aardman film, `Shaun the Sheep’, and laugh yourself silly. Until next time…


I have always been partial to dragons so the title of this week’s recommended book was bound to attract me. `A Natural History of Dragons’ by American author Marie Brennan was published in 2013 and is now available in paperback or as an ebook. The subtitle – `A Memoir by Lady Trent’ – indicates that this is neither a textbook nor some vast multi-stranded Fantasy epic. What it offers is the life-story of a woman who defied convention to study dragons, told in her own words and pictures (the charming illustrations are actually by Todd Lockwood). Lady Isabella Trent’s memoirs continue in `The Tropic of Serpents’ (2014) and a third volume – `Voyage of the Basilisk’ – is promised for 2015. She lives in an era not unlike the Victorian period and her homeland  has much in common with 19th century Britain.

Isabella is a gentlewoman born in the island kingdom of Scirland, which lies off the coast of the continent of Anthiope. In a preface, ‘national treasure’ Isabella announces that she has decided to write a candid memoir explaining how and why she became a famous adventurer and dragon-naturalist. She begins with her childhood fascination with the dragon-like insects known as Sparklings and the impact of a book she manages to sneak out of her father’s library – Sir Richard Edgeworth’s `A Natural History of Dragon’. Isabella longs to study the dragons that inhabit parts of her world but after an unfortunate escapade involving a Wolf-drake, her mother makes it clear that this is not a suitable ambition for a young lady. Isabella is warned that her desire to be a scholar will damage her chances of getting married. The best she can hope for is a husband who may tolerate her bookish ways.

Isabella conforms and is miserable until the day she sees her first real dragons in the royal managerie and meets Jacob Camherst, a man unusual enough to admire intelligent women. After they are married, Isabella manages to persuade Jacob that they should both join Lord Hilford’s expedition to study the rock-wyrms of Vystrana. After a long journey to the remote mountain village of Drustanev, nothing seems to go right. The villagers are unwelcoming, the man who invited Lord Hilford to the area has disappeared, there are hostile smugglers in the mountains and the rock-wyrms have suddenly begun to attack people. Lord Hilford’s assistant,  Mr Wilker, disapproves of a woman being part of the expedition and Isabella fails to get on with Dagmira, the local girl who is supposed to be acting as her maid. After Isabella visits some ancient ruins of the Draconean civilization, bizarre things start to happen. Has Isabella really brought down a demon curse on the village, and can she solve the mystery of why the mountain dragons have suddenly become more dangerous?

The blurb made `A Natural History of Dragons’ sound like a light-hearted Steampunk Romance along the lines of Gail Carriger’s amusing `Parasol Protectorate’ series, but it turned out to be a more thoughtful book than I was expecting. Brennan hasn’t just added dragons to the Victorian era, she has used her background in anthropology to create a distinctive world. Each country has its own complex politics, social structures and religious beliefs (Vystrana is loosely Eastern European) but in all of their distant pasts was a civilization which worshipped dragons. This novel raises the question of whether magic is an essential part of Fantasy fiction.  There are no wizards or witches of the traditional kind in this story and the dragons are not depicted as wise supernatural beings. Rather, they are intelligent animals whose fierceness makes them difficult to study and almost impossible to keep in captivity. The diverse ways that humans mythologize such awe-inspiring creatures are explored in this series. The customs and superstitions of the peoples encountered by Isabella (the second volume is set in an Africa-like continent) do include some kinds of magic but the staunchly rational Scirlanders don’t believe in it. The reader has to make up her or his own mind about how real this magic is.

The plot of `A Natural History of Dragons’ borrows elements from the Thriller, Murder Mystery, Adventure and Romance genres. Isabella warns prospective readers that her memoirs are `not for the faint of heart’.  This isn’t a novel of non-stop action but Isabella certainly meets more than her fair share of perils. There is also a shocking plot-twist near the end of the story. If `A Natural History of Dragons’ was a conventional Romance, this might be the point at which Isabella and Jacob would finally come together. Brennan chooses to focus on her main characters’ marriage rather than their courtship. Isabella and Jacob are not passionate star-crossed lovers. No-one objects to this suitable match between two like-minded people but Isabella finds it hard to become the sort of wife that society expects her to be. Nor is it easy for Jacob to overcome his upbringing and give his wife the freedom she needs to flourish. Since Isabella’s moral and intellectual progress is the core of this novel, it’s essential for Brennan to make us care about her heroine.

Isabella is entertaining company but at first glance she doesn’t seem a very original character. The idea of an oppressed woman finding liberation through studying dragons has already been used by Robin Hobb in her `Rain Wild Chronicles’ and there is no shortage of intrepid Victorian heroines in popular fiction. The irrepressible Alexia Tarabotti from `The Parasol Protectorate’ and Elizabeth Peters’ dauntless Egyptologist, Amelia Peabody, are just two famous examples.However, as the book went on, I began to feel that Brennan was offering something a bit different. I’m guessing that she named her heroine after the courageous 19th century traveller and naturalist, Isabella Bird, but the novel often seems to poke fun at Bird’s appetite for extreme discomfort and her insistance on finding the locals `romantic’ (if you want to see what I mean, try reading Bird’s `A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’).

In her memoirs, Lady Trent is looking back on a young woman who was frequently daunted by the situations her scientific curiosity got her into. She is also honest enough to admit that she found the boredom and discomfort of life in a primitive mountain village hard to endure and that she was slow to understand the point of view of Dagmira and the other inhabitants of Drustanev. Brave as she is, there is no pretence that Isabella can conquer anything armed merely with a parasol and strength of will. It is Isabella’s vulnerability, and her willingness to admit past mistakes, which makes her such an engaging heroine. I’m looking forward to finding out more about Isabella and her dragons in future volumes. Until two weeks time….



This week I’m recommending the first part of a Fantasy trilogy inspired by the diverse cultures and turbulent history of the Silk Road countries of Central Asia. Some years ago I visited Turkmenistan and as I stood in the ruins of an ancient city destroyed by the Mongols and saw the remains of a pyramid built of human skulls, I thought, `Someone should write a Fantasy novel about this.’ Now they have. `Range of Ghosts’ by American author Elizabeth Bear was published in 2012. The story is continued in `Shattered Pillars’ (2013)  and completed in `Steles of the Sky’ (2014). These three novels (the titles all refer to mountain ranges) are collectively known as `The Eternal Sky’.  ‘Range of Ghosts’ is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook but after reading it on my Kindle, I ordered the whole trilogy in hardback because I knew that these were books I would always want on my shelves.

The story opens in the aftermath of a terrible battle between rival claimants to become Khagan of the empire conquered by the Qersnyk nomads. A young warrior called Temur has been wounded in the throat and left for dead. As he struggles to survive on the snowy steppe, Temur learns that most of his kinsman have died and that his treacherous uncle, Qori Buqa, has been victorious. Temur’s luck changes when he finds a friendly warhorse whom he names Bansh (dumpling). Riding Bansh he joins up with other refugees including the Tsareg clan. Temur soon becomes the lover of Edene, the clan leader’s grand-daughter, but Qori Buqa has supernatural help to track down and eliminate his nephew. The Tsareg survive an attack by an army of  blood-ghosts but the pregnant Edene is carried off. Temur vows to get her back but becomes dangerously ill as he and Bansh cross the haunted mountains known as the Range of Ghosts.

Temur is found and nursed back to health by two female wizards from the Rasan Empire, Tsering-la and Once Princess Samarkar, who have been sent to investigate the fate of the deserted city of Qeshqer. In the mountains, they encounter Hrahima who is a Cho-tse, a tiger who walks upright and speaks like a human. She brings a warning from Temur’s grandfather that the leader of the assassin cult known as the Nameless is stirring up wars and using evil magics not seen since the time of the legendary Carrion-King. When they all travel to Rasa, Samarkar finds the royal family in a state of crisis after a murder. She helps one of her sisters-in-law to escape from the Black Palace and throws in her lot with Temur and Hrahima. They are joined on their quest to reach the hidden citadel of the Nameless and rescue Edene, by  a warrior monk who has taken a vow of silence. A long and dangerous journey begins…

`Range of Ghosts’, and the `Eternal Sky’ Trilogy in general, has what I would call a `wandering around the map’ plot until the whole cast is finally in the same place for the big battle. Some of this wandering seemed a bit under-motivated but I never minded because the characters visit such colourful and fascinating places along Bear’s Celadon Highway.  In her world, each cultural area has a unique sky and set of heavenly bodies – `Different sky, different gods.’ This is a novel in which thrilling action scenes (magical attacks, assassination attempts, court intrigues and daring escapes) alternate with long descriptive passages. When is an `information dump’ not an information dump? When it is so full of captivating detail (such as Rasan people sticking their tongues out as a mark of respect or the 64 sacred colours of the wonderful steppe horses) that you want to learn even more about the places and customs being described.

The majority of Fantasy novels used to be set in versions of medieval Europe.  Now writers plunder cultures from all over the world for story ideas. This only works if the writer does plenty of research and is truly inspired by what they discover. That certainly seems to be the case with Bear who has used the `Secret History of the Mongols’ and legends and beliefs from places such as Tibet, North-West China, and the salt-deserts, `Heavenly Mountains’ and Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan to create a dazzling alternative version of Central Asia. Some things in the novel that you’d think she’d made up have a basis in fact, such as the notion that removing the head of an ancient conquerer from his tomb could cause a major war. Well, the head of Tamerlane (Timur the Lame) was removed from his tomb in Samarkand in 1941. Hitler invaded the Soviet empire the next day. I’ve been into Tamerlane’s tomb myself  but I promise I trod very quietly so as not to disturb his blood-thirsty ghost.

`Range of Ghosts’ has a larger cast of characters than I’ve been able to mention in my brief summary, all of them with interesting story arcs of their own. The plot includes Fantasy favourites such as the `return of the necromancer’, the `wandering heir to the throne’ and the `making of a wizard’ but they are all given a new gloss by the Central Asian setting. The ruthless  leader of the Nameless, al-Sepehr (so not very nameless then) may be a standard Fantasy villain but he is a particularly scary one. The ancient magic of Erem which al-Sepehr uses to communicate with his agents and control a djinn is impressively evil. Even reading the script in which its spells are written causes people to go blind. The sorcerer known as the Carrion King and his opponent the great Mother Dragon are haunting presences in the novel. Young Temur has never wanted to be Khagan but he sees his only alternatives as being carrion or being a king and both seem monstrous. Whether Temur can find a third way, is a question that hangs over the trilogy. As Qersnyk/Mongol warriors go, Temur is rather a gentle soul who manages to find room in his heart for three very different females – brave Edene, the wizard Samarkar, and his miraculous mare Bansh.

Strong female characters used to be a rarity in Heroic Fantasy but this book is full of them. Qersnyk women are shown as equals of the men. They are free to ride, hunt, fight, rule clans and take the sexual initiative. So when Edene is kidnapped and imprisoned in the citadel of the Nameless she doesn’t just sit around waiting to be rescued. After she is tricked into stealing a magical ring, Edene spends much of the trilogy fighting its corrupting influence. Samarkar is a clever and stong-willed princess who, after enduring a loveless royal marriage, decides to become a `Wizard of Tsarepheth’ even though this means sacrificing the power to create with her body for the chance of power to create with her mind. Compassionate Tsering-la failed to gain any magical powers after surviving the dangerous `neutering’ operation but she gradually discovers an important role for herself. Samarkar endures the ordeals and grows in status as a wizard throughout the story. She also becomes part of a love-triangle which doesn’t develop in the way that Western readers might expect. Tigress Hrahima is a formidable fighter but due to a tragedy in her past she is grappling with the moral problem of why bad things happen to good tigers. If the company of these four splendid heroines isn’t enough for you, as the trilogy continues you will also get to know a wicked empress who has a change of heart, two veiled Uthman women with secret agendas who must contend with many restrictions placed on their freedom, and the woman-king of the Lizard people. I hope you’ll enjoy following all of them along the Celadon Highway. Until two weeks time…