Archives for posts with tag: Magic

This week I’m recommending `Uprooted’ by Naomi Novik. She is the author of the popular `Temeraire’ books about the relationship between a Chinese dragon and an English naval captain at the time of the Napoleonic wars. I had some reservations about this Historical Fantasy series but I’ve been completely won over by Novik’s new novel, which has a more conventional Fantasy setting influenced by Eastern European fairy tales. `Uprooted’ came out this Spring, so it is currently only available in hardback or as an ebook. The intriguing first sentence suggests that this is going to be another dragon-centred novel – `Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley’ – but Novik is just playing with her readers’ expectations. If you only want more of the same from Novik, you may be disappointed but I admire authors who dare to try something different.

In `Uprooted’ the story is told by Agnieszka (Nieshka), a girl who lives in one of the villages close to the sinister forest known simply as the Wood. Something monstrous dwells deep in the Wood. Anyone who strays into the Wood is lost and anything and anybody it touches is hideously corrupted. The villagers are protected from the malice of the Wood by their local Lord, a wizard known as the Dragon. Once every ten years the Dragon takes a seventeen year-old girl to serve him in his tower. The girls are released at the end of their service but they never want to return to their homes. `The Dragon didn’t always take the prettiest girl, but he always took the most special one’. This choosing year everyone is sure that the Dragon will take Nieshka’s best friend, bright and beautiful Kasia. Instead, he picks Nieshka.

Alone with the Dragon in his tower, Nieshka finds that her worst fears aren’t coming true but she is still baffled by the bad-tempered wizard’s attempts to teach her simple spells. It is only after an unfortunate encounter with Prince Marek of Polnya that Nieshka realizes she is a potentially powerful witch. When the Wood attacks her village while the Dragon is away, Nieshka has to discover her own form of magic, based on the spells of the legendary witch, Jaga. Nieshka helps her village and later risks her life to rescue her friend, Kasia, from a people-devouring tree. Then she and the Dragon combine their magics in a new way to purge Kasia of the shadows of the Wood.

This success leads Prince Marek to compel Nieshka to undertake a reckless expedition to rescue his mother, Queen Hanna, who has been imprisoned in the Wood for twenty years. Kasia and the Queen will both have to prove that they are free of the Wood’s corruption or be burned to death. Nieshka travels to the royal court of Polnya to meet her fellow wizards and witches but the evil of the Wood seems to follow her there, provoking murder and war. To bring peace, Nieshka and the Dragon must seek the heart of the Wood and confront the Wood-Queen herself.

Nieshka is a vivid narrator with a sharp turn of phrase. Her story gripped me from the very first sentence to the very last. I read it quickly and was sometimes enchanted and sometimes shocked but never bored. Once she’s uprooted from her beloved family and village, Nieshka’s life is filled with mysteries, challenges and nightmare-like experiences. Even when some of the mysteries appear to be explained, there usually turns out to be much more to learn. A book which seems for the first few chapters to be about a young woman’s magical and romantic education suddenly develops into a violent and disturbing story. I’ve categorized `Uprooted’ as Dark Fantasy with good reason. Terrible things happen to innocent people (and trees) in this book. After her `Temeraire’ series, Novik is an old hand at writing brutal unromanticized battle scenes but her talent for gruesomely inventive Horror is unexpected.

European folklore and Fantasy fiction are full of beautiful but dangerous forests; wild places where the rules of civilization are left behind and anything can happen. Novik has created a woodland setting that can stand comparison with Tolkien’s Mirkwood,  T.H.White’s Forest Sauvage (see my post of  December 2012), Holdstock’s Mythago Wood or Patricia Mckillip’s Forests of Serre (see my post of November 2013). Her Wood contains scary things, such as white wolves, the stick-like Walkers who carry off children, and massive heart-trees which can swallow a person, body and soul. However, it is the Wood’s effect on the nearby villages that is truly terrifying. Even `shambler vines’ or pollen from the Wood can transform crops into poison, domestic animals into monsters, and sane people into mad and murderous men or woman. Yet this is not the motiveless evil of what I would call Junk Fantasy. There does turn out to be a reason why the Wood has become so hostile to its human neighbours.

Novik’s Wood has the ability to bring out the worst in humanity and to expose people’s basest motives to each other. This works because there is real depth to the characterization in `Uprooted’. In her `Temeraire’ series, the secondary characters never came to life for me. Here they do. Prince Marek, for example, is not as heroic as his reputation suggests. He is arrogant and manipulative but also damaged and vulnerable. Unchosen Kasia turns out to have a destiny as remarkable as Nieshka’s and their friendship is convincing because it is full of tensions and unspoken resentments. Then there is the fascinating relationship between Nieshka, who describes herself as `a too skinny colt of a girl with big feet and tangled dirt-brown hair’ and the ageless wizard who has deliberately stayed detached from the people he guards. She starts by hating him; he thinks she has `an unequaled gift for disaster’. Their personality clash is described with great humour. More unusually, their slowly developing love is expressed almost entirely through the magic they do together.

Another of the things which surprised me about this novel was how good Novik is at writing about magic. She makes the spells used in `Uprooted’ seem thrilling and difficult. Each of the wizards and witches in this novel has a distinctive type of magic which fits the kind of person they are. The Dragon loves beauty, perfection and order, so his spells are `great intricate interweavings of gesture and word that went on like songs’. Nieshka’s magic is more earthy, passionate and instinctive. The Dragon is a book-loving intellectual. Nieshka’s spells draw on the traditional nature-magic of Slavic wise women. Baba Yaga, the great witch of Russian and Eastern European folklore (see my April 2013 post on `Prince Ivan’ ) is inserted into the story in a clever and subtle way.

Novik is drawing on her own Polish roots in this book. As you might expect from the title, `Uprooted’ looks at the roots of ancient conflicts and at why people put down roots in a particular place. It also explores what it means to be rootless, either by choice or because of some traumatic event. `Uprooted’ is a thought-provoking novel. In this era of frequent refugee crises, it asks when people should flee and when they should stand and fight to save their homeland. Oh and just when you’ve stopped expecting one, there is a dragon. Until next time…



This week I’m recommending `A Hat Full of Sky’, a wise and sensitive novel by the king of Comic Fantasy, Terry Pratchett. If wise and sensitive aren’t words you associate with Terry  Pratchett, perhaps you haven’t read much (or any?) of his work. `A Hat Full of Sky’  (2004) is less well known than many of his Discworld novels because it was published as a children’s book. It is the second in a sequence of four novels about young witch, Tiffany Aching. The sequence began with `The Wee Free Men’ (2003) and the third and fourth books are `Wintersmith’ (2006) and `I Shall Wear Midnight’ (2010). They are all available in every possible format but the audio version of `A Hat Full of Sky’ read by Tony Robinson is particularly good. As a bonus there is now an album by folk-rock band Steeleye Span based on the Tiffany Aching novels. It’s called `Wintersmith’ (2013) and one of the tracks features Sir Terry talking about why witches shouldn’t cackle. (I’m so pleased that he got knighted for services to literature that I’m going to use his title throughout this review).

At the start of this novel, eleven-year old Tiffany leaves her beloved home in the Chalk hills to begin her training as a witch. There are several things about Tiffany that make her unusual even among young witches. She has already rescued two boys from the Queen of Fairyland and become the temporary Kelda (ruler) of the Chalk Clan of the Nac Mac Feegles, a host of boisterous blue pictsies. The Feegles continue to feel protective towards their `big wee Hag o’ the Hills’ and keep a constant watch over her. These feats have even impressed the formidable  Granny Weatherwax. Witches don’t have a leader and Granny Weatherwax is the leader they don’t have. Tiffany has some uncommon powers and one of these, the art of stepping outside of herself, attracts the attention of a hiver – an ancient group mind in search of a body. The chief Feegle, Rob Anybody, realizes that Tiffany is being followed by something dangerous but his wife, the new Kelda Jeannie, forbids him to go after her.

Tiffany has been assigned as an apprentice to a witch called Miss Level, who happens to have two identical bodies. In spite of this, Tiffany finds life with Miss Level rather dull. Most of her time is spent on ordinary household chores and on doing good to the local villagers. Tiffany was hoping for `serious witch stuff’ such as `guarding the world against evil forces in a noble yet modest way’ rather than clipping old men’s toenails and dealing with children with runny noses. Worse still, when she is invited to join a Circle of young witches, their bossy leader Annagramma dismisses Tiffany as an ignorant nobody. After Jeannie has a change of heart, Rob and the Feegles are sent to protect Tiffany but by the time they get there it’s too late. Tiffany has been taken over by the hiver, which makes her do some very uncharacteristic things. Miss Level, the Feegles, and Granny Weatherwax all help the young witch to fight the hiver, but in the end only Tiffany can deal with the monster in her head.

`A Hat Full of Sky’ is set in a very British part of  Discworld. Sir Terry has captured the bleak beauty and  magical strangeness of  the real English chalklands, with their extraordinary hill-carvings such as the famous White Horse of Uffington which `is not what a horse looks like, but what a horse be.’ Although this is Comic Fantasy the story is realistic about the harshness of agricultural life and Tiffany is a very convincing farmer’s daughter able to milk goats, make cheese and help deliver lambs. Younger readers will identify with Tiffany’s embarassments and crises in confidence as she tries to cope with her new life as an apprentice witch. Older readers shouldn’t be put off by the fact that the heroine is only eleven during this novel. Smart and ambitious Tiffany, with her three levels of thought and her mystical  link to the Chalk and its people, is an interesting character at any age. When she makes mistakes, the consequences are always going to be dramatic.

Writing for children, Sir Terry is equally inventive but rather more disciplined than in his adult novels. He sticks to telling a strong story about the central character and doesn’t just toss in anything that appeals to his rumbustious sense of humour. In `A Hat Full of Sky’ the  broad humour is mainly confined to the antics of the Feegles. These little blue men who love fighting, thieving and drinking, and are terrified of having to explain themselves to dominant females, are basically comedy Scotsmen. When I first  began reading this series I was determined not to laugh at the`Wee Free Men’. I failed. Perhaps it’s my Celtic blood, but I couldn’t help being charmed and amused  by these daft creatures and touched by their loyalty to Tiffany. Even this strand of the novel is given depth by the plight  of the Kelda Jeannie, who has had to leave her own family for ever to become the lone female voice of common sense among the wildly irresponsible Feegles.

One of my main reasons for choosing this particular novel is that it provides such a good introduction to Discworld’s witches. Sir Terry is famous for writing novels about wizards (starting with `The Colour of Magic’) but in my view his witches are more remarkable and appealing. If you are looking for an older woman as a role-model you could hardly do better than cunning Granny Weatherwax, a witch so tough that `when some vampires bit her they all started to crave tea and sweet biscuits’. The witches in `A Hat Full of Sky’ may be eccentric and gossipy and much more competitive than they pretend, but most of them are a force for good. Not Good with a capital  G as in some grandiose war between Good and Evil but good as in making a practical difference in ordinary people’s lives. Sir Terry has drawn on the traditional role of  the village `Wise Woman’, with her skills as a midwife and herbalist, and he is shrewd about why, even in our world, people still want to believe in magic.

There are some witches in the story, like awful Annagramma, who try to practise Magick with K and think it’s all about fancy spells, glittery amulets and dancing in circles but Granny Weatherwax shows Tiffany that `A witch deals with things’ and that `the soul and centre of witchcraft’ is healing the sick, comforting the dying and caring about people, including the stupid, mean and ungrateful ones. Tiffany must learn to help the apparently undeserving and to accept rewards that she doesn’t think that she deserves. A Discworld witch must take  responsibilty and show compassion. Oh, and wear a very tall pointy hat. I wish there were more witches like them in our world.  If I had a teenage daughter, I would strictly forbid her to read `A Hat Full of Sky’ – in the hope that she would immediately do so. Until next week…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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