Deceivers ever

Simulacrum by Aonghus Fallon.
Independently published, 2017 (2012).

Estote ergo prudentes sicut serpentes, et simplices sicut columbae. – ‘Therefore be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.’ — Matthew X, 6

County Wicklow, 1954. It’s the centenary of when the Catholic church promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, and so now a so-called Marian year is declared by the pope to focus the faithful’s attention on God’s ability to create a special individual free from the stain of sin.

But the Archbishop of Dublin puts it to his protégé Ignatius Flood that in the Wicklow hills another kind of creation is going on, one that is wickedly sinful: the making of things that give the appearance of living and breathing creatures, the unholy fabrication of simulacra.

But when the young novitiate priest gets to the isolated farmhouse and meets its inhabitants how is he to judge what he finds? Who is the creator, who the creature? Will he ever discover the truth when everything around him seems to be in flux?

Continue reading “Deceivers ever”

#LoveHain: The Word for World is Forest

© C A Lovegrove

The last Friday of the month means it’s time to think about the latest title in the #LoveHain readalong. This is The Word for World is Forest, a novella length Hainish story with definite moral intent.

Published in an anthology in 1972 and only later in book form in 1976, the novella is set on the planet Athshe where logging companies from Terra are devastating the environment and violently disrupting the lives and culture of the forest people.

Below you’ll find the usual three general questions to get the discussion started, and after that there’ll be a reminder of the next Hainish novel up for consideration at the end of June.

Continue reading “#LoveHain: The Word for World is Forest”

The demiurge of Fillory

WordPress Free Photo Library

The Magician’s Land
by Lev Grossman.
Arrow Books, 2015 (2014).

“What do you do, Quentin?”
[Plum] said it as if she were not completely convinced it was his real name.
“Not much,” he said. “My discipline is mending.”

Chapter 6

The third book of Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy is indeed largely about mending, about fixing things that are broken, about returning affairs to their pristine state. But is the former dilettante Quentin, apparently washed up and at a loss, the one to do it?

We’ve followed him through his student days at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, his adventures with Brakebills graduates in the magical land of Fillory, and then his utter banishment from there. As The Magician’s Land opens he finds himself in a strange New Jersey bookstore, drawn there by an enigmatic note.

And suddenly he’s besieged by memories of the Books of Fillory – a fantasy series penned in the early 20th century by American emigré Christopher Plover – when he’s invited to join a team, a select group tasked with retrieving a suitcase. When it emerges that the suitcase is embossed with the initials of a character who featured in the books but turned out not to be fictional, all the signs seem to suggest Quentin may be returning to Fillory – but will it be the Fillory he knew?

Continue reading “The demiurge of Fillory”

Neither here nor there

Renaissance set 1
‘Set design for a tragic scene’ by Sebastiano Serlio (1475 – 1554)

The Magician King: A Novel
by Lev Grossman.
William Heinemann, 2011.

A sequel to a successful novel is always a difficult task for a writer. A major dilemma is whether to stick to a successful formula or whether to plough new furrows in an attempt to avoid a sense of déjà-vu; either way risks alienating stern literary critics on the one hand or diehard fans on the other. One strategy is to combine both approaches, and Grossman’s second offering in a trilogy does exactly that: we’re dished up a lot of the same but also a fair seasoning of new elements which fortunately manage to refresh the taste buds.

The Magicians focused its gaze on Quentin Coldwater as he entered Brakebills College, a centre for learning the discipline of magic. We saw how, through an obsession with a fantasy series written by one Christopher Plover, Quentin and a group of fellow Brakebills graduates eventually managed to visit the land of Fillory.

However, something is rotten in the state of Fillory, and in combating the Beast (in whom Quentin had inadvertently awoken an unwelcome awareness of Brakebills) great sacrifices have to be made — not only severe injury but also a fate as bad as death. The first novel ends with Quentin, his Brakebills contemporaries Eliot and Janet, plus the frankly rather strange Julia, finding a way back to Fillory, life on Earth having proved rather, well, mundane.

Continue reading “Neither here nor there”

A book of Fillory tales

The Magicians
by Lev Grossman.
Arrow Books, 2009.

Martin Chatwin was not an ordinary boy, but he thought that he was. In fact he was unusually clever and brave and kind for his age, he just didn’t know it. Martin thought that he was just an ordinary boy…
— Christopher Plover, The World in the Walls

You will of course have heard of the popular Fillory series by the late Christopher Plover (pronounced ‘Pluvver’, like the wading bird). In order the five titles are The World in the Walls, The Girl Who Told Time, The Flying Forest, The Secret Sea and The Wandering Dune.

You will also know all about the Chatwin children — Martin, Rupert, Fiona, Helen and Jane — and how they manage to escape to the magical land of Fillory, where they have adventures before they are called back to their own world.

And you will remember that Martin was the only sibling to remain in Fillory because after The Wandering Dune the series just stopped, not long before Plover died in 1939.

Continue reading “A book of Fillory tales”

The famous little donkey

Pinocchio, illustration by Charles Folkard

Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.
[Translated by Mary Alice Murray, 1892, line illustrations by Charles Folkard, 1911.]
Wordsworth Editions, 1995 (1883).

The Famous
Little Donkey
The Star of the Dance,
Will Make His First Appearance

Chapter 33

Carlo Lorenzini, better known after Tuscan town he grew up in as Carlo Collodi, published Le avventure di Pinocchio. La storia di un burattino (‘The adventures of Pinocchio: the history of a marionette’) in 1883, a scant seven years before his death aged just 63. The very first translation – into English – by Mary Alice Murray appeared within a decade of the original, and it remains the most readily available to this day.

While the outline of the story is well-known from the many, many adaptations – mostly for the screen – it’s always worth reminding ourselves of the original text, even if in translation, to see whether Collodi’s intended vision may not necessarily be what comes to the fore in modern retellings.

And it’s possible that by looking at the context and milieu from which it emerged our appreciation of this Italian fable, while remaining ‘fabulous’ in all senses of the word, will take on a very different hue to that with which we’re familiar, somewhat darker and more moralistic.

Continue reading “The famous little donkey”

A family quarrel: #LoveHain

‘Das Eismeer’ (1823-4) by Caspar David Friedrich

The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula Le Guin.
Orbit Books, 1992 (1969).

Karhide is not a nation but a family quarrel. Early on in Le Guin’s famous speculative novel Estraven characterises his home nation as a place of potentially internecine conflict, but it proves to be universally applicable on the planet Gethen as Genly Ai, the Envoy from the Ekumen, discovers, to his cost.

Genly’s task as Envoy is to encourage first the rulers of Karhide, and then of Orgoreyn, to consider joining the Ekumen – a kind of United Nations of many worlds – for mutual benefit; but he has to contend with in-fighting, with claims that it’s all a hoax, even with his own imprisonment.

And then there’s the question of trust: he tries to be as open as possible, to persuade the powers that be of his own peaceable intentions, but as time goes on he doesn’t know who to put his faith in. On a chilly planet justifiably known as Winter he has, paradoxically, to judge whether he’s going from a frying pan into a fire.

Continue reading “A family quarrel: #LoveHain”

The eye that fears a painted devil

Roof boss of the Devil eating Judas, Southwark Cathedral © C A Lovegrove

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver.
Line illustrations by Stephen McNally.
Head of Zeus, 2019.

“‘Tis the eye of childhood, That fears a painted devil.” — Macbeth Act II Scene II, 64-5

Michelle Paver’s historical novel, a combined murder mystery, Gothick fantasy and supernatural thriller, is a rich blend of psychological drama with elements of folklore, local dialect and period details, set in the East Anglian fens near Ely during the years leading to the Great War.

It’s also a tale of class divisions, domestic abuse and coercive control, set on an estate on the cusp of great changes, environmental as well as social. In addition to looking forward to the future – principally the 1960s, when fashions and attitudes had altered beyond all recognition – Wakenhyrst draws heavily from a past characterised by superstition and perilous existence.

And for those who love words and their meanings Wakenhyrst is chock-full of puns and allusions which can further enrich the reader’s enjoyment or, alternatively, merely add to the mysteries surrounding our young heroine Maud.

Continue reading “The eye that fears a painted devil”

Summer’s lease

20 Books of Summer

Hurray! I always look forward to a certain well-established annual event and Cathy of has reported that it’s time to, at the very least, start considering listing intended summer reads, all to be enjoyed over the months of June, July and August. I already have some titles planned, most already suggested by other memes or prompts, so I shall be including those in my proposed list.

I must be honest, though: I’m in a bit of a slump now and, if not quite a Slough of Despond, I’m feeling slightly dispirited. My mojo for reading, usually purring away quietly, is spluttering: I frequently pick up a book and then put it down after a page or so; it’s often a struggle to continue. A bout of Covid, the dire state of politics, international relations, the environment – they’re not helping the mood; and I sense I’m not alone in my mildly demotivated state.

I need a holiday, a different physical and mental environment; could be that a summer accompanied by a select group of varied books might be the tonic I need! So let’s see what I may choose …

Continue reading “Summer’s lease”

Clashes in Clatteringshaws

‘The Abbey in the Oakwood’ by Caspar David Friedrich

No royalist me, I nevertheless post this discussion of fictional royalty as a counterblast to yesterday’s anachronistic and pompous pageant. Yes, I was personally  present on the Mall near Buckingham Palace in 1953, a confused toddler among the cheering crowds as the golden coach past to and fro, but seven-tenths of a century have now passed and the world has changed: did we really need this nonsense, this Clobberation?

It’s been a while since I last posted about the final instalment in Joan Aiken‘s long-running series which began with the modern classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962). In 2022 it celebrated its 60th anniversary; 2024 will mark the centenary of the author’s birth, on the 4th September 1924.

It’s high time, then – following on from a review here – that I got on with discussion posts on The Witch of Clatteringshaws (2005), including this, the second instalment of my introduction to the characters who appear in this slim volume (just 150 pages in the Red Fox paperback).

What follows is a list designed perhaps for completists, but also for those who delight in the quirky names borne by equally quirky characters. It also helps to know that this all takes place during the timeline of an alternative history, at a date which the author’s daughter Lizza estimates to be 1840 but which I calculate could be as late as 1845 or 1846. The action primarily takes place in Scotland (here called Caledonia) and in London (which, because never referred to as being in England, we may imagine as being the capital of Albion).

Continue reading “Clashes in Clatteringshaws”

A place for your heart

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell.
Faber & Faber, 2013.

A baby girl is found floating in a cello case after a packet boat sinks in the English Channel, La Manche. Rescued by the thoroughly eccentric Charles Maxim she is named Sophie and brought up in a rambling house in London. And all will apparently be well until officialdom in the person of the upright and stern Miss Eliot arrives.

Charles is soon deemed to be an inappropriate guardian and Sophie looks destined for an orphanage. But what if Sophie’s mother also survived the ship sinking? Is there a clue to be found in the carcass of the cello case?

Then begins a desperate search which will take the two fugitives, Sophie and Charles, to Paris where – as in London – a battle of wits and skills will take place between officious, sometimes corrupt adults and the pre-teen Sophie and her child-like yet wise guardian Charles.

Continue reading “A place for your heart”

The veil of illusion

‘La maja desnuda’ by Francisco Goya, Prado Museum.

Maya by Jostein Gaarder.
Translated by James Anderson.
Phoenix House, Orion Books, 2000 (1999).

‘Everything is connected,’ José said.

‘Bellis perennis’

Where to begin when discussing a Jostein Gaarder novel? Do we start with the principal characters as suits our expectations for a work of fiction? Or do we begin the big philosophical concepts that Gaarder’s novels  almost always seem to focus on? Or is this a false choice given that humans are, as one character here suggests, ‘hyperindividualistic master-mammals’ blessed or cursed with a capacity for thinking big thoughts?

The apparent ambiguity comes when a group of visitors from different nations – Australia, Spain, England, Norway, Italy, the US – find themselves thrown together on a Fijian island anticipating the approaching new millennium. (Pedant that I am, that changeover point actually arrived at the end of 2000, not the beginning, but no matter.)

Near the 180° date-line, where you can have one foot planted in what will be yesterday and the other in what would be tomorrow, one of the narrators at a resort muses ‘Wasn’t it a bit strange that almost all the guests at the Maravu went round talking about the same thing?’ And this indeed is the central enigma that the reader also tries to fathom, continually foiled by a jester-suited figure.

Continue reading “The veil of illusion”

#LoveHain: The Left Hand of Darkness

Photo by Dylan Thompson on

It’s the last Friday of the month and time for a consideration of the next title in our read of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish fiction, #LoveHain. We now come to one of her more famous – or possibly more notorious – titles, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

Below will appear the customary three prompts to encourage you to discuss your response to this novel, just in case you don’t know where to start; but the chances are you will have no need of them, this being a very thought-provoking narrative!

Afterwards I’ll remind you of the next novel up for conversation and the date the next three prompts will appear.

Continue reading “#LoveHain: The Left Hand of Darkness”

Empathy for the rebel

Jason disgorged by the dragon of Colchis, with Athena and the Golden Fleece:  vase figure in Vatican Museum
Jason, disgorged by the dragon of Colchis, with Athena and the Golden Fleece: vase figure in Vatican Museum

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum.
Orion Books, 2004 (1980).

I’m not a violent person. I grew up watching American TV serials where the Lone Ranger shot revolvers out of baddies’ hands (who then merely had a sprained wrist to nurse) or comedies such as The Three Stooges which — like a Tom and Jerry cartoon — allowed the victims to recover with a shake of the head after a potentially life-threatening concussion to the brainbox department. Violence was depicted, the consequences papered over. I was uncomfortable with it, but that was all that was on offer.

These days, as it has been for several decades now, violence is more graphic in entertainment media, whether films, comics or video games. Not just villains are hurt but innocent bystanders and targeted victims. The alarm is raised every so often about how the consumption of this vicariously experienced violence without appreciation of the consequences stunts one’s capacity to exhibit empathy and how it can encourage sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies.

I mention this not to stir up more argument and controversy but to contextualise my normal avoidance of thrillers in whatever form.

Continue reading “Empathy for the rebel”

Fatally reductive? #LoveHain

Ursula Le Guin, 1995. Photo: Marian Wood Kolisch

Worlds of Exile and Illusion
by Ursula K Le Guin.
Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions.
Orb Books, 1996.

**spoiler alert**

Jungians such as Joseph Campbell have generalized such journeys into a set of archetypal events and images. Though these generalities can be useful in criticism, I mistrust them as fatally reductive. “Ah, the Night Sea Voyage!” we cry, feeling that we have understood something important—but we’ve merely recognized it. Until we are actually on that voyage, we have understood nothing.

A decade or so after the publication of Rocannon’s World – the first novel in a series which has variously had attached to it the name Hainish or Ekumen – it and the two following titles (published in relatively quick succession in 1966 and 1967) appeared in a compendium first entitled Three Hainish Novels (1978). When, two decades later, it appeared as Worlds of Exile and Illusion it cunningly combed key words from the titles of Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions; under whatever name the collection demonstrated a loose unity in that it (a) referred to a League of All Worlds, and (b) shared some concepts and referred to some names in common.

There are also several themes, patterns and approaches in the trio of novels, though that’s not to say that Le Guin worked to any kind of formula: each title has its own musical notes and influences, landscape and personages, its own character. But at the risk of being, in her words, “fatally reductive” I do want to look a little at the “archetypal events and images” that form a large part of the journeys in these novels (and not a few of her other later ones, such as 1968’s A Wizard of Earthsea and 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness) so, as it were, to praise and not bury them. 

Why? Because, despite superficial appearances, she doesn’t trade in fantasy clichés.

Continue reading “Fatally reductive? #LoveHain”