A future fable told now


Story about tales:
future fable narratives.
And Lessing is more…

Doris Lessing
The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter,
Griot and the Snow Dog

Harper Perennial 2006 (2005)

The frequent description “future fable” just exactly describes this wonderful novel, a richly detailed tapestry of lives and themes and meditations on the world as it might well become. The tale of the young man Dann, who had experienced and accomplished so much in a preceding novel, is both deeply sympathetic and sad, and this reader, any reader in fact, does not need to have read the prequel to make connections with his character.

The story is set some millennia on from now, at a time when a thaw is beginning in the new Ice Age that has seen the glaciers and ice sheets reach the southern shores of Europe and lower the sea levels in the Mediterranean. Dann and his contemporaries inhabit the northern fringes of Africa (somewhere around present-day Tunisia perhaps) where rumours of war are commonplace and refugees are frequent. There are recognisable descendants of Africans, Asians and Europeans peopling this world but the action is mostly set in the ruins of ‘the Centre’, where museum exhibits and sealed-in books provide a barely translucent window on a past rapidly disappearing from view and receding from human understanding. Continue reading “A future fable told now”

Building castles in Spain


Joan Aiken The Teeth of the Gale
Red Fox 1997 (1988)

The resourceful teenager of Bridle the Wind has, five years later, turned into the resourceful young man of this, the final volume in the Felix Brooke trilogy, but though its speedy, almost perfunctory ending seemed to suggest the way was open for a follow-up, this was sadly not to be. A pity, as Felix is an engaging if slightly humourless character, and well matched by the prickly Juana, the object of his attentions.

As with Bridle the Wind and its predecessor Go Saddle the Sea, this volume is set in early 19th-century Spain following the Napoleonic Wars, now riven with rival political factions (as the author’s own Afterword helpfully tells us). Felix is persuaded to go on a mission to rescue the kidnapped children of a nobleman, but all is not as it initially seems even though enough clues are presented to the honest young man along the way. Continue reading “Building castles in Spain”

Peril in the Pyrenees


Joan Aiken Bridle the Wind Puffin 1986 (1983)

In the chaotic years that are the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars young Felix Brooke is journeying from England to his home in Galicia in Spain when he is shipwrecked off the Basque coast of France, thus precipitating the strange sequence of events in this novel. He convalesces at the fictional Abbey of St Just de Seignanx, on the French coast near Bayonne (very much like Mont-St-Michel in France or St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall) but finds that due to a form of amnesia partly brought on by a supernatural happening he has lost three months of his life. Rescuing Juan, a youngster his own age, from hanging, he helps them both escape the terrifying Abbot Father Vespasian by trekking east before crossing the Pyrenees on their way to hoped-for freedom in Spain. But, not unexpectedly, things don’t go to plan as they are haunted by the memory of the Abbot and chased by a group of brigands. Continue reading “Peril in the Pyrenees”

A homage to 19th-century adventure stories

Arno’s Castle, the model for the stables at Asshe in Go Saddle the Sea

Joan Aiken Go Saddle the Sea Harcourt 2007 (1977)

Twelve-year-old Felix Brooke, ill-treated at home in Northwest Spain, resolves to travel to England to find out the truth about his father. Thus begins a young adult novel, set after the Peninsular Wars in the early 19th century, that is enjoyable both on its own merits but also for its many references, influences and intricacies. Joan Aiken wrote this after field trips to Galicia and her careful research and attention to detail add weight to the seeming authenticity of the story told by its young hero, whom one implicitly believes is a thoroughly reliable narrator. Continue reading “A homage to 19th-century adventure stories”

The evolution of Merlin

Beardsley's Merlin
Beardsley’s Merlin

Geoffrey Ashe Merlin:
the Prophet and His History

The History Press 2008

Ashe produced his first book on the Arthurian legends – King Arthur’s Avalon – in 1957, and over half a century later he still returns to the Matter of Britain, most recently in this overview of Merlin (first published in 2006 as a hardback by Sutton, now subsumed into The History Press).

In his own words Ashe “traces the evolution of the legend, the growth of Merlin as a character, his possible historical aspect, and the principal treatments of him in literature,” and adds a supplementary list of modern transformations. There is a select group of illustrations which reflect different aspects of Merlin’s developing story, and a useful bibliography (would, however, that it had been divided up into fiction and non-fiction).

Ashe was famously described as a “middlebrow” author, Continue reading “The evolution of Merlin”

An unostentatious introduction to Austen

Blaize Castle
Blaize Castle

Charles Jennings
A Brief Guide to Jane Austen

Robinson 2012

For an Austen newbie like me this Brief Guide – though at over two hundred and forty pages not that brief – is an excellent introduction and summary, told intelligently and sympathetically. Four succinct but readable chapters deal first with her life and novels, followed by an overview in ten sections of life in Regency England and a summary of Jane’s afterlife in criticism and the media. Added to this core are a short introduction, a select bibliography and, finally, an indispensable index. While the map of southern Britain helps chart Jane’s travels (despite the central area being obscured by the binding) what would have made this Guide complete would have been a family tree, however simplified, to elucidate sibling and other relationships. Continue reading “An unostentatious introduction to Austen”

Locked room cozy is a page-turner

hanged manC S Challinor Phi Beta Murder  Midnight Ink 2010

C S Challinor’s sojourns in Scotland and England and residency in Florida, her academic background, ear for language and love of the classic age of whodunits all contribute greatly to the authority of this novel. She writes sympathetically about individuals from one culture adapting to another, about the struggles and stresses of students coping away from home and the bemusement of their elders trying to get to grips with modern mores. And, for the mystery aficionado, she sprinkles the text with clues and red herrings in equal measure in best whodunit tradition. Phi Beta Murder is a fine page-turner given a sense of urgency by predetermined time-constraints and the cloistered and claustrophobic atmosphere of a second-rate Florida college where a student is found hanged. Add to that a list of dramatis personae and a taster for a sequel and you have a hugely enjoyable piece of bedtime fiction.

A confession: I’m not a great fan of mysteries,  Continue reading “Locked room cozy is a page-turner”