Not very magical

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Molly Cochran The Third Magic
Saint Martin’s Griffin 2003

Molly Cochran’s third Arthurian novel is both exciting and exasperating – exciting in the passages set in modern-day North America, exasperating when the action shifts to Dark Age or prehistoric Britain. In the descriptions of the young reincarnated Arthur living in the American Midwest, and the characters he encounters and the situations which develop, Cochran has that sure touch that comes from following the advice that all debutant writers are given: write about what you know. Within the thriller genre that she utilises, these episodes work well, with reasonably complex characterisation and hugely enjoyable edge-of-the-seat action.

Cochran’s Dark Age Britain is not one that I even vaguely recognise, however. The characters have anachronistic late medieval names taken from Malory, Orkney [sic] seems to have become a land-locked forest kingdom instead of the island archipelago it is, knights speak like actors in early 20th-century British talkies (“I say,” is their usual preamble) and, most preposterously of all, Arthur’s people are referred to as the English, who then fight against the Anglo-Saxon invaders, the real-life ancestors of the English! This is such a clumsy mash-up from different literary sources. In addition, feminist fantasy takes on the Matter of Britain (which is what The Third Magic in part is) don’t need to justify themselves but I feel Cochran’s mixing of genres in this novel — thriller, historical fiction and feminist fantasy — is both unsuccessful and mistaken.

Despite these strictures, this novel by the end repays persistence, and the final resolutions are unexpected and lyrical. Possibly worth a second look, The Third Magic is a book to borrow rather than to buy and keep; but on the basis of this exemplar I shan’t be in any hurry to explore the previous titles in this sequence (the first two co-written with Warren Murphy), however magical they may claim to be.


4 thoughts on “Not very magical

  1. If one bases something on history, one does need to remain true to it.
    There is a tendency in films and books to want to peg one’s story to a place, time or character when the whole thing would probably work better as a freshly invented fantasy.

    1. I do so agree with you. If you’re going with a concept based on a fantasy view of legendary history then you have to do it well and convincingly, which I don’t think this did.

  2. blackwatertown

    I haven’t read this book, but I enjoyed reading your considered review of it. Fiction shouldn’t be the slave of fact – and at some point the research has to stop and the writing to be done – but best only to deviate from history deliberately.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the review! Yes, fiction shouldn’t be the slave of fact but I found the contrast between the fantasy-tinged modern sections and the ancient-but-anachronistic fantasy episodes very discordant.

      Perhaps if the author had dispensed with the frankly unbelievable time-travelling and went for alternate or parallel world sequences it might have worked better — and I might have more willingly suspended disbelief.

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