A touch of H P Lovecraft

sunset

Clayton Clifford Bye
The Sorcerer’s Key
Chase Enterprises 2005

Fantasy is a tough genre for some readers who find it difficult to suspend their disbelief enough to accept magic as a sine qua non of this type of fiction. Once you accept it then the story proceeds as normal, providing of course that you also get the narrative and characters and setting that all good fiction requires. Clayton Bye’s The Sorcerer’s Key certainly has a narrative that draws you on and characters that are believable and distinctive. The young hero of the tale, Jack Lightfoot, has been brought up with a magical heritage while living in a small town in Ontario (coincidentally the author’s hometown of Kenora). He finds himself trailed by a shady character and his previously humdrum life (as humdrum as it can be with clandestine magical training from his parents) gets turned upside down as he gets drawn into conflict with a powerful sorcerer from another world, meets new friends and gains new insights into his abilities.

Continue reading “A touch of H P Lovecraft”

Not outstanding but vivid

tunnel

David Hancocks Cunval’s Mission
Lolfa 2004

David Hancocks studied Architecture and Building, and so it may have been inevitable that his historical interests have manifested themselves in reports and articles in archaeological journals. This, his first novel, is set in the Age of the Saints, that period which overlapped the so-called Dark Ages in Britain, and it may also be no coincidence that he was involved with landscaping several acres of woodland by the river Monnow where much of the novel is set.

A young priest called Cunval is sent to begin a mission in the territory of a pagan chief north of Abermenei (a precursor of the later medieval Monmouth). You can trace his journey from post-Roman Caerleon, where he has been trained, along rivers like the Usk, the Trothi and the Wye to the Monnow, where he sets up his llan or ecclesiastical enclosure. As you might expect, life is not easy for the new priest, what with bandits, local opposition, taboo violations and Saxon threats, but he persists and wins over the local population. But tragedy is never far away in such volatile times.

Continue reading “Not outstanding but vivid”

A showcase for storytelling

William Blake's The Ghost of a Flea
William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea

Garth Nix Across The Wall:
a Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories

HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (2005)

There can’t be many children’s fantasy authors who have remained untouched by the Arthurian legend: John Masefield, Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin (she shows this awareness in her introduction to Tales from Earthsea), Diana Wynne Jones, Joan Aiken and Philip Reeve are all writers who spring to mind as acknowledging the huge influence of the Matter of Britain. The Australian author Garth Nix is another who makes his debt clear but this predilection doesn’t represent the limits of his storytelling. Continue reading “A showcase for storytelling”

Beware geeks bearing gifts

laboratory

Diana Wynne Jones The Ogre Downstairs
Harper Collins Children’s Books 2010 (1974)

Caspar, Johnny, and Gwinny’s mother Sally remarries, creating a state of affairs made especially fraught when their new stepfather Jack is both taciturn and strict. But the two stepbrothers – Malcolm and Douglas – help turn sibling rivalry into all-out conflict, compounded by Jack’s gift of two chemistry sets with some very unusual properties, one to one of Sally’s boys and the other to one of his own.

This riff on Jack and the Beanstalk is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ best standalone fantasy titles, dating from 1974. The twists come from the fact that the character of the giant (here nicknamed the Ogre) is “downstairs” and not up the sky as in the fairytale, and that it’s the Ogre whose name is Jack and not the hero of the tale. Continue reading “Beware geeks bearing gifts”

The last visions

San Marino flag
The flag of San Marino showing the three towers of Monte Titano

Antal Szerb The Third Tower: journeys in Italy
(A harmadik torony)
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
Pushkin Press 2014 (1936)

I felt bereft when Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy stopped mid-sentence only in sight of Lyon. Mr Yorick was due to travel down western Italy via Turin, Milan, Florence and Rome as far as Naples but, unhappily for all, the full account was cut short by the small matter of the writer’s death. Fortunately there was Antal Szerb’s The Third Tower recently published in English to console me, though the Hungarian’s travels were essentially down the east coast of Italy only as far south as San Marino. But, just as with Sterne’s writings, this was as much — if not more — about the person than the places visited.

Continue reading “The last visions”

Grimm by name, grim by nature

forest
A Preseli conifer plantation, a stand-in for Teutonic forests

Cornelia Funke Fearless Chicken House 2013

The second in Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld series has been blessed with an authentic-looking late 19th- or early 20th-century map by Raul Garcia, which greatly helps with orientation though, in keeping with the nightmarish nature of the books, its seeming accuracy can be deceiving. In Reckless, Jacob managed to save his brother Will from being totally transformed into a stone being or Goyl (a name derived, no doubt, from ‘gargoyle’); this was, however, achieved at great cost to Jacob himself, who appears thereby to have condemned himself to a lingering death, magically-induced, as a result of his self-sacrifice.

Unless of course he can find a key talisman: Continue reading “Grimm by name, grim by nature”

Darkly imagined universe

looking-glass

Cornelia Funke Reckless Chicken House 2011

Through the Looking-Glass
the Brothers Grimm live again,
but a life more weird

Best known for their collection of fairy tales, more so than for their pioneering philological researches, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm (their surname translates as ‘fierce’) are the inspiration for the main characters in Cornelia Funke’s novel. Jacob and Will Reckless’ surname — echoing the Grimms’ — means ‘headstrong’, ‘rash’ as well as being a bona fide English surname. When the historic Jakob Grimm was 11 their father died, much as, when Jacob is around the same age, the fictional brothers’ father disappears. Later, the two real-life brothers trained in law before getting deeply involved in researching folklore and folk-customs, and the older Jacob moved in with Wilhelm and his new bride; in Reckless, meanwhile, the unattached young adult Jacob finds himself in an alternative fairytale world joined by brother Will and his girlfriend Clara against his wishes. It is clear that Funke has determinedly drawn on the lives of the Brothers Grimm to structure her tale (the first of many, we are to presume) of magic and fairies set in archetypal Teutonic black forests and Central European cities.

What other influences can be seen in this novel? Continue reading “Darkly imagined universe”

Throwing cold water on a legend

Arthur-and-Guinevere

N J Higham King Arthur: myth-making and history Routledge 2002

King Arthur. How this short phrase stimulates a knee-jerk reaction: from amateur historians who want to convince the public that their vision of the fabled monarch is true, and from hard-bitten historians who deny not only his existence but irascibly inveigh in print against what they regard as the lunatic fringe. Now this is not one of those academic books that castigates and berates that fringe while simultaneously feeding from the hand it bites, but it nevertheless very definitely takes a minimalist view of the existence of Arthur, king or otherwise. Nick Higham is well-placed to authoritatively examine the historical contexts in which the Arthurian legend grew, and does so in very great detail; a short review can only highlight one or two of the original contributions this study makes to the literature.

Continue reading “Throwing cold water on a legend”

The traveller tempted

Yorick at the remise door
Yorick at the remise door (wood-engraving by Gwen Raverat)

Laurence Sterne
A Sentimental Journey
through France and Italy

Introduction by G B Harrison
Wood-engravings by Gwen Raverat
Penguin Illustrated Classics 1938 (1768)

L’amour n’est rien sans sentiment. —Yorick

I picked this slim volume — only 182 pages long — on a whim, attracted by the cover illustration. But I also knew that Sterne (d. 1768) was famous as the author of Tristram Shandy under the nom de plume of Mr Yorick — chosen because he was, like his namesake in Hamlet, known as “a fellow of infinite jest”. I’m so glad I opted for this book because it turned out to be all the E’s: excellent, edifying, enjoyable, entertaining, educational and no doubt much else. It purports to be a record of Sterne’s journey through both France and Italy, when the author was seeking relief from consumption by travelling abroad. In truth it is a conflation of two separate sojourns between 1762 and 1765, and stops well before his arrival in Italy; this is a pity as his observations on the inhabitants of Turin, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples would have been enlightening. As it was, the Seven Years War between 1756 and 1763, during which France and Britain were officially at loggerheads, caused him some embarrassment and could easily have cut short all travel, denying posterity of A Sentimental Journey.

First, let us deal with the ‘sentiment’ of the title. Continue reading “The traveller tempted”

Suspending disbelief

punch2

Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London Gollancz 2011

From the start I’d noted that Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London was mentioned in the same breath as China Miéville’s London-centred novels (such as Kraken) and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and so assumed that this was a fantasy about the belowground metropolis that involved magic. I now find it’s lumbered with the clunky sobriquet of ‘urban fantasy police procedural’, which has at least the virtue of describing what’s in the tin. Fantasy thriller is good enough for me, however.

Constable Peter Grant is coming to the end of his probationary period when he comes to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale who — coincidentally — is a wizard. Nightingale recognises that Peter has latent magical ability and recruits him as sorcerer’s apprentice. At the same time a disturbing series of murders is taking place which, despite a lot of hi-tech sleuthing, is proving hard to solve without resorting to the kind of magic to which Nightingale has access; and so young Grant is willy-nilly drawn in, below his depth. Throw into the mix the almost obligatory love-interest, fellow probationer WPC Lesley May, and Peter is in serious danger of drowning. And, bearing in mind that the title is a clue, he very nearly does.

I wanted to like this novel very much. Continue reading “Suspending disbelief”

Maze crazy

Saffron_Walden_Turf_Maze_Diagram
Diagram of Saffron Walden turf maze (Wikipedia Commons)

Jeff Saward Magical Paths:
labyrinths and mazes in the 21st century

Mitchell Beazley 2002

Mazes and labyrinths are indeed magical paths, whether as pastimes or puzzles, whether as art or for ritual uses, or experienced visually or physically. They have a great antiquity, seen in natural features such as subterranean caverns or on artefacts such as coins, mosaics or pots. They can have a perplexing randomness or a mathematical precision, there can be several routes or just one to the goal — if indeed there is a goal — and you can simply enjoy it or you can panic, as I did when there was only 15 minutes to get a coachload of school students out of Longleat’s maze, then the world’s largest hedge maze. Continue reading “Maze crazy”

Ripping yarn, religious myth

Frampton_The-Passage-of-the-Holy-Grail-to-Sarras
Edward Reginald Frampton The Passage of the Holy Grail to Sarras http://www.wikigallery.org

Nigel Bryant compiler and translator
The Legend of the Grail
D S Brewer 2004 Arthurian Studies LVIII

While many readers assume that Thomas Malory’s famous epic is the epitome of Arthurian romance, fewer realise that what this author did was to extract the meat from several earlier French stories and serve them up not only in English but in a strong narrative arc that we know under the title Caxton gave it, Le Morte d’Arthur. In The Legend of the Grail Nigel Bryant imagines what a monkish redactor or scribe in, say, the 1240s would have done when confronted with the many different French versions of the Perceval romance. Would he not have done something similar to what Malory achieved more than two centuries later and prune, conflate and effect consistency?

This, then, is what Bryant himself undertakes to do. He takes “eight great French romances” composed during a period spanning half a century — Robert de Boron’s prose Joseph of Arimathea, Chrétien’s unfinished poem Perceval, the four mostly independent continuations of Perceval (two anonymous and one each by Gerbert and Manessier), the Glastonbury-linked Perlesvaus and the prose tale Quest of the Holy Grail (the last two also anonymous). He then re-forges them into a continuous narrative, as if they were the pieces of a broken sword, and presents them as the medieval legend of this mysterious object. The Whole Book of the Holy Grail, as it might be if Malory had attempted the project.

Does it work? Continue reading “Ripping yarn, religious myth”

Genre straddling

The model for Dune? The Red Planet: Mars image from NASA

Frank Herbert Dune
Gollancz 2001 (1965)

Foretold one gets dumped
in desert, then goes native.
Returns, beats baddies!

Dune is one of those thoughtful novels that successfully straddles the genres of fantasy and speculative fiction. SF often deals with philosophical ideas and scientific concepts in a fictional setting where exploration of the conundrum frequently takes precedence over the plot. Fantasy, on the other hand, often shows less interest in mechanisms and tends to go for a variation on a familiar narrative.

Continue reading “Genre straddling”

A simulacrum conceals

Robot from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)

Philip K Dick
The Penultimate Truth 
Triad Panther 1978 (1964)

Written at the height of the Cold War, not long after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, The Penultimate Truth is, in part, a reflection of general anxieties (in the West, at least) about the likelihood of nuclear war and whether human life would survive the devastating aftermath. The majority of the world’s population live underground, in fear of the continuing armageddon they are told is still raging above-ground and of the threat of radiation for anyone who emerges on the Earth’s surface. A Big Brother figure, Talbot Yancy, exhorts the multitudes to build more specialist robots to continue the fight above ground, though these are in truth designed to end up furnishing the requirements of an oligarchy which maintains the myth of a continuing war.

Many of Philip K Dick’s thematic obsessions emerge in this novel Continue reading “A simulacrum conceals”