A wonderful journey to shadow

trees

Alison Croggon The Singing:
the fourth book of Pellinor

Walker Books 2008

As with the author, I finished (reading, in my case, writing, in hers) the Pellinor tetralogy with mixed feelings. Regret, first of all, because there was a sense of closure on the whole series: any hint of sequels was firmly dispelled by a note at the beginning of the appendices that outlined the subsequent history of Maerad, Hem and their friends, leaving little chance of another epic undertaking by the characters we had grown to know and love. But satisfaction, too, was there: that wrongs had been righted, balances restored and friendships deepened. Continue reading “A wonderful journey to shadow”

A plausible secondary world

Bodleian crow
Crow from an illuminated manuscript in the Bodleian Library

Alison Croggon The Crow:
the third book of Pellinor

Walker Books Ltd 2006

All novels, and especially fantasy novels, provide the opportunity for authors to create their own worlds in which to place their characters, and in large measure what makes the story convincing is the plausibility of that secondary world. Croggon’s land of Edil-Amarandh is given credible substance by its characters’ interaction with the geography, climate and changing seasons, and the success of The Crow and the other Pellinor books is enhanced by the impression that Maerad and Hem, Cadvan and Saliman are all inhabiting a real landscape: we are with them, almost in real-time, every step of their journeys, every rest in their tasks. It may or not help to imagine their world as perhaps that straddling what is now the mid-Atlantic ridge between Newfoundland and western Europe, sometime towards the end of the last Ice Age when sea levels were lower, but it is not essential, particularly as Croggon’s storytelling skill provides the verisimilitude to convincingly transport us to this sprawling continent in the grip of unfathomable changes. Continue reading “A plausible secondary world”

Conundrum

edil-amarandh
Credit: http://acrylicwash.tumblr.com/post/66314077474/edil-amarandh-map-that-i-colored-for-our-teeny

Alison Croggan The Riddle Walker Books Ltd 2005

Maerad and her mentor, the bard Cadvan, must solve a confusing riddle if evil is to be averted, and Maerad herself appears to be part of that riddle and its solution. To begin to get answers she has to travel to the far north, across snow and ice and sea, with all the accompanying dangers, from humans, nature, and the supernatural. The task seems insuperable, especially when laid on such young shoulders, and in such a hostile world it seems increasingly difficult to know who to trust. And all she has with her is the lyre she inherited from her mother, an instrument which has an integral part to play in the drama that is unfolding.

Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots suggests that the more different archetypal narratives a novel includes the richer it becomes (Booker admires The Lord of the Rings for this), and on this basis Croggon’s Pellinor series must be rich indeed. The Riddle includes the themes of the Quest, Overcoming the Monster, Tragedy and Voyage and Return, while it is only a matter of time and two more novels before we must surely encounter Rags to Riches, Comedy (in the classical sense) and Rebirth. On this understanding alone The Riddle is very satisfying, even as a middle volume in a sequence.

But novel writing is more than just a matter of narrative structure. First and foremost must come characterisation. Maerad, the young heroine of the tale, would, in a modern context, be just another petulant teenager, a trait which some reviewers have found annoying but is here absolutely right, not just for plot reasons but because that’s exactly what teenagers are normally about. While she is the Chosen One with innate mysterious powers (and you could argue that this is an annoying motif in itself), she still has to rely on her human resourcefulness, her stubbornness, her quick-wittedness and her physical strength. I liked also the roundedness of many of the other characters, even those who appear for such a short time, and even those who don’t support Maerad’s cause.

Other important elements in a story are a sense of place and time, and here Croggon has thought long and hard about the nature of her secondary world. The journey Maerad takes is one we take too, from cold to warmth, from mountains to plains and from habitation to habitation, because her descriptions give us exactly what we require to imagine and sensually feel ourselves there. There is also a clear sense of the passage of time, marked by key dates in the changing seasons (the book ends on midwinter’s day, for example) and Maerad’s monthly periods arriving at the time of the full moon.

Finally, Croggon’s theme is about words (as the title of the book hints). Poetry (real poetry, mind you, not doggerel verse) suffuses both prose and song in her text, recounted in English; and for the linguist too there is much delight in her creation of the languages of Pellinor: the names of peoples, of things, of places, of concepts. And let us not forget the crucial dialogues that Maerad has with key figures in the story; for those who like their fantasy dished up with lashings of action this may be a weakness, but for those who love words, the to-and-fro of conversations and the subsequent conflicts or resolutions that arise from them this must surely be a strength.

A word about Cadvan: as a wizard figure he here has resonances with both Gandalf and Dumbledore, though it is clear that we are to think of him, despite the discrepancy between the aging of Bards and ordinary mortals, as a relatively young man. Like those other two wizards of modern writing he too disappears, and like them his dramatic loss through violence must be felt deeply by the reader, but it is for the reader to find out whether the loss is temporary, as with Gandalf, or permanent, as with Dumbledore.

In anticipation of a prequel, The Bone Queen, appearing any time soon, reviews of Alison Croggon’s four Pellinor books will be reposted here in sequence and in rapid succession; they first appeared in January and February 2013

A cut above the ordinary

Plato's Atlantis (north is at the bottom)
Plato’s Atlantis
(north is at the bottom)

Alison Croggon The Gift:
the first book of Pellinor

Walker Books 2004

Maerad, a young female slave in a squalid village, is rescued by Cadvan who, as a bard, recognises her latent magic powers; taking her on a journey overshadowed by ever increasing peril and malevolence he begins her magical apprenticeship as she starts to gain an inkling of her significance in the world of Annaren. At first glance the well-worn trope of Orphan revealed as the Chosen One with the potential to upset the current world order might seem rather humdrum and, well, ho-hum. But this opening novel of an inevitable fantasy quartet by Australian poet Alison Croggon is a cut above the ordinary. Continue reading “A cut above the ordinary”

Confounding expectations

dunes

Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands:
a Record of Secret Service

Penguin Popular Classics 1995 (1903)

I don’t normally seek out thrillers, even classic ones such as The Riddle of the Sands, and though this has historic interest – set just before the Second Boer War and scant years before the death of Victoria – it’s not a period I’m particularly interested in. Add to this that it’s about sailing on the North Sea coast of Germany when dismal autumnal fogs abound and it sounds like a novel I would normally pass over. But after an initially slow but deliberately drab beginning the story picks up, starts to tease the imagination and, even for the recalcitrant landlubber, sparks admiration for the enthusiasm and bravery of the two protagonists. Continue reading “Confounding expectations”

Mapping the world

 

World map from the Ulm edition of Ptolemy's Geographia 1482 (public domain image)
World map from the Ulm edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia 1482 (public domain image)

Ashley and Miles Baynton-Williams
New Worlds: Maps from the Age of Discovery
Quercus 2008

It’s a rare being who is not fascinated by maps. Tourists and visitors, walkers, fans of epic fantasy, students and readers of self-help books with mind-maps all appreciate a bit of good cartography, and the modern virtual world is awash with them as the options on any search engine will demonstrate. Their function is to be informative of course, but they can also be works of art in their own right and items of interest to antiquarians, collectors, lawyers, historians and a whole host of other specialists. Not forgetting any old Tom, Dick or Harriet now profiting from this general availability online — just as in the Renaissance period a rich middle class were profiting from more easily acquired maps due to the invention of printing.

Continue reading “Mapping the world”

Armchair travelling

camelot
Camelot by Aubrey Beardsley, detail from How Queen Guenever rode on Maying

Neil Fairbairn
A Traveller’s Guide to the Kingdoms of Arthur
Evans Brothers Ltd 1983

Geoffrey Ashe
The Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain
Gothic Image 1997

Neil Fairbairn’s 1983 Traveller’s Guide inevitably invited comparisons with Geoffrey Ashe’s A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain (1980 and 1983, confusingly reissued as The Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain in 1997). This would be unfortunate as the two are different animals, each with its own particular strengths and weaknesses, though both include illustrations and maps.

The first obvious thing about Fairbairn’s Guide is Continue reading “Armchair travelling”

An intoxicating draught

winter sleepwalker

Joan Aiken
The Winter Sleepwalker and Other Stories
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Red Fox 1995 (1994)

This collection of eight haunting tales by Joan Aiken is one to treasure, even in the paperback edition with its dowdy monochrome renditions of Quentin Blake’s colour illustrations. They are all in Aiken’s tell-tale style, redolent of traditional fairytales but served up as an intoxicating draught, a cocktail of bittersweet outcomes, humorous touches, resonant archetypes, sly puns and chantefable verses. Aiken tells us they were inspired by a series of paintings by Jan Pienkowski, though his are not the pictures that decorate the pages — delightful as Blake’s are it would be illuminating to see Pienkowski’s original art.

The eight tales are short, some more, some less than a dozen pages, easy to savour and digest in bite-size chunks.  Continue reading “An intoxicating draught”

A curate’s egg of a gazetteer

Arthurian Coats of Arms (Bodleian Library)
Arthurian Coats of Arms (Bodleian Library) http://medievalromance.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/Arthurian_coats_of_arms

Derek Brewer and Ernest Frankl
Arthur’s Britain: the Land and the Legend
Guild Publishing 1986 (1985)

This illustrated gazetteer has an authoritative introductory essay by the late Derek Brewer, a distinguished academic and publisher who died in 2008. The illustrations which accompany the introduction all come from late medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and show how their techniques and purposes changed from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The photographs in the gazetteer proper are by Ernest Frankl, with accompanying maps drawn by Carmen Frankl; I’m guessing that both Ernest and Carmen have since passed away as Trinity Hall Cambridge has an Ernest and Carmen Frankl Memorial Fund to cover travel for educational purposes.

Part of a series of souvenir guidebooks by Pevensey Press, Arthur’s Britain consists of Continue reading “A curate’s egg of a gazetteer”

Nothing new under the sun

athena

H A Guerber The Myths of Greece and Rome
Introduction W M S Russell
Wordsworth Editions 2000

The late W M S Russell, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Reading, was a modern-day polymath: classicist, sociologist, biologist (he helped formulate the principle of the three Rs of humane animal experimentation: Reduction, Replacement and Refinement), folklorist (former President and Secretary of the Folklore Society), radio quiz panellist (a sometime stalwart of Round Britain Quiz), raconteur, singer, novelist… Well, you get the picture. I was privileged to be a longtime correspondent of his, and while I never had the opportunity to meet up with him in person I knew him from phone conversations to be knowledgeable, personable and friendly. His premature death was a great sadness to me personally and a loss to his many friends and acquaintances generally.

Bill Russell provided a new introduction to this re-issue, Continue reading “Nothing new under the sun”

That’s the way to do it

Edinburgh sees the final weekend of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2009 (Wikipedia image)
Edinburgh Fringe turn, 2009 (Wikipedia image)

Kate Atkinson One Good Turn
A Jolly Murder Mystery

Black Swan 2007 (2006)

Kate Atkinson’s novel reminds me of the customary list, the dramatis personae, that appeared in printed copies of plays from the Elizabethan period onward announcing the characters one would expect to strut their stuff on the stage.

SO-AND-SO, King of Such-and-Such
THINGUMAJIG, heir to the throne of Such-and-Such
A gravedigger
FLIBBERTIGIBBET, Queen of Somewhere Else
A nurse
Attendants, courtiers, peasants etc.

For practical purposes — read-throughs, programme notes, students — that’s all very helpful, but from a dramatic point of view it makes little sense: an audience would want the characters, like the play’s narrative, to unfold before their very eyes, and a bald roster of who appears doesn’t normally tell you an awful lot.

So, what if I were to present the principal players in One Good Turn in a similar manner — would that be any different? Continue reading “That’s the way to do it”

A fish out of water

Long Island
Long Island, New York, from an early map

Kathryn L Ramage Maiden in Light Wapshott Press 2011

Jane Austen and H P Lovecraft may once have been strange bedfellows, but the recent trend of re-imagining 19th-century romances as vampire and zombie tales renders this marriage made in hell less surprising. Kathryn Ramage dedicates Maiden in Light to these two authors, though the resulting novel is not the undead romcom that you might otherwise expect. Instead we have here an engaging novel mixing social observation, convincing character development and palpable suspense, all set in an alternate world consistent within its constructed parameters.

Laurel is a fish out of water in the 20th-century yet medieval town that is New York, stuck in a family intent on matching daughters with appropriate suitors while discovering herself a tomboy with burgeoning magical abilities. She is summoned to her uncle’s castle of Wizardes Cliff at the eastern end of Long Island where she quickly comes into her own as a sorcerer’s apprentice, before her curiosity causes her to stumble on the dread secrets that form all wizards’ responsibilities, the stuff of her nightmares. Continue reading “A fish out of water”

To the Dark Tower

city

The Wizard’s Son
by Kathryn L Ramage.
Wapshott Press 2009

The British folktale of Childe Rowland has had a lasting influence on English literature. The youngest of three brothers, Rowland has to rescue his sister Elen and his elder brothers from the King of Elfland following Elen’s disappearance, Persephone-like, chasing a ball.

With an enchanted sword he manages to track the King to his enchanted castle (also known as the Dark Tower) and defeat him. A few lines from a ballad (“Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came…”) re-appeared in Shakespeare’s King Lear, the narrative also furnishing the plot to John Milton’s Comus and becoming the inspiration for Browning’s famous poem, and finally in the 21st century the elements of plot, name and relationships re-appear, I believe, in Ramage’s The Wizard’s Son to help elucidate what is otherwise a very puzzling story.

Continue reading “To the Dark Tower”