Here is a trio of mini-reviews of collections of short stories, novels and a novella. The idea is to whet your appetite for fuller reviews which I am planning over the months ahead of individual books in the two quartets focused on Earthsea and on Sally Lockheart, as well as the novella in Unexpected Magic.
Ursula Le Guin The Earthsea Quartet:
A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu
Puffin Books 1993 (1990)
When I first read The Wizard of Earthsea I could almost believe in magic, so credible was the description of Ged’s emerging talents. Years later, magic of a different kind was uppermost in my second reading of the trilogy (along with Tehanu and the two other sequels). This magic was to do with sympathetic characterisation and with the creation of credible imaginary cultures and worlds as much as with hope and tragedy, with human triumphs and failings, with empathy and enmity. A relatively recent reading of The Chronicles of Narnia impressed me so much with the degree that Le Guin has surpassed Lewis in her depiction of a humanistic as well as humane alternative universe; superficially there are some similarities (many common to much fantasy, such as magic, maps and mythical animals) but the tone and the richness and the “rightness” of her creation is what sets it apart from Lewis’ world: if Narnia is a tapestry then Earthsea is a working model of a reality. This sequence is I’m sure one of those works that reveals further treasures with each successive reading.
Diana Wynne Jones Unexpected Magic:
Collected Stories Eos 2006 (2004)
The title is so apt in both senses, in that in DWJ’s worlds anything can happen (and usually does) plus that for the reader the stories can (and do) provide the magic that may be missing in their own more prosaic world. The stories are a little uneven, as they are aimed at different audiences (those who like whimsy, or cats, or were once in a bygone age bemused by word processors). The novella, Everard’s Ride, for me was misplaced in this collection: first, its additional length made the paperback physically awkward to handle and, second, its setting and plot convolutions were a mismatch with the unidirectional flow of the other tales; it should really remain separately published as standing on its own merits. That all said, my favourites were the novella and the autobiographical story, ‘The Girl Jones’, which opened the collection.
Philip Pullman Sally Lockhart Mystery Collection:
The Shadow in the North, The Ruby in the Smoke, The Tin Princess, The Tiger in the Well
With its uniform editions of Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart quartet, this box set features as covers pictures from the faithful BBC TV adaptations of the first two titles as part of an planned tie-in. Pullman has captured exactly a mix of late Victorian fiction styles with elements of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and penny dreadfuls, spiced up with a little bit of Bram Stoker. The first three novels are fantastic reads, taking place as they do in a largely believable Victorian world, but the last novel, while no less exciting, is slightly let down by its Ruritanian setting in a fictional mid-European country.