Good things come in threes

Snettisham torc, Norfolk, 1st century BCE (image: Johnbod, Wikimedia Commons, slightly edited)

Diana Wynne Jones: Power of Three
Harper Trophy 2003 (1976)

Another wonderful offering from the inimitable Diana Wynne Jones, Power of Three is an early-ish fantasy but one which displays all her trademark tics: a tricksy plot with an ending which has you rereading the last few pages wondering what has just happened (and how), a self-doubting protagonist with talents largely hidden from them, and a narrative that — while riffing on traditional themes, tropes and traditions — still manages to read as a one-off original.

We begin the novel assuming this is high fantasy: a seeming pastoral medieval community that is also au fait with magic, with some individuals able to divine the future, find distant objects and gifted with the power of suggestion. As we delve further we realise that it’s quickly morphing into so-called low fantasy with the modern age beginning to impinge, first at the fringes and then at the centre.

Underlying this is the growing sense of triadic groupings, as suggested by the book’s title: three siblings; Three Impossible Tasks, in the best fairytale tradition; three peoples (humans, the Dorig and the Giants); three powers (the Sun, the Moon and the Earth); and over all these, the Old Power, the Middle and the New. It all makes for a heady concoction, with a twist about a third of the way in.

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Mischief, thou art afoot

“Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot.
Take thou what course thou wilt.” Mark Anthony, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

It may seem odd for those of us in the northern hemisphere anticipating high summer to be considering the onset of winter, but that is what this post is asking its readers to do. (Denizens of the southern hemisphere, I pray your indulgence.)

The reason for this timely yet untimely reminder is that in less than six months time, if the Fates are willing, we shall be contemplating the imminent arrival of Witch Week 2019. This is a week-long celebration of things fantastical in memory of Diana Wynne Jones, author of Witch Week — which itself charted certain singular events between Halloween and Bonfire Night.

Originally inaugurated by Lory Hess so brilliantly, last year’s Witch Week was ‘curated’ by Lizzie Ross and myself and featured the theme Fantasy + Feminism. This year we will focus on — cue diminished seventh chords and evil laughter — Villains. So, what can we expect?

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Weird and wilderness

Sketch map (not to scale) of Rotherweird, based on the text of the first instalment and the cover art of all three books in the trilogy (image © Chris Lovegrove)

Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird (reviewed here) kicks off a fantasy trilogy being published in the UK, with the final volume due to appear in July this year. I’ve previously mentioned my fascination with maps both real and imagined and even suggested that the author, whose distinguished grandfather lived in Sussex and Kent in the far southeast of England, may have based his concept of Rotherweird on the town of Rye in East Sussex. You may remember that Rye boasted many literary associations such as (in alphabetical order) Joan Aiken, E F Benson, Rumer Godden, Radclyffe Hall and Henry James.

Now, I have no idea if Andrew Caldecott visited here, though given its relative proximity on the south coast to London it’s not unlikely, but I believe there are a few clues pointing to Rye faintly being a possible model for the fantasy town.

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The map fantastic

Contemporary sketch map of Rye (17th century?)

Contemporary novels, set in the real world, rarely if ever need a map included in the text. Historical novels occasionally offer one, especially if they show old territories or ancient names for places. Dystopian futures and distant planets do often require them and, ideally, so should fantasies: the more fantastical they are the more we need a cartographic guide, however sketchy, to orientate ourselves.

What happens though when either no map is available or, if one is offered, it’s so sketchy as to be next to useless?

The answer, for people like me, is to make my own from whatever clues are offered in the text, letting logic — and occasionally imagination — fill in the rest.

And that’s what I have been doing recently: tripping the map fantastic, as it were.

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Rather uncanny

Andrew Caldecott: Rotherweird
Illustrated by Sasha Laika
Jo Fletcher Books 2018 (2017)

‘Books reflect interests; interests inform personality and personality decides a course of action.’
— Chapter Six

I feared that this might be my kind of book, which is why I hesitated; and it turns out I was right to fear it. Its labyrinthine plot sucked me in — in a pleasing way — but rather than rush down its myriad pathways I chose to linger over details, ponder clues and savour solutions.

Rotherweird is itself a maze, a Troy Town in which it’s easy to get lost, an elemental island where earth, air, wood, water and fire lurk in uneasy proximity. And where the study of ancient and medieval history is not only discouraged but banned.

As a reader fascinated by history I wondered how its inhabitants would respond to this injunction: what had happened to the natural curiosity that is a basic human instinct? In Rotherweird we discover that it’s there just below the surface of the townsfolk, merely waiting for a catalyst to begin the reaction. Who will it be?

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Summer sizzlers

Courtesy of blogger Cathy Brown of 746Books.com I’m planning to join in the meme of Twenty Books of Summer. All this requires is for me to draw up a list of books to read between the start of June and early September, but with the option of changing titles, the number of books read or, indeed, the period of reading: my kind of challenge in fact, infinitely malleable!

Here now is my chance to tackle and reduce my list of Classics Club titles, to read the Roddy Doyle novel I won in Cathy’s Begorrathon this year, and to finish The Deptford Trilogy for Lory’s Robertson Davies Reading Week.

The theory is that, having completed over thirty titles in the first four months of this year I can at least manage twenty in this coming three-month period, but that would require judicious choices: books that aren’t too long, for example.

So herewith is my initial pick of twenty titles to complete by summer’s end.

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Narrative shapes

In the misty Black Mountains

The author Denise Mina talks about stories in an interview in The Guardian Review (Saturday 27 April 2019); asked about the inspiration for her podcasting plot line (writes Libby Brooks) she segues into Western society’s addiction to certain narrative shapes:

They are so comforting, but it fundamentally impacts the way we receive information. So the anti-vaxxers have a much cleaner story than vaxxers. Everything doesn’t fit into a story, some things are just information.

This issue — about people responding more favourably to a narrative that follows a simple plot than random bits of information that make the picture more messy — is one that you may’ve noticed I come back to again and again.

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An ideal state

Amgueddfa Cymru, Caerdydd

Inverted Commas 10: Ideal City

1. Steal Nothing, whether it be an abstract idea or another life.
2. Examine Everything.
3. Pay a Fair Price.

These are the laws of the city state in the Valley of the Golden Cloud, from Michael Moorcock’s fantasy The War Hound and the World’s Pain (1981). The city guard who announces this adds,

“And remember, to lie is to steal another soul’s freedom of action, or some fragment of it. Here a liar and a thief are the same thing.”

As Captain Ulrich von Bek suggests, these laws sound excellent, even ideal, to which his companion Sedenko adds, “And simple.”

Yet, as the guard rejoins, they sometimes require complex interpretation. Which then leads von Bek to muse that it had been many years since he’d been able to believe in absolute justice, and some weeks since he’d believed in justice of any kind. He’s been living through the Thirty Years War after all — and we seem to be living through an equally tumultuous period of modern history, with similar concerns about justice.

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Where no gaps were

Dürer’s Knight (1513). There will have been some changes in armour by the time of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)

Michael Moorcock:
The War Hound and the World’s Pain
New English Library 1983 (1981)

Nicknamed Kriegshund or ‘War Hound’ by his men, Ulrich von Bek is a mercenary captain during the Thirty Years War which devastated Germany at the start of the 17th century. Disgusted by the massacre that occurred after the siege of Magdeburg and appalled by the lawlessness and plague that he witnesses elsewhere, he heads south, alone, to the Thuringian Forest. And it is in this quiet wilderness that he discovers a mysterious castle, which then sets him off on a quest to find a Cure for Der Weltschmerz, the World’s Pain.

The personage who sets him off on this mission is no other than Lucifer. Yes, that Lucifer. It’s what swings The War Hound and the World’s Pain from apparent historical fiction to bona fide fantasy (and not science fiction as the UK paperback claims). But, this being a Moorcock novel, expectations are sure to be confounded.

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Titles in search of books

I’ve often got book titles muddled in my head before wondering what they would be like if they had really existed.

How, for example, would these presumed lost works stand up as literature, as classics?

  • A Timely History of Briefs: possibly a soft-porn title to be kept under the counter?
  • Shady Gifts of Feys: a fairytale of bondage and more, perhaps.
  • The Unbearable Importance of Being Lightly Earnest: a lost title by Oscar Kundera — or was it Milan Wilde? I get confused.
  • Noh Country for Omens: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens adapted by Cormac McCarthy for the Japanese stage.
  • You Rang, M’Lord? A lost episode of Downton ghost-written by Tolkien, originally titled The Rings of the Lord.
  • Scents and Sensitivity: Jane Austen’s handbook on allergic rhinitis and other aspects of hay fever, edited by Noel Coward.
  • Tender Is The Knight: prequel by Sir Walter Scott Fitzgerald in which Ivanhoe gets saddle-sore.
  • A Room of One’s Own with a View: the tale of Rapunzel re-imagined by Woolf and Forster.
  • The Angry Caterpillar: the diary of a butterfly larva with IBS.
  • Alice threw the Working Class: how Dodgson’s heroine rose above her humble origins to graduate from Oxford debt-free.

Suggestions below, please, as to the kind of mash-ups you wouldn’t mind seeing on bookshelves.

Alive with the sound

High Street, Crickhowell

As many know, Crickhowell in Wales was recently named as the Best Place to Live in Wales by The Sunday Times (as well as being awarded the accolade of UK’s Best High Street).

What better time then for this small market town to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Crickhowell Music Festival, the main events of which took place in St Edmunds Church approached, appropriately, from the High Street down Silver Street.

Under the inspired musical direction of conductor Stephen Marshall since the festival began, its main event in 1995 was a semi-dramatised performance of Purcell’s masque The Fairy Queen; and this was a work the Choral Society chose to repeat in this special year, along with Bach’s magnificent B minor Mass. Bookending these performances were a recital given by the choir’s young choral scholars and other young musicians and, as a finale, a rousing concert by Welsh folk band ALAW, both in the town’s Clarence Hall.

As a marriage of words and music it seems an apt event to note here on this bookish blog written by a classically trained musician…

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Love leaves its mark

Gothic revival Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

J K Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Bloomsbury 1997

What can one say about the first of the Harry Potter books that hasn’t already been said, whether in praise or in some kind of disparaging commentary? I’m not certain whether my two penn’orth here will either enlighten anyone or even excuse or endorse anything already stated, but I offer it here as my modest contribution; in a sense, my purse of secondhand opinions is bottomless.

So: a young orphan, badly treated, visibly different, naturally gifted but full of anger and self-doubt, is bullied, thrust into danger, tested almost beyond his abilities. How is he to cope? The answer, as ever, is social resilience, bolstered by support from the surrogate family that is the school community, from loyal close friends and sympathetic teachers looking out for him. Above all, by the knowledge that he not only is, but was, loved. As Albus Dumbledore says,

“If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign … to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin.”
— Chapter Seventeen

Love, as anyone who has read through the whole Harry Potter series, is the leitmotif that runs through each and every instalment.

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Close encounters

We’ve not long passed May Day, the waymarker for the second third of the year. I thought I’d just do a little crystal-gazing and a quick retrospective in the lull between reviewing one book and the next.

First, the scrying. May being Wyrd & Wonder month, with a focus on fantasy, I’m firming up what I’d like to read over the thirty days. In the photo above, going left to right, you can see my final (?!) choices for High Fantasy, Low Fantasy and Grimdark, and below these, Urban Fantasy, Portal Fantasy and my take on Fairytale.

Still to be decided are Magic Realism and Myth, but I have a shortlist for both; and which titles will emerge will be as much a surprise for me as it will be for you. Will they be as mainstream as the others or rather more obscure?

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An archipelago of stories

Smoke drifting across a copse

Ursula Le Guin: Tales from Earthsea
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

A story may be pieced together from such scraps and fragments, and though it will be an airy quilt, half made of hearsay and half of guesswork, yet it may be true enough.
— From ‘The Finder’

In the middle of Earthsea, nestled within the vast island archipelago, is the Inmost Sea. In the centre of that sea is the island of Roke. And on that island is the Immanent Grove, by the eminence that is Roke Knoll. And above all, the sky. Earth, water, wood and air: elements that we meet time and again in Tales from Earthsea and, indeed, in the whole saga. And to those we should also add fire.

Ursula Le Guin’s five Earthsea novels, expanded from the original trilogy to a quartet and then, three decades on, to a pentad, have felt at times like the saga of Duny, later called Sparrowhawk but now known as Ged. True, it drew in other participants — Tenar, Lebannen and Tehanu, for example — but principally we have followed Ged from boyhood to Archmage and on to old age.

We will have always known however that there were — that there will have to have been — other stories to tell, and in this collection we are offered five of them, along with an essay giving us some of the who, what, when and where of this magical world. And I mean ‘magical’ in all the senses of this word.

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