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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