#WitchWeek2022 Day 1: The Mambabarang

Locusta migratoria manilensis, the migratory locust (Wikipedia commons)

by Daphne Lee

I’ve chosen to write about two books by a Filipino author, Joel Donato Ching Jacob, which I edited for Scholastic Asia. They are the first two in a trilogy set in what is now known as the Philippines. The era is pre-colonial (before 1521, which was the year Ferdinand Magellan came to the islands in 1521 and claimed it as a colony for the Spanish Empire) and, as such, pre-Christian/Roman Catholic, steeped in indigenous mysticism and animist lore. It is an imagined world, based on fact, the society feudal and ruled by the Maginoo class.

The first book, Wing of the Locust, introduces Tuan, a young man of the slave class, who is chosen to be apprentice to the barangay (akin to a borough or district) mambabarang, a healer, diplomat, spy, and assassin.

Because he has always been treated as an outcast, Tuan initially embraces his new role as an opportunity to improve his social standing and gain power over those who shunned him when he was a weak, awkward youth. Nevertheless, he soon finds himself wrestling with his conscience over the dubious morality of a mambabarang’s duties, while reeling in horror at the extent of the personal sacrifices that must be made to master the craft.

But it is only when Tuan reconnects with his childhood playmates, Liksi and Gilas, that he is forced to seriously consider the implications of his newfound status and power. And when his friends’ lives are threatened, Tuan must quickly decide if saving those he loves is worth the loss of his humanity.

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#WitchWeek2022 begins: Polychromancy

#WitchWeek2022

Welcome to this year’s Witch Week event! The brainchild of Lory, of Entering the Enchanted Castle, it runs from Halloween on 31st October to Bonfire Night, 5th November. Co-host Lizzie Ross, writer and I aim to celebrate fantasy books and authors during the week designated by Diana Wynne Jones – in her fantasy called, of course, Witch Week – as “a time when anything can happen.”

This year’s theme is Polychromancy, a word concocted via Greek from polychromos (‘many-colours’) and manteia (‘divination’) to suggest a focus on fantasy/sci-fi by authors from diverse backgrounds. The idea is to explore the work of SFF authors who identify as or celebrate Black, Asian, Indigenous, or people of specific ethnicities such as Roma – or indeed who claim a multiethnic ancestry.

The schedule, below, includes a readalong that complements our theme: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho, a Malaysian author based in the UK. A number of bloggers have already conducted an online discussion of this, but please feel free to comment on the conversation we had.

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Creepily insistent

© C A Lovegrove

‘The Dunwich Horror’ by H P Lovecraft,
in The Dunwich Horror and Other Stories.
Arcturus Books, 2022 (1929).

Published in 1929 when the author was nearly 40, this 1928 novella represents Lovecraft in his fully-fledged antiquarian horror mode, set in one of his preferred New England locales and in the university town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Sparsely settled as parts of Essex County were in the early 20th century, folks there kept pretty much to themselves, leading to some families becoming inbred. And then there’s this one branch of the Whateleys, consisting of the decidedly strange and reclusive Lavinia, her eccentric father known as Wizard Whateley, and her very strange infant Wilbur, father unknown.

The nearby settlement of Dunwich is spooked by odd lights and disturbing rumblings in and around Sentinel Hill, and by the strange foetid smells that emanate from the Whateley homestead. Still, Wizard Whateley pays out good gold for the succession of cattle that are led to the farm though, curiously, the herd never gets any larger.

But when building works at the farm change the house’s internal layout it rouses more than their mild interest, as does the rapid growth and precocious behaviour of young Wilbur, who shares his grandfather’s predilection for ancient arcane knowledge. That predilection leads Wilbur to consult old tomes in centres of academic excellence – including Arkham – but unfortunately his last visit to Arkham triggers a series of incidents soon known as the Dunwich Horror.

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Watching the story unroll

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner.
4th Estate, 2022 (2021).

‘Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!’

Treacle Walker

Deceptively simple yet cunningly wrought, Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker defies categorisation. Instead of easily slipping into one genre or another it does what many good stories do – it intrigues, enthralls, makes one think, conjures up images, presents distinct characters, and takes us through from start to finish before the stern critic can adjust their spectacles and sharpen their quill.

And, too, Garner does so much with so little. He gives us a limited cast of characters – Joseph Coppock, Treacle Walker, Thin Amren – and conjures up established figures from a classic British kids comic which ran from 1939 to 1963. He sets his story in a mythical landscape which evokes aspects of the Cheshire he knows so well and which feature in much of his writing. And he presents a hazy, elastic timeline which mixes the ancient past, his mid-century childhood, and the timeless feel of a fable or fairytale.

But above all this is the work of a visionary poet, of a shaman who is describing a journey to a spirit world. Nominations for literary and fantasy awards may come his way but we do Garner an injustice if we attempt to pigeonhole what he creates.

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Neither Light not Dark

© C A Lovegrove

Greenwitch by Susan Cooper.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1974).

“Though they make me in the form of a creature, yet they are making no more than an offering, as once in older days it might have been a slaughtered cock, or sheep, or man. I am an offering, Old Ones, no more.”

Chapter Eleven

Greenwich, the meridian, marks the notional point when one day becomes the next but is neither, the point of balance when time is an orphan.

The Greenwitch – fashioned from hawthorn and then sacrificed as dawn breaks and a fishing fleet returns to a Cornish village – it too feels like an abandoned orphan, being a creature of Wild Magic and thus subservient to neither the Dark nor the Light.

And, in the interval between Easter and May Eve when spring gives way to summer, this wild child, this scapegoat naturally seethes and is ready to have a tantrum; is there anyone who doesn’t want to use her, who will instead show her kindness and wish for her to be happy?

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No ordinary coin or common gold

War memorial, Hadfield, Derbyshire © Copyright David Dixon (https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3174486)

Fludd by Hilary Mantel.
Fourth Estate, 2010 (1989).

‘Patterns can alter,’ Fludd said. ‘A soul is a thing in a state of flux. Your fate is mutable. Your will is free.’

Chapter Ten

This short novel by the late Hilary Mantel is all about the state of flux that the title character alludes to. The anticipated call in the waiting room. That moment when you realise that all it takes to emerge from that Ruth is that first step; the point at which you finally decide to stand up to the bully, to change the trajectory of your life for the better.

Fetherhoughton in the mid-fifties, with its adjacent village Netherhoughton, is a community in limbo. Like the Derbyshire villages of Hadfield and Padfield near Glossop where the author grew up it is a liminal place on the borders of what is now Greater Manchester; a place of mists and rain, of freezing cold, of decaying industries, and of a profound conservatism.

Can Father Angwin, Sister Philomena, and housekeeper Agnes Dempsey respond to the door swinging open and transform their lives forever? And what are they to make of the new curate, Father Fludd, who seems to be the catalyst?

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Looking ahead a bit

#WitchWeek2022

The days are getting shorter and the nights … well, longer, and my thoughts are heading towards considering what to read as the dark gathers outside the window. Of course there is Annabel’s readalong of The Dark is Rising sequence which is due to take us up to midwinter, but what else beckons?

So, there’s Witch Week 2022, an annual meme run by Lizzie Ross and myself, focused on fantasy themes that suit the period between Halloween and Bonfire Night. This year highlights Polychromancy, a theme looking at fiction related to diverse cultures and stories, and runs till 6th November after the schedule of posts is revealed on 30th October. The featured book is Black Water Sister by Zen Cho.

#NovNov22 746books.com bookishbeck.wordpress.com

1st November also sees the start of Novellas in November run by Cathy at 746books.com and Rebecca at BookishBeck.wordpress.com. They’re basing their weekly schedules on four headings – short classics, novellas in translation, short nonfiction, and contemporary novellas – and I’m considering possible titles to read and review through the month, all chosen from books I already have on my shelves. Of course I reserve the right to change my mind at the last minute!

Short Classics:
Good Morning Midnight (Jean Rhys) OR
Orlando (Virginia Woolf)

Novellas in Translation:
Strait is the Gate (André Gide)
OR By Night in Chile (Roberto Bolaño)
OR Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Gabriel García Márquez).

Short Non-Fiction:
We the People (Timothy Garton Ash)
OR The Viceroy of Ouidah (Bruce Chatwin).

Contemporary Novellas:
The Lost Daughter (Elena Ferrante)
OR Ghost Wall (Sarah Moss).

@SciFiMonth

November is also when SciFiMonth (curated by Imyril at https://onemore.org and a couple of other bloggers) reaches its tenth anniversary. I’m generally on the periphery of bloggers marking the annual event but I shall attempt to read one or two titles at some stage during the month.


So that’s me. Are you planning to join any of these events? Have you read any of the novellas mentioned? Pray tell!

Herne and the hunted

Horned deity, Gundestrup cauldron

In a previous post (“Hunter’s combe”) I discussed some of the personal, topographical, historical and archaeological associations I fancied I’d detected in Susan Cooper’s fantasy The Dark is Rising (1973). The area north of the River Thames, to the south of  Slough (Buckinghamshire) and east of Maidenhead (Berkshire) provides the essential geography and history for the events in the novel, places the author knew from childhood.

In this companion piece I want to look at the folkloric and mythic aspects of the novel, and to try to chase up symbolic and psychological clues. Again, local legends, particularly to the south of the river (in the Royal Borough of Windsor) provide some of her inspiration, but also her interest in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess and her literary studies at Oxford feed into the fantasy.

All this ferreting around in what some might see as “only a fantasy” represents my approach to exploring what seems to make this particular instalment in the five-book series such a significant title for many fans of Cooper’s writing as well as striking in a new direction after Over Sea, Under Stone.

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Going native

© C A Lovegrove

The Tremor of Forgery
by Patricia Highsmith.
Introduction by Denise Mina.
Virago Press, 2015 (1969)

‘There were moments here in Hammamet, days and weeks, in fact, when I hadn’t any letters from you or from anybody, and I felt strange even to myself, as if I didn’t know myself. And part of it, perhaps – I know from a moral point of view – was that the Arabs all around me had different standards, different ethics. And they were in the majority, you see. This world is theirs, not mine.’

Chapter 20

The enigmatic title, supposedly the title of a novel the protagonist is writing, in fact indicates a key thread in this subtle tale of suspense. Handwriting experts can apparently identify telltale hesitation in a faked signature; and when author Howard Ingham dissembles or denies involvement in the disappearance of an individual, his behaviour also betrays the tremor of forgery.

Set in the summer of 1967 at the time of the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, The Tremor of Forgery speaks of a period of waiting, increasing heat and frustration. And yet living without monetary worries in a Tunisian beach resort could, perhaps should, on paper be an ideal existence.

Patricia Highsmith’s novel is carefully wrought: nothing much appears to happen yet we have suspense, murder and mystery – all understated, it’s true, yet though narrated in a matter-of-fact way it still draws the reader in and sustains their interest right to the last page.

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Hunter’s combe

‘The Abbey in the Oakwood’ (detail) by Caspar David Friedrich

A second read of Susan Cooper’s fantasy The Dark is Rising helped reveal to me several layers of possible inspiration that went towards making it such a rich concoction, layers which I’d like to examine in a little more detail.

These layers are personal and topographical, historical and archaeological, folkloric and mythical. It may also be possible to detect symbolic and psychological depths which we might try to dig down through.

But as with my first read there remains much to ruminate on and be impressed by in this, the second instalment in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence. To make this discussion manageable I’ve split it into two posts; this first one looks at personal and topographical layers, plus historical and archaeological aspects; the rest appears separately.

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Treasure in her belly

Great Orme’s Head in the 19th century

Ormeshadow
by Priya Sharma.
Tom Doherty Associates / Tor.com, 2019.

“You must be sad to be here alone.” Gideon was about to say, But I’m not alone, but then he understood.

130-1

A headland jutting out into the Irish Sea. A tramway for tourists leading up and back down to Llandudno. Kashmiri goats roaming the headland and invading the town. Bronze Age copper mines worked for nigh on four millennia.

This is the Great Orme, named by the Vikings for the worm or sea serpent they imagined the promontory resembling. For the visitor such as myself the essence of natural beauty, its breath the stuff of history, mystery and legend.

Then, not to be confused with Great Orme, there’s Priya Sharma’s Orme, a sea-girt headland with the feel of being a part of northwest England; no goats, just sheep; a farm called Ormesleep; and a close-knit community of dispersed settlements set in a landscape saturated with legends of dragons and a hidden hoard of treasure. All is set for a tale of Gothic sensibilities and self-imposed solitude, set in what feels like the Regency period (though we’re never explicitly told so).

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