Hexes, murder and politicking

Regency London street

Zen Cho:
Sorcerer to the Crown
Pan Books 2016 (2015)

Prunella had once thought life in London would be all flirting and balls and dresses, hitting attentive suitors on the shoulder with a fan, and breakfasting late upon bowls of chocolate. She sighed now for her naïveté. Little had she known life in London was in fact all hexes and murder and thaumaturgical politics, and she would always be rising early for some reason or other!

This is a fantasy that has frequently been described as a mash-up of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which I’ve read) and Jane Austen (ditto) as interpreted by Georgette Heyer (whom I’ve not as yet read) but of course it is more than that. The author brings up issues of race, gender and class in a way that, in 2020, is even more pertinent than when it was first published, what with Black Lives Matter assuming even more urgency and administrations in certain democracies becoming more inclined toward fascist policies.

Yet Zen Cho deals with this not in a heavy-handed preachy way but with wit, humour and satire, all the more effective for being couched in a historical fantasy rather than a sermon. While it’s not perfect, as a debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown has made few missteps; and what’s cleverer is that its apparent obscurities and longueurs actually encourage a future rereading when one may hopefully spot and enjoy the clues one may have missed first time round.

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Worlds apart

Gliffaes Country House Hotel walled garden © C A Lovegrove

Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife wends a different path from its predecessor Northern Lights in that instead of the reader inhabiting Lyra’s world for the duration one now starts moving from world to world.

The UK editions help us keep track of these different worlds with the author’s symbols in the margins of each page: the silhouette of a hornbeam tree for Will’s world (and ours), a dagger motif for the Cittàgazze world, the alethiometer standing for Lyra’s home world and a starburst symbol for the world in which Lord Asriel is building his fortress, the one intended for the republic of heaven.

Within these worlds representing different spaces in the boardgame of Pullman’s imagination the author moves his pawns and knights, his rooks and bishops, his kings and queens. Inevitably during the game some pieces are removed permanently from the board.

Warning: spoilers ahead

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“Hyr piteous tale”

Joan Aiken:
Midwinter Nightingale
Red Fox 2005 (2003)

The joint penultimate instalment in the series known as the Wolves Chronicles, Midwinter Nightingale is as imaginative as any of the preceding novels, giving us a chance to marvel at Joan Aiken’s inventiveness whilst also regretting her apparent rush to complete her final two novels before she prematurely left us in early 2004.

As if to anticipate that sense of mortality there are some rather perfunctory deaths towards the end, but also the leaving of a couple of threads dangling to be resolved in the concluding volume, The Witch of Clatteringshaws.

If the resulting dish here is at times rather indigestible it’s because she’s tried to throw in extra red herrings into the usual range of exotic ingredients and McGuffins; on the other hand it’s hard not to admire the sheer panache that has her principal protagonists having to cope with idiosyncratic sheep, werewolves, incompetent invaders, extreme weather and an increasingly disunited kingdom.

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Allegorical narratives

Maria Sachiko Cecire: Re-Enchanted.
The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century
University of Minnesota Press 2019

Described on the back cover blurb as a new genealogy for medievalist fantasy Maria Sachiko Cecire’s study is important for recalibrating — in literature, in other media, in philosophical outlooks — the assumptions of many of us admirers of this genre. Focusing on five areas, namely childhood reading, the Oxford University English syllabus, the fabricated enchantment of Christmas, so-called ’empires of the mind’, and developments in the 21st century, Cecire takes apart the foundations of 20th-century fantasy, examines them, finds what’s wanting but then also points out what remains of real worth.

She starts with her own childhood realisation that, as an American of Japanese-Italian descent she “would never grow up to be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed fairy-tale princess”; she later learnt that her experience of “racialized self-alienation [was] far from unique.” Re-Enchanted thus became a project searching for the origins of Anglo-American fantasy and, as she puts it, “its special relationship to ideas about childhood, modernity, and the raced, gendered self.”

I can’t emphasise how important this study is in helping not just academics but also a wider public to understand how white European medievalist fantasies adopted an imperialist and colonialist stance, one which has held sway for too long — but one which may yet have the capacity to evolve and change to suit 21st-century sensibilities, particularly where race and gender and culture are concerned. Tempting though it may be to quote extensively from the text (Cecire makes her points both succinctly and in depth, paradoxical though that may seem) I shall try to resist the urge — while simultaneously hoping my paraphrasing doesn’t misrepresent her argument.

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Æsahættr

Jacob wrestling with the angel by Delacroix (detail)

I promised I would return to some of the themes I alluded to in my review of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. Even more than with Northern Lights, the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy, I feel that Pullman has interwoven literary and visual motifs into his narrative though most of the time we are deeply concerned with the characters involved and the excitement of a pacey plot.

But I’d like to emphasise that what follows is mostly speculation on my part, a personal response to what has struck me most during this reread and not necessarily what the author had originally intended. As has been pointed out to me by another more scholarly blogger, this is a manifestation of what academics call reader response theory: proposed by Stanley Fish, the controversial theory suggests that meaning isn’t inherent in the text but in the reader’s own mind, the text being only like a blank screen onto which the reader projects whatever pops into their mind.

Make yourself comfortable then, as the movie’s about to start.

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A thief in the night

‘Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter’ (Holbein’s Dance of Death / The Astrologer)

Edgar Allan Poe: The Masque of the Red Death (1842)
in Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Everyman 1975 (1908)

The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and horror of blood.

Of Poe’s many Gothick tales this is one of the foremost and famous, and it unsurprisingly stuck in my mind more than the others I read many years ago. And why, especially when there’s so little to the plot?

Essentially Prince Prospero holes up in a castle with a load of his friends and plenty of provisions, leaving the populace outside to die from a horrible plague — after half a year he throws a masked ball in a suite of rooms — yet Death still manages to enter the castle, regardless of quarantine.

Given the coronavirus crisis it seemed an appropriate time to read this short story, especially as I forgot to mention it in a previous post about literary treatments of contagion until another blogger’s comment brought it back to mind.

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Dark matters

Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife
Scholastic 2001 (1997)

What were these mysteries? Was there only one world after all, which spent its time dreaming of others? (Chapter 4)

The sequel to Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is as much a roller-coaster of emotions as it is a cauldron of ideas. After Lyra Bevilacqua discovers that nothing is as she thought it was and ends the first volume walking into another world in the sky, we find ourselves at the start of The Subtle Knife in our own world, with a fatherless boy anxious for the safety of his mother.

The contrast in scene-setting between the two novels was shocking to me when I first read this: Will Parry’s sense of isolation arising from awareness of his mother’s vulnerability has burdened him with a responsibility that shouldn’t be given to anyone his age; and when intruders break into his Winchester home and one — after being pushed — trips over the cat and falls to his death, Will is forced to go on the run. Having previously left his mother safe with his former piano-teacher, he arrives in Oxford; here he sees an odd square patch in the air, a window into another world.

And so it is that he finds himself in Cittàgazze, an oddly deserted Mediterranean-type town with a few children running loose, and where he comes face to face with Lyra and her daemon.

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See my shadow

SpecOps-27 postcard of operative Thursday Next (https://www.jasperfforde.com/)

Jasper Fforde: The Eyre Affair
World Book Night UK 2013
Hodder 2013 (2001)

“Shine out fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.”
— Richard III, Act II Scene 4

Fforde’s first novel, superficially a comic fantasy thriller, is essentially a romp through several literary genres — though at times it’s more like a drive-by shooting than a frolic through the daisies. In fact he’s been described as a postmodernist writer, and postmodernism is an ideal way to regard the few works of his I’ve read.

It’s easy to justify this by considering Fforde’s running joke about Richard III: the monarch is depicted as a slot-machine mannequin dispensing speeches, then there is a pantomime production of Shakespeare’s play in a Swindon theatre; finally, the introductory quote for this review refers to Richard preferring to see the reflection not of his misshapen body but of his sinister shadow.

In fact, all the numerous threads, motifs and plotting — among them a continuing Crimean War, a Welsh Republic, and science fiction trappings like plasma guns, chronological black holes and cloned dodos, plus characters unaware their names are parodies and puns, and unaccountable shifts from first-person to omniscient narrative — are effectively exercises in Ricardian self-reflexivity, ignoring the substance for the shadow; and self-reflexivity is a hallmark of postmodernism.

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The dreadful summit

Robin Hobb:
Assassin’s Apprentice
Book One of The Farseer Trilogy
Harper Voyager 2015 (1995)
Special edition for World Book Night UK 2015

There are general expectations for an epic or high fantasy: it’s set in what Tolkien called a Secondary World; the protagonist is usually young and, following much fairytale tradition, often an orphan; they have hidden talents or gifts, frequently of a magical nature, which only reveal themselves gradually and after much tribulation; and there is a malevolent antagonist which the protagonist has to prevail against or even overthrow.

On the basis that Assassin’s Apprentice displays these features it qualifies as high fantasy, but it takes more than box-ticking to ensure that a novel like this succeeds — readability, convincing characterisation, vivid worldbuilding, plot twists, in fact everything that may encourage the reader to suspend disbelief and invest in the protagonist’s success, plus a certain je ne sais quoi which renders the premise distinctive and memorable.

I can report that Assassin’s Apprentice doesn’t fail in any of these departments and I’ll attempt to explain how.

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A wondrous web

Snowfall in the Preseli Hills in West Wales

This review is the final instalment of a series of posts of Jenny Nimmo’s fantasy, all part of an online discussion between Nick Swarbrick and me.


Jenny Nimmo: The Snow Spider (1986)
in The Snow Spider Trilogy
Egmont (2004)

Child Rowland to the dark tower came.
His word was still “Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
King Lear, Act III Scene 4

Such a curious title: can spiders be active and survive in the outside temperatures that allow snow to fall? Of course, being cold-blooded creatures, this isn’t the case, which may be what makes the concept so appealing. Once, however, you can accept the premise that at least one special spider can survive it makes it easier to suspend disbelief about the other things that happen in this story.

This paradox will be the first of many, for Jenny Nimmo’s novel, the first title in a trilogy, is often underrated as a fantasy because there is so much under the surface of the narrative that may not be evident to the casual reader.

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A quixotic quest

Tianjin (Tientsin) old city

Charles G Finney:
The Magician Out of Manchuria
Panther Books 1976 (1968)

A comic fantasy not quite like any other, The Magician Out of Manchuria is part satire, part quest story, part picaresque novella and part fantasy, but constantly shifts ground to keep the reader guessing. Ostensibly it is about a Manchurian sorcerer who, with his apprentice chela and donkey Ng Gk, is intent on escaping an encroaching materialism in China, sometime in a legendary past. Already we can see that the author is mixing names and terms from different cultures: for example, chela is a Hindi word for a disciple.

But already, within the first couple of pages, we’re in medias res, for descending to the seashore the magician is easily constrained to rescue from fishing nets the lifeless body of a naked woman, not of a particularly pleasing visage as it happens (an incident portrayed rather lasciviously if not quite accurately the cover of this edition).

The said magician, unnamed like his chela, not only brings her back to life but by his art renders her beautiful. His motivation arises from the fact that he realises she is the infamous Lustful Queen of La, bumped off by the evil warlord Khan Ali Bok, and he decides that this is the perfect excuse to return northward — so the Queen can get her revenge and he can restore magic to the land. And so begins the quest by three unnamed humans (each known only by their status) and a named donkey (which only knows that its status is lowly).

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Open and shut case?

L D Lapinski:
The Strangeworlds Travel Agency
Orion Children’s Books 2020

Felicity Hudson may only be twelve, but a family house move from a city to a village, combined with the scary prospect of a new school after the summer, means Flick has to grab chances to explore whenever she can. And what she comes across wandering down a Victorian arcade is a shabby shopfront:

Beside the church, leaning drunkenly into the alleyway, was a tiny, squashed-looking shop with a big bay window [which] looked the same as the other shops on the street: old, unpopular, rather unloved, and as though it might have a bit of a weird smell.

This is the travel agency of the title. And a very odd travel agency it is with, unsurprisingly, a clue in its name. But first of all Flick has to cross the threshold, after which the things will never be the same. Is it fate that has driven her here?

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Calan Gaeaf

Farmhouse in the Preseli Hills

Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider has been the subject of a conversation the inestimable Nick Swarbrick and I have been having on his blog and here over a number of weeks, and now we’re approaching the end with the final two questions we’ve each set ourselves to answer.

Briefly, the novel concerns young Gwyn Griffiths who has been given five gifts for his ninth birthday, four years to the day when his sister Bethan left their Welsh hill farm and disappeared in a snowstorm. The five objects — a mutilated model of a horse, a piece of seaweed, a musical pipe, a scarf, and a broach — exert an ancient magic when ‘offered’ to the wind, put in train by Gwyn’s innate talent inherited from his legendary ancestor Gwydion.

My intention is to end this series of posts with a review before I tackle the remaining two instalments of Nimmo’s trilogy, but for now we’re both looking at the novel’s Welsh contexts in an attempt to appreciate what makes The Snow Spider different from other fantasies written for children.

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A magical landscape

Foel Cwm Cerwyn, Mynyddoedd y Preseli

Over a few posts Nick Swarbrick and I have been discussing the first instalment of Jenny Nimmo’s Magician Trilogy, The Snow Spider. Nick began with a fine piece entitled Dicter – Anger and a Family in Crisis and I followed with Motifs, emotions and myth. Next I discussed Loss in the novel to which Nick responded with
Need Called Knowledge Out, an analysis concerning young magic-users coming into their powers.

We now come to four questions we set ourselves to answer about the novel’s setting, in culture, landscape and time — we’ll each look at two today on our respective blogs, with the remaining pair given our consideration on another day.

We hope that you will appreciate and respond to our comments, whether or not you’ve read The Snow Spider. And if you haven’t read it yet maybe you’ll be persuaded to by these posts!

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From pathos to bathos

Oakleaf window, Tyntesfield, Bristol

Ransom Riggs:
Tales of the Peculiar
Illustrated by Andrew Davidson
Penguin 2017 (2016)

I really wanted to like this: a handsome book to look at and a pleasure to hold and handle, with extremely classy wood engravings by Andrew Davidson and a series of short stories of ‘peculiar’ people told purportedly in fairytale fashion. I do love convincing fakery in a novel, the kind that allows one to fully suspend one’s disbelief and immerse oneself in an alternative world where unnatural things happen and peculiar people exist.

However, with this instalment of Ransom Riggs’ popular series I found that the things which irritated me about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children were still present, but amplified, and that unfortunately led to me feeling let down and profoundly disappointed as I waded through the eleven pieces and a foreword.

But first, the Prologue, in which I enumerate the many facets which predisposed me to find this tome attractive.

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