A brief guide to Blastburn

Bramshill House, Hampshire, from an early photograph: how Midnight Court might have looked

I’ve just started my reread of Joan Aiken’s standalone title Midnight is a Place (1974) and thought I’d say a few introductory words about the fictional town of Blastburn which features so strongly in this novel, set as it is in both an alternate history (or uchronia) as well as an alternate world (or paracosm).

By the way, it has nothing to do with the move called Blast Burn in Pokémon, a term which postdates Joan Aiken’s first Wolves story. More likely is that she was inspired by the development of blast furnaces in the early industrial period: for example, ‘hot blast’ was a method for preheating air blown into iron furnaces, a procedure invented and patented by James Beaumont Neilson in Scotland in 1828, four years before the Chronicles actually start.

Though not officially part of the author’s Wolves Chronicles the mention of Blastburn in this novel brings to mind its appearances earlier in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) and later in Is (1992, also published as Is Underground). For the purposes of this and subsequent posts I’m going to assume that they all refer to the same place, and this has implications for Blastburn’s geography and chronology.

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Crossing boundaries

Inverted Commas 11: Genres

There seems to be something about the human race that makes it crave Rules. Or maybe it’s a quirk of the human brain that it gets frightened if it’s allowed too much exercise.

Diana Wynne Jones is talking about Rules. In particular about Rules for Fantasy and what Children should be allowed to read (‘A Talk About Rules’ in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, 2012).

She then comes round to Genre: “Genre has been around as a convenient idea for a long time,” she writes.

I prefer to think of it as a notion mostly developed in the 1920s, whereby publishers and reviewers could point people at the kind of thing each person liked to read. It was a useful system of tagging stuff. They sorted books into Detective, Thriller, Children’s, Ghost, Horror, and so on. And naturally they went on to do the same with the newer things like SF and Fantasy. Everyone in, say, the seventies knew what Genre was.

Unfortunately, as she points out, once writers began believing in Genre it became a Rule. One which stated that each Genre has absolute boundaries which Must Not Be Crossed — or else readers will be confused and won’t read any fiction that crosses those boundaries.

Potentially this could result in “a fair old disaster for all kinds of writing,” she suggests, meaning that “almost no one can write anything original at all. But the Rules say that if you write the same book all the time, that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s Genre.”

In the years since 1995, when DWJ gave this talk in Boston to the New England Science Fiction Association, readers fortunately are a little less constrained by arbitrary rules on genre, especially as mainstream literature has happily strayed across the boundaries by utilising time travel, or employing magical realism, or introducing elements of horror, thriller or whatever into their narratives.

But there are still diehard conservative fans who take a rigid approach to what is Right and Proper in whatever Genre they are currently world authorities on. You come across these angry voices in social media, or when they’re writing opinion columns for literary supplements.

Surely, she argues, the reader should take each story on its own merits, not on whether it fits a template, or slots into a pigeonhole, or suits a straitjacket. Shouldn’t we see the story first and not the label?

And what you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action, and bizarre adventures. And the frame that holds this mess is a story […] The story is the important thing.

It’s like that argument about different races, when in fact, biologically speaking, there is only one race — the human race.

Individuals are hybrids, each with their own story to tell; and, just as humans all have their own unique genetic code, the stories we tell don’t have to confirm to one genre let alone be clones of one another.

Delayed gratification

Eva Ibbotson:
The Secret of Platform 13
Macmillan Children’s Books 2009 (1994)

A quest to find a missing prince. A portal that opens for a few days every nine years. A rescue mission by a hand-picked team. Obstacles to be overcome — or else disaster follows. Eva Ibbotson writes a witty narrative that combines a comedy of errors with incipient tragedy, likeable protagonists with a dastardly antagonist, familiar landmarks with an insular fairyland straight out of legend.

Forget cranky critics who archly suggest J K Rowling ripped off ideas from this fantasy for her Boy Who Lived series: bar an access to a magical world via a platform on Kings Cross Station in London — Platform 13 as opposed to Nine & Three Quarters — and a boy rudely separated from his parents (and forced to sleep in a cupboard) there is little else that they share … apart from the usual staples of witches and wizards, fantastic beasts and non-magic users.

The secret of platform 13, revealed in the first few pages, is that there is a kind of wormhole to the Island in the disused Gents toilet on Platform 13, access to which is available only during a narrow window of opportunity. Inhabitants from both worlds can use this ‘gump’ but actually very few non-magical people are aware of it. When the baby prince’s nostalgic nurses make a return visit to London they’re devastated when their charge is kidnapped whilst they’re buying fish and chips, and the Island’s Royal Family have to wait another nine years before an attempt can be made to rescue him.

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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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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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