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).

Continue reading “A quixotic quest”

Full of life

IMG_20141223_155740

Terry Pratchett Johnny and the Dead
Corgi Books 1997 (1993)

With hindsight it’s all too possible to read more into this YA novel than the author intended more than a score of years ago. Is Pratchett’s obsession with death, here and in other of his novels, some kind of premonition of his debilitating illness or, as I suspect it is, merely his continuing exploration of and creative attempts to deal with one of the big questions that we all contemplate at some time or another — namely, is there any kind of life after our departure from this world? And how do we cope with that while we still have this life?

Johnny and the Dead is the second in a loose trilogy about teenager Johnny Maxwell who lives in a Midlands town called Blackbury. Alone among his three friends — Wobbler, Bigmac and Yo-less — he finds he is able to see the dead in the local cemetery. More than that, he is able to speak to them. They are livid — well, as much as the disembodied can be said to be livid — when they discover that the cemetery has been sold to some developers, the distinctly anonymous United Amalagamated [sic] Consolidated Holdings.

Continue reading “Full of life”

Hell’s Angels meet the Outlaws

angel

Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman Good Omens
Corgi 2011 (1990)

Good Omens is the inventive comic fantasy you’d expect from both these authors, a eschatological novel which in 1990 documented the final week of History. The cast of characters whose individual actions and thoughts gradually coalesce for the final denouement are easily distinguishable, from the angel who guarded the gates of Eden to the angel “who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”, from Witchfinders to fortune-tellers, from the group of mostly ordinary kids entertaining themselves over the summer to the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse (Equal Opportunities apply to supernatural beings these days too) appropriately sporting Hell’s Angels on their motorcycle jackets. Has Armageddon really arrived? Only this book can tell you. Continue reading “Hell’s Angels meet the Outlaws”

Love potions without number

door

Tom Holt The Portable Door Orbit 2004

Tom Holt is a respected comic fantasy writer, whose only other work I was previously aware of was Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? So I was pleased to have this novel recommended to me, if only to see if Holt’s inventiveness extends just to witty parodic titles like Faust Among Equals, Paint Your Dragon and Grailblazers.

The answer is, it doesn’t. Continue reading “Love potions without number”

A funny thing happened on the way to the post office…

toilet cabin
Stefan Jakubowski
Once Upon A Tyme
Zygmunt Stanley 2009

It’s Tom Tyme’s sixty-fifth birthday and after he has been down to the village post office – while it’s still there – to collect his pension he’s going to become a Time Traveller.
But he doesn’t know that yet.

Doctor Who has his Tardis, Tom Tyme has his … Portaloo. No, this isn’t a Cornish seaside resort — though we do get to visit Tintagel — but a machine for travelling in time and space. Unlike the Tardis, however, there’s not much space inside it and the flush doesn’t do what you’d want it to.

And that’s just for starters in this inventive comic novel, which involves a talking moggie, King Arthur’s sword Excalibur and mistaken identities — from which you’ll gather it’s absolutely pointless giving a plot summary. Continue reading “A funny thing happened on the way to the post office…”

Mocking conventions from an armchair

frisland
The legendary island of Friesland, located east of Greenland

Diana Wynne Jones
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
Vista 1996

Discover the laws
governing fantasy worlds.
Beware tongues in cheeks.

Helpful tips for travellers to Fantasyland by the late great Diana Wynne Jones, from which I draw a number of conclusions:

(1) Get immunised by reading a wide range of fantasy, both good and bad: you never know what bugs you will be exposed to in Fantasyland.
(2) Remember to have an up-to-date passport: you’ll need either your own unread fantasy novel (preferably with your own bookplate stuck in the front) or a library book with plenty of entry/exit stamps from previous travellers’ visits.
(3) Obtain a visa (a credit card receipt for a fantasy book from your local bookseller will do).
(4) Have the correct currency ready (any bronze, silver or gold coins will do, so long as it makes a nice clinking sound in your purse).
(5) Finally, don’t forget to pack the Tough Guide: you’ll be lost without it. The author has travelled widely in Fantasyland, knows the terrain intimately and generously shares her insights into its attractions, peculiarities, geography and distinct cultures.

Oh, and don’t speak to any strangers down dark alleyways… Continue reading “Mocking conventions from an armchair”

Crisis at the University


Diana Wynne Jones
Year of the Griffin
Gollancz 2003 (2000)

university’s
challenging, no matter what
universe you’re in

Year of the Griffin is set in the same universe as The Dark Lord of Derkholm and their common source The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, but, bar a few cross references, works equally well as a standalone. Set eight years after Dark Lord, the story is centred on the young griffin Elda who is in her first year of University. Yes, a student griffin. At a university for wizards. You just know that things aren’t going to be straightforward. Continue reading “Crisis at the University”