Rapier wit

Tongue firmly lodged in cheek:

Zenrinji

crosswordblank

If ever forced to try out swordplay
I’d fail to be a Cyrano.
And as for impro wordplay,
expecting puns? Oh, sirrah, no!

Clash of steel best fitting crossed swords
(whether epées, foils or rapiers),
flash of real wit suiting crosswords
(often met in broadsheet papers):

all would go from bad to worse
(same as when I’m writing verse).
I’m as like to win a duel as
write a gem fit for a jeweller’s.

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Culture clash

Laguna Verde and Mt Licancabur (credit: http://www.paxgaea.com/images/Laguna_Verde_and_Volcano_Licancabur_on_the_border_between_Chile_and_Bolivia.jpg)
Laguna Verde and Mt Licancabur. Credit: http://www.paxgaea.com/images/Laguna_Verde_and_Volcano_Licancabur_on_the_border_between_Chile_and_Bolivia.jpg

Joan Aiken The Stolen Lake
Red Fox 2005 (1981)

It is 1835 and Dido Twite is heading back to England from Nantucket Island on board HMS Thrush. Or so she thinks: she has been at sea for most of the 18 months since she was shipwrecked in the North Sea at the end of 1833, and can’t wait to get back to London and her friend Simon. But things aren’t going to plan. First pirates and a rebel ship have to be dealt with, and then she finds that the naval vessel has been sent two thousand miles down the eastern coast of South America to go to the aid of Britain’s oldest ally. And her real troubles start just as soon as she sets foot in New Cumbria.

New Cumbria? This is not a country known in our world, but it does exist in the alternate world of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken’s highly idiosyncratic series set in a world where Victoria didn’t rule in Britain but where the Stuart king James III did. We have to sweep away all that we thought we knew about the 19th century — and indeed previous history — and accept that we are in a parallel existence where, instead of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, we hear of Biru, Hy Brasil, Lyonesse and New Cumbria.

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A quest with twists

culhwch

Fflur Dafydd The White Trail
Seren 2011

The White Trail is one of Seren Books’ New Stories from the Mabinogion, a retelling of the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. This early Arthurian story described the quest of Culhwch (pronounced Kilhookh) for Olwen, a girl he had fallen violently in love with the moment he had heard about her. But to gain her hand he has to fulfill several impossible tasks set for him by Olwen’s father, tasks he is only able to complete with the help of Arthur and his knights.

It is the longest of the native tales contained in the collection known as the Mabinogion and is a rich and complex narrative, with elements of folklore, fairytale, placename onomastics, Rabelaisian lists, black humour, grotesquery, puns and ritual all thrown in. A modern retelling will have to work very hard to include even a handful of these elements whilst also making it relevant and comprehensible to the reader. Fflur Dafydd makes a fair stab at this, to the extent that she reinterprets the action in a way that throws new light on the Dark Age tale but sensibly excises details that anchor Culhwch only to pre-modern times; on the other hand there are aspects of her narrative that for me technically don’t work, whatever genre you choose to call it.

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An Englishman in New York

fifth-avenue-at-42nd-street-new-york-1926
Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, New York 1926. Credit: http://www.vintag.es/2014/12/fifth-avenue-at-42nd-street-new-york.html?m=1

J K Rowling
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:
the Original Screenplay

Little, Brown 2016

Stage plays and screenplays are simply another form of text, and whilst it may take some while to adjust to their conventions they remain narratives as much as novels. There is no need to mount a defence of them; the only criterion that matters is whether they stand up as stories in their own right. With the screenplay of Fantastic Beasts made available for the mass market it becomes easier for the ordinary reader to judge whether their interest is maintained and expectations met in the absence of novelistic conventions or whether the presence of technical directions proves a barrier to enjoyment.

My first impression is that this will only make sense to someone who is already familiar with J K Rowling’s wizarding world. Without the whizz-bang-crash of onscreen special effects you’ll need a lot of imagination to picture what, say, ‘Disapparate’ involves. But then, there can’t be many people who haven’t got some inkling of this universe, and they aren’t the people likely to want to pick this book up in the first place.

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Stalking the pages of history

steffani-agostino
Agostino Steffani

Donna Leon The Jewels of Paradise
Arrow Books 2013 (2012)

Biographers are akin to stalkers: they remorselessly research the background to their victims, obsessively familiarise themselves with their subjects’ feats and foibles, and lurk around in their vicinity hoping to pick up tidbits of information to feed their fascination. So do historical researchers, and so do fiction writers — but with one major difference. When the subject is deceased, or even imaginary, they are not harmed, nor is their personal privacy invaded or their equanimity threatened.

In The Jewels of Paradise musicologist Caterina Pellegrini finds herself drawn back to her native Venice by the promise of research into the papers left by a mysterious Baroque composer who, she subsequently discovers, is one Agostino Steffani. But that’s not all that’s mysterious about her job. Who are the strange Venetian cousins, Stievani and Scapenelli, who have hired her for this hush-hush job, and what role does the equally opaque lawyer Andrea Moretti have to play in all this? And who is that man following her one evening?

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Home from the sea

Morpho eugenia MHNT male (Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMorpho_eugenia_MHNT_male_dos.jpg
Morpho eugenia MHNT male (Credit:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMorpho_eugenia_MHNT_male_dos.jpg

A S Byatt Angels & Insects
Vintage 1995 (1992)

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill. — R S Stevenson

I find I have contradictory feelings for Byatt’s fiction: I strongly admire what she writes, for its stimulating ideas, its in-depth research, its clever structuring and its examination of human nature; but I can’t say that I love the handful of her novels that I’ve read. It’s not that they seem preponderantly intellectual — I don’t think that’s necessarily a turn-off — but rather that I don’t always believe in, let alone warm to, the characters she depicts.

That certainly is the case with Angels & Insects, a pair of loosely-linked novellas set in the 19th century and infused with some of the obsessions that characterised that age. ‘Morpho Eugenia’ and ‘The Conjugial Angel’ deal respectively with the Victorian urge to explore and catalogue that gave rise to that era’s expansion of knowledge and understanding in the biological sciences and, in an opposite direction, a rush towards spiritualism, séances and beliefs in otherworldly beings. Along the way we encounter lonely individuals ensconced in the bosom of family or among companions, taboos broken in the midst of Christian communities, grief and loss suffered in comfortable surroundings. Readers may feel sympathy for those who suffer in such circumstances but I wonder whether they really know or even care about them?

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Pre-echoes

Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena (image: public domain)
Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena (image: public domain)

Alison Croggan The Bone Queen
The First Book of Pellinor
Walker Books Ltd 2016

After a gap of eight years Alison Croggan has fulfilled her promise to her fans that she would further enrich the narratives of her epic fantasy series known as Pellinor. Her world of Edil-Amarandh — in which Pellinor is merely one city — is set in a dim and distant past where not only magic is a reality but also perilous realms exist beyond the everyday world of humans, realms where entities like the Bone Queen can survive. If we want to imagine Edil-Amarandh we can do worse than picture it as a pre-echo of Atlantis, a continent positioned somewhere between the Old World and the New with mountainous spines somewhat reminiscent of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. All of the action of The Bone Queen takes place in the north, in the lee of the Osidh Elador mountains, between Lirigon and Pellinor.

So much for context: we read fiction primarily for stories concerning characters, not worldbuilding, and it is to people we now turn.

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