Lingering alchemical imagery

Alchemical sun and moonJeanette Winterson
The Battle of the Sun
Bloomsbury Publishing 2010

It is London in 1601, but things are not quite as history would have us believe. The life of the young protagonist, Jack, is about to take a turn away from the future planned out for him, and he goes from being a pawn in a game played by others to one where his resourcefulness and bravery lead to his transformation into a person of some power.

The Battle of the Sun comes over as dreamlike, with figures from alchemical treatises, supernatural happenings and irrational actions all assuming an aura of reality and plausibility, as often happens in dreams. Jeanette Winterson’s declared mode of writing here is to let the action emerge from the situations she conjures up, and much of the first part of the book introduces characters and places and scenarios that seemingly lack resolution until a character from another of her children’s novels — Silver from Tanglewreck (2006) — intrudes herself, at which point the plot gathers momentum and a sense of direction before reaching a satisfying conclusion. Continue reading “Lingering alchemical imagery”

The only certainty

Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter - Holbein's Dance of Death / Astrologer -
Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter – Holbein’s Dance of Death: Astrologer

Terry Pratchett Mort Corgi 1988 (1987)

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get round to Terry Pratchett. Maybe it’s because the comic fantasy I’ve sampled up to now has elicited a lukewarm response, humour being such a personal thing. I like word play as much as the next reader, along with left-field concepts, but key literary ingredients such as plotting, a sureness with words and above all characterisation are a must for me; their lack becomes a triumph of superficiality over substance.

Pratchett’s Mort I’ve discovered has both substance and sheen. Fourth in his celebrated Discworld series he skilfully blends whimsy, high fantasy, allusions and, yes, wordplay with a rattling good story, peopled with characters that despite some caricature keep the reader interested right through to the end. Continue reading “The only certainty”

Fun is a serious business

zodiac-woodcut

Diana Wynne Jones Mixed Magics Collins 2000

Publishers and booksellers think they know their market when it comes to the fantasy novels of Diana Wynne Jones and her ilk: young readers aged 9 to 12 or, at a pinch, young adult or teens for her more ‘difficult’ novels. This despite the fact that her fans range upwards in age to other adult fantasy writers, filmmakers, academics (and not just in the literary field — I knew a professor of sociology who rated her highly as a writer) and, of course, bloggers of all ages. Those who treat books merely as commodities — and there’s no denying that the publishing business exists to be commercially successful — often fail to recognise the reach of an author’s readership except when (as, say, with Philip Pullman and J K Rowling) it becomes as plain as the noses on their faces; they then respond with ‘adult’ editions, which sport less garish covers to go on genre shelves — or even under General Fiction — and receive notices in the review sections of broadsheet newspapers.

This long preamble (and it gets longer, I’m afraid) is a prelude to lauding this collection of light fiction, Continue reading “Fun is a serious business”

Alike in indignity

19th-century Florence
19th-century Florence

Diana Wynne Jones
The Magicians of Caprona
Collins 2002 (1980)

Two families, both
alike in magic, fight till
forced to face real foe.

First things first: I wondered why Diana Wynne Jones had chosen the name Caprona to use in the title of this children’s book. Was it from the Latin caprona ‘forelock’? Or from a type of butterfly? Or perhaps in homage to an island featuring in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot? None of these notions really convinced.

It seems most likely that she borrowed the name from a village in the Arno valley in Tuscany, upriver from Pisa and to the west of Florence. While relatively insignificant now, in the Middle Ages Caprona was of enough importance to feature in Dante’s Inferno when its castle was squabbled over by the opposing armies of Pisa and Florence. In this book the town is besieged by the 20th-century armies of Pisa, Florence and Sienna, city-states all bordering the unfortunate Dukedom of Caprona which, in this alternate world fantasy, retains a mix of medieval and early 20th-century customs and technology, not to mention magic. Continue reading “Alike in indignity”

Magic and mayhem

castle

Diana Wynne Jones Charmed Life HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2007 (1977)

Orphans, one spiteful,
one open-hearted, effect
magic, then mayhem!

The first of the Chrestomanci books to be published but the third in order of chronology, Charmed Life exhibits many of the possible strengths and weaknesses of a book destined to be part of a series but perhaps conceived originally as a standalone: strengths such as freshness and vitality, weaknesses such as plot holes and inconsistencies. It is to Diana Wynne Jones’ credit that she manages to avoid many of the pitfalls while still retaining a charm that manages to enchant new readers nearly forty years later. Continue reading “Magic and mayhem”

A book of Fillory tales

Fillory map
Map of Fillory (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Christopher-Plover-The-Fillory-Series/101804169642)

Lev Grossman The Magicians Arrow Books 2009

Martin Chatwin was not an ordinary boy, but he thought that he was. In fact he was unusually clever and brave and kind for his age, he just didn’t know it. Martin thought that he was just an ordinary boy…
Christopher Plover The World in the Walls

You will of course have heard of the Fillory series by the late Christopher Plover (pronounced ‘Pluvver’, like the wading bird). In order the five titles are The World in the Walls, The Girl Who Told Time, The Flying Forest, The Secret Sea and The Wandering Dune. You will know all about the Chatwin children — Martin, Rupert, Fiona, Helen and Jane — and how they manage to escape to the magical land of Fillory, where they have adventures before they are called back to their own world. And you will remember that Martin was the only sibling to remain in Fillory because after The Wandering Dune the series just stopped, not long before Plover died in 1939.

You don’t remember? Surely you must — there’s even a Facebook page, Christopher Plover: The Fillory Series, to remind us.  Continue reading “A book of Fillory tales”

Intimations of mortality

path

Diana Wynne Jones
The Lives of Christopher Chant
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1988)

This Diana Wynne Jones book has an intriguing title: we are used to The Lives of the Caesars (where more than one person is involved) or, on the other extreme, The Life of Brian (which is about just one person). The Lives of Christopher Chant, on the other hand, reflects the notion that one person can have, like a cat, more than one life. This notion is an old one, from the transmigration of the soul to the Russian folk-villain Koshchei, whose external soul is hidden away in one object enclosed within another, and so on; most recently the concept has become familiar from the Horcruxes within which Harry Potter’s nemesis hides pieces of his soul, but before you surmise that Jones copied Voldemort’s strategy it’s worth pointing out that The Lives of Christopher Chant predates Rowling’s series. Continue reading “Intimations of mortality”

A fish out of water

Long Island
Long Island, New York, from an early map

Kathryn L Ramage Maiden in Light Wapshott Press 2011

Jane Austen and H P Lovecraft may once have been strange bedfellows, but the recent trend of re-imagining 19th-century romances as vampire and zombie tales renders this marriage made in hell less surprising. Kathryn Ramage dedicates Maiden in Light to these two authors, though the resulting novel is not the undead romcom that you might otherwise expect. Instead we have here an engaging novel mixing social observation, convincing character development and palpable suspense, all set in an alternate world consistent within its constructed parameters.

Laurel is a fish out of water in the 20th-century yet medieval town that is New York, stuck in a family intent on matching daughters with appropriate suitors while discovering herself a tomboy with burgeoning magical abilities. She is summoned to her uncle’s castle of Wizardes Cliff at the eastern end of Long Island where she quickly comes into her own as a sorcerer’s apprentice, before her curiosity causes her to stumble on the dread secrets that form all wizards’ responsibilities, the stuff of her nightmares. Continue reading “A fish out of water”

To the Dark Tower

city

Kathryn L Ramage
The Wizard’s Son
Wapshott Press 2009

The British folktale of Childe Rowland has had a lasting influence on English literature. The youngest of three brothers, Rowland has to rescue his sister Elen and his elder brothers from the King of Elfland following Elen’s disappearance, Persephone-like, chasing a ball. With an enchanted sword he manages to track the King to his enchanted castle (also known as the Dark Tower) and defeat him. A few lines from a ballad (“Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came…”) re-appeared in Shakespeare’s King Lear, the narrative also furnishing the plot to John Milton’s Comus and becoming the inspiration for Browning’s famous poem, and finally in the 21st century the elements of plot, name and relationships re-appear, I believe, in Ramage’s The Wizard’s Son to help elucidate what is otherwise a very puzzling story. Continue reading “To the Dark Tower”

Snapshots of the author

mindmap

Diana Wynne Jones House of Many Ways
HarperCollins 2008

Many of the pieces in Reflections, the collection of writings by and about Diana Wynne Jones, address the question authors often get asked: Where do you get your ideas? And of course there is no single simple answer. She does however offer this suggestion, in an item entitled ‘Some Hints on Writing’:

When I start writing a book, I know the beginning and what probably happens in the end, plus a tiny but extremely bright picture of something going on in the middle. Often this tiny picture is so different from the beginning that I get really excited trying to think how they got from the start to there. This is the way to get a story moving, because I can’t wait to find out.

With House of Many Ways I found it hard to force a plan onto a review, so adopting Jones’ modus operandi for this commentary seemed an appropriate way to go about it. The beginning has been taken care of, and the conclusion is virtually foregone, and now it’s time to move to the images that arise almost unbidden from a second reading of this fantasy. Many of them involve snapshots of the author herself. Continue reading “Snapshots of the author”

Suspending disbelief

punch2

Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London Gollancz 2011

From the start I’d noted that Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London was mentioned in the same breath as China Miéville’s London-centred novels (such as Kraken) and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and so assumed that this was a fantasy about the belowground metropolis that involved magic. I now find it’s lumbered with the clunky sobriquet of ‘urban fantasy police procedural’, which has at least the virtue of describing what’s in the tin. Fantasy thriller is good enough for me, however.

Constable Peter Grant is coming to the end of his probationary period when he comes to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale who — coincidentally — is a wizard. Nightingale recognises that Peter has latent magical ability and recruits him as sorcerer’s apprentice. At the same time a disturbing series of murders is taking place which, despite a lot of hi-tech sleuthing, is proving hard to solve without resorting to the kind of magic to which Nightingale has access; and so young Grant is willy-nilly drawn in, below his depth. Throw into the mix the almost obligatory love-interest, fellow probationer WPC Lesley May, and Peter is in serious danger of drowning. And, bearing in mind that the title is a clue, he very nearly does.

I wanted to like this novel very much. Continue reading “Suspending disbelief”

Let children be the judge

tower

Sarah Prineas The Magic Thief
Quercus 2009 (2008)

With a recommendation from Diana Wynne Jones (‘I couldn’t put it down. Wonderful, exciting stuff’) The Magic Thief (the first in a series with the same name and consequently re-titled Stolen) challenges the reader to dare contradict such a distinguished fantasy writer. Bravely, I’m going to try.

Yes, I too couldn’t put it down. Well, actually I did, but only to catch up on some sleep, but at nearly 400 pages that’s to be expected. The action pulled you along, aided by the almost breathless short sentences of both narrative and speech, and the manageable lengths of chapters, around ten pages on average and broken up by illustrations and change of narrator. The vocabulary, despite the odd Latin-influenced term, is expertly aimed at an audience aged around 10 or 11 and that target readership is the best to judge its success.

But this older reader is not so sure it totally succeeds Continue reading “Let children be the judge”