Whale of a time

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In just a few days it’ll be time for Witch Week, but right now I want to look forward to a little beyond that. I’ve begun one particular classic a couple of times now, but was never quite in the right frame of mind for it.

But it’s a shame to let 2019 go without giving it another try. Why? Because its author was born exactly two hundred years ago, and because Moby-Dick is bruited to be more than a simple tale of a doomed quest. So, along with fellow blogger Lizzie Ross, I shall once again begin at the beginning.

But first, I shall now glance back at works I have read (links are to my reviews) that could almost have been preparations for this adventure, volumes that have owed a part of their existence to this great whale of a tale.

Continue reading “Whale of a time”

My top ten mazes

Ritratto Di Gentiluomo by Bartolomeo Veneto in Bartolomeo Veneto, l’opera completa, Firenze: Centro Di, 1997. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve long had a fascination with mazes and labyrinthine paths, whether it be their patterns, their history, their symbolism or their psychology. My bible for a long time was W H Matthews’ classic overview Mazes and Labyrinths: their history and developments (first published in 1922 and republished in 1970). I also pored over G R Levy’s The Gate of Horn (1948, republished 1963) which looked at how caves may have contributed to the lore of the winding path, while taking copious notes from a library copy of Jack Lindsay’s fascinating Helen of Troy (1974).

I learnt the difference between unicursal and multicursal mazes, and also the correspondences between the classic Cretan labyrinth and the Christian maze (as typified in Chartres Cathedral); I taught myself how to draw the classic pattern freehand, and traced it out on beaches for the amusement of children and, later, grandchildren; I corresponded with experts (for example Adrian Fisher and Jeff Seward, author of Magical Paths) and exchanged notes and booklets on the subject with them.

And, of course, I read fiction that featured the labyrinth and the maze in all its wonderful variety.

Here are ten titles about these conundrums that I especially remember and value (links are to relevant reviews or discussions).

Continue reading “My top ten mazes”

London is the hero

China Miéville Kraken: an Anatomy
Pan 2010

Welcome to London
and an underground of cults,
cops, criminals, squid.

There has been precious little discussion about the significance, if any, of Kraken’s subtitle. Anatomy, which now means the science of body structure, derives from Greek roots implying cutting open and, particularly, apart (what we’d now call an autopsy). I suggest that Kraken is not just about a giant squid specimen in the Natural History Museum (or rather, for most of the book, out of the Museum) but about how it is used to cut open the underbelly of an arcane and corrupt London and expose its putrefying innards.

Ultimately this urban fantasy is about the power of words. Continue reading “London is the hero”

Traveller between worlds

The Union Pacific M-10000 City of Salina at Kansas City Union Station, late 1930s. Photo credit: Union Pacific Museum
Union Pacific M-10000 City of Salina at Kansas City Union Station, late 1930s. Credit: Union Pacific Museum

Philip Reeve Railhead
Oxford University Press 2016 (2015)

Imagine yourself at the end of the second millennium. Or maybe a lot later. Everything around then would be unimaginable, right? Just like our current world would be unimaginable to anyone living under Norman or Plantagenet rule if they were plucked from their time into ours. But some things would be similar, surely? Perhaps the romantic appeal of train locomotives would somehow allow these machines to linger in some form, graffiti art still plastering the sides of engines and carriages, but maybe they’d have some kind of personality hardwired in. And people would still love train travel so much that, like petrolheads with cars today, they would be known as railheads.

This is just what Philip Reeve has concocted in the first of a new series of novels. Here he has trains taking on a similar nostalgia mantle with which his traction cities and airships were clothed for his earlier sequence, the wonderful future steampunk series beginning with Mortal Engines. As with Mortal Engines and its prequels he plays with themes exploring whether artificial intelligence can ever develop human qualities such as empathy, loyalty and even love. It is to his credit that, however preposterous his concepts might seem when baldly spelled out, he nevertheless manages to create a credible universe to house them, with enough back references to our own times to lever our suspended disbelief into this future dystopian cosmos.

Continue reading “Traveller between worlds”

Making tracks

tracks

China Miéville Railsea Pan Books 2013 (2012)

Imagine a world covered in railway tracks, the occasional settlement sticking out like an island in the ocean. This is the Railsea, a non-aquatic environment sailed by merchants, pirates, navies, hunters, explorers and scavengers in trains of every size and shape, powered by every means of locomotion you can imagine. China Miéville’s collision of steampunk and dystopia has the young hero, Sham ap Soorap and a pair of siblings — orphans all — off on quests to find the answers to secrets that beset them, holy grails that reveal either whether a mythical goal is real or the truth behind the disappearance of their birth parents. Could it be that both quests are destined to converge onto the same single track?

Continue reading “Making tracks”

The bourn from which no traveller returns

GB at night

Neil Gaiman Neverwhere:
The Author’s Preferred Text

Headline Review 2005 (1996)

In fairytales the overlooked, usually youngest son or daughter in a family commits an act of kindness that allows him or her to succeed where the other brothers or sisters didn’t. Sometimes the act of kindness is misplaced, as in the Arabian Nights tale of the genie in the bottle, and potential disaster follows. In this fantasy Scotsman Richard Mayhew comes to London and rescues a young woman from her pursuers, as a result of which his life is changed forever. He passes into London Below, supposedly the bourn from which no traveller returns. This is an Otherworld — at times a Dante-esque Inferno, other times reminiscent of Tudor or Restoration London — which has successfully reappeared in various modern guises, in Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana (1978) for example, Andrew Sinclair’s Gog (1967) and more recently in Miéville’s fantasies such as Kraken (2010).

Neverwhere‘s strengths largely lie in those fairytale motifs that much good fantasy draws from:  Continue reading “The bourn from which no traveller returns”

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”