Fifteen short stories, five of which appeared originally in magazines like Argosy and Women’s Journal, run the gamut of fantasy, nearly all written in a tongue-in-cheek style not usually associated with the author of The Day of the Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos.
Though jumping from time-travel to artificial intelligence via surreal fantasy, fairytale, legend and myth, these tales nearly always involve individuals caught up in situations beyond their comprehension or control, often to their discomfiture but mostly to our amusement. Though a couple are told in the first person the majority are fly-on-the-wall observational pieces, thus allowing us the privilege of becoming aware of how matters stand a short while before understanding dawns on the unfortunate victims.
Because victims they generally are: and it’s Fate, in the guise of the author, that determines whether they emerge sadder and wiser or don’t emerge at all…
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
by J K Rowling.
Ted Smart / Bloomsbury Publishing 1998
“It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
— Albus Dumbledore
A reread of this, the second instalment in the Harry Potter book sequence (following Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), impresses on a number of fronts: the continued fleshing out of the main characters which made them so appealing in the first place; the masterful plotting and juggling of elements, even more evident in a third read; and of course its emphasis on compassion, friendship and loyalty, all of which gain more relevancy during a time of pandemic and political upheaval.*
Harry Potter’s birthday on the last day of July — not insignificantly the same as the author’s — sees him chafing under the vindictiveness of his adoptive family. Escaping from virtual imprisonment he is then mysteriously stopped from catching the Hogwarts Express to school, and so begins a series of incidents that leads not just to the secret of the Chamber of the title but also further revelations about how and why Harry survived the attack by He Who Must Not Be Named.
As the book ends with Harry and Hermione walking “back through the gateway to the Muggle world” we readers with hindsight know that Harry’s current victory will prove just a temporary respite in the wizarding war that has only just begun.
The Jewel Seed by Joan Aiken, illustrated by Peter Bailey.
Hodder Children’s Books 1998 (1997)
What is the Jewel Seed, and why are various people looking for it? These are the questions teen orphan Nonnie Smith keeps asking herself in this rumbustious fantasy novelette penned by the indefatigable Joan Aiken.
In ten action-packed chapters we discover how it is that Nonnie becomes parentless, how a twice-stolen shirt leads her into dire danger, how she comes to stay in northwest London and what befell her there. Along the way we encounter witches, a mysterious lodger and an even stranger cat, and wonder how a grandfather clock, apples, snakes, bootlaces and a three-note musical motif fit into the bigger picture.
And for those who like to rummage beneath the bubbling surface of her cauldron’s concoction there are hints as to the ingredients the author has selected to add to her rich stew.
The Magic World by E Nesbit,
Puffin Classics 1994 (1912)
Not everyone is successful at writing literary fairytales, especially those stories that mix the modern world with traditional wonder tales of magic and enchantment. Joan Aiken was one who mastered this deft conjoining of old and new, as did her predecessor Edith Nesbit. Maybe it takes a special individual, or maybe it requires a female touch — many 19th-century male writers, such as the Brothers Grimm, Charles Kingsley et al, found it hard not to come over all didactic and moral, though some female writers were not averse to these failings. Nesbit slyly parodies these aspects of Victorian literary fairytales at the end of “The Mixed Mine” when she concludes
“There is no moral to this story, except… But no – there is no moral.”
And yet morality lies deeply embedded in most of these dozen stories — the wicked meet their just deserts, or maybe just don’t profit from their wickedness; the meek inherit the earth, or at least don’t lose out. She subverts your expectations, but in a nice way, leaving the reader challenged but also satisfied.
I Shall Wear Midnight
by Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Paul Kidby.
Corgi Books 2011 (2010)
How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags? What is’t you do?
— Macbeth IV/1
Terry Pratchett is full of surprises. Because this, the fourth in the Tiffany Aching series of Discworld novels, is marketed as ‘for younger readers’ one might not anticipate that this is considerably darker than its predecessors, despite the expected humour and wit. And yet, with Tiffany being fifteen going on sixteen, perhaps with her growing maturity a more realistic view of what’s possible in Discworld is inevitable.
Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to Pratchett’s collection A Slip of the Keyboard, noted that “There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing,” and that is more than evident here in the stark opening and much of what follows. Some of that rage may have been tied up with his diagnosis for Alzheimer’s a couple of years before, but he had always been furious about injustices and that comes through very strongly here.
But don’t think I Shall Wear Midnight is a miserable instalment in Tiffany’s story: this is a heart-warming coming-of-age tale, even for a young witch who’s already mature and responsible beyond her years. The interweaving of the traditional folksong Pleasant and Delightful gives — for old folkies like me, born the same year as Pratchett — the story an added piquancy with its themes of love, leave-taking and loss, and may bring a tear or two to the eye.
Jasper Fforde: The Eyre Affair World Book Night UK 2013
Hodder 2013 (2001)
“Shine out fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.”
— Richard III, Act II Scene 4
Fforde’s first novel, superficially a comic fantasy thriller, is essentially a romp through several literary genres — though at times it’s more like a drive-by shooting than a frolic through the daisies. In fact he’s been described as a postmodernist writer, and postmodernism is an ideal way to regard the few works of his I’ve read.
It’s easy to justify this by considering Fforde’s running joke about Richard III: the monarch is depicted as a slot-machine mannequin dispensing speeches, then there is a pantomime production of Shakespeare’s play in a Swindon theatre; finally, the introductory quote for this review refers to Richard preferring to see the reflection not of his misshapen body but of his sinister shadow.
In fact, all the numerous threads, motifs and plotting — among them a continuing Crimean War, a Welsh Republic, and science fiction trappings like plasma guns, chronological black holes and cloned dodos, plus characters unaware their names are parodies and puns, and unaccountable shifts from first-person to omniscient narrative — are effectively exercises in Ricardian self-reflexivity, ignoring the substance for the shadow; and self-reflexivity is a hallmark of postmodernism.
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).
Terry Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters
Corgi Books 1989 (1988)
‘You know, Hwel, I reckon responsible behaviour is something to get when you grow older. Like varicose veins.’
— Tomjon in ‘Wyrd Sisters’
The fourth in Pratchett’s Discworld series is full of witches behaving badly, meddling yet not meddling in the affairs of men. Preceded by Equal Rites it focuses on the kingdom of Lancre with its usurping ruler Duke Felmet and his wife, a castle full of ghosts, a troupe of travelling players and the aforementioned witch trio of Esme Weatherwax, Gytha Ogg and Magrat Garlick.
It’s not the assassination itself that sets things awry — Lancre has seen dastardly deeds done to royalty before and survived — but the misrule following it, and Granny Weatherwax senses the land is unhappy. For this reason and others (such as her being a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian) she determines, along with her coven of three, to nudge things along a bit.
And that includes a bit of messing around with time, accomplished in a manner similar to the ending of Superman the Movie, except with a black-caped Granny flying her broomstick round the kingdom.
Diana Wynne Jones: Stopping for a Spell Illustrated by Chris Mould
CollinsVoyager 2002 (1993)
I patted the uncomfortable chairs and the poor ugly tables and stroked the piano.
“Chairs,” I said, “stand up for yourselves! He insults you all the time. Tables,” I said, “he said you ought to be burnt! Piano, he told Mum to sell you. Do something, all of you! Furniture of the world, unite!” I made them a very stirring speech, all about the rights of oppressed furniture, and it made me feel much better. Not that it would do any good.
— Candida Robbins, in ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’
Three ‘magical fantasies’ make up this short story collection: ‘Chair Person’ (1989), ‘The Four Grannies’ (1980) and ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’ (1975). They all concern unwelcome guests who seemingly can only be persuaded to depart through magic inadvertently conjured up by young protagonists.
At one level these are merely slight tales of humorous mayhem familiar from much children’s literature and from Hollywood films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; and yet on another they are rather more what the awful Angus Flint might term ‘profound’.
I propose to mainly consider the profound aspects in this review.
Charles G Finney: The Circus of Dr Lao Introduction by Michael Dirda
Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 2016 (1935)
How to categorise this extraordinary fantasy? Its style is hard to pin down precisely, its subject matter diffuse, its denouement unclear, its cast of characters largely unlikeable.
That acknowledged, it nevertheless is said to have inspired Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) and was loosely adapted as a film entitled 7 Faces of Dr Lao. Its faint influence may even, I fancy, be detected in J K Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts films.
Perhaps the best way to approach the structure of this dark fantasy with comic and satiric elements is through the very nature of its subject matter: as a series of sideshows followed by a final circus spectacle.
Jasper Fforde: The Last Dragonslayer
Hodder & Stoughton 2010
‘Mr Digby? My name is Jennifer Strange of Kazam, acting manager for Mr Zambini. We spoke on the phone.’
He looked me up and down.
‘You seem a bit young to be running an agency.’
‘Indentured servitude,’ I answered brightly, trying to sidestep the contempt that most free citizens had for people like me.
Jennifer is barely sixteen, a foundling destined to play a pivotal part in the history of a corner of England that is nearly Wales. Sensitives all over the Kingdom of Hereford and beyond are getting premonitions that the demise of the last ever dragon Maltcassion is imminent, and citizens and mega-corporations alike (Consolidated Useful Stuff in particular) are planning to stake claims in the deceased dragon’s land. As it turns out Jennifer is predisposed to take the side of the dragon, which is rather awkward: she is the one chosen to succeed the official dragon-slayer when all she wants to be is a dragon-sayer.¹
As much as any genre but possibly more so, comic fantasy is a troublesome literature. Humour being what it is — highly personal but liable to be hit-and-miss — not every exponent of comic fantasy is going to tickle the funny-bone of each and every reader. Even fans of the genre can get very picky as to what works and what doesn’t in the latest offering from their favourite author. The Last Dragonslayer is principally aimed at a young adult comic fantasy readership, so does it meet the criteria and merit high approval?
J K Rowling: The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Translated from the original runes by Hermione Granger
Bloomsbury 2008 (2007)
Here is a set of Chinese boxes, fitting intricately one inside the other. As the title implies, a fifteenth-century bard called Beedle is said to have written them down in runes, subsequently translated by “the brightest witch of her age,” Hermione Granger. The translation is itself nested within Albus Dumbledore’s footnotes, then bookended by Jo Rowling’s Introduction (the author added illustrations and additional footnotes) and by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne’s missive about the Children’s High Level Group charity which supports over a quarter of a million vulnerable children in residential homes across Europe.
Bearing in mind the NGO’s compassionate aims it’s unsurprising that most of these five tales aren’t simply about fantasy or magic (though of course these are present); like many fairytales they are implicitly advocating charitable attitudes and ethical behaviour — in short, common humanity.
Magic is mostly ideas — they’re the strongest thing there is!
— Gladys, X/2
The fantasies of Diana Wynne Jones are the epitome of wild magic, as other commentators have previously noted. You can guess what ‘wild magic’ is — uncontrolled flights of powerful fancy spiralling off in unexpected directions, or some such will-o’-the-wisp definition — and virtually every writing of this much missed author is replete with it. A novel entitled A Sudden Wild Magic is naturally going to include rather a lot of it.
The novel’s premise is easily summarised. A neighbouring universe has been harvesting ideas and inventions from our world without our knowledge — not such a fantastic notion these days — but has also been experimentally interfering with our lives, introducing global warming and epidemics for example to see how we cope with disasters on this scale. A UK-based group of magical guardians decide to infiltrate a crack team of female adepts, their mission being to disrupt this covert action conducted by male mages by introducing magical viruses; the novel switches back and forth from Earth to this parallel world as it follows the ups and downs of this team and those monitoring progress. Being a Diana Wynne Jones fantasy things are not always as they seem, however.
It’s almost pointless to outline the intricacies of the plot narrative in a straightforward review: there is so much going on, so many strands, such a varied cast, so many distinctive individuals. It’s a novel of its time, of course: issues current in the 1990s have assumed different perspectives a quarter of a century later — AIDS-HIV and global warming, for example — and we might baulk at their semi-humorous treatment both from a retrospective viewpoint and because they are matters warranting serious consideration. But it can be argued that humour used as a means of drawing attention to the misuse of power — from issues concerning exploitation and gender to technology used irresponsibly and child abuse — deserves its place in fiction.
Instead then of discussing the narrative’s twists and turns, I want here to indicate some of the ways the author’s own wild magic operates, how she takes ideas from here and there and allows them to follow their own courses.
Terry Pratchett: A Hat Full of Sky
Corgi 2012 (2004)
We’re all familiar with Alice going through the looking-glass into a topsy-turvy world, a world where she is able to look at things in a different way. Unexpectedly, Alice makes no attempt to find her own reflection: “The very first thing she did was to look whether there was a fire in the fireplace, and she was quite pleased to find that there was a real one.” For a child who could make the observation “Curiouser and curiouser!” she is singularly incurious about her own reflection; perhaps she is not as prone to self-reflection as we have thought.
This is not the case however with the heroine of this Terry Pratchett novel when she finds that she has no mirror in which to check her appearance, for when she devises a way to observe herself without one she finds she has to indulge in self-reflection of a different kind. A Hat Full of Sky is the second of the Tiffany Aching novels, set on Discworld. We not only get to meet the Nac Mac Feegles, Granny Weatherwax and lesser witch Miss Tick all over again but also to encounter new characters, especially Miss Level and her neighbours. But really the focus is Tiffany herself, how she is growing into her powers and how she’s becoming more mature (although, to be sure, she has already shown herself to the equal of many adults in maturity).
Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man Discworld novel 11
Corgi 1992 (1991)
What happens when Death fails to claim humans who die? What happens to their bodies, their consciousness, their life force? And what are the consequences for a world in which this calamity takes place?
Terry Pratchett’s famous character Death, who only converses in small capitals, has been ‘retired’ by Azrael, “the Great Attractor, the Death of Universes, the beginning and end of time” — or the Angel of Death as our monotheistic religions see him. With his scythe and faithful mount Binky he descends on a Discworld farm; here, as Bill Door, he is taken on as a farmhand by Miss Renata Flitworth. Elsewhere on Discworld, and especially in Ankh-Morpeth, people are ceasing to die: witness Windle Poons, the oldest wizard in the world, who after death turns into a zombie. In trying to find a point to his new afterlife he joins the Fresh Start Club (other members include werewolves, vampires, a banshee and a bogeyman) and starts to note curious events unfolding — things like ovoid snow globes appearing, supermarket trollies multiplying and swear words taking physical form.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.