Honest and very human

Edith Bland (née Nesbit) at work

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.

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Midnight hag

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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.

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See my shadow

SpecOps-27 postcard of operative Thursday Next (https://www.jasperfforde.com/)

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.

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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).

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Headology

Ludlow Castle, how I imagine Lancre Castle might look

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.

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Unwelcome guests

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.

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Fantasy beasts

Circus scene, 1930s

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.

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Big Magic and a Quarkbeast

Wyvern (“the Western Squat Dragon”) from Edward Topsell’s The History of Serpents (1608)

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?

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A beautiful and terrible thing

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.

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Magic? It’s mostly ideas

Ritratto Di Gentiluomo by Bartolomeo Veneto (ca. 1502-1555). Fitzwilliam Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Diana Wynne Jones: A Sudden Wild Magic
Avon Books 1994 (1992)

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.

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A witch’s trial

The Uffington White Horse (as it appeared in 1892)

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).

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Shopping malls and snow globes

Late medieval woodcut of Death with scythe and hourglass

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.

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Full of life

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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.

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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”

In a distorting mirror

Holbein_Danse_Macabre_41
Holbein Danse Macabre. XLI. The Allegorical Escutcheon of Death (Totentanz. XLI. Das Wappen des Todes) Image: public domain

Terry Pratchett Equal Rites Corgi 1987 (1987)

“This is a story about magic and where it goes and perhaps more importantly where it comes from and why, although it doesn’t pretend to answer all or any of these questions.”

With such a portentous opening sentence, and especially with such a qualifying caveat, it is clear from the start that this a Terry Pratchett novel. The third novel, in fact, in his Discworld series. But, as he goes on to add, it is also a story about sex (something we might have deduced from the punny title) and “primarily” a story about a world (the Discworld, if you hadn’t already guessed). And though this is early on in his series of over forty Discworld novels it’s full of typical Pratchett tics — the humour (both slapstick and sly), the sense of the ridiculous (with occasional sparkles of the sublime), the fast-paced and consummate storytelling (despite the many asides) and the sheer joy of Creation (an irony which would have tickled the professed atheist).

Eskarina Smith is the eighth child of an eighth son, a fact which has marked her out as something special, as special as the seventh son of a seventh son in our world. Except that Esk is a girl. Which means she technically can’t become a wizard because — as any fule kno — wizards are men. Esk’s own granny Esmeralda Weatherwax is a woman and therefore it is only right that she is able to be a witch. But there is a problem: Esk was handed a wizard’s staff at her moment of birth. And that is a very big problem.

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