Lively and inventive

cambriae_typus.jpg
Cambriae Typus: map of Wales by Humphrey Llwyd 1527-1568 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Joan Aiken
The Whispering Mountain
Puffin 1970 / Red Fox 1992 (1968)

Not strictly a prequel to the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence (our young hero Owen Hughes re-appears around the time of the plot to slide St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames at a coronation, in The Cuckoo Tree), The Whispering Mountain can nevertheless be enjoyed as a standalone novel. It also adds to our knowledge and understanding of Joan Aiken’s alternative history of the world in the early 19th century, sometimes called the James III sequence or, as I prefer to call it, the Dido Twite series (from the most endearing character featured in most of the books).

Set in and around the western coast of Wales, the tale features elements of Welsh mythology, Dark Age history and traditions of Nonconformism and mining, along with several other typical Aiken themes — such as Arthurian legend (revisited in The Stolen Lake), slavery underground (as in Is), mistaken identities (as in The Cuckoo Tree) and dastardly villains (as in all the titles of the sequence). Although convoluted, the plot draws you along to the inevitable conclusion, and as always Aiken doesn’t shy away from death even when writing for a youngish audience.

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A northern struggle

Ursus maritimus (http://thegraphicsfairy.com/polar-bear-printable/)

Philip Pullman: Once Upon a Time in the North
Engravings by John Lawrence
David Fickling Books 2008

A Texas cowboy. A gas balloon. A settlement by the Barents Sea. A polar bear. Local politics. Dirty secrets. And … Action! Philip Pullman’s fantasy of derring-do near the Arctic Circle paints a vivid picture that reads like a film script synopsis as well as playing in the mind’s eye like a graphic novel. Set some 35 years before the events in the His Dark Materials trilogy Once Upon a Time in the North directly references a Sergio Leone spaghetti western in its title; like Once Upon a Time in the West we have a frontier town and potential conflict based on land exploitation (oil reserves here instead of a railroad), plus a hero figure determined to defeat a vicious gunslinger with whom he has unfinished business.

But this is where the comparisons end. While Pullman may have been inspired by Leone’s film, his main purpose is to introduce the story of how the young Lee Scoresby gets to meet Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørne or fighting polar bear, and how they establish an alliance long before they meet Lyra in Northern Lights. This novella then is a prequel — unlike the standalone movie — giving us background on Lee and Iorek’s characters and how it is that a cowboy appears to be an accomplished aeronaut in the frozen north.

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No peace for the wicked

Victorian-London
Victorian London, with St Paul’s Cathedral

Genevieve Cogman The Invisible Library Tor 2015

Take a love of books, add a dash of fairytale, blend in some steampunk, season with distinctive characters, add essence of danger and top it off with a garnish of wittiness and voilà! we have The Invisible Library, the first of a projected trilogy featuring the extremely resourceful Irene. She is a Librarian in an extremely unusual library, one which exists out of time and place. From its rambling corridors and innumerable rooms lined with shelved books one can access any number of alternate worlds in different dimensions. The purpose of the library is to acquire, by whatever means, one copy of every book of fiction published in those alternate worlds, even multiple versions of a book where, due to variations in developments in those worlds, the resulting editions may only differ in a word, a paragraph or a chapter.

To complicate matters, the mix of magic and the mundane in each world will be different, and the magic wielded by the Librarians of a different order again. The two worlds that we are introduced to in The Invisible Library have many of the tropes of steampunk embedded in them: technology largely operated by steam power or Victorian mechanics, quasi-Dickensian costumes, detectives and shady characters roaming streets blanketed in smog, structured if sometimes fluid class divisions and, woven through all, the red strand of danger and the blue thread of magic.

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Doing nothing in Ruritania

Czar Nicholas II and King George V
The two cousins Czar Nicholas II and King George V wearing each other’s uniforms

Anthony Hope
The Prisoner of Zenda
Puffin Classics 1994 (1894)

“I wonder when in the world you’re going to do anything, Rudolf?” said my brother’s wife. “You are nine-and-twenty,” she observed, “and you’ve done nothing but–”
“Knock about? It is true. Our family doesn’t need to do things.”

The behaviour of Rudolf Rassendyll, younger brother of Robert Lord Burlesdon, appears to live up to his family motto, which is Nil quae feci (roughly translated as ‘I’ve done nothing’). But by the end of The Prisoner of Zenda Rudolf’s actions have belied that motto — at least according to this account supposedly penned by the young man himself. Continue reading “Doing nothing in Ruritania”

Smuggling and skullduggery

Chesil2

J Meade Falkner Moonfleet
Puffin Classics 1994 (1898)

Chesil Beach in Dorset is a spectacular bank of pebbles stretching for nearly twenty miles along the Dorset coast, running in a north-easterly direction from south of Weymouth. Behind it for part of its length is a freshwater lagoon called the Fleet. I have happy memories camping near Fleet village with my young son in the early nineties, exploring the area and visiting Portland Bill and Weymouth. But it hasn’t always been known solely as a holiday area: in the 18th century smuggling was rife, as elsewhere on the British coast, and Moonfleet portrays — with only a little romanticism — the kind of activities in which smugglers were involved in this part of Dorset.

Written fifteen years after Treasure Island Moonfleet superficially resembles that earlier adventure story: both are set in the 18th century, both have a young protagonist falling under the spell of a charismatic father-figure, both involve a search for ill-gotten treasure — the location of which is indicated by the chance discovery of a document — and feature an inn and an overseas voyage, though one features pirates and the other smugglers. But there are differences: Continue reading “Smuggling and skullduggery”

Dark deeds and the Devil

Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print
Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print

Philip Pullman Count Karlstein
Doubleday 2002 (1982)

Exactly four decades ago this year as a student teacher I took part in a college production of Weber’s Der Freischütz, when I sang in the chorus and took a minor role as Prince Ottokar. First performed in 1821 this was a landmark opera sung in German, adapting native folksongs — the famous ‘Huntsmen’s Song’ has affinities with the traditional English tune ‘Strawberry Fair’, which may even have been influenced by Weber’s tune — and featuring supernatural Gothic horror.

The Gothic horror tradition was also purloined by Mary Shelley when she first composed Frankenstein when holidaying near Geneva in 1816, though the novel wasn’t published until 1818. One of the crucial scenes takes place on a glacier near Mont Blanc; coincidentally, we were holidaying one summer in Chamonix when our son was reading Frankenstein as a set text for school, within sight of the very same Mer de Glace glacier where Viktor Frankenstein is confronted by his monster.

These personal memories came flooding back when reading this early piece of fiction by His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman. Continue reading “Dark deeds and the Devil”