Incidental extras

Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”: Wikipedia Commons

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— ‘Lyra and the Birds’

The recently published short story The Collectors by Philip Pullman was a moderately satisfying stopgap while we awaited the final volume of his The Book of Dust, which is anticipated as the completion of the saga of Lyra Silvertongue and her dæmon Pantalaimon.

Following on from the His Dark Materials trilogy The Book of Dust has been extending the long journey that began in 1995 with Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in North America in case the UK title was assumed to indicate a nonfiction book, but erroneous in that the alethiometer is neither golden nor indeed a compass).

But Pullman has been filling in some of the gaps with what I consider as incidental extras, giving us bits of history to enlarge the background to places and personages in Lyra’s world, feeding us tantalising tidbits to assuage our literary cravings.

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Love, hate, or indifference

Buddhist temple, Kek Lok Si (credit Daphne Lee)

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho.
Macmillan, 2021.

“She wasn’t Malaysian or American. Just as she wasn’t straight but she definitely wasn’t gay, if anyone was asking. She wasn’t her family’s Min, but she wasn’t the Jess who’d had a life under that name, before her dad had gotten sick. […] She was a walking nothing—a hole in the universe, perfect for letting the dead through.”

Chapter 17

Jessamyn Teoh accompanies her parents from the US back to Penang in Malaysia, a country she barely remembers. So it’s a shock for her to hear a very opinionated voice in her head claiming to be the ghost of Ah Ma, her maternal grandmother.

First shock over, Jess discovers Ah Ma had fallen out with Jess’s mother, and it’s something to do with Ah Ma having been a medium for a powerful local deity called Black Water Sister, named from a neighbouring locale. The third shock comes when she realises that Ah Ma, now a spirit herself, wants Jess to stop Black Water Sister’s shrine being developed by a powerful gang boss.

Jess – or Min, to use her Malaysian Chinese name – is therefore placed in a very difficult position, having to balance demands from all fronts – her parents, her secret girlfriend Sharanya, her relatives, her grandmother’s ghost, the boss, his gangsters, the boss’s son, construction workers, assorted gods and ghosts including, of course, the enraged Black Water Sister herself. What’s a girl to do?

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Paranoid perspectives

Sketch of Arkham’s street plan, by H P Lovecraft

Lovecraft and Landscape‘ (1978)
by Angela Carter,
in The Necronomicon,
edited by George Hay and introduced by Colin Wilson.
Corgi Books, 1980 (1978).

In 1980, at the age of forty, Angela Carter took a year-long teaching post as visiting professor at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. While there she attempted, together with her friend – Christopher Frayling, an expert on popular culture – to locate the grave of the horror writer H P Lovecraft, though without success.

Her biographer, Edmund Gordon, tells us she was keen on Lovecraft’s fiction, “finding in it ‘an odd stylistic resemblance’ to [Jorge Luís] Borges,” his work doubtless resonating with her own taste for the macabre.¹ Despite the fruitless grave search – unsurprising given that there are some forty thousand interments in the 60-acre cemetery – the pilgrimage was a logical extension to her interest in weird fiction.

Two years earlier that interest had already manifested itself in a collection of fictive studies of Lovecraft’s own concept of an occult volume ascribed to the ‘mad Arab’ Abdul Alhazred, to which she contributed – as had Frayling – a piece about the Providence author. Published by Neville Spearman Ltd, The Necronomicon reflected the publisher’s customary eclectic taste for a range of off-beat topics, and Carter’s piece on Lovecraft’s visionary landscapes obviously suited the brief.²

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#WitchWeek2022 Day 3: Indigenous Futurism

Bunny Pierce Huffman design deposited in a Santa Fe, New Mexico museum.

by Lizzie Ross

Rebecca Roanhorse, quoted in a 2020 New York Times article, said, “We’ve already survived an apocalypse.” The “we” here refers to the Native American, First Nation and indigenous civilizations of North, Central, and South America, who were nearly wiped out as a result of European colonization.

For Roanhorse, it’s no surprise that authors from indigenous backgrounds would find a comfortable home in fantasy and science fiction genres, creating worlds newly invaded by monsters from native mythologies—monsters brought to life as a consequence of ecological, economic, and/or geopolitical disasters caused by white people.

These authors, tired of stories that wallow in past defeats, show us native communities that are strong, thriving entities, working to maintain their languages and cultures despite efforts to erase them completely.

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#WitchWeek2022 Day 2: Travellers in Wallachia

Chris Lovegrove

The Deathless Girls
by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
Bellatrix / Orion Children’s Books, 2020 (2019).

In the moonlight opposite me were three young women, ladies by their dress and manner. I thought at the time that I must be dreaming when I saw them, they threw no shadow on the floor. […]

Two were dark, and had high aquiline noses, like the Count, and great dark, piercing eyes, that seemed to be almost red when contrasted with the pale yellow moon. The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires.

‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker, chapter 3.

Marginalised for centuries in Europe, the Roma or Romani – here called Travellers – are known from linguistic and genetic evidence to have originated in northern India. Seen as entertainers and fortune-tellers by settled populations, they have been feared and abused for both their visible differences and their nomadic life.

And so it is that in eastern Europe Romani twins Lil and Kizzy, at some indeterminate time between the 14th and 19th century, find their encampment attacked and their people either trapped and burnt to death or captured by a boyar’s soldiers. Unbeknown to them their ultimate destination will be a castle in Wallachia, Romania, but in the meantime their main concerns will be to stay alive and to punish their persecutors.

Knowing that Kiran Millwood Hargrave drew one of her themes from Stoker’s Dracula, we can guess where the title may possibly lead us, but The Deathless Girls aims to be much more than simply another ghoulish Gothic tale. As the narrator Lillai tells us, “a vampire cannot love, only thirst,” yet the novel aims to explore other issues including prejudice, cruelty, power, carnal love, familial ties and, inevitably, damnation.

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#WitchWeek2022 Day 1: The Mambabarang

Locusta migratoria manilensis, the migratory locust (Wikipedia commons)

by Daphne Lee

I’ve chosen to write about two books by a Filipino author, Joel Donato Ching Jacob, which I edited for Scholastic Asia. They are the first two in a trilogy set in what is now known as the Philippines. The era is pre-colonial (before 1521, which was the year Ferdinand Magellan came to the islands in 1521 and claimed it as a colony for the Spanish Empire) and, as such, pre-Christian/Roman Catholic, steeped in indigenous mysticism and animist lore. It is an imagined world, based on fact, the society feudal and ruled by the Maginoo class.

The first book, Wing of the Locust, introduces Tuan, a young man of the slave class, who is chosen to be apprentice to the barangay (akin to a borough or district) mambabarang, a healer, diplomat, spy, and assassin.

Because he has always been treated as an outcast, Tuan initially embraces his new role as an opportunity to improve his social standing and gain power over those who shunned him when he was a weak, awkward youth. Nevertheless, he soon finds himself wrestling with his conscience over the dubious morality of a mambabarang’s duties, while reeling in horror at the extent of the personal sacrifices that must be made to master the craft.

But it is only when Tuan reconnects with his childhood playmates, Liksi and Gilas, that he is forced to seriously consider the implications of his newfound status and power. And when his friends’ lives are threatened, Tuan must quickly decide if saving those he loves is worth the loss of his humanity.

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#WitchWeek2022 begins: Polychromancy

#WitchWeek2022

Welcome to this year’s Witch Week event! The brainchild of Lory, of Entering the Enchanted Castle, it runs from Halloween on 31st October to Bonfire Night, 5th November. Co-host Lizzie Ross, writer and I aim to celebrate fantasy books and authors during the week designated by Diana Wynne Jones – in her fantasy called, of course, Witch Week – as “a time when anything can happen.”

This year’s theme is Polychromancy, a word concocted via Greek from polychromos (‘many-colours’) and manteia (‘divination’) to suggest a focus on fantasy/sci-fi by authors from diverse backgrounds. The idea is to explore the work of SFF authors who identify as or celebrate Black, Asian, Indigenous, or people of specific ethnicities such as Roma – or indeed who claim a multiethnic ancestry.

The schedule, below, includes a readalong that complements our theme: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho, a Malaysian author based in the UK. A number of bloggers have already conducted an online discussion of this, but please feel free to comment on the conversation we had.

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Night music

© C A Lovegrove

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes
by Neil Gaiman,
illustrated by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III,
cover art by Dave McKean.
Introduction by Patrick Rothfuss, foreword (1995) by Karen Berger.
30th anniversary edition, DC Vertigo 2018 (1988-9).

In his 1991 Afterword to this volume the author describes how he proposed reviving “an almost forgotten DC character […] and doing a story set almost entirely in dreams.” Editor Karen Berger suggested that the Sandman be created as a new character, “Someone no one’s seen before.”

And so it turned out: Gaiman had an image in his mind of a man, “young, pale and naked, imprisoned in a tiny cell […] deathly thin, with long dark hair, and strange eyes; Dream. That was what he was. That was who he was.”

It’s extraordinary how that initial image survived as the opening chapter of Preludes & Nocturnes, and how the scenario of an imprisoned Lord of Dreams was arrived at and then resolved. What’s even more extraordinary is how the series developed into The Sandman Library, with its thirteen volumes all going on to achieve cult status and, more than three decades later, to morph into an adaptation for a streaming service. But for someone like me coming completely new to it is it, was it, worth the hype?

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Polychromancy #WitchWeek2022

#WitchWeek2022. Design after artwork by Bunny Pierce Huffman

In much of the inhabited world (90% of the global population lives in the northern hemisphere) the start of September marks the beginning of meteorological autumn, the season when our thoughts may turn to shorter days, colder temperatures and things sempiternally supernatural.

In just a few fortnights’ time Lizzie Ross and I will be celebrating another Witch Week, an event inaugurated by Lory Hess and inspired by fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones’s novel of the same name.

This year’s theme is Polychromancy, a word concocted via Greek polychromos (‘many-colours’) and manteia (‘divination’) to suggest a focus on fantasy/sci-fi by authors from diverse backgrounds. The idea is to explore the work of SFF authors who identify as Black, Asian, Indigenous, or other colours and ethnicities such as Roma – or indeed who claim a multiethnic ancestry.

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The dream ends: #Narniathon21

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The Last Battle: A Story for Children
by C S Lewis,
Illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books, 1964 (1956)

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

16: ‘Farewell to Shadowlands’

A bitter disappointment or a valedictory farewell? A heavy-handed religious allegory or an exciting yarn embellished by an array of symbols and motifs? A betrayal of the reader’s innocent trust or a fitting conclusion to a saga that could only end one way after much signposting? The Last Battle is all these and more, though depending on the reader’s point of view they may lean more towards the former assessments than the latter.

What’s clear to me though is that my second read of this final instalment of the Narniad has adjusted my previous attitude to both it and the entire sequence, leading to a more charitable judgement; that’s not to say that there aren’t infelicities and missteps – the prejudicial racial stereotypes being the most obvious – but any fair review would also point out the positives, of which there are many.

The upshot of this re-evaluation is that The Last Battle can be seen as not just an amalgam of the Apocalypse, Ragnarök, Götterdämmerung, Armageddon and the end of the Golden Age ruled by Cronos or Saturn: it also reflects the attributes of the twins Epimetheus and Prometheus (“Hindsight” and “Foresight”) in that it looks back to all that had gone before as well as anticipating what is to come.

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Jack and Daisy: #Narniathon21

Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Split, 1764

[Amabel] went straight to the Big Wardrobe and turned its glass handle. ‘I expect it’s only shelves and people’s best hats,’ she said. Of course it wasn’t hats. It was, most amazingly, a crystal cave, very oddly shaped like a railway station. It seemed to be lighted by stars…

E Nesbit, ‘The Aunt and Amabel’

Having previously reviewed The Magician’s Nephew (1955) – but in advance of a scheduled review of E Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet (1906) – I now want to discuss C S Lewis’s indebtedness, both generally and specifically, to his predecessor for not only details but also his general approach to the Chronicles of Narnia.

Not the least of his indebtedness is to Nesbit’s story ‘The Aunt and Amabel’ in The Magic World, in which a well-meaning little girl goes through a wardrobe to a place called Whereyouwantogoto and meets The People Who Understand – does this not sound a teensy bit familiar? I also want to enlarge a bit on aspects of the themes which Lewis introduces to The Magician’s Nephew that weren’t borrowed from Nesbit but yet which mattered enough for him to include in the novel. (When I say “a bit” it appears I mean “quite a lot”. Sorry about that.)

And here, as an aside, I shall just mention in passing other titles that play on aspects of Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, namely Diana Wynne Jones’s The Homeward Bounders (1981) which heads in a very different direction from that which Lewis took, and Edward Eager’s Half Magic (1954) which while very much sharing Nesbit’s sympathy for the child also involves some North American children discovering a mysterious talisman not unlike the amulet.

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Return to Dalemark

crown

The Crown Of Dalemark
by Diana Wynne Jones
in the Dalemark Quartet.
Oxford University Press, 2003 (1993).

Finale volume
where past and present meet and,
maybe, all’s resolved.

Young Mitt is from South Dalemark, but when he escapes its politics and intrigues he finds that the North is equally dangerous because he is manoeuvred into an assassination attempt on a pretender to the crown of Dalemark.

This novel’s plot also turns on a present-day girl, Maewen, who gets propelled into Dalemark’s past to play a role not of her own choosing, in a narrative that’s reminiscent of the premise in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper or Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda.

And the Crown (which is more of a circlet than a fancy coronet)? That turns out to be not just a metaphor for gaining a throne but also part of a theme that mingles together motifs from modern Tarot imagery, the medieval quest for the Grail, and the curse of immortality.

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Disturbing visions

© C A Lovegrove

Coraline and Other Stories
by Neil Gaiman.
Bloomsbury Publishing 2009.

This is a collection of eleven Gaiman short stories (and one poem) repackaged for the young reader market. The novella Coraline is added to Bloomsbury’s earlier Gaiman collection M for Magic, while M for Magic was itself a throwing together of disparate tales, some from the adult collection Smoke and Mirrors, some from other publications, all deemed suitable to send a chill down pre-teen, teen and, of course, adult readers.

So the moral is, if you already have these titles in your library you may want to pass on this ‘new’ title.

Or then again, you might not.

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Rich in themes: #Narniathon21

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Lewis mines material from his own huge learning, drawing on theology, Renaissance geography, myth, folktales, medieval writings, and even earlier children’s books…

Diana Wynne Jones (2012:48)

Where fans of Narnia are concerned The Horse and His Boy (1954) doesn’t rate as highly among their favourites as others in the series (though usually, it must be admitted, higher than The Last Battle). For many this instalment has issues surrounding racial and/or cultural stereotypes, intermixed with disappointment for some that the expected protagonists take a back seat in the narrative and the action.

However, in common with the previously published titles The Horse and His Boy is rich in themes and motifs which C S Lewis borrowed freely from literature, mythology and folklore.

In this, perhaps overlong, post I want to consider some of these influences, leaving discussion of the issues and of Lewis’s overarching schema to another time. Is it needful to say then that there will be plenty of spoilers ahead?

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Wonder and comfort

© C A Lovegrove

In Darkling Wood
by Emma Carroll.
Faber and Faber, 2015.

Can history repeat itself and, if so, does it repeat exactly? This is one of the questions underlying this children’s fantasy, one which on the surface seems to be about whether fairies are real but which has profound undertones of loss and fear.

There are two timelines running in parallel – one in November 1918, the other in the same month in the present day – but there is also a ghost timeline which only becomes more solid as the story unfolds. We read letters written by a young girl to her brother, a soldier in the Great War as it comes to an end, yet it takes a while for us to see what links this correspondence with Alice whose poorly brother Theo is waiting for a heart transport.

What is clear is that whatever inhabits Darkling Wood feels threatened by the woodland’s immanent felling and that this fear will have an impact on Alice, her family and the local community. Three threads then with sibling lives at risk: will the outcomes for each be the same?

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