The queen and her coven

Black Maria
(Aunt Maria in the USA)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1991)

But it’s no good thinking happy endings just happen. — Chapter 11

Mig Laker, her brother Chris and her mother have been persuaded to spend a spring break with her father’s Aunt Maria in Cranbury-on-Sea. But pretty soon they find themselves skivvying for the old lady, whose helpless, defenceless appearance belies her ability to get her own way, and it looks as though they mayn’t be able to leave.

And there are mysteries: Mig’s estranged father is missing, believed drowned in his car, but Mig and Chris think they have spotted the vehicle in the town. And why are the town’s inhabitants so weird? Aunt Maria’s cloying coterie of female friends (the several “Mrs Urs” is the collective term Mig gives them) seem to be forever spying on the trio; the men seem very distant, almost zombie-like, and keep to themselves, while the children Mig sees she finds chillingly clone-like.

This may be one of Diana Wynne Jones’s creepiest novels but, leavened with her mischievous humour, it also raises important questions about gender roles, the respect one owes to one’s elders, and the nature of invidious control.

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St Lucy’s Day

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

Towards the end of Joan Aiken’s alternative history fantasy Midwinter Nightingale we are reminded that events are approaching St Lucy’s Day.

This feast, dedicated to an early virgin martyr whose name derives from Latin lux, ‘light’, is celebrated each year on 13th December, and marks the culmination of the novel’s action after a few jam-packed days.

Traditionally the feast day marked the winter solstice, when there are the fewest hours of daylight and the hours of darkness are the longest of the year. But nowadays the solstice tends to fluctuate between 21st and 22nd December, so somehow we appear to be nine days adrift. How to explain?

In this discussion of the chronology of Midwinter Nightingale I shall start with considering A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day by John Donne — specifically referenced in the novel — and then go on to my TWITE theory concerning the Wolves Chronicles, also known as the Time Wobbles In This Era hypothesis.

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An abyss next to you

Image: WordPress Free Photo Library

Serpentine
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Tom Duxbury.
Penguin Books 2020

“That horrible endless bottomless— It must be like having an abyss right next to you every moment, knowing it’s there all the time . . . Just horrible.”

A year after the events in Lyra’s Oxford, but well before the action described in The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra and Pantalaimon are off on an archaeological dig organised by Jordan College, investigating a settlement of the Proto-Fisher people in the Trollesund region of Arctic Norroway.

While there they take the opportunity to visit Dr Lanselius, consul to the witch clans of the north, whom the pair want to ask about the separation that the witches can achieve with their dæmons. But Lanselius already knows about Lyra and Pan’s ability to separate, the result of the trauma that took place when Pan couldn’t follow Lyra to the Land of the Dead in The Amber Spyglass.

When Pan and Lanselius’s serpent dæmon go out of the room to converse, not only does Lyra know the consul has the same ability but she is also able to discuss the other separation that has taken place since they came back together, one which has meant their former easy familiarity is not only strained but is resulting in a growing alienation she finds most distressing.

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This other Eden

‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’: illustration by Henry Justice Ford in The Blue Fairy Book

This is planned as the first (and probably ‘final’) discussion post on Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass following my earlier review. What I want to do is pick up on a few random themes and thoughts which don’t necessarily or frequently appear in commentaries and reviews.

So there won’t be discussion on anticlericalism and religion; nor do I wish to discuss the science of Dust or lodestone resonators, the multiverse or quantum entanglement. But I do wish to make some observations about John Parry, Asriel and Marissa Coulter; about the broad structure of His Dark Materials; about one or two of the beings in the trilogy which I haven’t yet discussed; and a couple of other matters.

Above all, I want to point to His Dark Materials and in particular The Amber Spyglass as examples of Pullman’s skill at novelistic collage.

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A dangerous bunch

Bookshop interior

The Left-handed Booksellers of London
by Garth Nix,
Gollancz 2020

At one point in Garth Nix’s novel — Chapter Six in fact — we join two of the protagonists as they enter The New Bookshop premises somewhere off London’s Curzon Street. (Despite its name it only sells old books.) Susan spots Shakespeare, Scott, Austen, Brontë, Blake and T E Lawrence among the titles, then some childhood favourites:

“There was John Masefield’s The Box of Delights; and the C S Lewis Narnia books; and Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey; The Winter of Enchantment by Victoria Walker; Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken…”

And so it goes on, with books published before 1983 by Rosemary Sutcliff, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, and Edith Nesbit. As a roll call of her childhood reading it’s impressive; as books they’re indicative of the undercurrents swirling around in this enchanting thriller, and when I say enchanting I mean full-on fizzing and popping magic.

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Wouldst thou read riddles?

Gormenghast Castle (image: Mark Robertson)

Titus Groan
by Mervyn Peake
(illustrated by the author).
Introduction by Anthony Burgess 1968.
Mandarin 1989 (1946)

So many insightful words have been uttered, printed, and shared about Titus Groan — and indeed about the trilogy as a whole — that it does seem pretentious to add any analysis and critique to what is simultaneously another entry in the long roll call of Gothick novels and a piece of baroque writing so individual it almost feels sui generis.

It is easy enough to attempt timelines, construct genealogies, discuss names or seek parallels with Gormenghast Castle in real-life edifices which the author may have himself experienced — in fact I have already done so — but much harder to do full justice to Peake’s vision of a crumbling structure peopled by inadequate and grotesque individuals who, nevertheless, deserve some sympathy, and to measure the beauty of the language he uses to describe it all.

I shall therefore restrict myself to giving random impressions of the work especially, as having left some time lapse after completing the work — to marinate, I tell myself — I’m finding the clear-cut outlines of the narrative blurring and fading.

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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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Lost beneath the sea

Mevagissey in the 1960s

Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper.
The Dark Is Rising sequence 3,
introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
Puffin 2019 (1974)

This is a book with magic in its pages, its phrases, its words. There were moments when my neck hairs rose, especially during the making of the Greenwitch, and times when I was transported by the sheer poetry within a paragraph or passage. If this short novel in Susan Cooper’s five-book fantasy sequence occasionally feels poised between revelation and resolution, that’s no doubt because it’s the middle book in the series: it’s here where earlier strands become more intertwined but where we can’t yet see the whole picture. But to me it’s the quality of the writing which holds the attention, and because Greenwitch is virtually a novella in length I think its brevity works in its favour, making the story more intense.

As the novel opens we realise it’s the Easter after the events in Over Sea, Under Stone (published in 1965), with news of the theft of the so-called Trewissick grail from the British Museum where it had been donated by its finders the Drew children Simon, Jane and Barney. Before they can get too het up over the relic’s disappearance relatives get in touch offering them a holiday break in south Cornwall, at the fishing village where their adventures had all begun.

Coincidentally — or perhaps it isn’t a matter of coincidence — young Will Stanton, whom we met in The Dark is Rising (1973) and who is more than he at first seems, is invited by Merriman Lyon, the Drew children’s great uncle, to take the next step in the conflict against the Dark, which of course will take them down to that Cornish village where the Drews are now already ensconced. Naturally their hackles are raised by the appearance of a strange boy, especially one who doesn’t appear to mind their natural suspicion or quiet antagonism. But soon all will have their attention focused on the strange artist at work down by the harbour.

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Effie’s fairy tale

Euphemia ('Effie') Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins, albumen print, late 1850s
Euphemia (‘Effie’) Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins: albumen print, late 1850s, National Portrait Gallery

John Ruskin: The King of the Golden River, or
The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria (1851)
Illustrated by Richard Doyle, E.P.Dutton / J.M.Dent 1925
Illustrated by Charles W Stewart, Edmund Ward 1958

The King of the Golden River was written in 1841, at the request of a very young lady, and solely for her amusement, without any idea of publication…”

The very young lady was the twelve-year-old Effie Gray and the writer was John Ruskin, ten years her senior.

Ruskin was eventually to marry Effie in 1848 but the marriage foundered and was annulled, Effie then marrying the artist John Everett Millais. All that turbulence was in the future, however, and Effie must have been delighted with her present, along with later generations too after the tale was published in 1851.

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No scruples

Inverted Commas 18: Hands tied

“Evil can be unscrupulous, and good can’t. Evil has nothing to stop it doing what it wants, while good has one hand tied behind its back. To do the things it needs to do to win, it’d have to become evil to do ’em.” — Farder Coram, Chapter 15 ‘Letters’

Parts of Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth (2018) have both a universal relevance and one equally specific regarding the times we live in now. A chapter in which Lyra as the main protagonist is trying to escape detection in the Norfolk Broads is just such an instance. She is discussing with the gyptian elder Coram how it is that the Consistorial Court of Discipline is able to achieve what it does, and Coram gives her his view of the current political situation in Lyra’s world.

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Jack a Nory

The Graveyard Book, Volume 1
by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P Craig Russell.
Illustrated by P Craig Russell, Kevin Nowlan, Tony Harris, Scott Hampton, Galen Showman, Jill Thompson, and Stephen B Scott.
Bloomsbury 2014

This, the first volume of the graphic novelisation of Neil Gaiman’s 2008 Gothick award winner, is as one would hope a quite faithful adaptation of the original. The author’s text is itself quite visual, and this must have made it a lot easier for P Craig Russell to produce storyboards that matched the action and the pace of the narrative.

Here won’t be the place to critique Gaiman’s story, nor do I intend to refer to volume 2 of the adaptation in this review; what I will do is outline what worked for me in this presentation and what puzzled me. To misquote Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, “I have come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him;” however, the wording on the epitaph will be even-handed.

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The force of destiny

Fantasy is a Marmite®™* genre for many readers: though there is often a middle ground of those who can take or leave it, there are plenty for whom it is anathema and others who regard it as the only true reflection of their hopes, dreams and, occasionally, nightmares. I myself enjoy many manifestations of the genre but not all appeal to me, by any means.

I often wonder what the sticking point might be for those who are anti-fantasy. Not enough realism? Magic too arbitrary or illogical? Aimed mainly at children or the childish? Too full of clichés? Or is there a deeper root that irks the sceptical?

Much of so-called Epic or High Fantasy is predicated on a sense of Fate or Destiny, with prophecies about someone (a Chosen One, if you like) who will bring about changes to a world order. The term Chosen One was used humorously of Harry Potter, but Lyra’s prophesied role in the worlds of His Dark Materials was specifically hidden from her.

But the whole notion of Fate is a controversial one involving whether free will truly exists, or if there is a Being who has their hands on the controls. I don’t intend to get into the philosophy behind the arguments — it’s beyond my wit, let alone my remit here — except to say that bloody wars have been fought over this very issue.

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A light in the darkness

Sophia Jansson with Signe Hammarsten (circa 1968 image: Margareta Strömstedt)

Moominvalley in November
written and illustrated by Tove Jansson,
translated by Kingsley Hart.
Puffin 2019 (1971)

Set as autumn is on the turn towards winter in Moominvalley, this last of all the Moomin novels is, as expected, a bittersweet tale of friendship, absence, loss and hope. Six disparate individuals feel a yearning to visit the Moomins in their valley, but when they all get there they find the family gone and the house empty. How do they react when they realise that and how do they get on with each other while they wait for the Moomins’ return?

I loved this for so many reasons — the apparent whimsy hiding psychological insights, the individual quests the characters found themselves on, the autumnal atmosphere beautifully recreated with hints of hibernation and the faint promise of spring, and of course for the delicate line drawings that delight the eye.

While it’s common knowledge that the author wrote this after losing her 88-year-old mother Signe, and that a deep sense of loss pervades the novel, most readers will be intrigued by the interaction between the six characters in search of a meaning for the empty home they visit, and of their reasons for undertaking their quests.

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Reading meaning in things

Lyra’s Oxford
by Philip Pullman,
engravings by John Lawrence.
David Fickling Books 2003

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— William Makepeace

The title enshrines a dichotomy. Superficially it asserts that this is a city from the world Lyra inhabits, a world both like and unlike ours, that ambiguity given visual force by a wonderful fold-out map in the first edition hardback depicting the moody streets of Oxford overlooked by an airship at the Royal Mail Zeppelin Station.

But by the final pages it becomes clear that it’s Lyra herself who is this world’s Oxford to keep: “The city, their city — belonging was one of the meanings of that, and protection, and home.” There is a feeling that Oxford is looking after her and her dæmon Pantalaimon, a sense that will last her through the rest of her teenage years. Will that protection last through the central events of The Book of Dust?

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“Tell them stories”

The Amber Spyglass
by Philip Pullman,
Scholastic Children’s Books 2001 (2000)

“Tell them stories. That’s what we didn’t know. All ths time, and we never knew! But they need the truth. That’s what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything. Just tell them stories.”
— Injunction given to Mary Malone by a freed ghost, chapter 32: ‘Morning’

The magnificent conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy is rich, complex and even more satisfying the second time around. Its richness and complexity perhaps told against it at a first acquaintance, confusing some readers while thrilling others for its challenging concepts. And what concepts Pullman adds to his many-worlds scenario and varied beings: intention craft, targeted bombs, a world inhabited by the ghosts of the dead, diverging evolution, and a conflict of apocalyptic proportions.

At the heart however of this novel is love — between heavenly beings, mother and daughter, human and dæmon, and Will and Lyra. But holding up that beating heart, sustaining it, is the age-old imperative: stories. And not just any old stories, but stories that represent or reflect truth.

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