Careful what you wish for

E Nesbit: The Enchanted Castle
Wordsworth Editions Ltd 1999 (1907)

Careful what you wish:
Edwardian children find
magic mixed blessing.

There are two types of enchantment in this book. One is the everyday sort, evidenced by how enthralled the reader might be as they proceed through the book, and especially by the young charmer Gerald who sweet-talks his way through pretty much every situation. This is enchantment that lives up to the term’s origins, where chanting, speaking, singing and silent perusal of words creates the magic that keeps us literally in its spell.

Then there is the sort of enchantment that manifests itself most strikingly in this book, the kind described eloquently by Nesbit herself in Chapter Nine: “There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets and the like, almost anything may happen.” And in The Enchanted Castle it inevitably does.

Continue reading “Careful what you wish for”

Somewhere at the edge of Europe

Cretan-labyrinth

China Miéville The City and the City
Pan 2010 (2009)

Can cities really
co-exist in the same place?
Beware the frontier!

China Miéville’s preferred genre is ‘weird fiction’, and a sub-genre within that is urban fantasy. Kraken, for example, is set is a barely recognisable London, and the earlier The City and the City is set in the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, “somewhere at the edge of Europe”. Besźel and Ul Qoma aren’t quite like Buda and Pest, or Istanbul spread between Europe and Asia Minor, though they do share that sense of liminality, of neither-nor. And the dividing line between the two isn’t as physically evident as, say, the Danube or the Bosphorus: individuals who stray across (let alone stare across) that metaphysical divide, who literally “breach” (particularly in so-called “cross-hatched” areas), are likely to fall foul of a shadowy force called Breach.

Into this knife-edge world strides the Besz police inspector Borlú, investigating the murder of an unknown young woman.

Continue reading “Somewhere at the edge of Europe”

London is the hero

China Miéville Kraken: an Anatomy
Pan 2010

Welcome to London
and an underground of cults,
cops, criminals, squid.

There has been precious little discussion about the significance, if any, of Kraken’s subtitle. Anatomy, which now means the science of body structure, derives from Greek roots implying cutting open and, particularly, apart (what we’d now call an autopsy). I suggest that Kraken is not just about a giant squid specimen in the Natural History Museum (or rather, for most of the book, out of the Museum) but about how it is used to cut open the underbelly of an arcane and corrupt London and expose its putrefying innards.

Ultimately this urban fantasy is about the power of words. Continue reading “London is the hero”

Rabid dog bites girl!

Medieval dog (http://www.medievalists.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Medieval-Dog.jpg)
Medieval dog (http://www.medievalists.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Medieval-Dog.jpg)

Gabriel García Márquez
Of Love and Other Demons 
(trans: Edith Grossman) Penguin Books 1996

Rabid dog bites girl;
parents, priest, bishop, nuns not
bit but rabid too

I don’t regret having delayed completing Of Love and Other Demons for several years as I don’t think I would have appreciated this novella half of much when I first started. My impression then was that this was a slow-moving story with much description but little happening. How wrong I was! The title is so apt as this is an exploration of how obsessions can take precedence over basic humanity. The enigma that is Sierva Maria is the catalyst for upheaval in a coastal Colombian town (a fictionalised Cartagena) of a couple of centuries ago: bitten by a rabid dog but surviving against the odds, her very existence seems to infect all she comes into contact with. Many of these individuals then exhibit a rabidity that has nothing to do with a physical ailment and everything to do with diseases of the mind: irrational superstition, jealousy, inhumanity and, yes, love, but obsessive love akin to that of a stalker. Continue reading “Rabid dog bites girl!”

Stonehenge’s mythic history

Early print of Stonehenge: the bluestones are the smaller pillars surrounded by the trilithons

Brian John The Bluestone Enigma:
Stonehenge, Preseli and the Ice Age

Greencroft Books 2008

Ancient man didn’t
transport stones hundreds of miles.
And nor did Merlin.

Brian John, who lives in Pembrokeshire (where much of this study is set), has had a long interest in this whole subject area. A Geography graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, he went on to obtain a D Phil there for a study of the Ice Age in Wales. Among other occupations he was a field scientist in Antarctica and a Geography Lecturer in Durham University, and is currently a publisher and the author of a number of articles, university texts, walking guides, coffee table glossies, tourist guides, titles on local folklore and traditions, plus books from popular science to local jokes. His credentials are self-evident when it comes to discussing Stonehenge.

One of the strongest modern myths about Stonehenge to have taken root is that the less monumental but no less impressive so-called bluestones were physically brought by prehistoric peoples from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales to Wiltshire. The second strongest modern myth is that the whole saga was somehow remembered over a hundred or more generations to be documented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century as a feat of Merlin. In this self-published title Dr John examines these and other myths and finds them wanting in terms of echoing reality. Continue reading “Stonehenge’s mythic history”

Tame by modern tastes

mist

Arthur Machen The Great God Pan Parthian Books 2010

Tame by modern tastes:
supernatural horror,
Victorian-style

When I was young I swore by H P Lovecraft while my friend Roger championed Machen. At the time I thought The Hill of Dreams pretty insipid compared to anything with Cthulhu in it. Several decades on I felt that I have to give Machen another chance, as it were, and this edition of The Great God Pan (and the two companion pieces in this volume, The White Pyramid and The Shining People) provided the opportunity.

I still now find Machen fin-de-siècle novels a taste I have yet to acquire. Continue reading “Tame by modern tastes”

Plotting psychohistory

Isaac Asimov Forward the Foundation 
Bantam 1994

Hari Seldon plots
psychohistory while plots
threaten its future

I remember reading the original Foundation trilogy in the 70s, followed (or possibly preceded) by listening to Hari Seldon’s vision as recounted in the BBC radio dramatisation. I wasn’t totally convinced by Asimov’s psychohistory plot device then, but accepted that this was a reflection of a growing tendency to try to more accurately predict what was coming up in the future, whether in the markets, in technological or manufacturing trends or in developments in popular culture. Mix in some mathematics, add a bit of sociology, make allowances for random events and the broad sweep of future history is there to peruse.

However, having by then already read Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come and Stapleden’s Last and First Men and realising that fictional prediction becomes more and more adrift with reality the further into the imagined future it proceeds, I was sceptical then; and remain so even now, especially as we seem to be living in a world where the present has been overtaken by an accelerating technological future which has arrived almost before it’s expected. So I didn’t really buy into Seldon’s psychohistory though I readily accepted it for the sake of a promising narrative.

I thought it now time to revisit the trilogy and its subsequent sequels and prequels and chanced upon the previously unread Forward the Foundation. Continue reading “Plotting psychohistory”

School for sorcery

Entrance
Former Court House, Congresbury, North Somerset

Diana Wynne Jones Witch Week
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1982)

a parallel world
where they persecute witches
and children aren’t safe

Witch Week was the first Chrestomanci books to focus solely on a female protagonist’s point of view, and is much the better for that. It feels as though Diana Wynne Jones has included a lot of autobiographical material in her treatment of Nan, an orphan witch girl who is at Larwood House, a boarding school in Hertfordshire. Nan is much more of a rounded character than the young male leads in previous books in the sequence, Christopher, Cat and Conrad, who sometimes come across as pleasant wimps or clueless actors in the unfolding story. True, Nan is largely pleasant and clueless in her attempt to discover the truth about the magic that is happening around her, but I get more of a sense of a real person here than the ciphers that are Christopher, Cat and Conrad.

The premise of the story is that Nan and her classmates exist in a world where witchcraft is punishable by death but where magic undeniably exists. Continue reading “School for sorcery”

Alike in indignity

19th-century Florence
19th-century Florence

Diana Wynne Jones
The Magicians of Caprona
Collins 2002 (1980)

Two families, both
alike in magic, fight till
forced to face real foe.

First things first: I wondered why Diana Wynne Jones had chosen the name Caprona to use in the title of this children’s book. Was it from the Latin caprona ‘forelock’? Or from a type of butterfly? Or perhaps in homage to an island featuring in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot? None of these notions really convinced.

It seems most likely that she borrowed the name from a village in the Arno valley in Tuscany, upriver from Pisa and to the west of Florence. While relatively insignificant now, in the Middle Ages Caprona was of enough importance to feature in Dante’s Inferno when its castle was squabbled over by the opposing armies of Pisa and Florence. In this book the town is besieged by the 20th-century armies of Pisa, Florence and Sienna, city-states all bordering the unfortunate Dukedom of Caprona which, in this alternate world fantasy, retains a mix of medieval and early 20th-century customs and technology, not to mention magic. Continue reading “Alike in indignity”

Magic and mayhem

castle

Diana Wynne Jones Charmed Life HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2007 (1977)

Orphans, one spiteful,
one open-hearted, effect
magic, then mayhem!

The first of the Chrestomanci books to be published but the third in order of chronology, Charmed Life exhibits many of the possible strengths and weaknesses of a book destined to be part of a series but perhaps conceived originally as a standalone: strengths such as freshness and vitality, weaknesses such as plot holes and inconsistencies. It is to Diana Wynne Jones’ credit that she manages to avoid many of the pitfalls while still retaining a charm that manages to enchant new readers nearly forty years later. Continue reading “Magic and mayhem”

Master of his own fates

William Blake's The Ghost of a Flea
William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea

Diana Wynne Jones Conrad’s Fate
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2006 (2005)

In the English Alps
Conrad tries to change his fate.
Unsuccessfully.

Conrad’s Fate is a first-person narrative by the eponymous Conrad Tesdinic, a boy who lives in a world where England is geologically still attached to continental Europe, in an alpine town called Stallery dominated by the slightly sinister Stallery Mansion. Ironic, really, when it’s possible that the author may have derived the name via St Allery (of possible French origin, a variant of St Hilaire) from Latin hilaris meaning cheerful: Stallery is anything but a happy place.

Like many a traditional fairytale hero Conrad is thrust into a magical adventure where he has to balance his innate gifts with the usual resourcefulness required of such a hero. These gifts aren’t really identified till the end, but his other talents seem to include getting into trouble.
Continue reading “Master of his own fates”

Landscapes to walk in

An old photograph of Dunluce Castle, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland: the model for Cair Paravel?

 

C S Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia
HarperCollins Children’sBooks 2004

seven children’s tales
underpinned by magic, myth
and theology

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Narnia, that magical world reached by various rather devious means, most famously through a wardrobe? The films and, before them, British TV serials, not to mention DVD sales, have widened the audience for the books which, decades after their first publication, still sell by the shelf-full. Aided and abetted by Pauline Baynes’ classic illustrations this collection of the novels in their chronological sequence in a one-volume hardback edition is clearly designed to be enjoyed, kept and treasured. And I intend to keep it and treasure it, but I wasn’t as enraptured by Lewis’ tales as I was led to expect. Continue reading “Landscapes to walk in”

Poetry spam

negative

Now you may’ve heard of ‘poetry slams’ (confession: I’ve never been to one) so you may quibble at this post’s title: some mistake, surely?

But no, ‘poetry spam’ is what I meant. If you google Spam Lit or Spoetry or Found Literature you’ll get the gist — poems made from the nonsense titles or text in spams — or even the reverse, spam email text based on poetry.

I’m one of those sad people who trawl through my WordPress spam messages — to check if any genuine messages and comments have been mistakenly filtered out, you understand — and you may be one of those types too. Akismet (who despite the odd glitch efficiently sort out the gratuitous from the genuine) has recently netted five of these for me. (This is about average for every week or so, though it sometimes easily rises to double figures.) And while the spam comments didn’t fool me I found them strangely fascinating, with an enigmatic quality.

Continue reading “Poetry spam”

Darkly imagined universe

looking-glass

Cornelia Funke Reckless Chicken House 2011

Through the Looking-Glass
the Brothers Grimm live again,
but a life more weird

Best known for their collection of fairy tales, more so than for their pioneering philological researches, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm (their surname translates as ‘fierce’) are the inspiration for the main characters in Cornelia Funke’s novel. Jacob and Will Reckless’ surname — echoing the Grimms’ — means ‘headstrong’, ‘rash’ as well as being a bona fide English surname. When the historic Jakob Grimm was 11 their father died, much as, when Jacob is around the same age, the fictional brothers’ father disappears. Later, the two real-life brothers trained in law before getting deeply involved in researching folklore and folk-customs, and the older Jacob moved in with Wilhelm and his new bride; in Reckless, meanwhile, the unattached young adult Jacob finds himself in an alternative fairytale world joined by brother Will and his girlfriend Clara against his wishes. It is clear that Funke has determinedly drawn on the lives of the Brothers Grimm to structure her tale (the first of many, we are to presume) of magic and fairies set in archetypal Teutonic black forests and Central European cities.

What other influences can be seen in this novel? Continue reading “Darkly imagined universe”

Genre straddling

The model for Dune? The Red Planet: Mars image from NASA

Frank Herbert Dune
Gollancz 2001 (1965)

Foretold one gets dumped
in desert, then goes native.
Returns, beats baddies!

Dune is one of those thoughtful novels that successfully straddles the genres of fantasy and speculative fiction. SF often deals with philosophical ideas and scientific concepts in a fictional setting where exploration of the conundrum frequently takes precedence over the plot. Fantasy, on the other hand, often shows less interest in mechanisms and tends to go for a variation on a familiar narrative.

Continue reading “Genre straddling”