Uneasy lies the head

The so-called Alfred Jewel, part of the aestel now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In this post I shall be discussing a couple of themes remaining to be highlighted from my examination of Joan Aiken’s novel Midwinter Nightingale.

No, don’t switch off, on the basis that you haven’t read this and what possible interest can it have for you: I shall in fact mostly be looking at the institution of monarchy in this alternative history and this will actually start with aspects of real history — you know, the kind of history you and I may have absorbed by osmosis at school, from fiction or the odd TV doc we’ve watched. Antiques Roadshow, for example.

So let’s start with a particular category of antique work, an art object — the aestel. What’s that? you may well ask. Read on … and beware, spoilers lurk.

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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.

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Marvels that defy

Our Lady of Guadeloupe

Robertson Davies: Fifth Business (1970)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin Books 2011 (1983)

This is a saga of three boys — the narrator Dunstable Ramsay, his contemporary Percy Boyd Staunton, and Paul Dempster, ten years their junior — told over the space of half a century from their origins in a small town in Ontario across two continents and on to a final chapter in the Canadian capital, Ottawa.

Yet, of course, it is more than that: this is a tale of love gained and lost, of magic and miracles, of action in a theatre of war to that of the theatre of illusions. We are presented with evidence both of abilities and disabilities; amongst all the fun and games there is, nevertheless, an underlying sense of futility. Rabelais is reported to have said on his deathbed, “Tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée”; but for us the show hasn’t ended, for happily this is just the start of a trilogy.

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Wild magics

Still from Studio Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle

The first March Magics event (then called DWJ March) was inaugurated by Kristen of We Be Reading in March 2012 to celebrate the worlds of Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011). This year’s March Magics has as its featured DWJ book Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps her most famous title and the subject of a delightful Studio Ghibli animation.

For any followers of this blog unfamiliar with DWJ’s work (and a few days before I post my second review of this fantasy, on the anniversary of her death, the 26th March) you may find the following links, to my reviews of other titles, helpful in deciding which of her fictions might appeal to you.

Let’s start with the series loosely associated with that peregrinating edifice.

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Bleak midwinter

Beware the Rider

Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising
Vintage Classics 2013 (1973)

If, in a fantasy set during the twelve days of Christmas, you’re expecting lords leaping, geese laying or partridges in pear trees then you’d be sorely disappointed: despite the fact that there are seasonal gifts for young Will Stanton this is no twee tale of sweethearts, nativities or jolly old St Nicholas. Instead we get an intense battle between the Light and the Dark, accompanied by elemental forces in nature and threatened by betrayal.

Following on from Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) this novel focuses on a new protagonist, Will, but is linked with the earlier novel by the appearance of Merriman Lyon and passing references to the chalice which had featured in the earlier Cornish adventure. Will is due to have his eleventh birthday on December 21st, midwinter’s day: it’s already a magical time, with the sun ‘standing still’ for the solstice, but Will also happens to be the seventh son of a seventh son, a fact which marks him out for an epic struggle and for which he at first appears inadequate.

But Will is no ordinary youngster: he discovers soon enough that he is one of the Old Ones.

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Magic spells

Wandering Among Words 7: Gramarye

If, as Alice Hoffman is everywhere quoted, “Books may well be the only true magic,” then she is only following a tradition that has been acknowledged in all literate cultures: writing is magic, and magic is the written word.

We can point to the beginning of St John’s gospel to see this concept expounded:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Without getting into a theological discussion of what exactly John meant by Logos (‘the Word’), I just want to point out that the spoken word (and later the written word) is seen as the act of creation, and the creative act is magic, in its purest form.

All our language surrounding the concept of words, spoken or written, is closely bound up with magic.

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Cornish dream

Replica vitreous enamel sign

Joan Aiken: In Thunder’s Pocket: a St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2001

A young lad is sent to stay for a few days with his aunt and uncle in a coastal village in Cornwall, only to encounter mysterious goings-on involving seagulls, sculptures, a curse, a key and an egg. What is the connection between them all, and who or what is the boy from Wicca Steps?

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The bells, the bells

Garth Nix’s Goldenhand (Hot Key Books 2016) is the latest addition to a long-running fantasy sequence generally known as the Old Kingdom series. This post is a short overview of what preceded Goldenhand for those in the dark about the series, and looks forward to what questions may be addressed when in due course I post a review.

If you haven’t come across the Old Kingdom before, or even find fantasy tedious or derivative, I may still be able to persuade you to at least consider the novels for their, ah, novel approach to all things magical.

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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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Promethean fire

Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

One can never say enough about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was published just two hundred years ago — certainly a short review can never do it justice. Those with an academic background will be in a position to expound at length about the many aspects of this superb Gothic novel. I’m not an academic, however, so I can only talk about what strikes me most after a reading of the first edition of 1818. And what better place to start than the frontispiece to the 1831 edition, an engraving heavily influenced by Gothick sensibilities and based on an illustration by the remarkable Theodor Von Holst.

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Questions and quests

An imaginary city by Albrecht Durer

Patricia A McKillip: The Riddle-Master’s Game
The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976);  Heir of Sea and Fire (1977);
Harpist in the Wind (1979)
Introduction by Graham Sleight
Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 2015 (2001)

Explicitly inspired by — but no slavish imitation of — The Lord of the Rings, Patricia McKillip’s trilogy is an epic fantasy that stands on its own merits rather than in comparison with Tolkien’s work. Yes, it starts with a very domestic scene before exploring from one end of a continent to the other, and, indeed, the main protagonist is reluctant to embark on his quest, but in reality the whole feel and mood of McKillip’s narrative is far removed from Tolkien’s, not least because it gives almost equal prominence to a female protagonist. On top of this, the author was only in her late twenties when she began her very mature epic when compared to Tolkien, who was in his sixties when the final volume of LOTR appeared.

The first part begins portentously enough:

“Morgon of Hed met the High One’s harpist one autumn day when the trade-ships docked at Tol for the season’s exchange of goods.”

In one sentence we are introduced to many of the main themes that run through the trilogy. Morgon, Prince of the small island principality of Hed, the High One who has (or rather had) suzerainty over all the lands, the subtle undercurrent of music (the author is apparently an accomplished pianist), the passing of seasons and the routines of social intercourse that will be so rudely disrupted. The young ruler, who had studied and attained high honours in the arcane discipline of riddling, will find not just his heritage challenged as he is plunged into dangers that will threaten the lives of countless peoples. Will he have the strength of will to overcome those dangers, and what part will Raederle of An have to play in the upheavals to come?

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The Perills of the Conjuration of Spirits by the Ignorant

bookmarks

Lines ‘ciphered from a torn & tattered Script
found in an ancient Book of Holy Writ;
when thou hast o’ercome th’Initial Dread,
shalt find a timely Ode writ large instead

After thou hast prepared the charmed circle as heretofore describ’d, recite these words with an almighty voice, never wavering.

HAIL, thou that from this Husk’s late gone,
Acknowledge that I adjure thee to come:
Let no harm come to me nor Wight nor any
Living Creature; thus I bind thee fast, to
Own all Service to me, & Obedience,
Who dost bid thee ne’er part from me
Expressly; without Fraud, Dissimulation or Deceit
Enter into Pact to do whate’er desired
Now & evermore, till discharged be!

churchyard

In a later hand, this followeth:

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Across a sea of stars

Majipoor globe
Majipoor and its three continents: illustration by Ken Seamon http://worldofmajipoor.free.fr/pagesimages/majipoor_planet.html

Majipoor — even the name sounds fantastical with its hints of both magic and a city on the Indian subcontinent. But no, this is the giant planet that I’ve previously mentioned which features in the planetary romances of Robert Silverberg, and which I’m going to discuss a bit more before I complete all my rereads, and reviews, of the first three ‘prequels’ in the series: Sorcerers of Majipoor (1997), Lord Prestimion (1999) and King of Dreams (2000). But first, a bit of science.

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Beyond superlative

raven
Detail of raven from a print by Alison Fennell: “Constellation Raven”

Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Bloomsbury 2007 (2005)

Here is a homage to Regency literature that surpasses mere pastiche. Here is an alternate history that makes one doubt the history one knows. Here too is a fantasy for those who hate fantasy. Here, in short, is great literature — involving as well as immersive, and above all beautifully written. It certainly deserves its accolades, both public and individual.

This is a story about the revival of English magic in the early 19th century brought about by the foremost magicians of the age. This is also a story about the dangers attached to re-awakening dormant forces that one may not understand, let alone control. All those Arabian Nights stories about the perils of letting the genie out of the bottle or of unwittingly killing the genie’s son by carelessly discarding date stones are reminders that fairy folk and their peers are not to be trifled with unless you know what you’re letting yourself in for. So it proves for Gilbert Norrell and for his pupil Jonathan Strange.

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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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