In a distorting mirror

Holbein_Danse_Macabre_41
Holbein Danse Macabre. XLI. The Allegorical Escutcheon of Death (Totentanz. XLI. Das Wappen des Todes) Image: public domain

Terry Pratchett Equal Rites Corgi 1987 (1987)

“This is a story about magic and where it goes and perhaps more importantly where it comes from and why, although it doesn’t pretend to answer all or any of these questions.”

With such a portentous opening sentence, and especially with such a qualifying caveat, it is clear from the start that this a Terry Pratchett novel. The third novel, in fact, in his Discworld series. But, as he goes on to add, it is also a story about sex (something we might have deduced from the punny title) and “primarily” a story about a world (the Discworld, if you hadn’t already guessed). And though this is early on in his series of over forty Discworld novels it’s full of typical Pratchett tics — the humour (both slapstick and sly), the sense of the ridiculous (with occasional sparkles of the sublime), the fast-paced and consummate storytelling (despite the many asides) and the sheer joy of Creation (an irony which would have tickled the professed atheist).

Eskarina Smith is the eighth child of an eighth son, a fact which has marked her out as something special, as special as the seventh son of a seventh son in our world. Except that Esk is a girl. Which means she technically can’t become a wizard because — as any fule kno — wizards are men. Esk’s own granny Esmeralda Weatherwax is a woman and therefore it is only right that she is able to be a witch. But there is a problem: Esk was handed a wizard’s staff at her moment of birth. And that is a very big problem.

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A Matter of Lives and DEATH

dwjmonth-2017

Over at Kristen’s We Be Reading blog the annual March Magics celebration of the work of Diana Wynne Jones — to which was recently added the fiction of Sir Terry Pratchett — will be observed, starting tomorrow. Both authors, giants in their respected fantasy fields, are much missed by their legions of fans (a cliché, I know, but they are legion). As Kristen writes,

DWJ March began in March 2012 as a celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and last year I added Terry Pratchett as he had passed the year before. I changed the name to March Magics but a few of us didn’t want to let go of the DWJ March name so now it kind of has two names. I guess this is the 6th year of the event!

Kristen tells us she has for a while wanted to focus DWJ March on the figure of the enchanter Chrestomanci; of the seven books in the series she omits The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week and the short story collection Mixed Magics only because they’re not directly about nine-lived enchanters. (Like cats, since you were wondering.)

She will pair these up with four of Pratchett’s five DEATH books (omitting Hogfather since she will be featuring it on her blog in December). I’ve already read and reviewed the Chrestomanci novels, plus one of the Pratchett titles, so shall instead be concentrating on the three Discworld novels featuring DEATH I haven’t as yet tried, Reaper Man, Soul Music and The Thief of Time — if I can acquire them in time!

The schedule, should you wish to join in, will be as follows (I’ve added links to my reviews where applicable):

Friday 3rd: DWJ’s Charmed Life review

Monday 6th: STP’s Mort review

Friday 10th: DWJ’s The Lives of Christopher Chant review

Tuesday 14th: STP’s Reaper Man

Friday 17th: DWJ’s Conrad’s Fate review

Wednesday 22nd: STP’s Soul Music

Sunday 26th: DWJ’s The Pinhoe Egg review

Friday 31st: STP’s The Thief of Time

I’m being selfish here: I need excuses to read Pratchett’s work but the sheer volume of his oeuvre is so daunting. I’ve read a collection of his non-fiction pieces, the aforementioned Mort, Equal Rites, Johnny and the Dead and Good Omens (which he co-authored with Neil Gaiman) but would really like to get on with more Discworld novels. I have The Colour of Magic on my shelves but am loath to start this as I’ve been warned off it a couple of times. (In a nice way, not with a horse’s head in the bed or anything like that.) So the three March Magics titles noted above may be just up my Ankh.

Shopping malls and snow globes

Late medieval woodcut of Death with scythe and hourglass

Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
Discworld novel 11
Corgi 1992 (1991)

What happens when Death fails to claim humans who die? What happens to their bodies, their consciousness, their life force? And what are the consequences for a world in which this calamity takes place?

Terry Pratchett’s famous character Death, who only converses in small capitals, has been ‘retired’ by Azrael, “the Great Attractor, the Death of Universes, the beginning and end of time” — or the Angel of Death as our monotheistic religions see him. With his scythe and faithful mount Binky he descends on a Discworld farm; here, as Bill Door, he is taken on as a farmhand by Miss Renata Flitworth. Elsewhere on Discworld, and especially in Ankh-Morpeth, people are ceasing to die: witness Windle Poons, the oldest wizard in the world, who after death turns into a zombie. In trying to find a point to his new afterlife he joins the Fresh Start Club (other members include werewolves, vampires, a banshee and a bogeyman) and starts to note curious events unfolding — things like ovoid snow globes appearing, supermarket trollies multiplying and swear words taking physical form.

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“A strong female lead”

The featured challenge for March 2018 in the window of Book·ish, Crickhowell

Not long after the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere, three quarters of the way into March — a month in fact featuring two patron saints of Celtic countries — and I’ve missed marking this period in any special way. But anyway, what’s a date but an arbitrary point in the calendar? Measure time in any way other than by the solar year and all our anniversaries, birthdays and feast days count for little.

Still I feel a little bit put out because I failed to celebrate one of my favourite authors. Maybe it’s because I’ve read almost all her books. Maybe it’s because I’ve been too busy celebrating the bicentenary of another author — Mary Shelley, ‘onlie begetter’ of Frankenstein — or was still stupefied after a revisit of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea that I forgot to check in on Kristen’s We Be Reading blog where she hosts March Magics, a celebration of the worlds and works of Terry Pratchett and … Diana Wynne Jones.

Better late than never.

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Good to go

Framework

Another year starts, and we’re all encouraged to plan ahead… Well, I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I don’t have targets. I don’t set challenges.

What I have instead are goals: something to generally aim for but no pressure other than satisfaction at reaching them or even making the initial effort.

A better metaphor might be a framework: something that provides shape but the cladding for which is more random and the amount of cover more arbitrary. Imagine a big wide open goalmouth, the posts set wide apart and the crosspiece high, the netting a patchwork of different materials and loosely spread over. It’s pleasing to get the ball in the net but, heaven forfend, I’ve never had dreams of being a Premiership player…

So, Reading Goals. (No, not Reading Gaol, that was Oscar Wilde.)

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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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Of shreds and patches

Table Mountain or Crug Hywel hillfort, Crickhowell, Wales

Diana Wynne Jones: Howl’s Moving Castle
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2009 (1986)

At the southern edge of the Black Mountains in Wales, high above the market town of Crickhowell, sits a hillock called Crug Hywel or Table Mountain. Geologically it is an example of a translational slide, a piece of the Black Mountains that has slipped downhill towards the River Usk before coming to a halt.

On top of Crug Hywel’s plateau sits an Iron Age hillfort, named after some forgotten historical or legendary figure called Howell.

The feature is, in effect, Howl’s Moving Castle.


I don’t for a moment believe that the author had this ancient hillfort as a model for the titular castle, nor do I even suggest she was aware of the coincidence of name, only that I’m sure she would’ve been delighted with this parallel. Because, as the Q&A extra at the end of this edition shows, the genesis and composition of a novel such as Howl’s Moving Castle is made up of bits and pieces of her own family life, chance encounters, unconscious jokes, past memories, and so on. As Nanki-Poo in The Mikado sings,

A wandering minstrel I, | A thing of shreds and patches, | Of ballads, songs and snatches, | And dreamy lullaby…

Shreds and patches typify the make-up of this fantasy, and of many of the characters in it (in particular the Howl of the title); but what holds it all together — as in all good stories — is heart, both literally and metaphorically. And though some of the stitching is evident in the writing we forgive the imperfections because the whole is just so enchanting.

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Like a lion

In like a lion, out like a lamb.

It’s coming up to that time of year when the door to one season starts shutting while another slowly swings ajar.

Following my New Year commitment not to commit to specifics concerning my 2020 reading I’m not therefore going to detail what exactly I intend to read for March — mainly because I have no idea at the moment!

Nevertheless, vague possibilities are coalescing around upcoming events in the reading calendar.

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Book lover’s leap

You may remember that at the start of 2020 I’d decided, in a bid to reduce the number of unread books I’d accumulated, to see how long I would go before forking out hard cash for new.

Now, at the end of February, on this intercalated leap year day, it might be interesting to see how I’m managing. And the answer is…

I haven’t bought any new books in the first two months of this year! That, as far as I’m concerned, is a cause for celebration, because I’m an inveterate browser in bookshops and rummager in secondhand book stores. But …

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Gossamer thin

Isis knot or tyet amulet, Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET DP109370)

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.
— Chapter Nine, The Enchanted Castle by E Nesbit

It’s time for a progress report on my reading — not part of any nominal schedule, I must admit, but because I feel the urge to provide one. And it’s all because of gossamer-thin threads that have formed webs of connections in my flibbertigibbet brain.

But first I must register a confession. It’s been a fortnight or more since I wrote an entry in my ship’s log concerning the fateful voyage of Ahab and his crew on board the Pequod, and they have been languishing in the doldrums for far too long. I may not make my intended Easter deadline after all; but at least the crew aren’t going anywhere, and I’ve fixed their last position.

However, in Joan Aiken‘s Night Birds on Nantucket Dido Twite found herself aboard a whaler chasing after a benevolent cousin of Moby-Dick — some compensation, maybe — and of course I’ve been trying to fit Dido’s sister Is’s exploits into a chronology that follows on after the whale hunt in Aiken’s alternative history known as the Wolves Chronicles; so Herman Melville‘s novel isn’t entirely out of mind.

But in the meantime my brain has been tracing out a larger web of connections.

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Unbound

Titian’s Prometheus (Prado, Madrid)

Diana Wynne Jones:
The Homeward Bounders
Illustrated by David Wyatt
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1981)

“Are you one? Do you call us Homeward Bounders too?”
“That is the name to all of us is given,” he said to me sadly.
“Oh,” I said. “I thought I’d made it up.”

Jamie Hamilton is twelve going on thirteen, living in a past which we can establish is 1879. But when, in exploring his town, he comes across a mysterious building where cloaked and hooded figures flit about his curiosity get the better of him and, by intruding on them, he becomes an outcast from the life with which he has grown familiar.

And it is all the doing of Them, as he soon terms those figures, games players who decide the fates of individuals, societies and worlds. As a ‘discard’ from the game They play he is forced to be both bystander and wanderer as he is thrown from one world to another without so much as a ‘by your leave’.

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Headology

Ludlow Castle, how I imagine Lancre Castle might look

Terry Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters
Corgi Books 1989 (1988)

‘You know, Hwel, I reckon responsible behaviour is something to get when you grow older. Like varicose veins.’
— Tomjon in ‘Wyrd Sisters’

The fourth in Pratchett’s Discworld series is full of witches behaving badly, meddling yet not meddling in the affairs of men. Preceded by Equal Rites it focuses on the kingdom of Lancre with its usurping ruler Duke Felmet and his wife, a castle full of ghosts, a troupe of travelling players and the aforementioned witch trio of Esme Weatherwax, Gytha Ogg and Magrat Garlick.

It’s not the assassination itself that sets things awry — Lancre has seen dastardly deeds done to royalty before and survived — but the misrule following it, and Granny Weatherwax senses the land is unhappy. For this reason and others (such as her being a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian) she determines, along with her coven of three, to nudge things along a bit.

And that includes a bit of messing around with time, accomplished in a manner similar to the ending of Superman the Movie, except with a black-caped Granny flying her broomstick round the kingdom.

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Master of mischief

Diana Wynne Jones:
Eight Days of Luke
Illustrated by David Wyatt
Collins 2000 (1975)

Feeling grateful. Feeling guilty. Feeling angry when you’re wrongly accused. Feeling frustrated when your wishes are thwarted. Being a child under the charge of adults gives rise to so many emotions, some negative, many persisting into adulthood. For orphan David Allard, whom if we had to guess is about ten or so, emotions are running particularly high: the relatives he is now living with are unsympathetic to the point of unfairness and he is just about to explode.

Retreating to the end of the garden he expresses his anger in a torrent of gibberish words. Somehow this ‘spell’ coincides with what appears to be a mini earthquake, which causes the garden wall to tumble down and venomous snakes to appear. And from nowhere up pops a boy with reddish hair, who calls himself Luke.

After the initial shock David is of course very confused, but the personable Luke seems promising as a new companion for the luckless lad so they strike up a friendship, with Luke expressing sincere gratitude at being freed from his prison. But this odd occurrence is merely a prelude to a week of strange occurrences in which new acquaintances are made and the master of mischief himself is unmasked.

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March Magics 2021

https://webereading.com/2021/02/announcing-marchmagics-2021-all.html

Today, on the eve of the halfway mark for the twenty-eight days of February, I’m already getting excited about March. As well as planning on reading books for the Wales Readathon and Reading Ireland Month I’m hoping to revisit titles by the late Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, both of whom left us in this month.

I’m glad to see that Kristen at https://WeBeReading.com is again running March Magics, the annual celebration of these two fantasy writers (who were both West Country authors by adoption, with connections to my hometown Bristol).

Kristen’s introductory post gives an outline plan of the focus of this year’s event, and I’d like to share with you her principal aims and how my response may shape up.

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