A cut above the ordinary

Plato's Atlantis (north is at the bottom)
Plato’s Atlantis
(north is at the bottom)

Alison Croggon The Gift:
the first book of Pellinor

Walker Books 2004

Maerad, a young female slave in a squalid village, is rescued by Cadvan who, as a bard, recognises her latent magic powers; taking her on a journey overshadowed by ever increasing peril and malevolence he begins her magical apprenticeship as she starts to gain an inkling of her significance in the world of Annaren. At first glance the well-worn trope of Orphan revealed as the Chosen One with the potential to upset the current world order might seem rather humdrum and, well, ho-hum. But this opening novel of an inevitable fantasy quartet by Australian poet Alison Croggon is a cut above the ordinary. Continue reading “A cut above the ordinary”

Conundrum

edil-amarandh
Credit: http://acrylicwash.tumblr.com/post/66314077474/edil-amarandh-map-that-i-colored-for-our-teeny

Alison Croggan The Riddle Walker Books Ltd 2005

Maerad and her mentor, the bard Cadvan, must solve a confusing riddle if evil is to be averted, and Maerad herself appears to be part of that riddle and its solution. To begin to get answers she has to travel to the far north, across snow and ice and sea, with all the accompanying dangers, from humans, nature, and the supernatural. The task seems insuperable, especially when laid on such young shoulders, and in such a hostile world it seems increasingly difficult to know who to trust. And all she has with her is the lyre she inherited from her mother, an instrument which has an integral part to play in the drama that is unfolding.

Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots suggests that the more different archetypal narratives a novel includes the richer it becomes (Booker admires The Lord of the Rings for this), and on this basis Croggon’s Pellinor series must be rich indeed. The Riddle includes the themes of the Quest, Overcoming the Monster, Tragedy and Voyage and Return, while it is only a matter of time and two more novels before we must surely encounter Rags to Riches, Comedy (in the classical sense) and Rebirth. On this understanding alone The Riddle is very satisfying, even as a middle volume in a sequence.

But novel writing is more than just a matter of narrative structure. First and foremost must come characterisation. Maerad, the young heroine of the tale, would, in a modern context, be just another petulant teenager, a trait which some reviewers have found annoying but is here absolutely right, not just for plot reasons but because that’s exactly what teenagers are normally about. While she is the Chosen One with innate mysterious powers (and you could argue that this is an annoying motif in itself), she still has to rely on her human resourcefulness, her stubbornness, her quick-wittedness and her physical strength. I liked also the roundedness of many of the other characters, even those who appear for such a short time, and even those who don’t support Maerad’s cause.

Other important elements in a story are a sense of place and time, and here Croggon has thought long and hard about the nature of her secondary world. The journey Maerad takes is one we take too, from cold to warmth, from mountains to plains and from habitation to habitation, because her descriptions give us exactly what we require to imagine and sensually feel ourselves there. There is also a clear sense of the passage of time, marked by key dates in the changing seasons (the book ends on midwinter’s day, for example) and Maerad’s monthly periods arriving at the time of the full moon.

Finally, Croggon’s theme is about words (as the title of the book hints). Poetry (real poetry, mind you, not doggerel verse) suffuses both prose and song in her text, recounted in English; and for the linguist too there is much delight in her creation of the languages of Pellinor: the names of peoples, of things, of places, of concepts. And let us not forget the crucial dialogues that Maerad has with key figures in the story; for those who like their fantasy dished up with lashings of action this may be a weakness, but for those who love words, the to-and-fro of conversations and the subsequent conflicts or resolutions that arise from them this must surely be a strength.

A word about Cadvan: as a wizard figure he here has resonances with both Gandalf and Dumbledore, though it is clear that we are to think of him, despite the discrepancy between the aging of Bards and ordinary mortals, as a relatively young man. Like those other two wizards of modern writing he too disappears, and like them his dramatic loss through violence must be felt deeply by the reader, but it is for the reader to find out whether the loss is temporary, as with Gandalf, or permanent, as with Dumbledore.

In anticipation of a prequel, The Bone Queen, appearing any time soon, reviews of Alison Croggon’s four Pellinor books will be reposted here in sequence and in rapid succession; they first appeared in January and February 2013

A plausible secondary world

Bodleian crow
Crow from an illuminated manuscript in the Bodleian Library

Alison Croggon The Crow:
the third book of Pellinor

Walker Books Ltd 2006

All novels, and especially fantasy novels, provide the opportunity for authors to create their own worlds in which to place their characters, and in large measure what makes the story convincing is the plausibility of that secondary world. Croggon’s land of Edil-Amarandh is given credible substance by its characters’ interaction with the geography, climate and changing seasons, and the success of The Crow and the other Pellinor books is enhanced by the impression that Maerad and Hem, Cadvan and Saliman are all inhabiting a real landscape: we are with them, almost in real-time, every step of their journeys, every rest in their tasks. It may or not help to imagine their world as perhaps that straddling what is now the mid-Atlantic ridge between Newfoundland and western Europe, sometime towards the end of the last Ice Age when sea levels were lower, but it is not essential, particularly as Croggon’s storytelling skill provides the verisimilitude to convincingly transport us to this sprawling continent in the grip of unfathomable changes. Continue reading “A plausible secondary world”

A wonderful journey to shadow

trees

Alison Croggon The Singing:
the fourth book of Pellinor

Walker Books 2008

As with the author, I finished (reading, in my case, writing, in hers) the Pellinor tetralogy with mixed feelings. Regret, first of all, because there was a sense of closure on the whole series: any hint of sequels was firmly dispelled by a note at the beginning of the appendices that outlined the subsequent history of Maerad, Hem and their friends, leaving little chance of another epic undertaking by the characters we had grown to know and love. But satisfaction, too, was there: that wrongs had been righted, balances restored and friendships deepened. Continue reading “A wonderful journey to shadow”

Pre-echoes

Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena (image: public domain)
Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena (image: public domain)

Alison Croggan The Bone Queen
The First Book of Pellinor
Walker Books Ltd 2016

After a gap of eight years Alison Croggan has fulfilled her promise to her fans that she would further enrich the narratives of her epic fantasy series known as Pellinor. Her world of Edil-Amarandh — in which Pellinor is merely one city — is set in a dim and distant past where not only magic is a reality but also perilous realms exist beyond the everyday world of humans, realms where entities like the Bone Queen can survive. If we want to imagine Edil-Amarandh we can do worse than picture it as a pre-echo of Atlantis, a continent positioned somewhere between the Old World and the New with mountainous spines somewhat reminiscent of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. All of the action of The Bone Queen takes place in the north, in the lee of the Osidh Elador mountains, between Lirigon and Pellinor.

So much for context: we read fiction primarily for stories concerning characters, not worldbuilding, and it is to people we now turn.

Continue reading “Pre-echoes”

Managing change

Alison Croggon: The River and the Book
Walker Books 2015

“All writing comes from the inside,” said Ling Ti. “It burns you with wanting to be written. It’s the writing that matters.”
— From Chapter 25, The River and the Book

Rivers and books have so much in common, don’t they? They each have a beginning, a middle and an end. They’re ever-changing, never quite the same — even a little way further on. If you ever revisit them they are different again, their compositions have somehow altered — either in their elements or the relationship between those elements — and outside influences have meant that your perception has had to permanently adjust. Which is why Alison Croggon’s novella, The River and the Book, works so well, each aspect of the title informing the other and complementing it.

Continue reading “Managing change”