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”

Intimations of mortality

path

Diana Wynne Jones
The Lives of Christopher Chant
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1988)

This Diana Wynne Jones book has an intriguing title: we are used to The Lives of the Caesars (where more than one person is involved) or, on the other extreme, The Life of Brian (which is about just one person). The Lives of Christopher Chant, on the other hand, reflects the notion that one person can have, like a cat, more than one life. This notion is an old one, from the transmigration of the soul to the Russian folk-villain Koshchei, whose external soul is hidden away in one object enclosed within another, and so on; most recently the concept has become familiar from the Horcruxes within which Harry Potter’s nemesis hides pieces of his soul, but before you surmise that Jones copied Voldemort’s strategy it’s worth pointing out that The Lives of Christopher Chant predates Rowling’s series. Continue reading “Intimations of mortality”

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”

The bourn from which no traveller returns

GB at night

Neil Gaiman Neverwhere:
The Author’s Preferred Text

Headline Review 2005 (1996)

In fairytales the overlooked, usually youngest son or daughter in a family commits an act of kindness that allows him or her to succeed where the other brothers or sisters didn’t. Sometimes the act of kindness is misplaced, as in the Arabian Nights tale of the genie in the bottle, and potential disaster follows. In this fantasy Scotsman Richard Mayhew comes to London and rescues a young woman from her pursuers, as a result of which his life is changed forever. He passes into London Below, supposedly the bourn from which no traveller returns. This is an Otherworld — at times a Dante-esque Inferno, other times reminiscent of Tudor or Restoration London — which has successfully reappeared in various modern guises, in Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana (1978) for example, Andrew Sinclair’s Gog (1967) and more recently in Miéville’s fantasies such as Kraken (2010).

Neverwhere‘s strengths largely lie in those fairytale motifs that much good fantasy draws from:  Continue reading “The bourn from which no traveller returns”

The magic of reading

WWButton

This is a speedy repost of my September 6th item on autumn, in view of Lory’s Witch Week celebration on her Emerald City Book Review blog; this starts today, October 30th, with a preview. Amongst other goodies there’ll be reviews of Diana Wynne Jones novels such as Fire and Hemlock, Power of Three, Howl’s Moving Castle, The Spellcoats and, on November 4th, a discussion by me of Deep Secret.

As autumn stutters into being with a stop-start easing-off of summer I thought it might be a good moment to look forward to a magical time that truly marks out autumn in the British consciousness — that period between Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night. Continue reading “The magic of reading”

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”

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 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”

Confounding expectations

dunes

Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands:
a Record of Secret Service

Penguin Popular Classics 1995 (1903)

I don’t normally seek out thrillers, even classic ones such as The Riddle of the Sands, and though this has historic interest – set just before the Second Boer War and scant years before the death of Victoria – it’s not a period I’m particularly interested in. Add to this that it’s about sailing on the North Sea coast of Germany when dismal autumnal fogs abound and it sounds like a novel I would normally pass over. But after an initially slow but deliberately drab beginning the story picks up, starts to tease the imagination and, even for the recalcitrant landlubber, sparks admiration for the enthusiasm and bravery of the two protagonists. Continue reading “Confounding expectations”

A spoof with serious intent

Diana Wynne Jones The Dark Lord Of Derkholm Gollancz 2000 (1998)

comic fantasy
makes valid point: don’t despoil
the lands you visit

griffinAnyone who is part of a large organisation will recognise the quandaries that Wizard Derk finds himself in when he is appointed Dark Lord in a real-life role-playing game. Despite his living in a world where magic is as natural as breathing, his attempts to cope with the vagaries that are thrown at him by an uncaring Senior Management, and which are deliberately sabotaged by Middle Managers with their own agenda, are familiar to those foot-soldiers in this our own world who are forced to cope with one emergency after another caused either by conspiracy or cock-up. And although crisis management is by its nature very stressful, there comes a point where you feel you have neither the energy nor the inclination to carry on with your goodwill sapped and your moral compass thrashed. Continue reading “A spoof with serious intent”