Wordplay and swordplay

Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

Andrzej Sapkowski: The Last Wish
Ostatnie życzenie (1993),
translated from the Polish by Danusia Stok (2007)
Gollancz 2012

What fun this is to read, and what fun Sapkowski must’ve had writing it! It both pays homage to and takes the mickey out of the swords-and-sorcery genre; it subverts the classic fairytales it plunders while respecting their power and integrity; and it revels in witty dialogue and pithy wordplays only to cut them short with bloody cut-and-thrust swordplay worthy of a movie swashbuckler like Douglas Fairbanks Snr.

This is a prime example of the author accomplishing that seeming paradox, having his cake and eating it. He simultaneously deconstructs so-called High or Epic Fantasy by pointing out its use of problematic clichés and then celebrates them by taking them seriously.

And what a character to have take centre stage: Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher trained to tackle the monsters that threaten the communities of this late medieval world, using weapons-skill and magic, and all in the face of fear and suspicion from those very societies he is trying to save.

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Cardiff BookTalk Le Guin event

Cardiff BookTalk describes itself as “the book group with a difference: we listen to experts on great literature and then explore the big themes from the books in lively conversation.” Recently its members have been exploring science fiction and fantasy genres, including a screening and discussion of the biopic Mary Shelley as part of Cardiff FrankenFest, a contribution to a worldwide Frankenreads initiative.

Earlier this week I managed to attend a special discussion of Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and hope you’ll enjoy the report on the evening that follows, not least because Lizzie Ross and I hosted a Witch Week event which included posts on Le Guin. This year marks not only UKLG’s death in January but also the fiftieth anniversary of the groundbreaking A Wizard of Earthsea, and as a feminist she remains a notable figure in a year that has seen the #MeToo movement take off, plus the centenary of partial women’s suffrage being won in the UK, along with unofficial recognition of 2018 as being the year of the woman. And not before time, as most years irritatingly seem to be dedicated to only half of the world’s population.

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Witch Week Day 7: Ending / Beginning

That wraps up Witch Week 2018, and Lizzie and Chris have so enjoyed hosting this. We couldn’t have done it without the help of everyone who participated:

• Marlyn, of Stuff ‘n’ Nonsense, for her list of Ten Kick-Ass Heroines
Tanya, of Tanya Manning-Yarde, PhD, for her beautiful review of Ursula K Le Guin’s poetry collection, Finding My Elegy
Piotrek and Ola of Re-enchantment of the World, for their discussion of the women in the Witcher stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski
Lory, of Emerald City Book Review, who last year retired her Witch Week broom yet found time to review Madeline Miller’s Circe and participate in our discussion of Le Guin’s The Other Wind
people — too numerous to mention — who added comments and questions; posted pingbacks, links, and reviews on their own blogs; and Tweeted/Facebooked links to our posts

For anyone not yet sated, here are the links for the Emerald City Book Review Master Posts from earlier years:

Witch Week 2017: Dreams of Arthur
Witch Week 2016: Made in America
Witch Week 2015: New Tales from Old
Witch Week 2014: Diana Wynne Jones

Thanks again to all of you for sharing this event with us, and we hope you’ll join us next year, when our theme will be … VILLAINS.

Witch Week Day 6: The Genius of Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin’s fantasy fans will recognize these few lines from The Creation of Éa, Le Guin’s imagined mythology of Earthsea:

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life;
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.

Some of us know that Le Guin wrote poetry before she wrote fiction, but how many of us have read beyond the fragments in her novels? Today, poet and guest blogger Tanya Manning-Yarde tantalizes us with a taste Le Guin’s poetry.

Tanya Manning-Yarde, PhD, is a poet and freelance writer from New York City. A graduate of Rutgers University and University at Albany, she recently worked as a copy editor and contributing writer for Bronze Magazine. She blogs at Tanya Manning-Yarde PhD (Instagram @every_watering_word_author) and is a freelance blogger for the annual Montclair Film Festival in Montclair, NJ.

Prior to pursuing a career as a writer, she was a high school English/Language Arts teacher, Assistant Professor, Instructional Coach, and an educational consultant. Her poems have been published at Literary Mama, Memoryhouse and Random Sample Review. Her first poetry collection, Every Watering Word, was published in 2017 (Wasteland Press).


Ursula K Le Guin’s Finding my Elegy: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is a compelling constellation of poems. Spanning fifty years, this collection chronicles selected early writings to contemporary pieces previously unpublished. Although well known for her science fiction writing, Le Guin was also a prolific poet, demonstrating versatility in verse and dexterity in the topics she pondered. This compilation illustrates Le Guin’s agility; her poetry is unfettered, unobligated, reliant neither on topical boundaries nor compliant with poetic structural apparatuses.

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Witch Week Day 5: Discussion of The Other Wind

THE OTHER WIND Discussion, Witch Week 2018

Lizzie, Lory and Chris approached this discussion of The Other Wind, the read-along book, not as a Q/A session, but rather as responses developing over time and in conversation with each other. Below: the edited version, with sections that match our Feminism+Fantasy theme. For the complete version (17 pages!), click here. And if you’ve read the book please join the conversation in the Comments.

Chapter I. Mending the Green Pitcher

LIZZIE: I’m glad to see Ged play a part in the action – to hear his reference to Tenar as his wife, and watch him only minimally regretful/angry about the loss of his powers.

CHRIS: Time enough for Ged to be better reconciled to his loss of power and status. He derives a quiet joy from mundane tasks and routines, but it is now Alder who is confused by Ged’s acceptance of a massive change of status and refusal to see Lebannen.

LORY: Ged has made a huge journey through the novels. In A Wizard of Earthsea, we meet him as a proud, insecure, sometimes arrogant young man, eager to acquire and display power. He matured into a wiser man who recognized the importance of balance and restraint. Now, having given away his extraordinary powers to restore balance to the world, he recognizes the value of the mundane and ordinary. It’s where all the magic comes from, after all, and what it should serve.

It makes me think about our own world and the power of simple acts: mending, tending, healing, caring. But I still wonder: Why does Ged refuse to meet the King or his fellow wizards? Is it really shame and regret? Or does he simply not fit into their world any more, would he feel too out of place?

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Witch Week Day 4: A Famous Witch

Circe with leopards and a book of spells: J W Waterhouse’s The Sorceress (1911-1915)

Many of you know Lory, of Emerald City Book Review, as the creator of the Witch Week blogging celebration to honor Diana Wynne Jones. Lory announced last year that she was ready to hand over the reins to any interested blogger. We’re lucky (and grateful) that she was willing to be one of our guest bloggers this year.

Lory Widmer Hess shares her reading journey at Emerald City Book Review. Books based on fairy tales and mythology are among her favorite things, along with long walks, knitting, singing, and chocolate. She came up with Witch Week five years ago as a new blogger, and still considers it one of the best ideas ever. For more information about (and images of) the infamous witch of Greek mythology, Lory recommends a read of Madeline Miller’s photo essay.

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Witch Week Day 3: The Women of Witcher

Yennefer and Triss

We’re pleased to include in Witch Week this piece by Piotrek and Ola, authors of the Re-Enchantment of the World blog, here discussing the female characters of the Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. A fuller version of this edited-down post can be read here.

The Women in the world of Witcher

The Witcher! Monster-slaying character from computer games, soon to be made into a Netflix series starring Henry Cavill … but, also, as more and more people in the English-speaking world begin to realise, a book series by Andrzej Sapkowski. Well, actually the books predate games by almost two decades. The Witcher saga, which gave Sapkowski the World Fantasy Award (Lifetime Achievement, 2016) and Gemmell (2009), is finally translated into the language of Shakespeare, so it’s a good time to check it out before the Netflix adaptation.

One of the reasons it’s worth your time – and a good topic to discuss during Witch Week – is a multitude of female characters. Many of them are strong women, active and extremely important for the plot, which is set in a realistic European-medieval fantasy world where gender balance is a bit more equal than in our history, and not only due to the existence of powerful sorceresses. And that is what we want to discuss today, for the general review of the series we invite you to go here. We will try to keep the text spoiler-free, at least in regards to the major events, as our opinions about major characters will be visibly informed by our knowledge of their actions and fate.

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Witch Week Day 2: Sword-for-Hire

Tomorrow, two avid fans of Sapkowski’s Witcher series discuss the women of Witcher, so today Lizzie gives you a quick intro to the books and characters with this review.

Andrzej Sapkowski: The Last Wish: Introducing The Witcher
English translation by Danusia Stok
Orbit Books 2007 (1993)

The Last Wish comprises six short stories, framed by interludes that together constitute a seventh. Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher, offers his services to villages and towns in several principalities of a medieval world. Amphisbaena, basilisk, dragon, striga, vampire – if it’s troubling your district, he’ll get rid of it for you.

The Witcher is bred for battle and then schooled for a life of rescuing the world. Armed with various types of swords and knives, not to mention potions and elixirs, Geralt is nearly invincible. Yet he resents that people think he is a hired killer, “a job that wasn’t in keeping with either honor or the witcher’s code.” He also sees the irony of his work: the more successful he is, the fewer monsters there will be to kill.

Yet these stories focus more on Geralt’s clashes with women than with monsters: sorceresses, queens, rebels –- all as skilled as men in battle or politics or both, all enraged enough to frighten whomever they challenge. Having been betrayed, they’re quick to betray another’s trust. A negotiated peace is often a feint; a shared secret the key to power over an opponent.
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Witch Week Day 1: Ten Kick-Ass Heroines


We’re excited to have this guest post from Marlyn Beebe, a west-coast (USA) librarian with Canadian roots. We thought a librarian would know of some fantasy books that would be new to us, and she did. With her permission, we’ve added two books to her suggestions, to make this a perfect Top-Ten list. Interesting side-note: these are all first books in series. No doubt about it, readers love a good series.

Marlyn grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where she graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in Library and Information Studies. Not being a fan of frozen water falling from the sky, she now lives in Southern California with her husband, Tod, and their cat, Puck. She works part-time at multiple libraries and spends the rest of her time reading, reviewing, blogging, and watching hockey games. Marlyn reviews books for School Library Journal, as well as for her blog Stuff and Nonsense. Head over to her blog to see what else she enjoys reading.

About her list, Marlyn writes:

I’ve always loved literature about strong women, whether realistic or speculative fiction, historical or contemporary. By the time the books below were published (yes, even the ones from the last century!), I was already an adult, and wished passionately that I could have experienced them as a child or teen. I’m grateful that these books, and so many more like them, are available for me to share with today’s young people!

Just to make things interesting, we (Lizzie, Chris and Marlyn) have added a tiny spin to this list. Way back in 2009, The Alan Review published “Dragon-Slayer vs Dragon-Sayer”, an article analyzing female fantasy protagonists.¹ The authors argue that when fantasy writers give their female protagonists active roles (as opposed to waiting to be rescued by and then married to the hero), the characters tend to take one of two roles: Dragon-Slayer (basically the heroine acts just like a hero, using a sword to “overpower and conquer” villains) or Dragon-Sayer (the heroine uses feminine skills to nurture and take care of the villains’ needs, thereby de-fanging the villain). Marlyn, Lizzie and Chris have identified where we think all but two of the heroines fall within this (imperfect) dichotomy. If you disagree, let us know! And if you can decide about the two we didn’t identify, let us know that as well.

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Witch Week Master Post

… Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen…

— from Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

Welcome to the fifth annual Witch Week, an opportunity to celebrate our favourite fantasy books and authors. The inestimable Lory of Emerald City Book Review initiated this in 2014, inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’ book called, naturally, Witch Week. This is a fantasy set between Halloween and November 5th, Bonfire Night, marking the day in 1604 when Guy Fawkes was caught preparing to blow up Parliament.

Lizzie Ross and I have volunteered to co-host the event this year, and therefore posts will be appearing on both our sites; you may comment on either or both blogs. This year we’re focusing on Feminism+Fantasy, in honour of the late Ursula K Le Guin, and we hope you might feel inspired to join in by linking up your own posts about books related to this theme.

The goddesses of publishing have joined the celebration, for The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition (Saga Press 2018, illustrations by Charles Vess) goes on sale today in the US; it was October 25th in the UK. We both may need to replace our well-worn 1980s Earthsea paperbacks; Lizzie’s rewarding herself with a visit to her nearest bookstore to grab a copy before they disappear.

You may also wish to join in the readalong of Le Guin’s final Earthsea novel The Other Wind; or comment on posts in response to points raised; or simply enjoy the reviews and posts.

Here’s what we’ve planned:

Wednesday October 31st, Day 1: Top Ten Kick-Ass Heroines by Marlyn Beebe
Thursday November 1st, Day 2: Sword-for-hire by Lizzie Ross
Friday November 2nd, Day 3: The Women of Witcher by Piotrek and Ola
Saturday November 3rd, Day 4: A Famous Witch by Lory Widmer Hess
Sunday November 4th, Day 5: discussion of Ursula Le Guin’s The Other Wind
Monday November 5th, Day 6: The Genius of Ursula K Le Guin by Tanya Manning-Yarde
Tuesday November 6th, Day 7: Wrap-up and looking ahead to next year

Do please add your comments below and any links to your reviews on this theme — we’d very much like to see what you’ve all been reading — and feel free to respond to guest posts. However you participate, we hope you enjoy the week as much as we have putting it together!

A week to go to Witch Week

One week from today, Lizzie Ross and I will be hosting Witch Week, a celebration of fantasy fiction and feminism. If you haven’t already, do look back at my announcement post or at Lizzie’s post here. Then come back here and/or to Lizzie’s blog on October 30 for a preview, a schedule, a readalong and more before the fun really starts on Halloween, continuing until Bonfire Night on November 5th, followed by a wrap-up post. Do join us!

Incidentally, the Witch Week 2018 logo features a detail from The Little Foot Page (1905), a painting by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. This shows Burd Helen, a tragic Scottish heroine who dressed as a page boy to follow her cruel lover barefoot while he rode on horseback. The painting shows her dressing as a boy and cutting her long hair. (After this painting was exhibited we’re told that female art students started cutting their hair in page boy style, possibly inspired by this image.)

An old Scottish ballad in Francis James Child’s 19th-century collection gives a flavour of her awful treatment by the lover who’d made her pregnant.

‘And ever I pray you, Child Waters,
Your foot page let me be!’

‘If you will my foot page be, Ellen,
As you do tell it me,
Then you must cut your gown of green
An inch above your knee.

‘So must you do your yellow locks,
Another inch above your eye;
You must tell no man what is my name;
My foot page then you shall be.’

All this long day Child Waters rode,
She ran barefoot by his side;
Yet was he never so courteous a knight
To say, Ellen, will you ride?

But all this day Child Waters rode,
She ran barefoot through the broom;
Yet he was never so courteous a knight
As to say, Put on your shoon.

When feminism combines with fantasy, female characters are more likely to ride, and to wear shoes — as we’ll learn during Witch Week. Past conventions required women to sacrifice quite a bit — the fates of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and other heroines — exactly what Le Guin was fighting against in her re-visioning of Earthsea and as we hope to explore further!

Touching base

Crickhowell Literary Festival (http://cricklitfest.co.uk) 2018

Just touching base (and touching bass too, as it were) after a busy week of books and music has meant fewer blog posts than usual here.

As you can see from the header photo Crickhowell in southeast Wales has just had its fourth literary festival over the last week and a bit, and I’ve been involved stewarding a few of the events. These included authors as diverse as comic fantasy writer Jasper Fforde, debut novelist Katy Mahood (whom I used to teach music in Bristol) and stand-up comedian and broadcaster Robin Ince, as well as subjects ranging from Frankenstein to dry-stone walling and poetry featuring historic characters associated with a short stretch of our local canal.

I’ve also sung in an ensemble which took part in Open Day events marking the re-opening of a 15th-century Welsh farmhouse, singing medieval songs, madrigals and commissioned choral pieces within an ambient soundscape. Refined techniques involving dendrochronology established that Llwyn Celyn‘s framework came from trees first felled in 1420, with significant additions documented around 1690; the last owners only vacated the property recently so the range of music reflected its long history. The choral singing combined with homemade instruments and the ambient sounds of sheep, birds retiring for the night and high-flying aircraft to echo round the valleys in the Black Mountains of the Welsh borders as dusk fell.

Llwyn Celyn’s medieval farmhouse
Visitors to Llwyn Celyn

Other literary matters haven’t been neglected though. I’ve completed some books which are awaiting reviews — these include Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Gail Honeyman’s bestseller Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — and, in concert with Lizzie Ross, I’ve been helping prepare for this year’s Witch Week which this year has Feminism+Fantasy as it’s theme: look out for at least one more advance notice in the days to come!

Something witchy this way comes

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series is like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one of those secondary worlds that I’ve found I’ve needed to revisit every so often. I’m not the only one, I know, that — however familiar the outline plots — discovers something new each time I step into those universes, whether it’s an insight, a revelation or an emotion.

With the imminent arrival of Witch Week 2018, its theme this year of Fantasy+Feminism and focus on Ursula Le Guin (further details here and here, and also here), I’ve been re-immersing myself in Earthsea as I originally promised myself in a mini-review back in 2015.

Lizzie Ross and I will be co-hosting Witch Week (30 October to 06 November), with a week of posts celebrating the fantasy genre and Diana Wynne Jones.
We’ve lined up some exciting posts from guest bloggers, including a Top-Ten list of fantasy heroines, and a discussion of a Polish fantasy series.
AND don’t forget our readalong: Le Guin’s The Other Wind, the final book of her Earthsea series.

Continue reading “Something witchy this way comes”

Witch Week 2018 is coming…

Ursula Le Guin

Fellow blogger and author Lizzie Ross and I are co-hosting Witch Week 2018. This is a yearly event, first aired on Lory Hess‘s Emerald City Book Review, named after the third book of the same name in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series.

The week runs from 30th October to 6th November, so it includes two great holidays: Halloween AND Guy Fawkes’ Day. The first is now mostly associated with witches and spooky goings-on, of course, while the second, commemorating the uncovering of a plot to blow up Parliament and King James, is an excuse to celebrate with bonfires and fireworks in the UK.

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.

This year, our theme is Feminism + Fantasy, so our read-along book will be Ursula K Le Guin‘s The Other Wind, the final book in the Earthsea series. You have plenty of time to get a copy and read it (perhaps the rest of the series as well) before 30 October. Then join the conversation as we discuss what happens when Le Guin throws a feminist dynamic into the fantastic world of Earthsea.

We’ll have guest bloggers, including this event’s originator and previous host, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, and other features to be finalised and announced as we get closer to the event. We do hope you’ll join in!