See my shadow

SpecOps-27 postcard of operative Thursday Next (https://www.jasperfforde.com/)

Jasper Fforde: The Eyre Affair
World Book Night UK 2013
Hodder 2013 (2001)

“Shine out fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.”
— Richard III, Act II Scene 4

Fforde’s first novel, superficially a comic fantasy thriller, is essentially a romp through several literary genres — though at times it’s more like a drive-by shooting than a frolic through the daisies. In fact he’s been described as a postmodernist writer, and postmodernism is an ideal way to regard the few works of his I’ve read.

It’s easy to justify this by considering Fforde’s running joke about Richard III: the monarch is depicted as a slot-machine mannequin dispensing speeches, then there is a pantomime production of Shakespeare’s play in a Swindon theatre; finally, the introductory quote for this review refers to Richard preferring to see the reflection not of his misshapen body but of his sinister shadow.

In fact, all the numerous threads, motifs and plotting — among them a continuing Crimean War, a Welsh Republic, and science fiction trappings like plasma guns, chronological black holes and cloned dodos, plus characters unaware their names are parodies and puns, and unaccountable shifts from first-person to omniscient narrative — are effectively exercises in Ricardian self-reflexivity, ignoring the substance for the shadow; and self-reflexivity is a hallmark of postmodernism.

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Summer reading

I’m coming to the end of one reading focus, the Wyrd and Wonder fantasy blogging event (cohosted by Lisa, Imyril and Jorie) and have been pleased with the material I’ve got through. And so the next focus which I fancy subscribing to is Cathy Brown‘s 20 Books of Summer.

Actually, for this event one is free to go with any number of options and so it is that I’ve aimed to be sensible by choosing just ten titles (though, as Cathy says, one can up this number, change titles, or even admit defeat).

Also, next month is Jazz Age June, a new event set up by Laurie @ Relevant Obscurity and Fanda at ClassicLit. This reading event runs from June 1st to 30th, aiming to explore the 1920s through literature and other arts.

So as we approach the cusp between one month and the next here is my catalogue raisonné of books read and to-be-read, which I offer for your possible delectation and deliberation.

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A wondrous web

Snowfall in the Preseli Hills in West Wales

This review is the final instalment of a series of posts of Jenny Nimmo’s fantasy, all part of an online discussion between Nick Swarbrick and me.


Jenny Nimmo: The Snow Spider (1986)
in The Snow Spider Trilogy
Egmont (2004)

Child Rowland to the dark tower came.
His word was still “Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
King Lear, Act III Scene 4

Such a curious title: can spiders be active and survive in the outside temperatures that allow snow to fall? Of course, being cold-blooded creatures, this isn’t the case, which may be what makes the concept so appealing. Once, however, you can accept the premise that at least one special spider can survive it makes it easier to suspend disbelief about the other things that happen in this story.

This paradox will be the first of many, for Jenny Nimmo’s novel, the first title in a trilogy, is often underrated as a fantasy because there is so much under the surface of the narrative that may not be evident to the casual reader.

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Open and shut case?

L D Lapinski:
The Strangeworlds Travel Agency
Orion Children’s Books 2020

Felicity Hudson may only be twelve, but a family house move from a city to a village, combined with the scary prospect of a new school after the summer, means Flick has to grab chances to explore whenever she can. And what she comes across wandering down a Victorian arcade is a shabby shopfront:

Beside the church, leaning drunkenly into the alleyway, was a tiny, squashed-looking shop with a big bay window [which] looked the same as the other shops on the street: old, unpopular, rather unloved, and as though it might have a bit of a weird smell.

This is the travel agency of the title. And a very odd travel agency it is with, unsurprisingly, a clue in its name. But first of all Flick has to cross the threshold, after which the things will never be the same. Is it fate that has driven her here?

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Calan Gaeaf

Farmhouse in the Preseli Hills

Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider has been the subject of a conversation the inestimable Nick Swarbrick and I have been having on his blog and here over a number of weeks, and now we’re approaching the end with the final two questions we’ve each set ourselves to answer.

Briefly, the novel concerns young Gwyn Griffiths who has been given five gifts for his ninth birthday, four years to the day when his sister Bethan left their Welsh hill farm and disappeared in a snowstorm. The five objects — a mutilated model of a horse, a piece of seaweed, a musical pipe, a scarf, and a broach — exert an ancient magic when ‘offered’ to the wind, put in train by Gwyn’s innate talent inherited from his legendary ancestor Gwydion.

My intention is to end this series of posts with a review before I tackle the remaining two instalments of Nimmo’s trilogy, but for now we’re both looking at the novel’s Welsh contexts in an attempt to appreciate what makes The Snow Spider different from other fantasies written for children.

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Hic et ubique

Moon's far side: NASA Apollo 16
Moon’s far side: NASA Apollo 16

Philip K Dick: Ubik
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2000 (1969)

Caveat emptor!

My worry with Ubik was that, as with the metaphor of the onion from Peer Gynt, I would peel away its several layers to find either that there was nothing in the centre or, worse, that I’d discarded its essence along the way. Even after waiting some while, years in fact, after first reading it — to let its ideas marinate, as it were — I find I’m only a little closer to even a vague understanding of its subject matter.

The confusion partly arises from the way Dick places his characters in a complex plot governed by wandering timelines, resulting in altered realities and alternate pasts and futures. His characters are malleable too, so that while nondescript novels might offer us easily identifiable heroes and villains, Ubik‘s characters can present themselves as morally ambiguous.

One way to approach Dick’s conundrum is to consider his appropriation of Elizabethan texts, particularly Shakespeare, in novels such as Flow My Tears the Policeman Said and Time Out of Joint. Here the title Ubik hints at Hamlet referring to the ubiquity of the Ghost, his father: “Hic et ubique? ” he laughs, ‘here and everywhere’? Hamlet might well prove a possible entry to Dick’s textual labyrinth, but I glimpse other portals too.

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A magical landscape

Foel Cwm Cerwyn, Mynyddoedd y Preseli

Over a few posts Nick Swarbrick and I have been discussing the first instalment of Jenny Nimmo’s Magician Trilogy, The Snow Spider. Nick began with a fine piece entitled Dicter – Anger and a Family in Crisis and I followed with Motifs, emotions and myth. Next I discussed Loss in the novel to which Nick responded with
Need Called Knowledge Out, an analysis concerning young magic-users coming into their powers.

We now come to four questions we set ourselves to answer about the novel’s setting, in culture, landscape and time — we’ll each look at two today on our respective blogs, with the remaining pair given our consideration on another day.

We hope that you will appreciate and respond to our comments, whether or not you’ve read The Snow Spider. And if you haven’t read it yet maybe you’ll be persuaded to by these posts!

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From pathos to bathos

Oakleaf window, Tyntesfield, Bristol

Ransom Riggs:
Tales of the Peculiar
Illustrated by Andrew Davidson
Penguin 2017 (2016)

I really wanted to like this: a handsome book to look at and a pleasure to hold and handle, with extremely classy wood engravings by Andrew Davidson and a series of short stories of ‘peculiar’ people told purportedly in fairytale fashion. I do love convincing fakery in a novel, the kind that allows one to fully suspend one’s disbelief and immerse oneself in an alternative world where unnatural things happen and peculiar people exist.

However, with this instalment of Ransom Riggs’ popular series I found that the things which irritated me about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children were still present, but amplified, and that unfortunately led to me feeling let down and profoundly disappointed as I waded through the eleven pieces and a foreword.

But first, the Prologue, in which I enumerate the many facets which predisposed me to find this tome attractive.

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Weird and wilderness

Sketch map (not to scale) of Rotherweird, based on the text of the first instalment and the cover art of all three books in the trilogy (image © Chris Lovegrove)

Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird (reviewed here) kicks off a fantasy trilogy being published in the UK, with the final volume due to appear in July this year. I’ve previously mentioned my fascination with maps both real and imagined and even suggested that the author, whose distinguished grandfather lived in Sussex and Kent in the far southeast of England, may have based his concept of Rotherweird on the town of Rye in East Sussex. You may remember that Rye boasted many literary associations such as (in alphabetical order) Joan Aiken, E F Benson, Rumer Godden, Radclyffe Hall and Henry James.

Now, I have no idea if Andrew Caldecott visited here, though given its relative proximity on the south coast to London it’s not unlikely, but I believe there are a few clues pointing to Rye faintly being a possible model for the fantasy town.

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The map fantastic

Contemporary sketch map of Rye (17th century?)

Contemporary novels, set in the real world, rarely if ever need a map included in the text. Historical novels occasionally offer one, especially if they show old territories or ancient names for places. Dystopian futures and distant planets do often require them and, ideally, so should fantasies: the more fantastical they are the more we need a cartographic guide, however sketchy, to orientate ourselves.

What happens though when either no map is available or, if one is offered, it’s so sketchy as to be next to useless?

The answer, for people like me, is to make my own from whatever clues are offered in the text, letting logic — and occasionally imagination — fill in the rest.

And that’s what I have been doing recently: tripping the map fantastic, as it were.

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Rather uncanny

Andrew Caldecott: Rotherweird
Illustrated by Sasha Laika
Jo Fletcher Books 2018 (2017)

‘Books reflect interests; interests inform personality and personality decides a course of action.’
— Chapter Six

I feared that this might be my kind of book, which is why I hesitated; and it turns out I was right to fear it. Its labyrinthine plot sucked me in — in a pleasing way — but rather than rush down its myriad pathways I chose to linger over details, ponder clues and savour solutions.

Rotherweird is itself a maze, a Troy Town in which it’s easy to get lost, an elemental island where earth, air, wood, water and fire lurk in uneasy proximity. And where the study of ancient and medieval history is not only discouraged but banned.

As a reader fascinated by history I wondered how its inhabitants would respond to this injunction: what had happened to the natural curiosity that is a basic human instinct? In Rotherweird we discover that it’s there just below the surface of the townsfolk, merely waiting for a catalyst to begin the reaction. Who will it be?

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Summer sizzlers

Courtesy of blogger Cathy Brown of 746Books.com I’m planning to join in the meme of Twenty Books of Summer. All this requires is for me to draw up a list of books to read between the start of June and early September, but with the option of changing titles, the number of books read or, indeed, the period of reading: my kind of challenge in fact, infinitely malleable!

Here now is my chance to tackle and reduce my list of Classics Club titles, to read the Roddy Doyle novel I won in Cathy’s Begorrathon this year, and to finish The Deptford Trilogy for Lory’s Robertson Davies Reading Week.

The theory is that, having completed over thirty titles in the first four months of this year I can at least manage twenty in this coming three-month period, but that would require judicious choices: books that aren’t too long, for example.

So herewith is my initial pick of twenty titles to complete by summer’s end.

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Where no gaps were

Dürer’s Knight (1513). There will have been some changes in armour by the time of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)

Michael Moorcock:
The War Hound and the World’s Pain
New English Library 1983 (1981)

Nicknamed Kriegshund or ‘War Hound’ by his men, Ulrich von Bek is a mercenary captain during the Thirty Years War which devastated Germany at the start of the 17th century. Disgusted by the massacre that occurred after the siege of Magdeburg and appalled by the lawlessness and plague that he witnesses elsewhere, he heads south, alone, to the Thuringian Forest. And it is in this quiet wilderness that he discovers a mysterious castle, which then sets him off on a quest to find a Cure for Der Weltschmerz, the World’s Pain.

The personage who sets him off on this mission is no other than Lucifer. Yes, that Lucifer. It’s what swings The War Hound and the World’s Pain from apparent historical fiction to bona fide fantasy (and not science fiction as the UK paperback claims). But, this being a Moorcock novel, expectations are sure to be confounded.

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Love leaves its mark

Gothic revival Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

J K Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Bloomsbury 1997

What can one say about the first of the Harry Potter books that hasn’t already been said, whether in praise or in some kind of disparaging commentary? I’m not certain whether my two penn’orth here will either enlighten anyone or even excuse or endorse anything already stated, but I offer it here as my modest contribution; in a sense, my purse of secondhand opinions is bottomless.

So: a young orphan, badly treated, visibly different, naturally gifted but full of anger and self-doubt, is bullied, thrust into danger, tested almost beyond his abilities. How is he to cope? The answer, as ever, is social resilience, bolstered by support from the surrogate family that is the school community, from loyal close friends and sympathetic teachers looking out for him. Above all, by the knowledge that he not only is, but was, loved. As Albus Dumbledore says,

“If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign … to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin.”
— Chapter Seventeen

Love, as anyone who has read through the whole Harry Potter series, is the leitmotif that runs through each and every instalment.

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