Wild magic waiting

© C A Lovegrove

Harklights by Tim Tilley.
Usborne Publishing 2021.

A match factory which masquerades as an orphanage. A manikin which it emerges was once alive. A monster which in reality mayn’t be alive. Butterflies which aren’t insects. A boy who doubts he has what it takes to put things right. It’s all here in Harklights, a debut novel from the first ever winner of the Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize, set in a vaguely Victorian world with elements of fantasy and steampunk.

I’m not usually a fan of long narratives told in the present tense but here I think it works well: Wick’s first person tale gives both a sense of urgency and also uncertainty, just as youngsters’ accounts often are, and while the reader may guess at some of the things Wick puzzles over nothing is truly known until all is revealed.

While our focus is on the narrator’s hopes and fears, behind them all is a tale of despoilation, exploitation and cruelty fully relevant in our contemporary world which will resonate even with the most innocent young reader.

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A thing more necessary

The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald.
Illustrated by Arthur Hughes.
Puffin Books 1996 (1872)

‘We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.’

‘What is that, grandmother?’

‘To understand other people.’

Chapter 22, The Old Lady and Curdie.

There are many key-notes in this most famous of literary fairytales but the one that impresses me most strongly after reading it is that of empathy. It’s not really a moral precept, more an ability to imagine oneself in somebody else’s place, particularly on an emotional or compassionate level.

To some such empathy comes naturally, though for Princess Irene and for her friend Curdie a reminder by way of an unfortunate sequence of events is sometimes required to reinforce a predisposition; but the goblins in this tale find empathy an elusive concept, with the almost inevitable consequences.

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Meddling in Nature’s domain

Robert Holdstock: The Fetch,
Time Warner Paperbacks 1992

Adopted boy gains |
gift of fetching gifts; travels |
through time and space too.

The Fetch (the US title, Unknown Regions, is taken from a subtitle of Holdstock’s Lavondyss) revisits one of Holdstock’s favourite tropes, the wood as gateway to other times, places and parallel worlds (as in the Mythago Wood series) but on this occasion the tale is set within the undergrowth which has grown up in a disused chalk quarry on the English south coast.

The action revolves around the boy Michael, adopted by a middle-class professional couple, who brings with him a maelstrom of psychic activity, changing their lives forever.

Holdstock’s starting point is the three meanings of ‘fetch’ (the act of retrieving, a spirit or doppelgänger, and a dialect word meaning ‘fetish’) which he interweaves into a narrative that also draws in archaeology, folklore, ritual, ESP, scientific ethics and a dysfunctional family.

As with many Holdstock stories there is a sense of escalating claustrophobia and menace, unleavened by any humour but told with a profound love of words, sense of place and concern over human meddling in Nature’s domain.

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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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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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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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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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An archipelago of stories

Smoke drifting across a copse

Ursula Le Guin: Tales from Earthsea
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

A story may be pieced together from such scraps and fragments, and though it will be an airy quilt, half made of hearsay and half of guesswork, yet it may be true enough.
— From ‘The Finder’

In the middle of Earthsea, nestled within the vast island archipelago, is the Inmost Sea. In the centre of that sea is the island of Roke. And on that island is the Immanent Grove, by the eminence that is Roke Knoll. And above all, the sky. Earth, water, wood and air: elements that we meet time and again in Tales from Earthsea and, indeed, in the whole saga. And to those we should also add fire.

Ursula Le Guin’s five Earthsea novels, expanded from the original trilogy to a quartet and then, three decades on, to a pentad, have felt at times like the saga of Duny, later called Sparrowhawk but now known as Ged. True, it drew in other participants — Tenar, Lebannen and Tehanu, for example — but principally we have followed Ged from boyhood to Archmage and on to old age.

We will have always known however that there were — that there will have to have been — other stories to tell, and in this collection we are offered five of them, along with an essay giving us some of the who, what, when and where of this magical world. And I mean ‘magical’ in all the senses of this word.

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Fantasy subgenres

April is proving to be a Month of Random Reading. Which is good, I think. Especially as May will be a month of fantasy reads under the Wyrd & Wonder banner.

There are eight fantasy subgenres offered for consideration, and in this anticipatory post I shall be looking at them in a little more detail, seeing what I’ve already read that falls in each category (links are to my reviews or discussions) and ruminating on what I might choose to read in the merry month of May. Though I may change my mind at the last moment.

It’s possible I shall read one example of each subgenre in the space of four weeks, perfectly achievable at the rate of two a week, but I’m making no promises!

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