Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

‘If David Mitchell isn’t the most talented novelist of his generation, is there any doubt that he is the most multi-talented?’ This is one critic’s assessment, and I can only agree with it. David Mitchell is one of the best prose writers I have ever read. He’s pitch perfect whatever voice he is using. I wondered in my earlier review of his Cloud Atlas (2004) whether he was anything more than a very clever mimic. But reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) – reviewed here – convinced me that he actually has that rare ability to make all the voices the novelist uses sound utterly authentic.  This capacity is again on show in The Bone Clocks (2014). And while I thought the convoluted structure of Cloud Atlas might be a bit over-clever, I accept that the episodic structure of Bone Clocks works perfectly. I really am a convert!

But aside from how he writes, I still have some hesitation about some of what he writes about. The book consists of six sections – almost short stories – set over a period beginning in 1984 and ending in 2043. The first and the last concern Holly Sykes; the other four have different narrators, though Holly is in all of them, and several other characters recur. And although each is completely different in time, tone and content, there is another aspect linking them all which I’ll come to in a moment; it is this aspect I’m not entirely comfortable with.

In 1984, Holly is a teenager completely smitten with slightly older man. She fights with her mother over it and runs away to live with him, only to find his declarations of love are false; she keeps on running – or rather walking. Over the next couple of days she has some strange experiences but returns home after hearing that her younger brother is missing. In 1991, Hugo Lamb, a postgraduate student at Oxford, is clever and charming. But it soon becomes clear that he is an also accomplished con man. On a visit to Switzerland for the skiing he meets Holly Sykes. Can she redeem him? In 2004, Ed Brubeck is a foreign correspondent just back from Iraq to attend the wedding of Holly’s sister; he is Holly’s partner and they have a daughter, Aoife. He denies being a war junkie, but he can’t get what he’s seen in Iraq out of his head. The next section covers the years 2015-19 in the life of an aging novelist named Crispin Hershey. He at first despises Holly, who has written an unusual and popular book, but comes to love her. In 2025 Iris Fenby is a psychiatrist, but I can’t summarise this section without giving away much else in the book. And then in 2043, Holly is an old woman living in the west of Ireland with her granddaughter and a Moroccan refugee she has adopted. It is the time of the Endarkenment. The economy, electronic communications and transport are breaking down. Her small community is threatened by the meltdown of a nuclear power plant, and civil order is collapsing. She and the children live precariously on what she can grow or barter. This is the section of the book that stays most in my mind, though it could be seen as a coda to the action. Its power derives from the sense that this is what the future will be if we continue to destroy the environment and fail to take steps to curb the growing inequality of wealth across the world. But there is fine writing in all of the sections, mixing grim reality with psychological insight and even a bit of humour.

But there is something else altogether going on in this book. In each section, but particularly in the fifth one, there is a perpetual war being waged between tiny groups of Atemporals, the Horologists, and Anchorites, the former being entities that can enter people’s minds, and who enjoy a form of immortality through transference to new bodies, the latter being humans that are able to defer death, though only through taking another human’s life. (I’ve oversimplified that a bit, but then these entities are oversimplified into good v evil.) In addition, a few people have the gift of precognition. Humans, being mortal, are ‘bone clocks.’

At times Mitchell appears to make fun of both himself and the idea of magic powers. Hugo Lamb for example says that ‘the paranormal is always, always a hoax.’ ‘The mind-walking theory’ is only plausible ‘if you live in a fantasy novel’ – which of course he does. A critic in the story says of Crispin Hershey’s novel that ‘the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s state of the wold pretentions, I cannot bear to look.’ And critics have said much the same about this book. But other less compromised characters defend the idea. Holly says ‘Beware of asking people to question what’s real and what isn’t. They may reach conclusions you didn’t see coming.’ And another character says that some magic is ‘normality you’re not yet used to’. So I guess Mitchell at least wants readers to take the paranormal elements of the book seriously. And this is a problem for me, not so much in accepting what I perceive as fantasy – there are many great fantasy stories, not least two of my all-time favourites Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials – but because of the mixture of fantasy and reality. As one critic put it, ‘The fantastical elements can … appear overblown and absurd when placed against some of the beautifully realised human moments.’

There is a lot more complexity to this book than I have covered here, and I haven’t even begun to comment on the way that some characters, and major themes like the precariousness of civilisation, appear in most if not all of Mitchell’s books; all Mitchell’s novels form a unified, if extraordinarily complex, whole, an ‘uber novel’. You can read more assessments of his work, as well as the place of The Bone Clocks in it, in two great reviews, one from the Sydney Review of Books (from which the quote above comes), and one from the Atlantic Monthly, entitled ‘David Mitchell’s Almost-Perfect Masterpiece’. And this one, from which the quote which opens this post comes, even has a connection guide. And here’s another one, where Mitchell discussed The Bone Clocks.

Overall, despite any reservations, The Bone Clocks is a rewarding, challenging – if at times frustrating – and memorable novel. I highly recommend it.

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Neal Stephenson first made his mark as a writer of cyberpunk stories – a sub-genre of science fiction, set in ‘generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body’ – his best known novel of this genre being The Diamond Age (1995). But his books are incredibly diverse, as you can see from the ones I’ve reviewed before – Cryptonomicon (1999), the three volume Baroque Cycle (2003, 2004, 2004) Anathem (2008) and Reamde (2011). Of these, Anathem could probably be classified as science fiction – though of a highly philosophical kind – but the others are really adventure stories, with sometimes what Stephenson calls a ‘science fiction mind set’. Seveneves (2015) is pure science fiction – that is, an adventure story set in space. I’ve given up on the distinctions between sci fi and specualtive fiction; I just don’t know enough science to say whether, to use Margaret Atwood’s definition of speculative fiction, this book is an extension of something already underway (apart from the moon blowing up) or pure imagination which takes science beyond current knowledge.

It certainly has one of the best opening sentences I’ve read: ‘The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.’ (It joins Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers: ‘It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me’, and Michael Cox, The Meaning of Night, ‘After killing the red haired man I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.’) At first the destruction of the moon seems merely a curiosity, but it only takes scientists a week or so to work out that it is actually an absolute disaster; the fragments of the moon will continue to disintegrate and will fall into the earth’s atmosphere, resulting not only in a destructive rain of meteorites, but in a dust cloud that will destroy the atmosphere and consequently all life on earth. They calculate that there are two years left before this happens. The only hope for a human future seems to lie in augmenting the numbers and resources – both physical and genetic – in an existing space station. The first section of the book concerns this effort. The second section traces what happens in space after the destruction of life on Earth, and the third section jumps five thousand years forward to the society that has evolved in space, and its attempt to reconstruct a ‘new’ Earth.

Like other of Stephenson’s books, this is an adventure story, or rather two adventure stories, since the third section explores necessarily different circumstances with different characters from those in the first two sections. But unlike other of his books it is pure science fiction (see, I’ve given up on the distinction) because it is about life in space and all the technology involved in space travel and survival. In addition to what might be a sufficiently challenging tale in terms of the continued existence of the human race, there is also a story of betrayal that shapes the future in a sort of ‘garden of Eden’ way. There is a matching betrayal in the third section.

Reading the first section, I found the whole idea that life on Earth had only two more years to run very scary. Stephenson, however, isn’t really much concerned about this. There is international agreement that all possible resources should be directed towards augmenting the space station, and only events that get in the way of this are much discussed. There’s some black humour about the imminent destruction – like noting that the bottom fell out of the home improvement market, and the stock exchange collapsed – but there’s little about how societies organised themselves to face annihilation. I realise that’s a different book by a different author, but I still found myself obsessing about it. There are also some broad hints about the possible survival of a couple of other groups: these are associated with characters on the space station, which is quite unrealistic, but the only way Stephenson could introduce them into a story focused on space.

I’ve said in previous posts on other of Stephenson’s books that I like the way he writes. I still do, but I’m not sure I’m so fully engaged this time. I’ve also said that he writes at such length as to be self-indulgent, and he does it here too. A lot of the detail concerns what happens in space flight, and while this is obviously important, does it have to go on at such length? Do I really need to know about zero-gravity plumbing? Delta vee? Orbital mechanics? Certainly I need to understand the problems the characters face, and the technical ones are linked to the ones Stephenson introduces as arising from human nature. But I got lost in it. I’m simply not as interested in space as he is. Furthermore, I found the conclusion surprisingly sketchy, given how much detail went before.

Being so ignorant about all this stuff, I can’t give proper credit to what is almost certainly an enormous feat of imagination. Clearly the scenario five thousand years later is pretty much all made up, extrapolating only to a minor degree from the known. There are some illustrations of what some of it looks like, which I appreciated, though since I read this on an old Kindle, they only appeared at the end. Some reviewers have also been critical of a decision Stephenson has made about the nature of his distant future characters, but I won’t spoil the story by saying what it is. It grows logically out of the plot, but I wasn’t totally convinced by some of it.

So overall, not quite the glowing endorsement I’ve given to other of Stephenson’s books. But then my level of interest in space travel can be gaged by the fact that I’ve never even seen Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica (and no doubt missed references to both). If you’re a science fiction fan, you may well like it. And Stephenson fans are happy to read whatever he writes. You can find more about him and his work here.  The web-site has technical drawings and other goodies for those so inclined. I’ll certainly read whatever he writes next.

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In my last post on Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, I was wondering about the differences between science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy. This book falls squarely into the fantasy category, exhibiting what I think could be considered its defining characteristics: an imagined society where some element of magic, or paranormal power, is at work in everyday life.

Though by no means Robin Hobb’s first book, this is the first she wrote under that name, and published in 1995, is the first in the Farseer Trilogy. Since then, much of her extensive further writing has been set in the ‘Realm of the Elderlings’ which she first created in this book, with many of the same characters, including the hero of this one.  Fitz is the illegitimate son of Chivalry, a prince of the house of Farseer, rulers of the Six Duchies. This is a realm somewhere in the North, a bit reminiscent perhaps of Scotland, or Alaska, where Hobb lived for a time (and may still live). The society is quasi mediaeval, with a ruler, nobles and commoners, built around trade and crafts, but with an emphasis on defence against the Outislanders known as the Red-Ship Raiders. The ‘Elderlings’ are little discussed in this book, but seem to occupy a space above humans but below gods – some kind of mythic ancestors.

The story is about Fitz’s coming of age. It is a first person account, told from the perspective of a much older, more damaged Fitz – I was reminded of Merlin, though Fitz is not precisely a wizard. At the age of six he is left at a castle by his grandfather, who no longer wants to be responsible for Prince Chivalry’s bastard. From there he moves to the court of King Shrewd, where he begins his training – as an assassin – which seems to be a conventional – if secret – role in this society. Fitz is to learn ‘the fine art of diplomatic assassination’, or in other words, ‘the nasty, furtive, polite ways to kill people’. This training has nothing to do with the two sorts of paranormal power that exist in this society. Fitz clearly has the first – known as ‘the Wit’, an ancient and now discredited form of telepathy with animals. Such communication is an enormous comfort to a lonely boy, but is dangerous because the mind of the person exercising it can become one with the animal. The second power is ‘the Skill’. Skilling is a process whereby people can transfer thoughts. This capacity is usually inherited, but can be acquired by training, and the skilled practitioner can get inside anyone’s head, given the right conditions. (Think occlumency in Harry Potter.) Fitz clearly has some power of mind, but is it the Skill, and can he be taught to use it?

Hobb is a very good story teller and the tale of Fitz’s attempt to find a place in the world is interesting in itself. The court is full of intrigue; Fitz finds he has powerful enemies and few friends, and he faces the psychological dangers of loneliness and depression as well as physical ones. The Six Duchies are troubled by the Red Raiders, particularly after they have found a way to draw the humanity out of those they capture in their raids. Stripped of what makes them human, these people are left to terrorise the countryside. Then there are court politics, and Fitz’s role in them, making for a surprisingly exciting story. Why surprising? I guess it’s partly a dissonance between the rather courtly language and the level of ruthlessness and violence. It’s not exactly Game of Thrones, but it’s a bit closer than I expected it to be.

I’m sure Hobb wrote this book with the intention of making it the first in a series, and that may account for all the loose ends – they will be taken up in later books. The main loose end I was concerned about was the nature of the dehumanising power of the Red Raiders, which isn’t addressed at all until near the end of the book, and then inconclusively. I found the power of bonding with animals was well handled, but can see the potential, only just avoided, for sentimentality. Who can resist being friends with a puppy?

One measure of the success or otherwise of the first book of a trilogy is whether the reader wants to go on to the second one. I think I will, but not for a while. Hobb is considered one of the best fantasy writers around, and her achievement can only be assessed if the scope of her work is taken into account.

You can read more about Robin Hobb – born Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden – here. She initially published under the name Megan Lindholm, and these books seem to be more science fiction than fantasy. However since 1995, under the Robin Hobb pseudonym, she seems to have stuck exclusively to fantasy. But I noticed that she was Guest of Honour at a recent World Science Fiction Convention; maybe I should just give up on the distinctions.

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I might as well say straight up that I’m not suggesting that anyone else reads this. After a discussion with friends about what constitutes science fiction, as opposed to speculative fiction and to fantasy fiction, I remembered A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). It was one of the first of what I then called ‘science fiction’ stories that I had read, and, I thought, an impressive one. So I read it again. And it is impressive. It’s also a heavily Roman Catholic treatise on original sin. What was I thinking? And the re-reading didn’t really help with the science/speculative/fantasy fiction distinction either.

The book is in three sections. It is set somewhere that is just recognisable as North America in 3000 and something, the second section coming some hundreds of years after the first, and the third more hundreds after the second. In the first section, the world is barely surviving after a nuclear holocaust sometime in the past, the great ‘simplification’ that followed it – ie a purge of scientists and intellectuals – and the destruction of all but the most basic technology. An abbey in the desert founded by Father Leibowitz, a former technician, has a mission to preserve and propagate what little scientific knowledge remains; it has a meagre store of scraps of unrelated technical information, blueprints and manuals that no one now understands. An apparently chance meeting with a pilgrim leads Brother Francis to a buried fallout shelter, where further documents are found. Will this help or hinder the case for the canonisation of Leibowitz?

In the second section, small independent waring states have emerged, with a vestige of civil society. There are now a few secular scholars, and one of them wants to examine the memorabilia held in the abbey. Thon – a title a bit like Dr – Taddeo is a brilliant young natural philosopher. The abbey’s mission has been the preservation of literacy and learning. What possible danger could there be in his examining the abbey’s holdings? Taddeo says that he seeks ‘truth’, but he clearly represents technology designed to serve the power of the secular state. We get a hint of the incompatibility of church and state beliefs, more strongly developed later, when Taddeo looks at a peasant and sees a man who is ‘illiterate, superstitious, murderous.’ The cleric with him sees the ‘image of Christ’. Back at the abbey, the monks have deduced the idea of electricity from the fragments of information they hold, and have built a dynamo; they are apparently not opposed to technology as such. But for them, secular might and power count as nothing in the face of religious truth. The abbot welcomes Taddeo to the abbey, hoping a bridge can be built between the secular and the religious vision of knowledge. But is this possible?

In the third section, major powers have arisen capable of space travel, and again armed with nuclear weapons, this time located in space. But surely they have learnt the lessons of the past?

For all that the subject matter of this book is grim, Miller mostly writes with a light, even humorous touch. Readers are invited to smile at the superstitions of the monks, and to sympathise with the dilemmas of the abbots. We are given both sides of the debate, as in the rightness or otherwise of euthanasia in the third section. But the secular view is never allowed to win and underneath, there is a hard line Roman Catholicism at work. The themes of the rise of technology, the meaning of Christianity and the lust for secular power – the result of unrestrained original sin – tie the sections together. The mysterious pilgrim also plays a part in all three sections.

The book needs to be read in the context of Miller’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in the late 1940s and the ramping up of the Cold War in the 1950s. His war service also left him traumatised, particularly his part in bombing the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, as a result of which he embraced pacifism. The possibility of nuclear annihilation now seems less urgent than other threats to the world and its environment, but in the 1950s the crazy danger of the MAD policy – Mutually Assured Destruction – practised by both the Soviet Union and the West was a daily threat. Talk of fallout shelters and how they could be used was commonplace. Miller’s diatribe against the horrors of nuclear war may appear a bit over the top now, but would have seemed perfectly rational when the book was written, and when I first read it.

So is this science fiction? As I’ve noted before, Margaret Atwood makes a distinction between science fiction and speculative fiction where the latter is an extension of existing technical capabilities taken to their logical extreme. This leaves ‘science fiction’ as fiction dealing with wholly imagined physics and/or technologies. But what might have been only imagined in 1959, like the possibility of wholesale space travel, is merely ‘speculative’ now. (The Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, so it wasn’t entirely ‘new’, even then.) And where does the ‘dystopian’ label come in? I think perhaps that labels aren’t much use after all, and certainly not in books like this where the genres meet.

You can read a little more about Walter Miller here.

PS. Comparisons are probably as futile as labels, but I can’t help myself. Where else do we find monastic communities preserving learning after ‘sackings’ (read simplifications), while secular societies rise and fall around them? These same elements, and others I won’t give away, also appear in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (2008) – reviewed here. I’d love to know whether Stephenson ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz.

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OK, it’s a young adult book. But it’s holiday time, and I can be forgiven for a fun and easy read. Which is what Percy Jackson and the Olympians, subtitled The Lightning Thief (2005) is. It’s also the first of a series of five Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, which have further morphed into a related series called The Heroes of Olympus, the whole oeuvre being entitled the Camp Half-Blood Chronicles. To say nothing of two films, and over three million Facebook likes. (To put this into perspective, Harry Potter, with whom Percy Jackson is inevitably compared, has over seven and a half million.)

The Olympians are not athletes. They are gods. Riordan is playing with the idea that the old Greek gods, and their entourage of heroes, satyrs, naiads, dryads and assorted monsters never disappeared, and have on occasion, taken a hand in human history –(eg Prohibition was a punishment imposed by Zeus on Dionysus). Early in the story, which is set in present day New York, Percy – short for Perseus – finds out that he is the son of a god – though he doesn’t initially know which one. He is sent on a quest to find Zeus’s ‘master bolt’ – the symbol of his power – which has been stolen. He is helped by Annabeth, another half-god, a daughter of Athena, and Grover, a satyr who hides his hairy hind quarters and hoofs under baggy jeans and sneakers. Together, they have a series of adventures, some of which resemble those of Perseus, some call Hercules to mind, and one even seems to come from The Odyssey.

You can read this book – and I’m sure that this is the case for most of the young adults who read it – without any knowledge of Greek mythology. Riordan has published a sort of handbook on this mythology – Percy’s personal take on the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece – called Percy Jackson’s Book of Greek Gods (2014), but this is for fans, not novices. This book can be read simply as a coming of age story of a boy capable of magic in some form – as in stories by authors as various as Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, Lev Grossman or Alison Croggon to name but a few. And as in most of these coming of age stories, Percy has to learn how to use his magic gifts.  As one blogger puts it, it’s about ‘what it is like to come to grips with the utterly fantastical and impossible in what was previously a very ordinary life; about how it feels to have destiny thrust upon you, and how one goes about making that destiny for oneself.’

Alternatively, you can enjoy picking up the references to the feats of the mythological Heroes. If you’re like me, and read all that stuff too many years ago to really remember it clearly, half-remembering can be a bit annoying, but there’s always Wikipedia, or Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls (1853) by Nathaniel Hawthorne, available from the Guttenberg Project. It’s a clever device by Riordan to call upon an ‘existing’ source of magic power, rather than have to make one up, and the associations do make it more fun. Percy’s god relatives wrangle among themselves like the gods of old; they are jealous, capricious and proud. As Percy says of the gods of old: ‘If you like horror shows, blood baths, lying, stealing, backstabbing, and cannibalism … it definitely was a Golden Age for all that ’ – and it still is.

One criticism of the book is that it has rather too much in common with other stories about magic, particularly the Harry Potter books. Harry Potter has Hogwarts, Percy Jackson has Camp Half Blood. Harry has Hermione, Percy has Annabeth. In both, the magic world exists alongside the ordinary one, but cannot be seen by normal humans. Percy’s magical sword only works on monsters, but disasters caused by magic can harm ordinary humans and have to be explained away– think of the destruction the death eaters cause in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And so on. But it’s probably sufficiently different, particularly in its American setting, with its gods rather than wizards, and different adventures, to appeal to a similar market.

Riordan seems to mass produce Percy and the various other spinoff series, and it shows in his episodic plotting and rather stereotyped characterisation. It’s all a bit too easy for Percy, and he can be annoyingly ignorant and brash. But some of the imagery of the underworld, and the role of the Harpies there, are good. They resonate for me not with scenes from Harry Potter, but with Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass (2000), where Will and Lyra descend to the underworld. Pullman’s book – the third in the trilogy His Dark Materials – is a much more polished and literary work than Riordan’s Percy series ever tries to be. But in this section, the books bear comparison.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning, this is holiday reading, and perhaps something to tempt the children or grandchildren with, once they’ve finished with Harry Potter.

You can read more about Rick Riordan here.

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It’s purely by chance that I’m reviewing yet another book about magic (see The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago). I don’t have a particular interest in magic – far from it. In fact I feel rather like the reviewer of The Night Circus (2011) in the Guardian who, being ‘resistant to historical fiction … hostile to whimsy, and beyond impatient with the fantastical’, might have been expected to hate it, only to find it enchanting. Because I enjoyed it too.

Set in the 1880s through to the early twentieth century, The Night Circus is about the competition between two magicians to establish which of their magical techniques is superior. Their rivalry is of long standing, and takes the form of periodic ‘challenges’ in which their students compete. This time one of the magicians, Henry Bowen (aka Prospero the Enchanter), pits his young daughter Celia against Marco, an orphan chosen and trained by the other magician, known only as Alexander, or Mr A. H-. Celia and Marco know there is a game, but do not initially know that they are competitors, or how the outcome will be decided. The venue for the game is to be a production organised by a wealthy theatrical entrepreneur, Chandresh Lefèvre, and that production is the Night Circus – sometimes known as Le Cirque des Rêves.

The circus simply appears in various far-flung locations. It is open from dusk to dawn. It contains some apparently conventional circus acts, such as a contortionist, trapeze artists (who work without a net) and a fortune teller, but there aren’t any clowns and very few performing animals. Instead, there things like a hall of mirrors, an ice garden, a wishing tree and a cloud maze. Patrons have a ‘magical’ experience, in the sense of amazing or wondrous, but don’t understand the foundation of the circus as magical in the paranormal sense. ‘People see what they wish to see. And in most cases what they are told they see.’  For the two competitors, it is an opportunity to showcase their magical skills. This is ‘actual magic disguised as stage illusion.’ But is there a price to be paid for mixing magic and reality? Who will pay it?

The basic story of the magical challenge is augmented by the stories of other characters who are either creators of some of the non-magical aspects of the circus, such as the clock maker, Friedrick Thiessen, performers like Isobel the fortune teller, and lovers of the circus like Bailey, a young American drawn into its ambit. All have a part to play, but the use of magic may or may not work out well for them. Magic has ramifications. As Celia notes, the game is about ‘how we deal with the repercussions of magic when placed is a world that does not believe in such things.’

The story, which is told in the present tense, jumps backwards and forwards in time, though only over a limited period. I’m not sure why Morgenstern has chosen to do this; possibly to add to the sense that the circus lies outside normal time. She is perhaps reinforcing through narrative form the idea that though magic can’t reverse time, it can make it be experienced differently. There are also short sections throughout that describe the experience of the circus, as if addressing a member of audience, as in ‘You watch the performance from this precarious vantage point, directly below the performers.’ This is intended to give the reader a sense of involvement, but also has a structural purpose made clear at the end.

Some reviewers (here’s one, anyway) have found the story slight and overly sentimental, and the characters, though suitable to their part in the story, not particularly memorable. I found it helped to think of it as a romance, with obstacles to be overcome, and somewhat set parts for the main characters. Certainly it is not a drama asking profound questions. So what did I like about it? I liked the circus. It is a beautifully imagined alternative reality, there for the reader to explore in a very visual way. And the book does raise interesting considerations about the relation between competition and collaboration, collusion and manipulation, fate and freedom. In the words of the Guardian reviewer who liked it (see above), The Night Circus ‘poses questions about the essential connection between fantasy and reality, and the human need for the former for the sustenance of the latter.’ It’s not at all like any other book about magic I’ve ever read.

This is Erin Morgenstern’s first novel. She’s also, perhaps not surprisingly, a visual artist. You can read more about her here. A film of the book is said to be ‘under development’.


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Lots of people have labelled The Magicians (2009) and its sequel, The Magician King (2011) ‘Harry Potter for grown-ups.’ Reading The Magicians, I couldn’t help comparing it with the Harry Potter stories – the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in particular. But the deeper allusion is to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

Quentin Coldwater is a nerdy teenager from Brooklyn trying to decide which college he should go to. Without really meaning to, he finds himself accepted by Brakebills, the Ivy League of American colleges of magic. The early part of the book follows his experience of making friends with other students and learning magic. After graduation, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. But then he is offered the chance of adventure. Quentin, and most of his friends, grew up immersed in the fantasy world of Fillory, described in a series of five books in which a family of children visit an alternative world. What if Fillory really exists?

You can see at once that there is plenty of room for literary allusion. Brakebills and Hogwarts share a number of similarities, though Brakebills doesn’t go in for wands or broomsticks, and has a game called welters, rather than quidditch. Learning magic is not always interesting and takes a lot of hard work at both schools. The characters have obviously read the Harry Potter books; for example there’s a reference to fixing up Hermione’s teeth. But the parallels with Narnia are more fundamentally important in driving the plot in the second half of the book. This is not to say that the story follows that of Lewis’s Christian epic; it is rather a counter narrative. Nevertheless Grossman has been criticised for leaning too heavily on these two sets of stories; you can read his defence here. Personally I rather enjoy the references. There are others too, mischievously waiting to be noticed; example, to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, when one character speculates whether a porn magazine for intelligent trees would be called Enthouse, and to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King when Quentin is turned into a goose. No doubt there are lots of others, like the Dungeon and Dragons ones I don’t really recognise.

Quentin is certainly no Harry Potter. Although Harry suffers some teenage angst in The Order of the Phoenix, he is not a generation y character. Quentin is. This is reflected in his and his friends’ views of the world, and how they talk about it. After graduation, they live a purposeless, hedonistic life; their command of magic brings them no pleasure, and they have no interest in using their powers to some useful end. Their response to the idea of a flower that makes you happy if you smell it is to wonder what they could sell it for – ‘that would be worth bank here.’ Another friend wonders if they will have the chance to ‘experience a world that has not yet been fucked up by assholes.’ But they have no sense of social responsibility. Quentin seeks happiness that always seems just beyond his reach; what was his heart’s desire, once achieved, seems unsatisfying. Indeed his life is spiralling out of control; in a drunken state he even betrays his girlfriend with another member of the group. Quentin concludes that ‘he’d thought that doing magic was the hardest thing he would ever do, but the rest of it was so much harder.’ He keeps hoping that ‘everything broken was fixable’, but is he capable of fixing anything?

I didn’t find the first half of the book very satisfying. It’s true that most of the things that happen at the school and in the period after graduation are in some way linked to what happens later, but the story takes a while to develop and I found myself wondering where it was all going. But be assured it does go somewhere. Obviously I’m not going to tell you what happens, but the second half of the book is much more sophisticated than the first. The characters, though no less self-indulgent, become more interesting. For example, using the device of Fillory allows, maybe even requires, the characters to wonder if they are in a story, when their reality is already mixed up with magic. This is a clever literary ploy. About half way through the book, Quentin claims ‘You don’t just go on adventures for good causes and have happy endings. You’re not going to be a character in a story; there’s nobody arranging everything for you.’ There is, of course – the author. But can he make them more than just characters in a pre-existing story? And so we read on to find out not just what will happen, but whether Quentin and his friends can actually take responsibility for their actions and begin to understand themselves.

I’m not sure you can say that this book is for grown-ups, and Harry Potter isn’t. They are both clearly coming of age stories – though J.K. Rowling has five books to bring Harry up to speed, and Grossman is trying to do it all in one. Presumably Quentin is a work in progress, and we’ll need to read the sequel to see how he works out. You can read more about Grossman here.

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The Baroque Cycle (2003-4) is a series of eight books, published for convenience in three volumes, entitled Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. In all, there’s around 2,500 pages – not an enterprise for the fainthearted. But we had a long spell of very hot weather in Adelaide, so I had plenty of time to read.

Stephenson has taken a number of characters and themes appearing in his 1999 novel Cryptonomicon and projected them back, as it were, into the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. So we have the ancestors of the modern characters: Daniel Waterhouse, a number of Shaftoes, some Comstocks, some von Hacklhebers and Enoch Root – though Stephenson says he is the same Enoch Root who appears in the twentieth century story. There are also the imagined interactions with real people, as in Leibnitz, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Benjamin Franklin, to say nothing of Louis XIV, William of Orange and Caroline of Hanover. The preoccupations of many of these characters are similar to those of their twentieth century physical and intellectual descendants – ie philosophy, mathematics, code breaking, technology, war and weaponry and the functioning of trade and money. I really liked this echo effect, and would suggest reading Cryptonomicon before venturing further.

Stephenson describes the Cycle as having a science fiction mindset. I think what he means is that he has created an alternative world, rather than evoking the real historical one. But it is also an historical epic, full of ‘swordplay, swashbuckling and derring-do’. It takes place between 1664 and 1714, and is set at some point in the tale in almost every part of the then known world. This was a time of seething intellectual, religious, political and economic change across Europe, a ‘quicksilver world’, where ‘power came of thrift and cleverness and industry, not of birthright, and certainly not of Divine Right’. At least this is what the author seeks to illustrate through the activities of his characters. I don’t really know how historically correct it is, and obviously Stephenson can’t ignore history. Indeed, there is a huge amount of information on show about the details of all aspects of life– too much for some reviewers, who found it could be boring, as I occasionally did. And there are a number of historical processes, especially ones associated with technology, that hold the whole complex story together. But as his comment about science fiction shows, Stephenson isn’t really interested in imaginative historical reconstruction; he is at his best telling an exciting story, and for the most part, this is what he does. There are plagues, fires, battles, espionage, sea voyages, pirates, slavery, even the Spanish Inquisition and sundry other adventures, as well as love, loyalty, friendship, cruelty and treachery.

I like the way Stephenson writes. He hasn’t tried for a complete period effect in his alternate world; there are a number of quotes from writers of the time like Bunyan, Hobbs and Defoe to remind us of the real thing. But there are many sentence constructions and some word usages which give an historical feel to the writing, such as ‘oeconomy’, or ‘lanthorn’, ‘similitude’, or my favourite, ‘phant’sy’ or ‘phant’sied’, covering any of thought, considered, fancied or believed. Along-side this is a modern sensibility expressed in modern jargon, like ‘the commodities market’, ‘it looked like a win’, or the list of ‘weaponized farm implements’, ‘viz. war-sickles, combat-flails, assault-shovels and tactical-adzes’. ‘If it is funny, or it works’, Stephenson says, he is happy to put it in. But it’s also integral to his ‘science fiction’ mindset.

Indeed Stephenson is a very ‘take it or leave it’ sort of writer. He makes no concessions; you can almost see him thinking ‘what the hell, I like this so I’ll put it in.’ This makes his books very long, and to a degree, self-indulgent. Sometimes, indeed, the action is completely over the top. I think this tendency is more apparent in the Cycle than in the other of his books I’ve read. It also perhaps arises from the episodic nature of the story; each new section has to be filled out in detail with a different setting, different circumstances and different adventures, whatever the common themes (though this is less true in the third volume). The division into books and volumes is also problematic, in that if you want to know what happens, you need to read it all. The volumes aren’t stand-alone – though I note that all of them have individually won prizes, so perhaps others wouldn’t agree with me about that. Each book, and therefore each volume (except the last one) ends on a cliff hanger note for some character, rather like a TV show that is making sure you watch the next series. I did find I overdosed a bit, and had to take some breaks from reading for a while, particularly in the third volume, which seems overburdened with detail and hype. But I was always pleased to go back to it.

Because I so much like the way Stephenson writes, I’m always going to take pleasure in his books. But if you aren’t already a fan, I wouldn’t start with these three. You can read my posts on Cryptonomicon (1999) here, Anathem (2008) here and Reamde (2011) here.

You can read more about Neal Stephenson, including interviews about the books, on his web-site.


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At first I thought this book wasn’t worth writing about. But then I read a favourable review in the Australian literary magazine Meanjin, which made me reconsider my response. I still don’t like it much, but concede that this may say more about me than it says about the book.

The story is told in seven chapters, one for each of the main characters.  Overall, these build a picture of the stages in a family’s life, including the breakup of a marriage, teenage angst, sibling relationships, dealing with a difficult adolescent, having a young child, getting old and dying. But each chapter could be read as a short story. This is partly because they are all set at different times over a period of more than thirty years. It is also because they are discontinuous; what happens in several of them isn’t reflected in the other chapters. This has a stop-start effect; a chapter may build interest and tension, but it is dissipated at the end of the chapter. Amsterdam offers few social markers by which to place the family; they live in an indeterminate landscape, and their lives seem bland. There’s nothing wrong with not specifying a social setting; it’s a tactic that can focus attention on individual feelings and personal relationships. But I don’t think as described here, feelings and personal relationships can carry the weight. Amsterdam writes well, but not that well.

The main character, in so far as there is one, is Alec, who plays a part in all the stories, his own coming at the end. Alec has magic powers, or perhaps rather he has the power to make other people discover powers in themselves – like becoming invisible, or flying. His aim in conferring these powers is to give his family what it needs – a chance of fulfilment. ‘Right now,’ he says, ‘we’re in the wrong version of our lives. Too much security, too little freedom … All we have to do is pick a different story, one where we get what we want.’ Really? It’s not clear that the rest of the family are necessarily better off – or better – because of their powers, which, incidentally, only seem to operate in their own chapter. Ruth, for example, feels she had ‘evidently endured some sort of accident in her brain’ when she finds she can read other people’s thoughts. Alec realises that he has to be careful about altering reality: ‘One ripple rushed into another. Without ever intending it, there could be waves, curling larger and larger, pulling all of them far from solid land.’ But this doesn’t seem to stop him.

I don’t mind stories where characters have magic powers, or where we get first one then another outcome because of some minor change in circumstances – see for example my review of Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. But here, I just found it irritating. What is the point of these magic powers? You can’t just ‘pick a different story’ – that’s the whole point of the web of relationships that make up a family. But I don’t think this is the point that Amsterdam is making. In fact I’m not sure what point he is making.

And this is where I wonder if I’m not looking for something that other readers might not find necessary, or even desirable – for some sort of rational outcome beyond the quirky view of the world offered by magic realism. The writer in Meanjin says that the central premise of the novel is that ‘sometimes it takes extraordinary power to survive the everyday’. And maybe Amsterdam is showing this by bestowing eccentric powers like flying and materialising through walls on his characters. Perhaps the absence of much colour in the lives of the family members when the magic isn’t operating is a deliberate way of contrasting the mundane with the extraordinary. Other readers might find this delightful, and not at all irritating. The Meanjin writer also says that in Amsterdam’s work, ‘as much meaning exists in what is unsaid as in the stories themselves, and bestows us with the power to fill in the blanks.’ Perhaps I’m just not good at reading what’s left unsaid.

Steven Amsterdam is an American who now lives and writes in Melbourne. He sounds like a really nice bloke. You can read more about him here. This is his second novel. His first, Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009) won The Age Book of the Year (fiction), and this one, which was published in 2011, was short listed for this, and short or long listed for several other literary prizes. So critical opinion is against me.  It’s an easy read – try it for yourself.

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The Change is a trilogy of fantasy stories by Sean Williams, probably aimed at the young adult market. I’m not a young adult and I’m not usually drawn to fantasy stories, but Williams caught my interest because he is a South Australian and lives in Adelaide, as I do. It’s always good to support a local. Besides, I enjoyed the first one, so kept reading.

The first of the trilogy is The Stone Mage and the Sea (2001). Sal and his father Gershom arrive at a small town on the coast of a country ruled by the Sky Wardens. The Sky Wardens’ authority comes from magical powers and practices known collectively as ‘the Change’, aptitude for which is usually inherited, but can be learnt. Those showing ability are taken by the Sky Wardens to be further trained. Why is Sal’s father so fearful of them? What is he seeking, or what is he running from? It’s not hard to guess that Sal possesses these powers, though he isn’t yet aware of it; the ‘coming into powers’ story is a common trope of the fantasy genre. But I think it is well done, both in terms of Sal’s own development, and of the fantasy world that Williams has created – both like and unlike present times.

The second in the trilogy is The Sky Warden and the Sun (2002), and continues where the previous book left off. I wouldn’t recommend reading them out of order. Sal is now on the run from the Sky Wardens, and with a companion, Shilly. They are making for the interior, which is ruled by the Stone Mages, who also use the Change, but are not on good terms with the Sky Wardens. There he hopes to learn how to use his power, for without this knowledge, as one character explains, ‘You impose your will upon the world like a poor blacksmith wields a hammer: with unnecessary force, and at great risk to those around you.’ As in most stories built around flight and pursuit, Sal encounters both assistance and treachery, good luck and misfortune and on his journey. I found the country he travels through reminiscent of outback South Australia ‘magnificent in a bleak, time worn way.’ The writing is mostly plain and unadorned, but there are some striking images, as when someone is ‘tugging the reins and cracking the whip over the conversation until she had broken its spirit.’

The Storm Weaver and the Sand (2002) is the third and final book. Sal and Shilly find themselves in the Haunted City, the home of the Sky Wardens. The city has been built in the spaces between older skyscrapers, now the home of ghosts, that belong to a time before some undefined cataclysm. Sal and Shilly are supposed to be learning more about the ‘theory, illusion and actuality’ that underlie the Change. But they are both desperate to escape the Sky Wardens, and are prepared to invoke the power of other non-material forces – ‘fundamental properties of this world that evade definition’ – to get away from the city. But may this have unforeseen consequences? Is there such a thing as ‘fate’, Sal wonders, and if so, can you escape it? If you are prepared to suspend disbelief, Williams has created an exciting story, with interesting and likeable characters. He is also good at atmosphere, especially in creating a sense of dread: ‘In the Haunted City, humans were like rats in the walls, cowering round the base of buildings they could only marvel at, never inhabit.’ I think the resolution of the story has a touch of deus ex machina about it, but that’s something I get very picky about, and there are some markers along the way that prepare for it, so don’t let that put you off.

One of the reasons that fantasy fiction is not taken too seriously is that being able to do magic can seem like cheating – you can get away with anything in terms of plot. But the use of magic also imposes restrictions, the most important of which is that the fantasy world must be consistent. And I think that consistency is something that Williams has achieved across all three of these books. Sal and Shilly exist in a fully imagined world, which the reader can enter and enjoy. Williams is clearly a writer of some substance, having several times won an Aurealis Award for works of speculative fiction written by an Australian citizen – though not for this trilogy. Try them on the grandchildren.

Sean Williams is a prolific writer. You can read more about him here.

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The Gift (2002) is the first book of what was initially conceived of as the Treesong Trilogy, but grew into the Pellinor Quartet; it just goes to show how stories can take on a life of their own. This quartet fits squarely into the fantasy genre, and reading The Gift (called The Naming in the USA) reminded me of just how much fantasy writing draws on common themes and even plot devices. In this review I’m going to mention some of these and may reveal rather more of the story than I usually do; if you don’t want to know what happens, look away now.

As a young girl, Maerad is sold into slavery with her mother, who has since died. She sees no hope of escape. But one day a stranger, Cadvan, perceives that she has the same sort of magic power he has, though she doesn’t know it. He is a Bard, one of a number of people who have ‘the Gift’, which gives them certain powers, the most important of which is ‘the Speech’. ‘It is the source of our Knowing and much of our might,’ Cadvan explains. He decides he must take Maerad to Norloch, the most powerful School of the Bards, and the book covers the difficulties and adventures they have getting there.

A number of themes in this book are found in other fantasy literature. Two other stories in which a young person finds they have magic powers immediately come to mind – the Earthsea Quartet, which I reviewed earlier, and the Harry Potter books. Harry Potter shares with Maerad a degree of maltreatment before their powers are discovered, though living under the stairs might not be in the same league as slavery. Still, both are a version of the Cinderella story. Magic power is innate, but young wizards have to learn to use it. The older wizards – or Mages or Bards -Ged in Earthsea, Cadvan in the Pellinor stories and Dumbledore in the Harry Potter stories – have all at some point flirted with the Dark, and have to live with the consequences. The younger generation must learn responsibility too; these are all coming of age stories.

In the best fantasy tradition, Croggon has created an imaginary world with its own landscape and people, language and history. Cadvan serves the Light, but must contend with the forces of Darkness. At some time in the past, an evil Bard, known as the Nameless, conquered the earth, and imposed the Great Silence. He was subsequently overthrown, but now evil is creeping back, and Cadvan believes that the Nameless has returned. Some Bards have been corrupted; to those who can see, they look skeletal.

Sound familiar? There are certainly similarities to Voldermort and the Death Eaters in Harry Potter, and echoes of the Force and the Dark Side in Star Wars.  The return of a previously defeated Dark Lord with a group of evil and powerful acolytes also strongly recalls Sauron and the nine Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings. In fact it was of Tolkien that I was constantly reminded when reading The Gift. In addition to these general themes, there are some quite specific plot similarities. Cadvan and Maerad pass through a deserted underground city and find themselves in a hidden woodland realm, ruled over by a queen with magical powers. She has kept her people secret and safe, but now sees the coming of the two Bards as a sign that her land cannot hope to remain so if the Nameless prevails. This is very similar to the position of Galadriel, whose power has previously kept her woodland realm of Lorien secret and safe, and for whom the advent of the Ring means doom. There is also a calculating and ambitious Bard who betrays the trust of other Bards; he thinks he can beat the Nameless at his own game, just as the wizard Saruman does in The Lord of the Rings, and with the same result.

But over and above these similarities, some of the language is deeply reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. Just a couple of examples. Galadriel says to Frodo: ‘Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footsteps of Doom?’ The Queen says to Cadvan and Maerad: ‘It may be that the doom we all fear will overtake us, no matter how we struggle against it.’ At their parting, Galadriel gives Frodo a star glass: ‘It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places when all other lights go out.’ At their parting, the Queen says to Cadvan and Maerad: ‘And Light blooms the brighter in the darkest places.’ Gandalf says of Saruman: ‘He will not serve, only command. He lives now in terror of the shadow of Mordor, and yet he still dreams of riding the storm. Unhappy fool! It will devour him.’ And the Bard Nerlec says of the ruthless Enkir: ‘But in his arrogance he has forgotten the might of the Dark, and it has eaten him up, even as he thought he directed its ways. Cunning fool!’

Some of these similarities are probably inherent in the fantasy genre. Most fantasy stories are a quest involving a battle between good and evil. Many involve young people coming to terms with magic power, either their own, or that inherent in some object, like Frodo’s ring. The language of these stories is often stately and a little archaic – such words or phrases as ‘doom’, or ‘fell’ (as in horrid) or ‘it is written’ come naturally. But I think in this case Croggon is consciously paying homage to Tolkien, who is, after all, the master. The story as it unfolds in the other books of the quartet doesn’t follow the story of The Lord of the Rings; Croggon creates a fantasy world that is fully her own. Read them and see what you think.

You can read more about this Australian writer and her other three Pellinor books here.

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Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

I really like the way Neal Stephenson writes: it is clever and funny. But Anathem (2008) is a book I have to work at. I think the effort is worthwhile, but I’d understand if others didn’t.

I agreed in an earlier post with Margaret Atwood that her futuristic novel Oryx and Crake should be seen as speculative fiction, because it takes what is already happening and extends it, whereas science fiction changes the scientific rules to allow things that are not physically possible. On that basis, Anathem should be science fiction, but the boundaries of science and technology are in such flux that I hesitate to say that the scenario in this book is not physically possible. Quantum Theory? Philosophy? Cosmology? It has all these and more – and it is a great adventure story.

The setting for the book is the planet Arbre, which, Stephenson notes in a foreword to the reader, is in many ways similar to Earth. This planet has a recorded history longer than that of the Earth but some events in it recall those on Earth. We are now living in what in Arbre’s history is known as the Praxic Age, which was nearly three thousand seven hundred years before the events in the story. For thousands of years, groups of men and women who wish to study theorics – science and philosophy – have chosen to become avouts and live together in concents. At earlier days they were at the forefront of technological advances in areas such as sub atomic physics and gene sequencing.  Since the Terrible Times, which occurred at the end of the Praxic Age, the avouts have lived almost entirely closed off from the rest of the world, following an ascetic way of life with little modern technology.  The names of many recognisable things in this world are different – jeejah for mobile phone/network browser and Reticulum for the internet being two of my favourites. There is a comprehensive glossary, and key terms are defined in the text as extracts from The Dictionary, 4th edition, A.R. 3000. Stephenson has created a complete and complex society, both inside and outside the walls of the concert, in a way that I find quite brilliant.

The story follows the doings of Fraa Erasmus, first in his Concent of Saunt (as in savant) Edhar, then after he is ‘evoked’ – taken out of the concent – by the secular power to help meet a crisis threatening the planet’s future.  Erasmus is an endearing character and Stephenson is a master story teller; there’s lots of exciting action to enjoy, as well as the interest of the world he has created.

I do, nevertheless, have two related problems with this book. First, it is, like all Stephenson’s books, very long, coming in at around 900 pages. Does it really need to be so long? Is this self indulgence on the author’s part? Second, some of the length comes from fairly protracted philosophical discussions among the characters. These primarily cover the views of philosophers that can be recognised as Plato and Aristotle and their successors. There is the notion ‘that the objects and ideas that humans perceive and think about are imperfect manifestations of pure, ideal forms that exist in another plane of existence’.  Or, ‘Put simply’, says someone on the other side of the argument, ‘… language, communication, indeed thought itself, are the manipulations of symbols to which meanings are assigned by culture – and only by culture.’ There is also discussion of consciousness and language, and of various mathematical concepts, to say nothing of configuration space. This is a bit of a stretch for me. It would be bad enough if the real names were used, but I find having to remember which argument goes with which avout saunt distractingly difficult. Are these discussions really necessary to the plot, or are they just Stephenson having a bit of fun? They certainly slow down the pace. I can see the general relevance, but struggle with much of the detail.

Someone has created a Wiki page where everything in the story is given an earthly equivalent. This is quite interesting, but I find there is pleasure in teasing out for myself the ways in which words sound similar to other words, yet mean something rather different. The physics of how the same matter can develop in divergent ways to produce outcomes that are different but still similar is at the heart of the book, so Stephenson’s play with language mirrors this in a very pleasing way.  

And his command of the technology he has (I assume) invented is awesome.

You can read more – though not a lot more – about Stephenson here. If you haven’t come across him before, you can read my earlier post on his book Cryptonomicon (1999) here.

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This is one of my favourite books, which is excuse enough to write about it. But if I needed another reason, it would be that Pullman is one of the writers short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize, and this is his major work. Its title comes from Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost, whereMilton refers to the Creator’s power to fashion other worlds from the dark materials found in the abyss – ‘the womb of nature and perhaps her grave’. For this is a book about other worlds, and the nature of the abyss.

Actually it is three books – Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), brought together into one volume. (And perhaps confusingly, the first book was also published as The Golden Compass, which is moreover the title of the film of that book.) It is no doubt possible to read them separately, but they form a continuous adventure, and it is best to read them as such.

Twelve year old Lyra lives in anOxfordthat exists in a universe parallel to our own. It is recognisably the same place, but there are significant differences. Physics, for example, is known as experimental theology, and the Church holds far greater sway than in our world. People have animal (or bird or insect) companions called dǽmons, which are best described as physical expressions of their souls.  But when children start to disappear, taken, it is rumoured to the far North, the reaction is the same as in our world; parents unite to get them back. When Lyra’s friend Roger disappears, she vows to find him, and becomes part of the expedition. And then there is the mysterious substance ‘dust’. What has it to do with the disappearance of the children?

In the second book, Will Parry, a boy from our universe, meets Lyra when they both stray into a third universe. He is looking for his father; she is looking for someone to help her understand ‘dust’. Will becomes the possessor of a knife which can cut gateways into other worlds; others want it too. Lyra is also pursued; it seems she has some as yet unknown importance in the great war developing between the Church and secular forces. This war forms a background to the further travails of Will and Lyra in the third book, though other characters, like the scientist Mary Malone, creator of the amber spyglass, also play important roles.

But this is far more than an exciting adventure story. For one thing, there is the depth and complexity of Pullman’s imagined worlds. Just listing some of the creatures that inhabit them gives an idea of the richness of Pullman’s invention. As well as the dǽmons, there are armoured bears, angels, witches, ghosts, mulefa, Gallivespians, harpies, cliff ghasts and spectres, all fully drawn and functioning beings. There is also a wealth of imaginative detail in the technology that operates in these worlds, from the alethiometer – the truth teller, or golden compass – the subtle knife and amber spyglass to the anbaric lights and projecting lantern. Then there is ‘dust’ – elementary particles, ‘Shadows’ or ‘sraf’ – which exists in all worlds. What is it, and why is it so important?  There is a fully thought out cosmology underlying the story, and sometimes dominating it.Pullman rejects organised religion, but has a strong sense of morality and spiritual values.

And all this is found in what is characterised as a children’s book. The distinction might relate to the fact that the story is mostly carried forward by Will and Lyra, rather than simply being about them. One critic claims thatPullmanhas given us a new way of writing for children, and this may be so. But I’m not sure it’s worth making a distinction between children’s and adults’ literature inPullman’s case. Each volume separately might just qualify as ‘for children’, but taken as whole, the complexity of the vision and the imaginative power of the work defy such classification. I think adults will read the story as eagerly as children, and be no less challenged by it than by any other work of literature.

You can find out more aboutPullman, and his other writing here. His debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury over religion can be found here.

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I tried the second book of Stephen Donaldson’s First Chronicles of Thomas Covernant (The Illearth War, 1977) but it’s really not my thing. So I turned instead to Ursula Le Guin, hoping to have my faith in the fantasy genre renewed. I wasn’t disappointed. The Quartet is a classic. The books that make it up – A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore and Tehanu – are really children’s stories, but somehow reading them together in one volume gives a coherence that is adult in its appeal.

Earthsea is a group of islands inhabited by diverse peoples, surrounded by uninhabited seas. Its people are mostly farmers, merchants or artisans but a few are wizards, trained in the high arts on the island of Roke. They (mostly) observe the Balance and the Pattern which keep magic and ordinary things in equilibrium, as unwisely used, a wizard’s power is dangerous. It should ‘follow knowledge and serve need’. But there are older powers and fallible or malevolent wizards that disrupt the balance; all four books are in different ways about these.

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) tells how the wizard Ged comes from boyhood into his full power, and how in his arrogance he causes a Nameless spirit to escape into the world. Magic power is based on the power of naming; Ged must find the name of this spirit in order to return it to the land of the dead and restore the balance of his own life. In The Tombs of Atuan (1971) Tenar becomes Priestess of the Tombs, dedicated to the service of the Nameless Ones. In the darkness of the Undertomb, where no man is allowed to go, she is outraged to find a somewhat older Ged, who is looking for the other half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, which if made whole has the power to bring peace to the islands. In The Farthest Shore (1972), Ged, now Archmage of Roke, and the young prince Arren, undertake a mighty journey to find out why magic is no longer working properly. And in the much later Tehanu (1990), some of the characters and themes of the earlier books are further explored. It is this last book that gives the quartet its unity and makes it more than a series of separate children’s stories.

Le Guin writes simply but lyrically, with a sort of high seriousness appropriate to a fantasy epic. Here Ged is explaining the Balance. ‘Do not you see, Arren, how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it. When that rock is lifted the earth is lighter, the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown, the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls the universe is changed. On every act the balance of the whole depends.’

Le Guin has created a fully coherent world for her stories. It is pre-industrial in its physical setting; people mostly live on what they can grow or make, leavened sometimes with a bit of magic. It is also a hierarchical and paternalistic world. Men rule in both the temporal and the magic spheres. Only men can become wizards; those who don’t meet the demanding standards of the school on Roke become sorcerers. (And before you start making comparisons with Hogwarts, think which came first.) Women with magic power only become village witches. There is a saying ‘weak as women’s magic’. Wizards and sorcerers are highly respected. But women with power are distrusted; there is also a saying ‘wicked as women’s magic’. In the last book, Tehanu, Le Guin offers a challenge to these assumptions through the fates of Ged and Tenar, and also the abused child, Therru. The humanity of this story makes it as much an adult book as is The Lord of the Rings.

It is not surprising to find that Ursula Le Guin, now over 80, maintains a strong interest in issues of feminism, ecology and the free speech issues around Wikileaks. You can follow up on her wide range of interests on her amazing web pages here. Details of her career and other writing are summarised here.

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Published in 1977, this is the first of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. There are three sets of Chronicles: the First, Second and Last. The first two contain three books; the third will have four. Against All Things Ending, the ninth book – the third of the Last Chronicles – was published in 2010. Lord Foul’s Bane is the only one I’ve read so far.

The Chronicles are a fantasy epic. Donaldson rightly acknowledges his debt to Tolkien and other great fantasy writers like Mervyn Peake. And I wouldn’t be surprised if writers of more recent fantasy stories would in turn acknowledge their debt to Donaldson; Avatar comes particularly to mind. He has an important place in the fantasy tradition. That said, I had somewhat mixed reactions to the book.

Thomas Covenant, a successful writer, lives in a small American town, but is totally rejected by his community when he is diagnosed with leprosy. He wife leaves him, taking their young child with her. Leprosy becomes the defining fact of his life. He decides that the only way he can survive is to damp down his emotions – the rage and loss – and concentrate exclusively on his disease. Then one day he falls and hits his head. He wakes up to find himself in a different world where he doesn’t have leprosy, and seems to have some part to play in saving the country – ‘the Land’ – from Lord Foul’s creature, the Cavewight, Drool Rockworm. But he can’t accept that the Land is real; he thinks he is dreaming. He doesn’t want to become attached to the Land or anyone in it – ‘he could not afford to be anyone’s friend’ – and he doesn’t want the power – the ‘wild magic’ – it seems he possesses. He fears the conflicting demands of his leprosy and the Land will drive him mad. And is he in any case inadvertently doing Lord Foul’s bidding?

The book (indeed the whole series) has millions of devoted fans. Apart from being an exciting story, readers seem to like the physically and morally flawed hero Covenant, and enjoy the psychological dimension of his predicament. Others hate it, largely for its turgid prose. One critic suggested that rather than reading it, people could simply play a game of who could find the most uses of the word ‘clenched’ on every page.

I certainly read eagerly to find out what happens in terms both of the quest to defeat Drool, and Covenant’s own battle about how to act. But while it’s maybe impossible to over-write a fantasy epic, some of Donaldson’s prose is decidedly over the top. A few of random examples: ‘The night beat about him on naked wings like vultures dropping towards dead meat’ or ‘he had discovered a frontier into the narcissism of revulsion’ or ‘It stood in granite permanence like an enactment of eternity’. I accept that elevated language may be needed to describe the inhabitants of the other world – the ur-viles, the Bloodguard, the Warmark and the Ranyhyn to name but a few. But I found Covenant’s inner conflict was sometimes obscured by the density of the prose. What is ‘the narcissism of revulsion’ anyway? And recent political events aside, I think most Australian readers would find there is something incongruous about the lore of ‘High Lord Kevin’.

Ultimately it is the quality of the fantasy world that determines the success of a fantasy epic. And while there are clear debts to Tolkien, I think Donaldson has done enough in creating the Land, its people and its creatures to warrant his popularity. I’m not sure if Covenant’s psychological conflict can be extended into further stories, but it here makes him a distinctive character and adds some depth to the fantasy battle between good and evil. I’ll at least read the next one.

You can find out more about Donaldson and The Chronicles here.

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