Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited.

I started this blog intending to write only about children's fantasy ('magic fiction') but have since widened my scope to include any work of children's fiction that I have read and enjoyed. Fantasy will still probably predominate, as it remains a favourite genre, but I cannot now resist sharing thoughts on other wonderful books too. (MG and occasionally YA.)

Here you will find only recommendations, never negative reviews. If I read a book which I feel is less than wonderful (which happens far more often than not) then I simply don't write about it. This blog is, rather, a celebration of the most exciting books I stumble across on my meandering reading journey, and of the important, life-affirming experiences they offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts their writers give.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Wardstone Chronicles by Joseph Delaney


Series of 13 books (not counting a few supplementaries). Published, under slightly different titles, as The Last Apprentice series in US.

 

I have spent a good while debating with myself whether to include the Spooks books on this blog. It's not that I didn't enjoy them, quite the contrary. But . .

There are two different reasons why I hesitate. The first is that I have to admit to something of an antipathy for series fiction. I tend to wince inwardly when I see them lined up along the shelves of book shops. I always fear that they represent somewhat lazy writing, with their authors falling into set patterns of development with what become tired characters and plots. I also worry that they encourage similarly rather lazy reading in young people. Of course as soon as I say that I have to acknowledge that the 'Enid Blyton' syndrome, liking to read and re-read what is familiar and comfortable, has always been and probably will always be a feature of the young. It is hard to say that this is, in itself, a 'bad thing'; being able to behave in this way almost certainly encourages, supports and grows innumerable readers. But my own heart always wants to encourage such young people to venture out instead into the enormous diversity of wonderful reading material available. However this blog is not written with the particular aim of suggesting reading for the young. I am looking for greats of the 21st century. Do I want to include a series in this? Many of the best fantasies need three or four volumes to encompass their large vision; there is something in the nature the genre that often benefits from a large canvas. But is it feasible to sustain the highest quality over umpteen volumes?

My second hesitation is around whether these stories in fact fit my self-imposed brief for this blog, whether that are 'magical fantasy'. In terms of genre would they be better classified as 'horror'? Josephn Delaney does create an enclosed fantasy world. It is actually very close to our own world of around 400 years ago - except that ghouls, ghasts, boggarts, witches and the like do actually exist in it. They do not exist as mere superstition or even as a second realm of occult reality alongside or beneath the historical one. These 'creatures' are clearly part of the accepted everyday life of the people of this world. The Spook is in many ways very much a wizard figure too and certainly Tom, a seventh son of a seventh son, taken from his own home to be the Spook's apprentice, fits straight into one of the classic fantasy moulds. Yet the Spook specifically claims not to use magic. His role is to protect the folk of 'The County' from the creatures of 'The Dark', but he does this largely by physical means. He is rather more of a latter day 'Ghostbuster' than a wizard, although at the end of the day such devices as binding spells do have their part to play in the stories, even if cast by others. So the genre is somewhat ambiguous. It could be argued either way.

As is self evident, I have overcome these qualms, and I have done so simply these books do excite me as works of fiction. They are thumping good reads. Moreover, although as you might expect with so many titles, some of the books are rather stronger than others, I do actually think that the whole series is more than the sum of its parts and deserves to be considered as an important fantasy creation. As such, it has many strengths. What first drew me to the Spooks books is their very rich setting in what is called in the novels 'The County', but is closely based on Lancashire. Much particularly takes place amongst this area's northern fells. It happens that I was born and brought up close to those fells and also taught for a good few years in a school near the foot of Pendle Hill. So I know the places well and love them dearly, as the author clearly does too. And he evokes them quite wonderfully. Landscape is in no way incidental to these books, it is a vivid and integral element, deeply understood, passionately and movingly painted. Then there is the very rich vein of folklore and history on which the books also draw. Even though some scenes and characters are somewhat 'Hammer Horror', they still resonate with those deeper folk memories and instinctive fears that are a very real part of the make up of all of us. All of this, too, is written in a deceptively simple, straightforwardly narrative style, that is easy and comfortable to read yet continually conjours vivid pictures and engages excitingly; which actually takes a great deal of authorial skill.

But most of all these books are, more even than their shock-horror-don't-read-at-bedtime plots, about real people and relationships. These are what develop so well over the series as a whole, with subsequent books adding layers and new, often surprising, facets to earlier ones. The books present and explore a rich range of characters and their relationships: Tom the apprentice and his family, the Spook and his, the wonderfully ambivalent young witch, Alice, Grimalkin . . . so many of them. This is series that, it's genre notwithstanding, deals movingly with simple but fundamentally important human values: courage, friendship, loyalty and a willingness to do what needs to be done because 'somebody has to do it.'

Reservations are swept aside. Even though individual books are perhaps not great literature in themselves, and actually have no pretensions to be so, the series as a whole deserves a significant place in any consideration of recent fantasy fiction. It is surprisingly well worth reading.

 

 

Monday, 26 May 2014

Jewels - an explanation

 

A couple of friends who have read my blog, whilst being very encouraging (of course - what are friends for?), have noted that all the 'reviews' so far are very glowing. They even implied that they were looking forward to reading ones where I really slated stuff. I am afraid they will have a long wait for that.

It has never been my intention that this should be a review blog as such. My quest is to find what, for me, are really high quality works of children's fantasy from this century and I am simply recording the real jewels I come across. Of course I have already read a good few books that, shall we say, did not excite me much. I shall not be writing about them though. I have been around too long now to want to spend my time puting down other people and their efforts. Anyway my paste may well be someone else's gem. This blog is merely a record of what, for me, are exciting finds; great books or at least almost great ones, fine writers or potentially fine ones. As you can see there have already been a good few - enough to leave me optimistic of many more to come. So if particular books or sequences are not on here it does not necessarily mean that I have 'rejected' them. It could well be that I just haven't got to them yet. It is, after all, early days - I'm delighted to say.

I want this blog to be a celebration of some of the wonderful things people write for us and of the so important, life-affirming experiences they give us as a result. It is but a very small thank you for a wonderful gift.

 

 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge


Having neglected for too long to read children's books written since 2000, I missed out on Frances Hardinge. I had of course seen her name feted in several contexts but never got around to reading her. But I have discovered her now - and she goes straight onto my list of great writers. She has already written several titles well worth their place on this blog , but I will start with Fly by Night because, of all the books I have come to recently, this was the most outrightly joyous to read.

Fly by Night is a complete delight for two principal reasons: firstly, the staggeringly original, quirky and sparkling quality of its invention. Fantasy is a genre where so many writers end up working over the same stock settings, characters and plots; often drawing on a relatively narrow range of myth and folklore for inspiration. Of course this is not always a problem in itself because some authors reinterpret those standard components in amazing ways. Those very myths and and traditions, too, are elements of our heritage, and, perhaps, of our collective unconscious, therefore potent and powerful. But Frances Harding seems to have little need for external influence or inspiration. She clearly has an imagination and creativity capable of the most startlingly novel and engaging inventions. Characters, names, belief-systems, settings, organisations, they are all conjured up for this book with dazzling and captivating originality. The whole work just fizzes with invention; reading it is like being given a glass of champagne after drinking still wine (and occasional stale tap water). When you read on the first page that 'The nursemaid's name was Celery Dunnock. She was born on a day sacred to Cramflick, She Who Keeps the Vegetables of the Garden a Crisp,' you get a feelng of what you are in for. But it is more than just the author's marvellous 'ability to name cats'. Her characters are so alive, so entertaining, so ambivalent, so original: the feisty, if sometimes rather overbearing, main character Mosca (Housefly) Mye, her viciously misanthropic 'pet' goose, the unreliable but strangely trustworthy Eponymous Clent . . . There are just so many; all entertaining, many engaging, some adorable. The whole large, rich and complex enclosed fantasy world which this author creates is a constnt surprise, wonder and delight.

And that is not all. The second great joy of the book is its language, which is itself every bit as witty, frothy and inventive as the other elements. Never less than skilfully readable, the author continually throws in surprising but apt words, brilliant turns of phrase and images that illuminate through their staggering originality. Quirky. Brilliant in every sense.

The book has muli-layered and significant thems too: the conflict between individuality and authority, between truth and deception, between freedom and censorship and, underpinning everything, the life-affirming and almost redemptive importance of books.

What, to coin a phrase, is not to like? Oh, and did I say? It is very funny too.

Is this a truly great book then? One for my list? In the final analysis perhaps not quite. I found the storyline overall just a little over-stuffed, a tad too complex and meandering to be completely satisfying. By the end I felt I had experienced some amazing inventions, a world, characters, ideas, language, that hadn't completely decided where they were going, or perhaps how to get there. But this did not detract from hugely enjoying the read. If this is not a fully great book, it is very nearly one and Frances Hardinge is undoubtedly a great writer, as original and exciting as any of the very best children's fantasy authors, past or present

I have since read other books of hers with great pleasure. Her latest The Lie Tree is another stunner and I shall write it up here soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu


I might be tempted to say that Anne Ursu's book is a REAL find, except that it would be too glib an introduction to what really is an enchanting, amazing and enriching reading experience. What seems like a small book about a small world - for once it is a self-contained fiction that shows no apparent pretensions to be the first in a trilogy, quartet or series - is, in fact, a very BIG book indeed, in heart and in spirit.
This is a classic enclosed world fantasy and its principal action happens within what is really a fairly small compass - an island where a city and its outlying village are surrounded by a dense forest. Of course there is a map in the best traditions of such fantasies. It does, too, follow the near ubiquitous apprentice format, heightened by the fact that for Oscar, the apprentice in question, events are precipitated when he is left alone by his magician master. But any impression that this is a tiredly formulaic fantasy needs to be dispelled very quickly, for indeed the book almost bursts at the binding with imagination, originality, insight and, yes, profundity.
Like many great works it has its challenges; it not always the easiest of reads. But don't think that it is heavy either; far from it. It is written with that apparent simplicity and straightforward narrative clarity that masks great writing skill. It's words are aptly chosen, it's descriptions evocative and it's sentences beautifully crafted. Often it lulls with an almost comfort-reading, cozy familiarity. Then it suddenly shocks and disturbs as when Wolf, the older apprentice, who appears to be shaping up as a significant character, is suddenly delivered to the magician's shop literally in pieces and in a sack that hits the floor with a 'slight splurching sound'. Its issues are complex, its themes interwoven and even it's magic is not always as simple as it at first seems. It springs surprises and twists that cause you to reflect upon and reconsider what is happening, both in the story and in your own life. It is simply quite wonderful storytelling.
One of the most prominent and striking features of the book is that Oscar, its young hero has Asperger's, although this is quite subtly introduced and never, in itself, majored upon. For this is not a book about Asperger's, or indeed about someone having Asperger's, it is more a book with a hero who just happens to have Asperger's. What is most significant is that this doesn't stop him being the hero. He just is who he is. He is a real boy.
The book has many other rich and sensitively drawn characters too, not least Oscar's friend Callie, and indeed a whole bunch of wonderful cats. At first glance, as it were, the book has it's 'goodies' and 'baddies' but in Anne Ursu's skilful writing, nothing is quite so simple; many of the adult characters are in fact much more ambivalent and contradictory. The same applies to the magic itself. This is a real fantasy.
For what is, one one level, a simple story, almost a fairy tale, the book has many strands and themes. There are green issues that connect the death of magic with the destruction of the forest; there are social issues around the attitude of the 'have ' people of the city towards the 'have nots' of the village. There is a whole rich storyline around the city-dwellers' possessive over-protection of children. But at heart it is about Oscar's growth: past gradual realisation of how he is different, through learning to accept himself for what he is, as Callie accepts him, and ultimately on to helping others to accept themselves as 'real' too. It is a book about the most meaningful of fantasy worlds, one that is our own. It is a book about every child's right to be himself or herself - to be real. It is a small masterpiece. It is a great book now. It deserves to become a classic of children's literature. And it is easily the equal of - although magnificently different from - the finest children's fantasy works of preceding decades.



Friday, 2 May 2014

The Nethergrim by Matthew Tobin

I am pleased to be able to write that the first book I have finished for this blog is a very enjoyable one. It is the initial volume of what seems destined to be a sequence by a new author, Matthew Tobin.

The Nethergrim features an enclosed fantasy world with a distinctly medieval, almost Anglo-Saxon, feel. In fact it presents, in this volume at least, only a relatively small part of this world: a large village in thrall to its feudal lord, some outlying farms and hamlets together with the mountains which loom over them. It is in these mountains that the evil force of the story dwells. From there it is sallying forth to threaten the peace of the district and capture local children. In fact it is strongly reminiscent of those 'high romance' tales where a dragon dwells in the mountains and demanda tribute in the form of sacrifice from the local villagers. In this instance, the dragon has been replaced by a more enigmatic evil, the Nethergrim of the title, although it later becomes apparent that it has rather more connection with the original dragon idea than first appeared. However further variation is introduced in that the Nethergrim only initially makes its presence felt through the appearance of henchmen: balgogs (loosely related, perhaps, to Tolkein's orcs) and other nightmarish creatures.

Although some of the adult characters are rather one dimensional (particularly perhaps Tom's 'owner', Athelstan) this does not at all apply to the book's young protagonists, the three friends, Edmund, Katherine and Tom. They are sensitively drawn and engagingly characterised. In fact, their development is at the heart of the book as much as is the quest to defeat the Nethergrim - although the one is, of course, the catalyst for the other. This is very much a coming-of-age story with all three of its young protagonists moving out from the constraints (or, in Tom's case restraints) of childhood. Katherine is a feist young lady with a loving and supportive father. With his full connivance, she is determined to avoid her conventional future as an arranged and totally subservient, bride; she is a strong character. Tom is a foundling, taken in by a brutal and unfeeling master who treats him even worse than a surf, as a total slave, and from whom he desperately needs to be free.

However it is Edmund who is most fully at the heart of this first volume. He is in many senses a classic apprentice magician charachter, although, in this case, he has no actual master and is attempting to teach himself magic from books. Perhaps not too surprisingly, he lacks confidence in himself and his spell-casting ability. It is hopefully not giving too much plot away to report that by the end of the book he is beginning to see himself much more of a real magician, as indeed are others.

The writer's use of language is a strong and positive feature of the book and rich description abounds. True this is just occasionally over-lush and a little self-regarding - but this can probably be forgiven in a first novel. More generally the word-painting is evocative and effective. If this sometimes means the pace is relativly slow, then the payoff is enriching and enlightening insight into both the lives and characters of the young protagonists. A particularly fine example is the passage describing Tom ploughing. Another is the gripping but disturbing scene where Tom's master tries to . . . No, that really would be a spoiler. Incidentally I suspect the author knows his way rather well around horses, as they too are often well drawn and quite significant characters in the tale.

When needs be, though, Matthew Jobin can rack up both pace and the tension; there are some gripping engagements between the human characters and their inhuman adversaries.

Relationships are developing well in this first story, with interesting and often touching connections between the adolescents and their parents - both bonds and tensions. There are elements of embryonic boy-girl romantic feelings in the story too, but nothing beyond what would be acceptable to the younger end of the intended readership and resonate realistically with the older.

Having made clear, I hope, that this is a good book and most certainly worth reading, do I think it is a great one? In itself, no. Both it's imagined world and it's principal conflicts do not have the total spark of originality in either creation or treatment to quite justify that. But it is only a first book, both for the author and in the intended sequence. This is definitely a writer who feels like he will develop further and is already showing a potential for greatness in the future.

 

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Way markers

 

I have no intention here of trying to write academic analysis of the books I read. Others are far more qualified for that.

 

Nevertheless it might just help to try to identify a few major 'types' for the fantasy fiction which is the matter of my quest. It will hopefully avoid having to explain some basic things each time.

 

I find I generally want to classify the fantasies I am reading in one of three basic categories - although there are always of course going to be variants and overlaps.

 

First there are entire world or enclosed world fantasies, sometimes called 'high fantasies'. These take place in a world which is complete in itself and has no direct connection with our own reality - except of course that it might well be reflection of it and be used, imaginatively, to explore many aspects of our own existence, inner as well as outer. As a world, it has no way 'in' or 'out' to our own or other worlds. If well written, it will have a complete logic and 'reality' of its own. It can be relatively small and simple or vast and complex. Probably the classic enclosed fantasy world is Tolkien's Middle Earth. Just occasionally it can be hinted or implied that what is presented as an enclosed world is in fact the distant past or future of our own. It is probably also worth noting that a frequently encountered feature of entire world fantasies is some form of apprentice scenario where the young protagonist is in the process learning magic either from an older wizard or in an academy.

 

Then there are portal fantasies where a fantasy world or worlds can be entered through some form of doorway from our own world. The fantasy world generally has its own logic and it's own time with, sometimes, those who have been into it returning to find that no time has passed at all in their own world. The classic is, of course, C. S. Lewis's Narnia with, initially, the wardrobe as the portal. There can also be portals between different worlds within the fantasy, as in Pullman's Dark Materials.


A third principal classification is the dual world fantasy where a magic world exists alongside (or above or below) our own world. This magical world is often 'hidden' to a greater or lesser degree and only perceived or accessed by those with particular skills or talents, or at certain times. It can however intrude into and effect our own world, positively or negatively. Its existence and nature are often based on myths or folklore. Such a dual world underlies, for example, Susan Cooper' s wonderful Dark is Rising series.

 

The real world element of both portal and dual world fantasies can be either contemporary or historical.


No more waffle. Now for some books.