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.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill

Here is another gem of a book from an American author, although it is totally different from some of the others I have found most recently; this one is much more of an actual children's book (broadly 8-12?) rather than a young adult read. It was a delightful change, too, to come across fiction for this age group that isn't trying to be trendy or jokey. Not that there isn't a place for the cross-dressing, wimpy schoolboy Dracula and his cyber bathroom adventures with a grimy grandmother. There certainly is. But, sometimes . . .
Although not published here in the UK, The Witch's Boy can easily and quickly be sourced on line. Normally I strongly advocate supporting local bookshops, particularly independent ones. If we don't then we are in danger of losing a wonderfully enriching community resource. However, I have to say that it is a strong plus for our internet world that we can so readily discover and access books published elsewhere. It would be a great pity to miss reading delights like this one.
Whilst most definitely sited in an imagined world, this book does not inhabit the realms of 'high fantasy'; its core elements of setting, character and storyline are much closer to those of Fairy Tale, as is much of its style. Here are a mother who sews the soul of her dead son into the chest of her surviving one, giants who have been turned into stone and a stache of dangerous magic kept in a pot, There is even a deep, dark forest with a wolf, although in this case the creature in question is not particularly big and certainly not bad. This is a not a retelling of an existing tale, nor is it a pastiche; it is a highly original and entertaining story in its own right.

One of the endorsements on its back cover is from Anne Ursu, and it does not surprise me that the publishers chose this particular writer to offer comment. Although no clone, there is certainly a fairly close affinity between the tone of The Witch's Boy and Breadcrumbs, or perhaps especially her truly wonderful The Real Boy. Kelly Barnhill's book also put me in mind several times of Astrid Lindgren's classic Ronia the Robber's Daughter, first published in English in 1983, and not only because this one has a bandit's daughter too. In my mind, this is certainly not an invidious comparison, quite the opposite. Ronia is a book that in my long-past days of class teaching I read several times to different children, always to my own great pleasure and their evident delight. I would count it as one of my twentieth century greats.

There is much that is very skillful about the writing and construction of the 'Fairy Tale' that is The Witch's Boy. Whilst fully acknowledging the potency of traditional Fairy Tales, Philip Pullman points out in his introduction to his own retelling of the Grimm Tales (Penguin Books, 2012) that they are typically fast paced narratives with stock elements and little in the way of detailed description or characterisation. And this is essentially how Kelly Barnhill's book starts. However she quickly but subtly eases the reader into sharing the thoughts and feelings of her characters, particularly those of the story's two young protagonists, the witch's son and the bandit's daughter. Even though these characters are never realistic, they do soon become very real in the reader's mind. Indeed they are truly lovable, despite, or perhaps because of their undoubted flaws. They may essentially be there to represent love and friendship and real courage, but they do so most endearingly. So Kelly Barnhill's story quickly develops into into an expansion and considerable enrichment of the original genre, without altogether losing its fairy tale feel. She also pointedly, and very properly, avoids some of the gender (and animal) stereotyping associated with the traditional tales. In her story you will find that the good, wise monarch is a queen, not a king, that neither the witch nor the wolf are evil, and that some councillors, soldiers, bandits and indeed woodcutters are, quite naturally, female. The story expands considerably too from the limits of traditional Fairy Tale, not only In length and complexity, but in scope and scale. Indeed its theme of a king and his army invading a neighbour to reclaim lost territory almost approaches the world of 'high fantasy' which is so far from its starting point.

Yet despite its length and authorial sophistication, its split narratives and its rich and diverse cast of characters The Witch's Boy has a logic and integrity which enables all its threads to be comfortably brought together in an ending which coheres everything into a satisfying whole. There are elements of the story's denouement that perhaps verge on sentimentality, though certainly no more so than, say, those of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. However, they are also strong, positive and life-affirming and that is no bad thing in a book for children. Indeed there are times when those of us much older appreciate such affirmations too. And amongst the self-sacrifice, the celebration of family and friendship, of goodness and of love, there are moments of touching poignancy too, and lightness and humour. Perhaps more than anything there are moments of wonderful lyricism, for scattered throughout this beautifully written and crafted tale are frequent felicities of wording and phrasing that are truly poetic, in a way that truly enriches the flow of language rather than over embellishing it. This is unobtrusively stylish writing and most effective storytelling.

All in all, The Witch's Boy is not quite the excitingly ground breaking work that some of my other recent finds have been. However it is one of the most unashamedly enjoyable reads I have had for quite a while. It provoked a nostalgia for childhood like nothing else recently and I take that to be a very good indicator. It is a bedtime book in the best sense. Even when it is frightening or saddening it has somehow cosy undertones. And it is constantly engaging; you would want to continue reading it with a torch under the bedclothes long after lights-out. Much of this is because it is so skilfully written, both in the structure and pacing of what is a fairly long story, and in its language, which is all the more effective for being unpretentious. Although relatively complex, its narrative has a logic and cohesion which slowly reveals itself as the tale unfolds. It is, at heart, a completely refreshed and reimagined version of a core classic (possibly the core classic) of children's fiction. A boy and a girl each in their own way grow up and discover the joys and tragedies of life, learn to be themselves, and ultimately leave their comfortable homes to face a future that is unknown but exciting. The Witch's Boy is made of the very stuff of a great children's book. It will be a much loved and, I suspect, a long enduring one. UK readers don't miss out - and don't let your children or grandchildren miss out. Books like this feed and grow the imagination and indeed the 'soul'. They are the perfect antidote to too much time thumbing a tiny keypad.

This book is not Kelly Barnhill's debut. I most seek out her earlier works and add them to my reading pile.


Friday, 16 January 2015

A little reading magic


A short while ago a writer was kind enough to contact me and say that my thoughts as a reader made her feel that her book had become more than it was. This is exactly as it should be. A writer grows a book and then a reader grows it more. Writers sometimes have a little help in producing finished books and often humbly express gratitude for this in their acknowledgements. But generally a book is, in essence, the work of one person. It involves one person's imagination. When it is read it it involves two peoples' imaginations, the writer's and the reader's. Whether explicitly or not, a good writer puts much of their own experience and understanding of life into their book. A good reader adds their own experience and understanding of life too. And they are not the same. They never can be. Writers do a truly wonderful thing. In giving a book to the world they generously relinquish ownership of it. They give their own imaginings and experiences to their readers. And their readers grow from it. But the writers' characters, their worlds, their stories are not as fixed by words as some people might think. In a reader's mind they will become different because the reader's imagination and experiences are different. However the writer's experiences and the reader's are no longer separate. They are magically brought together, joined by the book. And the book grows as a result. Readers cannot give back so directly to the writer, but they do contribute enormously to the creation that is the book. The book read is more than the book written.


Monday, 12 January 2015

The Glass Sentence by S.E.Grove

Here is a mystery. One of the the most remarkable and original children's fantasy books I have come across in a vey long time has been released to fully deserved critical acclaim in the US but not yet published here in the UK. Fortunately the American hardback of The Glass Sentence can be obtained online. This in itself is no bad thing because the actual volume, just like its contents, is a remarkable and wonderous delight; its dust jacket is a translucent layer over a strong cover illustration, echoing the glass overlay in the story which carries the titular sentence. Nevertheless, some potential UK publisher is seriously missing out and sadly denying countless young British readers - and almost certainly a good many older ones too - the joy of discovering early a book that may well become a classic.

Many epic fantasy novels for children and young adults, like their counterparts in adult fiction, inhabit what is usually called the 'high fantasy' world. Conventionally this has a broadly mediaeval setting peopled by a selection of good and evil characters from groups such as kings, warriors, wizards and their apprentices, probably alongside creatures like dragons and trolls. One of the most ubiquitous features of such fantasies is the presence at the start of a wonderful hand-drawn map showing the lands of the story and, quite possibly, the journey its protagonists will take.

Less strong offerings often repetitively churn out the features of this genre in a tired and formulaic way. Delightfully there are many other authors who rework the standard conventions of high fantasy with energy and imagination or add novel twists and features to bring the genre back to exciting life. From time to time even more adventurous writers transpose the fantasy genre to some hitherto largely unexplored place or time and give it an even stronger new lease of life. This is what the wonderful Michelle Paver did when she set her splendid historical fantasy sequence The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness in the far recesses of humankind's history.

Even more rarely, however, a fantasy author imagines a world so startlingly original and inventive that it pushes the boundaries of the genre in mind-expanding, and often for the reader life-enriching, ways. This is what the enormously exciting Nigel McDowell recently did in setting his superb The Black North in a fantasy Ireland with gun-toting rebels. It is what Philip Pullman did when, in His Dark Materials, he took the artistically bold step of reimagining elements of John Milton and placing them in a children's fantasy of complex parallel worlds. It is what, in a more Sci Fi orientated fantasy, Philip Reeve did in taking the superficially ridiculous idea of cities that move about and predate one another and built around it the fully believable, absorbing and complex world of his Mortal Engines quartet. In another amazingly imaginative and original coup, it is also what S.E.Grove has done here in this first of her Mapmakers trilogy.

Of course, as with all of the wonderful creations just mentioned, The Glass Sentence utilises some of the conventional features of the children's fantasy genre. Its protagonist, Sophia, is effectively an orphan in that her parents have been long missing. This is exacerbated when the uncle who is her carer also disappears. It is her quest to find him that is the main plot line of the story. She is accompanied on most of this quest by a new close friend, Theo, another 'waif and stray', of similar age but from a very different culture. These two and their other supporters, including a crew of friendly pirates, are opposed in their mission by a mysterious and powerful adversary, Blanca. She in turn is aided by her terrifying henchmen, and all are haunted by a number of seemingly inhuman spectral figures. Many of these characters are wonderfully creations in their own right, imaginately conceived and vividly drawn, not least the hideous grappling-hook-wielding 'Sandmen' and the insidiously wailing 'Lachrima'.

However all of these elements are essentially drawn from the stock components of fantasy and children's literature. It is the world in which S.E.Grove places them that is so startlingly, staggeringly original. The milieu of The Glass Sentence is geographically based, centering on the Americas and initially located in 1890s Boston. However, in the book, the entire world has previously been shattered by a cataclysmic and unexplained 'disruption' resulting in its being sundered into multiple diverse time zones or 'Ages'. Their earth, though, is not simply a mash-up of known historical periods. In some places two or more times have become mixed or integrated resulting in bizarre and intriguing imaginative cultures.

On top of this, the author takes the concept of the map, so often just a decorative frontispiece to high fantasy volumes, expanding and exploding it with stunning imaginative force, and making it central to her whole world. For this is a 'Mapmakers' story and in it the intricate creations of esoterically educated, specialist cartographers go way beyond the conventional two dimensional representations. They go beyond even three and, indeed, stretch the concept of dimensions itself. Here maps exist in many materials, metal, sand, the titular glass and even water. Not only this but they map much more than simple place. Most remarkably of all they can map time by capturing and holding sequences of human memory across long periods.

In all of this The Glass Sentence becomes a fantasy of ideas as well as of character and action, in much the same way as does His Dark Materials. It quite simply makes you think, ponder, reflect, imagine and even re conceptualise. It treats very much matters of place and time, but it also deals with socio-political ideas, for example by opposing the creation and closing of borders with the right of free movement and a love of exploration. It uses such oppositions both as a physical realities and as a metaphors. Even when its creations move beyond the historical and geographical into the world of pure fantasy, as with the mutations of the inhabitants of the 'Baldlands' into antagonistic communities carrying the 'Mark of Iron' or the 'Mark of the Vine', it raises very real questions about genetic inheritance and prejudiced thinking.

I do not want to give the impression that this book lacks action and excitement. It has both aplenty. Its writing achieves these with great effectiveness too, most particularly in later stages where its climax is viscerally thrilling, edge of seat stuff! However it is good to have a book which also gives cause for reflection, and allows time for it.

This is the first book of a trilogy, with its second part not yet published and its third, I understand, still in the writing. It is necessary, therefore, to reserve judgement on its greatness and its possible place in the canon until the whole is completed. There are many ideas in this first volume not yet fully worked through, as well as characters not yet fully explored. The fruition of these is hopefully yet to come. Meanwhile we have to enjoy a truly wonderful story of remarkable originality.

I just wonder if UK publishers are shying away from this book because of its clearly transatlantic settings or perhaps because of its sometimes more cerebral concepts. If so, either reservation is ridiculous. This is not a short, simple read, but neither are many of the greatest children's books. The Boston of The Glass Sentence is no less universally accessible as an imaginative creation than is Lyra's Oxford. The worlds of ideas and action visited from the one need to be just as openly accessible as those from the other. No closed borders please.



Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie was recommended to me by a dear friend who is not only a world class professional musician but also a life long fantasy fiction reader. How could I not respond to so prestigious a prompt? When I subsequently discovered that this author has recently brought out his first novel specifically for YA it had to go onto my reading pile and quickly found its way to the top.

I was not disappointed. Half a King is a cracking good read.

However, originality of concept, or of the fantasy world created are not really this book's strong points. Its milieux is very much that of classic 'sword and sorcery', although with the emphasis almost entirely here on the 'sword' element. It centres on a 'Dark Age', loosly-bound confederacy of small kingdoms around the 'Shattered Sea'. The region is obviously rife with rivalries and border skirmishes although at the time of this story tenuously held in an uneasy peace. The feel of the broad civilisation is perhaps more Viking than anything, with raiders and traders reliant on oared and sailed wooden vessels. The dress of many, in what is predominantly a cold climate, is dominated by coarse cloths and furs. It is a divided society of owners and slaves, the latter usually the defeated in battle or the captive from raids. The closest to an element of sorcery is introduced with the 'ministers', a highly-trained and esoteric sect of prophets and healers, often the advisers of kings. However, their 'magic' is very low key and could be understood as little more than herbal medicines and jiggery-pokery. The iterative reference to an earlier, now lost civilisation, called by them the 'elves', but actually with its ruins of concrete and steel buildings clearly telegraphed as something akin to our own, is perhaps the nearest element of all to a cliché. This may have been a shockingly new concept at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, but is no longer anywhere near so. Of course it will be far less old hat to many of this book's younger readers, so may well be more of an intriguing element for them than it was for me.

The principal element of the story involves young king who is betrayed, sold into slavery and transported to the other end of his world just as he is coming into power. He then has to struggle his long way back for revenge. Much of this is far from new. It has certain elements of the biblical Joseph, and even more resonance with Ben Hur, especially with its long section where the protagonist is a galley slave. In more contemporary parallel, its plotting shares at least some elements too with the movie Gladiator. Again, though, these may well mean little to its young readers and, of course, each one of these stories is acknowledged as a very powerful one.

Indeed what Half a King lacks, perhaps, in originality it more than makes up for in the strength, engagement and truly visceral excitement of its story telling. This is a page-turner par excellence and both language and narrative structure are handled by the author with consummate skill. The whole story of this comparative weakling's betrayal and of his long struggle home, on the way finding himself as an individual and a king, are completely gripping. The characters too are wonderfully imagined and drawn. The motley cast with which the protagonist finds himself on the ship, many of whom then become his companions on the long journey back, are varied, vivid and very engaging. There is excitement and incident aplenty too, and of course fights, won and lost. But it is ultimately the many clever and often unforeseen twists in the tale that enthral and delight most. The double twist at the end (enough said) is one of the great triumphs of contemporary fiction.

Originality is wonderful when you find it, but it is not everything. Joe Anercrombie shows here how great story telling can itself be the making of a great book.

As an avid collector as well as reader of children's fantasy fiction I love the sensuous joy, the special feel and smell, of an attractive hardback - both old ones and brand new ones too. Half a King seems to have been more or less simultaneously published here and in the USA. I often find that US production values for the physical book are much higher than ours. They frequently produce truly beautiful hardbacks and I sometimes seek out the American editions in preference to UK ones. (Although I certainly don't neglect our own book shops either, particularly the independent ones; national treasures who so much need our support.) With Half a King though, the two editions are more similar than is often the case, and I admit I am torn. The predominantly white UK version has an evocative illustration and a wonderfully tactile dust jacket, whilst the more classic, black US version has considerable power and impact, just like the story. Perhaps I will have to get both.