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 October 2015

Half the World, Half a War by Joe Abercrombie

 

Joe Abercrombie here continues his Shattered Sea trilogy. Anyone who enjoyed the first volume, Half a King (and there was much to enjoy, see my post from January 2015) will not be disappointed by this powerful follow-up.

Although the world building remains rather unoriginal, it can be regarded as traditional for such 'sword and sorcery' fantasy: a basically 'Dark Age', Vikingesque society of small, warring kingdoms. In the first book it was subtly revealed that it is actually a post-apocalyptic world, where the occasional remains of an earlier, much higher, civilisation are now considered 'elf relics' redolent with dark magic. This aspect is further interestingly developed in this volume. However this too is a concept that has been used a good many times before. The world of the 'Shattered Sea' is nevertheless graphically and convincingly presented. Joe Abercrombie's real power of imagination - and it is very considerable - lies in conjouring up for the reader the most vivid and viscerally experienced environments and events. Often these build from intense detail which brings the reader right into the heart of landscapes, climates, events. He is perhaps most effective of all in bringing to most engaging life the appearance, nature, actions, thoughts and feelings of his characters. This writer peoples his world with characters, who, whether intensely likeable (which many are), truly hateful (ditto), enigmatic, or ambiguous, are always richly drawn, and believably human. We are fully drawn into their world and live through every thrilling moment with them

This is still emphatically YA and not children's reading. As well as a focus on emergent sexual relationships, it includes often extreme and graphic violence compensating for an absence of 'sorcery' with copious amounts of 'sword'. Yet it remains superlative storytelling from a master of both narrative structure and evocative language. Blood-pounding tension courses through the veins of this book.

In this second volume Joe Abercrombie introduces two new counterpointed protagonists: Thorn, a scrawny but tough girl who lives to fight, and win, and Brand, a muscular and handsome boy who consistently wishes to do right and begins to count the cost of conflict. For all its guts and gore, of which there is a very great deal, Half the World is essentially a love story, a story of powerful love awkwardly crystallising out of an uneasy relationship between these two seeming opposites. It is a most affecting one too. In many ways it is quintessential YA material; two young people growing into themselves, who truly find each other only when they each discover who they are individually - or perhaps the reverse. However the story is far more complex than this too. Although it centres on the new characters it also moves on the development of many characters from the earlier book, albeit now in more subsidiary roles. The context is a major quest, essentially a there-and-back-again journey, the purpose of which is to set up alliances in readiness for the 'global' war that is becoming more and more inevitable. In this, Joe Abercrombie skilfully sets up the impending third volume of his trilogy, without letting this one feel that is is just a 'middle book'. It is jam packed full of viscerally exciting incident, much of course sanguinous, and quite a few of the twists and turns so typical of this master storyteller. He pulls out yet another major surprise in the wildly thrilling and magnificently written climactic scene too. Through it all, however, Brand's growing antipathy to violent conflict, and his very humane response to its resulting horrors, prevent the book as a whole from glorifying its violence.

It is also good to see, in Thorn and Brand, the mould of gender stereotypes so emphatically broken through a girl-boy relationship where yin and yang roles are essentially reversed. In the startling juxtaposition of their attitudes these two protagonists embody the complex relationship between 'Mother War' and 'Father Peace', between conflict and compassion, which this trilogy is starting more and more deeply to explore.

The first two volumes of The Shattered Sea trilogy are fine books. This third is a glorious triumph of skilful writing which brings the whole to an exciting climax, involves much thought provoking resolution, leaves other issues disturbingly unresolved and reveals the whole as far more than the sum of its parts.

Joe Abercrombie builds his tale with consummate skill. Although introducing many interesting and important characters, the first book is one boy's story, that of Yarvi, the tricked, deposed and exiled 'half king', fighting his way back towards revenge. The complex world of the 'Shattered Sea ' is revealed and explored, as it were, through his eyes. Half the World, in contrast, has two key protagonists, the fierce Thorn, and the peace seeking Brand. The narrative perspective engagingly alternates between them as the author crafts a heart thumping build towards impending war. The same rich, complex world as that of Half a King, is seen through different eyes, but Yarvi and others from the earlier book are still developed as secondary characters. This third book introduces two more new principal characters, Skara, young inheritor of the devastated Bail's Point, and born fighter Raith. It also brings to the fore woodcarver and apprentice 'mage' Koll, introduced in the previous episode. Its narration therefore now picks up three perspectives, and through them continues to follow the many strands now unravelling. The narrative structures thus become more complex as the trilogy develops, echoing the horrendous events through which the world of the Shattered Sea is now propelled. The resultant tensions are emmersively gripping. As the crowning creation of Half a War progresses we realise that what its author has created is almost a Russian doll of a tale, stories nestled within stories. Encasing all, is the story of Yarvi, with so many lives and destinies shaped by the decisions and actions he made and continues to make.

And Joe Abercrombie has a genius for twisting a tale in ways or at times we readers least expect. His narrative is often surprising, shocking, sometimes devastating, and always gripping.

In building his fantasy Joe Abercrombie's superlative imagination does not take us on flights of whimsical invention but rather into the very moment of what it is like to love, live, fight and die in his rich, if belligerent, world. His tale is horrendously violent and bloody. He describes every manoeuvre, every clash, sometimes every blow of battle as well as anyone I have encountered, putting to adrenaline pounding service his masterly command of language, his detailed knowledge and research of ancient weapons and warfare and of course his awesome power as a storyteller.*

In this third book the writer finally fully exploits his conceit that his current wold is build on the ruins of an earlier much more advanced civilisation. He gives one side in the battle of the Shattered Sea access to weapons that are literally devastating, raising many of the most profound questions about so-called progress, and what armed conflict has come to mean in our own time. At its heart this is a story of war, in all its graphic horror. However it is also much more. So very much more.

On one level Joe Abercrombie's stunning trilogy is pessimistic, cynical. There is no war to end all wars. War just begets more war. It is never glorious, Winning is never life's greatest triumph. His themes in The Shattered Sea are many and complex. It is about life lost and life discovered, both because of and despite war. It is about the lust for fighting and the longing for peace. It is about how each of these can, ironically, lead to the other. It is about the sword and the word, about when to fight and when to talk, and about when not to do either. It is about the necessity to protect one's own, but also about what more is lost when one does. It is about the corrupting nature of revenge. It is about love found and love lost, love won, love denied, love repudiated and love stolen. It is about going on when there is nothing left to go on for. It is about seeking out and building a future despite everything. It is a rich, complex, violent, gruesome, humane, tender work. It is wonderful.

I can only again express my admiration for the masterly skill in storytelling that oozes from every sentence, every page, every chapter of this trilogy, but most of all from the conception and execution of its awe inspiring whole.

 

*Bernard Cornwell is another such, but his books are not so directly geared to YA.

 

Friday, 16 October 2015

Railhead by Philip Reeve

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Despite a childhood which included, for a time, a modest Hornby layout on my bedroom floor (once around the dirty socks, a station of piled homework and a tunnel under the bed) I would not have expected to be a huge enthusiast for a book about a rail network. But I am. Railhead has just proved to be one of those rare and precious reading experiences where the desperate desire to know how intriguing things turn out fights with a longing for it all not to end, not to have to leave a truly engrossing world or to say goodbye to characters I have come to care deeply about. It was one of those reads where closing the final pages brought a feeling almost of bereavement; memories which would be held close for a long time wrapped in the wrench of an immediate experience lost. This book is that good.

Of course I have long rated Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series (now republished as Predator Cities) amongst the great works of children's imaginative literature. (See my post from February '15.)

In a quite different vein, I also enjoyed enormously his Here Lies Arthur (2007). Alongside my passion for fantasy, I am something of aficionado of King Arthur novelisations, particularly ones which explore the relationship between the 'historical' and the legendary leader. In fact l have a full shelf of related children's titles, ranging right from George Finkle's haunting Twilight Province from back in 1976, through Rosemary Sutcliff and such delights as Anne McCaffrey's Black Horses for the King to Michael Morpurgo and, of course, Kevin Crossley Holland's now almost classic Arthur trilogy. Philip Reeve's book holds a worthy place alongside these eminent neighbours.

Even so I was taken aback that Railhead is quite such a wonderful book as it is. I probably shouldn't have been, but I was. This book turned out to tick all my boxes for an outstanding work of children's fantasy fiction: it is strikingly original and superbly imaginative; it builds a fascinating world peopled with engaging characters; it is written with masterly richness - and it is a devastatingly exciting story to boot. On top of all this, it has a great deal to say for itself and many questions to ask of the reader. It is a book to think about as well as to enjoy.

Of course, it is probably more accurate to label it sci-fi rather than fantasy - but here the line is very narrow. It does build its world in a futuristic ultra science context rather than a mythical one. It does feature sentient trains, humanoid robots, peoples who rely on advanced communication and uber technology and 'gods' who are complex data sets. But its trains are not too far removed from dragons, its androids elves or dwarfs, its masters of technology magicians. This is a brilliantly magical world.

Certainly, there are elements of this story which draw on 'fantasy' tradition and precedents. The opening gambit of a petty thief being recruited by a sinister 'magician' to steal something much more significant, as is Zen, the protagonist, here, has certainly been seen before. Similarly the idea of a boy who thought himself of lowly origin turning out to be far less so is not novel. However these story elements are not to the book's detriment. Rather, they link it to its narrative traditions. Beyond this, though, the whole universe which Philip Reeve conceives, with its anthropomorphic trains* travelling a network that regularly crosses vast distances of space, is unique and arresting. Similarly it is peopled with most imaginatively conceived characters and technologies. Foremost amongst these are the K-gates which allow the trains to cross space instantaneously. Also conceived with stunning imagination are the Hive Monks, creatures made up of colonies of bugs which can animate themselves in humanoid form (just about). Similarly striking are the ethereal Station Angels, shimmering 'after effects' of K-gate travel, who may just be more then they seem. The whole concept is brilliant, in both senses of the word. Philip Reeve is one of the most imaginative contemporary writers we have.

As befits such an admired and experienced writer, his use of language and control of style and structure are also nothing short of masterly. When, for example, he describes Zen's passion as a 'railhead', his compulsion for riding the trains, Philip Reeve does not take us into any world of dull, sad anoraks but immediately shares with us all the adrenaline rush, all the exhilaration of riding the silver rails and crashing with an 'un-bang' from one world to the next. It is quite magical writing giving us an equally magical vicarious experience. And this is only the start of a thrilling rush of story, thrillingly told. One un-bang after another.

At the very heart of the book is a very simple love story - or it would perhaps be simple if did not involve two beings - Zen and the android 'wire dolly', Nova - between whom no one would have considered such a relationship even remotely conceivable . It is therefore about love which transcends all prejudice, all taboos, transcends even the possible, and, in consequence, is of profound significance. I well recall the relationship between Tom and Hester, which begins so spikily in Mortal Engines, as one of the most wonderfully conceived and developed in all of children's literature. That between Zen and Nova is, in its way, just as affective and just as memorable.

Perhaps most important of all for me, though, is that Railhead breaks the mould of the strongest and most exploited convention of fantasy fiction : that it is centrally about a conflict between the light and the dark; that it involves the hard-won triumph of good over an unspeakable evil, which was threatening the whole of life.

I spent much of the novel intriguided by which of the rather ambiguous key characters were going to turn out to be good or evil, which 'side' they were on. Only later was I brought to the realisation that no one in this fascinating world is clearly either one or the other. Characters, relationships and the reader's perceptions of them continually and subtly shift. Some fail to become what they could be, others are as surprised by the way things turn out. Some are simply out for themselves, others are revealed to be less selfish than they seemed. But there are no 'sides' in an absolute sense. This is a more subtle, more complex world than that, and the book is a richer and more rewarding reading experience for it.

Ultimately Railhead is about the need for a new beginning, a new beginning on a cosmic scale. However it is not a new beginning that is needed because the universe is evil, black. This fresh start is needed because life is tired, too comfortable, too rigid, too controlled, too safe. The network has become too self-contained. This universe and its story poses questions, and challenges, for us all. Zen is not a hero of legend. He is the potential hero in us all. He is after all the petty thief, the struggling survivor, not the knight in shining armour, or even the simple hobbit. He just comes to see when a new start is needed, and, ultimately, has the courage to make it happen.

In the main it will probably only be older readers who pick up and are entertained by the literary and musical references in many of the names Philip Reeve selects, or by his subtly inserted quotes from Casablanca; but I am older and I was entertained. It is one of the many endearing things about the 'motorik', Nova, that she loves that old film. She is one of the many great creations of this book - that is if you don't count the Hive Monks, or the trains, or the Station Angels, or Flex, or Zen, or . . .

Railhead is abundant in originality and imagination, rich in characters and story, captivating in its world building, mould breaking in its ambivalent morality, and enthralling in its sensitive questioning of how, when and why we, and the world, need a fresh start. It is one of my books of the year so far, probably a book of the decade, possibly . . .

We should all 'Listen . . .'


*Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends break bad.

 

 

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Some more fine 'misfits'

Every now and then I find myself reading a children's or YA book which does not really fit in at all with the fantasy theme of my blog but which is sufficiently remarkable to make me wish to record and recommend it. So here is another clutch of these outstanding 'misfits'.
 
 
I much admired, and greatly enjoyed, Katherine Rundell's compelling and original Rooftoppers. The Wolf Wilder is a very different, but no less wonderful, book.
 
It has many outstanding features. One that it does share with its predecessor is a splendidly gutsy and strongly drawn girl protagonist. Here Feo, who shares with her mother the very special role of 'wolf wilder', is no fragile flower. Her body is sturdy and scarred, her hair is wayward, her clothes are dirty and stink of wolf and she reportedly hugs with the strength of one too. Her determination and courage are formidable, but her considerable internal beauty also shines through like a beacon. She is a human being to die for. Also characterfully drawn are her two principal companions. Whilst one, Alexei, is in embryo a committed revolutionary fighter, the other, Ilya, is a boy soldier who would rather be a ballet dancer instead. Ilya, however, has considerable courage and loyal strength of his own and, whilst he may have something of Billy Elliot in his conception, it is nevertheless most valuable to have another role model for artistically-aspiring boys so tellingly portrayed in quality literature.
 
The Wolf Wilder in an engrossing and exciting adventure too, the tale of Feo's gruelling treck through the hardships of a Russian winter to find and rescue her wrongly arrested mother. It also has an uber villain, a megalomaniac general in the nominal service of an ineffectual Tzar. This context gives everything much deeper and resonant meaning. Whilst it is, in itself, a story of much needed popular resistance to oppression in pre-revolutionary Russia, it also resonates with so many situations in the world, past and present, where ordinary people need to stand up against mindlessly cruel tyranny, be this on a large or on a small scale.
 
Woven into all this is one of the most sure-fire winners of literature, the exploration of a deep relationship between a human being and particular, special animals. In this book Feo's bond with her, almost wild, wolves is as remarkable as it is profound. However it is never sentimental. Feo's wolves claw her, piss on her, sometimes ignore her. Yet the bond between them is deep, real, compelling and sometimes heart-rending. The Wolf Wilder is everything that an animal story can be - and so much more.
 
Over and above all these, however, the real triumph of this book is the consummate skill with which it is written. Its language is elegantly simple. It is never verbose but always thrillingly apt and magically evocative. Its frequent images are rich and often startlingly original, sometimes breathtaking in their insightful evocation of mood and moment. The descriptions are so tellingly vivid that, as a reader you share every moment. It seems almost impossible, for example, to read of Feo's struggling through the 'blind cold' of the worst of Russian winter without stopping to blink the frost from your own eyelashes, or to witness Ilya dancing in a campfire clearing without feeling the lift of your own wild jeté.
 
This makes The Wolf Wilder a very special book indeed. It is one that I am sure will be read, enjoyed and revered for many years to come. As Katherine Rundell's Feo says, 'It's book gold. It lasts a long time.'
 
Incidentally the UK hardback edition is itself a physically beautiful volume. Its fine production values are much enhanced by Gerlev Ongbico's wonderful illustrations. These capture the book's mood perfectly and speak eloquently of Russia, of the snow, and, of course, of wolves. More glisten to the gold.
 
 

 

I have been enthralled by Ancien Egypt ever since I did a project on Tutankhamen in primary school. However I know of very little high quality children's fiction set in that fascinating historical context. Of course there have been fantasies and time slips involving modern children going back to Ancient Egypt or featuring Egyptian gods, 'mummies' and the like intruding into our own world, but that's not the same. Very few writers have successfully recreated the actual history of the period as a background to children's fiction. Perhaps this stems from the difficulty of creating characters who are engaging and understandable to a contemporary children's audience yet do not think, talk or behave in ways jarringly anachronistic for such a remote and alien culture.

It is enormously to the credit of Jamie Buxton that he achieves exactly that. It is even more remarkable that he does so through the first person narrative voice of an Ancient Egyptian boy. His protagonist is lively, likeable, and often funny, but still largely credible as living in the Egypt of the pharaohs. He does think and act in a way consistent with the period, at least allowing for the imaginative interpretation of any historical fiction, yet is still someone with whom the contemporary child can easily identify and empathise. The author's chosen background period too, the turbulent reign of the strange and 'heretic' pharaoh, Akenaten, contains much historical accuracy combined with recreation based on reputable academic theory and speculation. Of course the actual adventure is somewhat less likely, but not altogether incongruous. It is also exciting and involving. The secondary characters are often most interestingly three-dimensional too, including the pharoh's daughter, Mekataten, as well as Akenaten himself and his wife Nefertiti. This is a romp, but an intelligent romp. Beneath its high adrenaline shenanigans the book has some worthwhile ideas to explore and some valuable things to say, not least about the true meaning of freedom. All of these combine to make Sun Thief an impressive piece of writing and a most enjoyable read. This is ancient history brought excitingly alive for contemporary children without it being turned totally into modern tosh.