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.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Tears of the Salamander by Peter Dickinson



Before leaving Peter Dickinson (see previous post) I must also recommend his other late fantasy, The Tears of the Salamander. If Angel Isle constitutes the height of his high fantasy writing, this book is something rather different, but equally special. For all its originality, richness and complexity, Angel Isle is essentially a typical children's epic fantasy. The Tears of the Salamander is a masterpiece of metaphysical imagining. Much shorter than Angel Isle, and in many respects much simpler in its storyline, this book treats of deep esoteric and spiritual issues, presented, often, with almost poetic intensity. Metaphor constantly underlies the matter of the narrative, and descriptions of its magic are often deliberately elusive of rational understanding. This adds considerably to its ethereal hold, but also make it a challenging read. It will not, I suspect, be to all tastes, but is a book which will prove gripping, powerful and deeply affecting for those who do respond to it.

Yet for all its depth and challenge, the core story of The Tears of the Salamander is a relatively simple one. In essence this is a classic fantasy tale of a wizard's apprentice. An orphaned boy is taken in by and groomed to inherit the mantle of his uncle, a dark and powerful sorcerer.

However, layers of imagery are quickly built through it. As a young boy, Alfredo has a beautiful treble voice and is selected as chorister by a cathederal in his native Italy. Singing there means the world to him, and comes to represent a lightness and airiness, a spirituality, purity and joy of experience, even if the portrayed Church itself is not altogether the high moral institution it should be. Also, through these boyhood years, he assists his skilled baker father in tending a number of his ovens, and shows an amazing affinity with fire. He is thus able to tame this potentially wild and fierce element and put it to positive use. However when Alfredo is about to move into adolescence, and his voice to break, a far less controlled fire destroys the bakery and leaves him orphaned and in the care of the cathedral. The Church authorities threaten to prolong his childish singing talent unnaturally by turning him into a castrato but he is saved by his sorcerer uncle who takes him off to Sicily. There Uncle Giorgio is the mysterious and powerful master of the volcano. He trains Alfredo to use his beautiful singing to help harvest the tears of one of the salamanders who live deep in the mountain's fires. Alfredo's talents link the purity and order of his earlier life with the elemental power of the volcano. But are his singing and his affinity with fire being corrupted, and will he be so too? Peter Dickinson explores with great subtlety and skill the strange and often mystical relationship between singing and fire, between boy and mountain, between salamander and sorcerer, and between awesome power and sublime music.

There are comparatively few key characters in the story. However, in addition to Alfredo and his uncle there are two very significant others, Giorgio's mute housekeeper and her apparently 'simple' son. Just as with his limited but potent skein of images, out of this quartet of rich characters Peter Dickinson weaves a complex fabric of shifting relationships, incorporating quite a few shocks on the way. It is quite wonderful writing.

To me, this novel is a recent equivalent to Alan Garner's The Owl Service, and, even closer perhaps, to Ursula K LeGuin's The Tombs of Atuan. Not that the story is at all like either of these. Rather that, drawing on myth and fantasy, it uses image and extended metaphor to build great depth and resonance into an apparently simple story. Also that it merits similar classic status.

I hope that this book will be rediscovered and read widely. It is a gem of children's literature, a wonderful model of both the art and the craft of writing from an author who has honed his use of language and form over a long lifetime as a successful author. Despite, too, many of its more mystical passages being deliberately elusive, this book's fundamental moral message is very clear And it is a vital one for our world. Power is too often used selfishly, resulting in great evil. We must learn instead to use it for good.


Monday, 25 January 2016

Angel Isle by Peter Dickinson


The sad death of Peter Dickinson (age 88) just before Christmas has prompted me to reread some of his books. He was undoubtedly one of the great children's writers producing a wonderful canon of enormously rich and varied fiction throughout the later half of the last century and into this one. Although I have seen this achievement fully acknowledged in several obituaries, his work had perhaps fallen a little out of the eye of today's young readers, which is a great shame as most of his books are still as relevant and downright readable as ever. I was pleased to see that his groundbreaking, early trilogy The Changes and several other great titles have recently been relaunched by US based 'Open Road Media'. Hopefully this will reawaken more general interest. Amongst many other remarkable works of his, my personal favourites include the startlingly imaginative The Kin, which gives four individual perspectives of the lives of the very first hominids, and Eva, a devastating book about the most extreme 'medical' intervention and the relationshp of human beings with (and to) other animals. His books cover a most eclectic range of genres and styles, although few are less than wonderfully original, thought provoking and engrossing. Not many of them are fantasy, though, at least not in the sense of magical fantasy. However, in the later 2000s, when well into his seventies, he did write a handful of high fantasy novels, which therefore do qualify as Magic Fiction Since Potter, even though they show no particular influence of J K Rowling; Peter Dickinson was always totally his own writer.

The first of this little clutch of fantasies is one I read several years ago, The Ropemaker. It was followed by a much shorter but far more challenging read, The Tears of the Salamander (about which I shall perhaps write in detail in a furture post). Both are well worth seeking out.

This book, Angel Isle is actually a sequel to The Ropemaker, although either could be read independently. It takes up the world of The Ropemaker, but several generations later, when the earlier narrative has become a folklorish tale to the later inhabitants. It therefore has a completely new set of principal characters, with the exception of the Ropemaker himself, who is one of those archetype wizard/magicians who live a very extended lifespan.

As in The Ropemaker, many of the key tropes for the world of Angel Isle are drawn from the 'Arabian Nights' tradition, rather than Celtic or Norse sources, giving the fantasy a refreshingly different 'Eastern' feel. Here winged horses, a Roc, turbaned magicians and huge demons populate the magical reality. However the creation in its entirety is far from derivative, and far from simple. The topography and politics involve a nested situation where a particular valley, kept largely isolated and safe, sits within a magic dominated 'medieval' empire, itself an enclave within in a world which is essentially non-magical but has much more advanced technologies. This is further extended and complicated by alternative universes constructed in entirely different and incompatible dimensions, but which have 'touching points' with the world of the narrative. The Magic is rich and complex too, as is the ability to perform it. There are magicians of various levels of skill, from those performing lowly, everyday 'hedge magic', to those of high rank and astounding talents, others who simply possess particular magical abilities and many others with only that level of natural magic which emanates from all human beings. There are also objects and talismans which have powers of their own and can endow these to humans who otherwise have none. Then there is Maja, the principal protagonist of this tale, who has no powers of her own, but is incredibly sensitive to magic around her. Alongside all these are to be found demons, bound or otherwise, and enigmatic creatures who exist in more than one universe at the same time.

Threats to this magical world are presented by the corrupted magicians, the 'Watchers', who rule The Empire, and also by non-magical, warmongering 'pirates' invading it from outside. Yet the core storyline is not in itself complex. It is basically a 'there and back again' quest, where Maja and a small group of magical and non-magical companions travel a long and adventurous journey to find the Ropemaker, seek to rid the Empire of the ' Watchers' and try to save it from invasion.

There are several senses in which this is an old person's book. That is to say, not one aimed particularly at an old readership, but one written by an author and human being of long and rich experience. It is perhaps a self indulgent book, with much detail and description of place, thoughts, feelings and actions during the protagonists' long journey; a book which might have received much more severe editing had it been from a less experienced writer. Yet, for the right reader, this works very much to its benefit; it is a book in which you can get lost, live long, come to know the characters well and commit to sharing every up and down of their quest. For high fantasy fans it is a wonderful wallow of a book.

The masterly writing of Angel Isle also demonstrates the age and experience of its author. The novel is certainly the product of someone who has honed his craft as a storyteller, and as a manipulator of our language. It is essentially Maja's story and told from her perspective. But Peter Dickinson eschews a first person narrative, which limits its scope to what the protagonist experiences or knows about. Even more pertinently he eschews the potentially tedious 'historic' present tense which seems to have become so trendy of late. (Sally Green, in their brilliant Half Bad sequence, is the only contemporary children's/YA writer I have yet experienced who really pulls this off with aplomb.) Yet, he still succeeds in taking us, for much of the time, right inside the thoughts, feelings, and indeed the sensory perceptions of Maja. One of the finest examples of this is the way he successfully allows us to share Maja's experience of being a rag doll. (What? It's a long story. You will have the read it for yourself.) Very clever. It is amazingly effective - and affecting.

Peter Dickinson's age also shows in his wisdom, his understanding of life and people. This is a fundamentally moral and humane book, without ever being in the least sanctimonious. It also much concerned with death and endings, without ever being morbid or gloomy. It contains many passages that are simply beautiful. Its depiction of the death of the Ropemaker* may be romanticised but it is nevertheless moving and uplifting. Many of its descriptions of magic are quite magical, which is not always the case in fantasy. And, if its depiction of a person from a five dimensional universe trying to understand the experience of a seven dimensional one is rather baffling, then it would be wouldn't it? It is ethereal and mystical too, as it should be.

Late in the book, when Maja's adventure is over and she is is flying home on her winged horse, she sees, passing below her, many fascinating places whose stories she will now never know. Clearly the author is thinking of stories that still lurk somewhere in his head, but which he may never write. Similarly we can reflect on all the other potential books from Peter Dickinson's wonderful and original imagination which we shall now never read. It is a very poignant passage. However we are fortunate that so many of his children's novels are left to us.

Angel Isle is perhaps the pinnacle of Peter Dickinson's fantasy writing. Young people who have developed reading stamina, and any older readers, who enjoy losing themselves in a rich, complex, thought provoking and rewarding fantasy are strongly recommend to seek it out.


* I don't think mention of this is really a serious spoiler, as it is presented as predictable and indeed inevitable for much of the story.