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Books To Look For
Kingfisher, by Patricia A. McKillip, Ace, 2016, $27.
Dreams of Distant Shores, by Patricia A. McKillip, Tachyon, 2016, $15.95.
People who don't read her, or haven't read much of her, tend to think of McKillip as someone who writes gentle high fantasies and has a gift for lyrical prose. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the first book to really bring her to the attention of genre readers, fits that bill. As does her most famous work, The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy, although I'd argue that both have an edge under the pastoral secondary world trappings.
Her latest novel, Kingfisher, doesn't appear any more subversive on the surface. The viewpoints switch around, but the first character we spend some time with is Pierce Oliver, a young man who works in the kitchen of his mother's restaurant in Desolation Point, a place that doesn't appear on any map.
There's a high fantasy feel to the setting, the place names, the theme of young Pierce being slightly dissatisfied with his lot in life until he discovers that his father was a knight from the king's court, his mother Heloise a sorceress who has hidden him away for safety. When he sets off from the small fishing village where he has lived all his life to find his father, it's not so much to make his fortune as to make sense of his life.
Prince Daimon is the youngest son of King Arden. Unlike Pierce, he knows who his father is, but not his mother. He too needs to make sense out of his life, especially when he discovers who his mother is, the hidden realm in which she lives, and the charge she lays upon him.
Back near Desolation Point, in the Kingfisher Bar and Grill in Chimera Bay, a young cook named Carrie has her own parental issues, though in her case it's that her father seems a bit mad, or drunk, or both, and rarely speaks to her, spending his nights running wild in the forest. There are mysteries at the Kingfisher Bar and Grill, as well. She can feel them swelling in the air around her, but no one will speak of them to her, any more than her father will speak to her.
When King Arden sends his knights on a quest for a magical cauldron, the lives of the three become entangled, and ancient stories come alive to play out upon the maps of their lives.
Unlike most secondary world fantasy taking place in some sort of mock medieval setting, we soon discover that this world has cars and roads and cell phones and all manner of modern trappings. The place names and McKillip's timeless prose only invite the earlier presupposition. I loved the way this felt.
I also loved how McKillip doesn't bother to go into explanations of how the magic works in her world. Pierce's mother can inhabit the body of animals and see through their eyes. When he's aware that she's looking at him through the eyes of a crow, it's simply stated, adding to the story's sense of wonder instead of bogging it down with unnecessary baggage.
The title of the book—Kingfisher—is a giveaway as to its underlying theme. This is an Arthurian story, through and through, with all the familiar elements set slightly askew but no less recognizable for that.
And if you like food and the idea of magical cooking, you'll find a wealth of it in these pages. My only regret is that as readers we don't get to try any of the magical dishes described. However, my appetite certainly increased as I read.
Kingfisher is McKillip writing at the peak of her game—which is amazing when you consider how long she's been at it. I loved the richness of the story and characters, the mingling of old with new, mythic with contemporary, and can't wait to reread it.
Dreams of Distant Shores, while recognizably McKillip in all the ways that matter, offers some new colors to the palette of her storytelling. There's not a wrong note here, from the opening story, the claustrophobic "Weird," where a couple are hiding in a bathroom from some monstrosity outside their apartment building and tell stories to each other about the odd things in their lives, to the gorgeous "Something Rich and Strange" that closes the book with its meditations on oceans and faerie and human relations with both, and of course with one another.
This edition also includes an afterword by Peter S. Beagle and a short essay about writing fantasy by McKillip which closes with one of the best reasoning points on the question of the importance of fantasy in the broader spectrum of literature:
"At its best, fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies within the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over again, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven't heard the end of it yet."
Some authors we read for their characters and their plots, others for the beauty of their language. I read Pat McKillip for all three. She's gifted beyond compare, a National Treasure who should be cherished by all lovers of literature.
The Land of the Green Man: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles, by Carolyne Larrington, I. B. Tauris, 2015, $35.
I've long been fascinated with books that are sort of travelogs, combining descriptions of landscape with their geological beginnings and the history, myth, and folktales that are rooted in them. My interest began years ago. It might be speculative archaeology such as Barry Fell's America B.C., which delves into the history of the Americas that we're never taught in school, or tours of mysterious places such as can be found in The Secret Country by Janet and Colin Bord. Stone circles, henges, hill forts, and burial mounds.
My favorites are the little booklets you can pick up on your own travels, local histories and folklore collections written by some dedicated lover of their own area, sometimes crudely produced and/or written, but invariably filled with nuggets of lore.
I think my love of this sort of material came from my father's bookshelves, which were full of books about the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, Europe. When we lived in the Middle East, he made a point of taking us to every ruin we could visit in a day's drive from wherever we might be living at the time (which included Istanbul, Ankara, Beirut, and Cairo). When we left Ankara to catch the boat home in the Netherlands, we drove across Europe, and he planned our route to take in as many sites of historical importance as we could fit in along the way.
On our return home, the books he collected as we traveled remained to be explored over the years, and my sister and I did just that.
Caroline Larrington's The Land of the Green Man falls into the tradition of those little local histories mentioned above, except her book is beautifully produced and written, and her locale is the whole of the British Isles. But it reminded me of those booklets, especially when she turns to personal anecdotes of her own journeys through the landscape.
The trip takes us from Land's End in Cornwall with its walking dead all the way north to Sanday in Orkney where you might see a selkie; from Ben Bulben in Ireland, home of the sidhe; to Norwich in Norfolk, a haunt of the Green Man.
The sheer richness and depth of the lore to be found here, presented in almost conversational prose, makes it a delight to read. It's the sort of book you would want to have easy access to should you find yourself traveling about the British Isles, or to just delve in and read a few pages of while you've a moment or two to spare.
That being said, I was rather surprised to find that there is no digital version available. The Land of the Green Man isn't the weightiest of tomes, but it's still more than you would want to carry around in your backpack or under your arm as you run about doing errands and foresee some time stuck in line-ups.
A few specifics. It's lightly illustrated, but the inclusion of these illustrations appears somewhat arbitrary, and the reproduction quality is terrible. The endpapers feature a very useful map with a legend that points the reader to the many points of interest covered in the book. The notes are comprehensive, there's a very useful index, and the Further Reading list, while a little short, features a solid shelf of books that I'd readily recommend myself. It finishes up with a list of some websites with which I'm unfamiliar but which sound like they'd bear further attention.
I might seem a bit nitpicky above, but it's good to weigh the pros and cons of a book such as this. Overall, The Land of the Green Man would make a good, solid addition to the library of anyone interested in British folklore. Yes, you can find a lot of this material through a Google search, but following Larrington's journey through the Isles, and the warm tone of her prose, can't be duplicated by hopping through various on-line hyperlinks.
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, Penguin, 2010, $16.
I completely missed these books when they were first published (The Magicians is the first of a trilogy that also includes The Magician's Land and The Magician King). Instead, I caught the first episode of the TV series and was intrigued with its young adult treatment of a college for wizardry that was so different in attitude from, say, the travails of the students attending Hogwarts. The students of Brakebills College are cynical, the magic is complicated, and there's not a warm fuzzy feeling in sight.
On the TV series we're introduced to Quentin and Julia, both of whom find themselves in the perplexing position of taking an entrance examination to be accepted at Brakebills College—a place they've never heard of and they have no idea how they got there. The pair have been friends for years, sharing an interest in magic due to their fascination with a series of books set in the magical world of Fillory (think Narnia).
Quentin is accepted, but Julia isn't. Her memories are supposed to be erased (because Brakebills, like Hogwarts, is a secret school), but the mind wipe doesn't take. In a storyline that feels like a junkie's descent, Julia finds herself navigating the dark and seedy world of hedge witches to learn what Brakebills refused to teach her.
Quentin, meanwhile, is struggling with the impossibility of what he's experiencing. He's always been miserable and socially awkward (accurately portrayed on the show to the point of being painful to watch at times), but as he comes to accept the reality of his position—magic exists and he's a magician, though neither is quite what he expected—he also comes to understand that his beloved Fillory exists, but it, too, is different. Less the Narnia-like paradise he imagined and far more dangerous.
The episodes I watched felt a little choppy or rushed at times, but the tone captured a real sense of wonder. So I got myself a copy of the first book in the series, because, more often than not, the book will be better, and I wanted to see how Grossman handled his own characters.
My first surprise was that Julia is barely in the book. She's the most intriguing character on the show, where her struggle for identity and magic is a powerful journey. Around a third of each episode is devoted to that storyline. In the book she gets maybe twenty pages, overall, and none of it reflects her travails on the show.
The second surprise is that the book is much darker in tone. Quentin is more miserable, if that's possible, and the various characters are self-centered and at least somewhat unlikable most of the time. The magic retains its sense of wonder, but if I had to give you a touchstone, it would be Stephen Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, in particular the first trilogy beginning with Lord Foul's Bane. Much of that series is unrelentingly dark, and some elements are quite disturbing, but there's no denying the power of the story and characters.
If you add to that the nihilistic mindset of some segments of today's youth culture, you'll get an idea as to the overall tone of the prose version of The Magicians. The TV show isn't quite so bleak—or at least it hasn't been for the first half of the series, which is all I've watched so far. And Elliot, who takes Quentin under his wing in both book and TV show, is charmingly indolent as depicted on the screen rather than mean-spirited.
I've begun The Magician's Land (2012) and the tone is somewhat lighter. Quentin, Julia, Elliot, and Elliot's friend Janet are now the co-kings and queens of Fillory, and while they're still self-indulgent, Quentin has become more likable. Better yet, this book appears to deliver Julia's missing backstory that is playing out so effectively on the TV version.
On the whole, the book series appears to address the disillusionment that can come to one on the journey into adulthood, and in that sense, it's an unqualified success. Whether the TV show will follow in its thematic footsteps remains to be seen, but it, too, is its own success, not least for presenting such a quirky view of magic in a medium that usually goes for the big effects.
Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings, by Diana Pavlac Glyer, Kent State University Press, 2016, $18.95.
The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (2007) is a scholarly exploration of the Inklings, a literary group of Oxford writers who met regularly on a Thursday night to discuss literature as well as share with each other, and comment upon, their current works-in-progress. Professor Diana Pavlac Glyer did extensive research to challenge the long upheld belief that the Inklings didn't influence each other, an erroneous idea that can be summed up in a 1959 quote from C.S.Lewis to one of his readers: "No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch."
It didn't seem logical to Glyer. How could a regular gathering of writers that included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Warren Lewis, and others, who got together to read their works to each other for commentary, not have been influenced by each other?
Glyer's curiosity began at an early age. In Bandersnatch, she writes: "When I discovered the Inklings, I was only sixteen years old, and I wanted to know the answers to two simple questions. What did these writers talk about when they met to discuss their works in progress? And what difference did these conversations make to the books they were writing? It seemed to me that it would be really easy to find the answers."
Turned out, it was anything but.
So Glyer—against the advice of one of her mentors—undertook a study of published and unpublished works, papers, and letters written by the various members. She was able to document how, in reality, the Inklings inspired and provoked each other to create better-written and more individual work than they might have without the regular meetings and friendships they formed within the group.
As I mentioned above, The Company They Keep is a scholarly work, and it was well-received—so much so that it won the 2008 Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies. But it probably goes into a little too much detail for the more casual reader, which makes this pared-down version of the earlier book so welcome.
Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings is a much shorter book, written in almost conversational prose. But it's more than a simple reiteration of the earlier book because what Glyer is exploring here as well is the idea of collaboration on a larger scale. She writes in her Acknowledgments: "I remain convinced that books should have a list of credits at the end, just like movies. We need more capacious ways to talk about what collaboration is and why it matters."
And then she goes on to do just that.
Yes, there is a wonderful font of information in these pages about the Inklings, but it also provides one of the better guides to the collaborative process, including a chapter at the end with suggestions on how to get the most out of a group set up in a style similar to that of the Inklings. I think one of the best pieces of advice she gives is how to understand the difference between "I don't personally like this" and "This isn't any good" when critiquing a manuscript.
To writers planning to set up a writing group, I recommend Bandersnatch wholeheartedly. That said, those who simply love to read—especially those who particularly appreciate the work of Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams—will find much to enjoy as well.
And speaking of Charles Williams, you might be interested to know that the Oxford University Press has released a new biography about him, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, by Grevel Lindop. I had planned to review it here as well, but discovered as I started browsing through the book that Williams wasn't a particularly pleasant man. What I read of the book was certainly well written and meticulously researched, but the more I read the more I realized that I wasn't interested in spending almost five hundred pages in Williams's company.
Since I don't review books I haven't read all the way through, I decided to take a pass. You might feel entirely different about it.
Nightshades by Melissa F. Olson, Tor.com, 2016, $14.99.
One of the things I like about Melissa Olson is that she's not afraid to try something new. And even when her subject matter seems like the same old same old, she always finds a way to inject a freshness—an individuality—into the text that makes it feel new.
I know, I know. I tend to go on about her in this column and I don't mean to. But every time I read one of her books I have the uncontrollable urge to share my love of her work with anybody who will listen.
I complain a lot about how the urban fantasy published today has a sameness about it, but that seems to be par for the course when it comes to all the various subgenres in our field. The copycats come in waves. The Robert E. Howard clones. The Tolkien clones. The Stephen King clones. The charming vampire wave, which started either with Anne Rice or Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. And the interesting thing is that with the passage of time, the clones fade into obscurity while the originators remain in the bookstores and continue to sell.
So perhaps the complaining is pointless and unnecessary. But when we're in the middle of one of these waves it seems imperative to applaud those writers who aren't interested in simply repeating what's come before.
Nightshades isn't set in Olson's Old World universe. It introduces us to the FBI's Bureau of Paranormal Investigations—the division tasked with investigating crimes involving shades. Or what we would call vampires. Alex McKenna is the new Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago office and he has the daunting task of trying to stop a rash of children going missing while keeping his agents alive. It's his first big posting, and the only reason he got the job was because the previous agents were all slaughtered and no one else really wants to take it on.
Olson's shades are amoral, fast, and dangerous, and no one really understands exactly what they are or what they want. So McKenna tracks down the one thing that can give him an edge: an informant who is also a shade.
Everything rings true in this short novel. The pace is fast, but the characterization runs deep, and under Olson's deft control, it feels as though we're reading these concepts for the very first time.
And that's a trick that Olson pulls off in each of her books and stories.
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P. O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.
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