Posts Tagged ‘fantasy books’

Where Shall We Run To? by Alan Garner. Published  2018, Impress Books/4th Estate.

This, the most recent book by Alan Garner, writer of novels, and gatherer and refashioner of tales, is a collection of autobiographical writings.

They chart his life in the tiny village of Alderley Edge, outside Manchester, from his earliest memories, up to the end of World War 2, when his life changed forever.
He had passed his 11 Plus exam and was to leave the small village environs that marked his world, and go out into the bigger world of higher education. Not only that, but instead of going to the local grammar school, he had gained scholarship funding, and was to attend the greatly more prestigious innercity Manchester Grammar School.
My conveyor belt, he wrote, ‘took me to Oxford.’

Alan Garner was born in 1934. His young life was greatly taken up by the War years, its privations, and mysterious otherworld-like qualities of night raids, disrupted daytimes. One of the memoir here is of children, Vaccies, taken out of dangerous environments, cities, places likely to be bombed in air raids. He encountered several groups of these from very different areas of the country at his local school. The most surprising Vaccies, and the ones who made a big impression were from the Channel Islands, Guernsey in particular.

The collection of memoir also backlights Alan Garner’s great concern with the dichotomy between reality and imagination, the roles they play in a person’s life. This was a source of escalating tension in his first five books, climaxing in 1972’s Red Shift. The dichotomy fissured his sensibilities; he could not easily give each its due, but one had to take precedence. In consequence the other had to be relegated; the tension was unresolved, and so continued.

In this new book we see it in the almost iconic images of those earlier books; we see them here as everyday objects. In Elidor the cottage porch became the doorway to another world. In Red Shift, the bunty, the budgerigar Jan valued – both are revealed here to be his own tiny home cottage porchway, and Bunty, the name of his own pet bird, he had to leave unattended through an air raid, and was found dead afterwards.

The cottage is still there in Alderley Edge.
Alderley Edge itself became a dormitory town for wealthy Manchester businesspeople. In consequence the cottage, now no longer squalid, has become a Grade II listed building, and worth nearly £400,000. Such are the ways of Estate Agents/Real Estate.

We also see, in The Stone Book, one of his middle novels, the weather-vane cockerel in real life, much smaller than imagined once brought down from the church to be re-coated. It is the young Alan Garner sits astride it, and whilst on the ground – not the Mary of the story, nor on the church steeple.
I have argued elsewhere that this particular book is written in perfect chiasmic form, and is also literally a cock-and-bull story, as each image in turn plays a major part in the depth reading of the storyline in each half of the chiasmic form of the story.
In reality the icons from the books are less impressive, but solid, durable in their own right.

In The Voice That Thunders, 1997, his earlier collection of essays, he relates how the many periods of early childhood illness allowed him both to read voraciously outside the narrow school curriculum, but also to compensate for being confined to bed for long periods, by travelling and adventuring imaginatively, dreaming vividly. Awareness of the discrepancy between what was immediately outside his window, and inside his imagination, was exercised and elaborated upon.

There have been several stylistic changes in his writing, throughout his writing career. The first two books are more full of their own juiciness, so much so sometimes the style nearly swamps the storytelling. The Moon of Gomrath, 1963, evinces a greater, stricter stylistic control. The language is sparer, the images sharper. We feel less manipulated into psychological events: the tunnel escape from the Edge mines enacting primal birthing experiences etc.

Elidor, 1965 – I feel it wobbles a little: The Lay of the Starved Minstrel? Even I found that a bit too contrived. It gains by its setting. The novel sets out the battle ground for the war between imagination and reality that has dogged the writer so long.

The Owl Service is just great, the writing taut and spare, nothing is wasted.
Red Shift takes this even further. It ends in a kind of defeat: seek help, psychological help, Jan says to Tom. The time fissures become unbridgeable chasms, like a mind disintegrating. The copper mines beneath Alderley Edge that played such a large part in the first book, imaged the psychic fissures.

Then the language simplified, the images cleared of unwanted baggage. The Stone Book Quartet was four short books based firmly on fact and known family memories. They carried identifiable and accessible images.

The later books from Strandloper, 1996, onwards, increasingly explore the same psychic fissures as the first books, but more and more in psychological terms. The latest book, Boneland, 2012, depends almost wholly on psychology to unravel the ascendance at the end of The Moon of Gomrath.  The language of these books is difficult, employing greater amounts of colloquialism, and, especially in Strandloper, subjective monologue unanchored to easily identifiable events.
There is a lot of astronomical calculation in Boneland; I was lost there.

The Wiki page on him

describes his genre as ‘low fantasy’ – this is to contrast with high fantasy, which is whole-world-building fantasy. This is important. His nearest to world building was in Elidor, but he firmly shut that door. His strength was not in world-building; he recognised this in time.
In The Voice That Thunders he writes how he chose real life over the fantasy realms. And so he later launched into craft and skills-heavy terminology, astronomical calculations; to archeological graft and careful uncovering, over discovering.
I sometimes wonder if, when one manipulates reality for one’s own ends, does that not weigh on a person, and cumulatively?

The memoirs do show how much interpretation and bias has gone into presentation of material, fact, however.
I remember a public talk he gave as he geared up for the writing of Thursbitch. Not is all as he made out. The mundane becomes totemic.

Throughout the present book he is careful to present himself as a weak child, prone to many illnesses that we assume his peers were not. He enumerates the times he was frequently reduced to tears.
In his younger years he became a prodigious runner, running great distances over hill and moor. It was on one of these runs he discovered his great grandfather’s roadside stone carving that forms part of the kernal of Thursbitch. I have also seen this stone and it is a great many miles out and off any main route.
Running: was he punishing his body for having been weak, whilst ensuring it would not let him down again? Such distance running not only builds body strength, stamina, but also develops will-power and concentration.
I once worked with a man who, once his MS had subsided, also took to such distance running feats, the greater the challenge the better. He’d work laying roads by day, and run in the evenings.

And so, there is clearly some strategy at work in his choice of depiction. Is it just to foist on us the dialect speech: ‘Mardy arse.’?

What did his friends wear, besides clogs for school? What were their meals (beside the odd slug, and drain mould – then he wondered why he was sickly!)? What was breakfast, and how important was it deemed to be? What were their general thoughts, concerns, hopes, worries?
The language of the book is direct, and without depth-charges. He takes pains to be authentic: he mentions Lyle’s syrup, then launches into a lengthy description of the tin and its From strength came forth sweetness, marketing slogan. There are many such examples. His authenticising runs to depcting the narrow , shallow, states of mind of children of the age he was. The big concerns puzzle; his own worries are inexpressible.


His conveyor belt took him to Oxford, and the prestigious Grammar School experience and the Oxford mentality, have stayed with him ever after: the commanding manner, cultured voice, and expectation, that demands and receives of others in return.
But he did leave Oxford before taking his Finals; he did return to the small local world, a life and house without sanitation and modern conveniences.
Then he could begin.

He was to learn from scratch how to walk the line between parochial and provincial, to use P J Kavannagh’s terms.

See also:

CAUTION: Contains Spoilers.

Two of the most successful Whole-World Young Adult writers are Australian. And it is curious that the cultural and geographical realms of their Own Worlds are northern hemisphere, even north European.


The two writers I am writing about are Garth Nix, with his Old Kingdom series, and D M Cornish and his Monster Blood Tattoo series.
Both these writers have developed detailed and extensive maps of their worlds. D M Cornish’s maps are extensive, continent-size, and yet also show detailed locales.

Garth Nix’s The Old Kingdom
Sabriel, Allen and Unwin, 1995
Lireal, Allen and Unwin, 2001
Abhorson, Allen and Unwin, 2003
The Creature in the Case novella, Harper Collins, 2005
Clariel,  2014


Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom is part of a continent; here the northern section and southern section differ greatly, both climatically and technologically. In the northern part magic is the source of power. In the southern region we enter a late nineteenth century/early twentieth century technological culture. The magic fades out at a mid region, where is The Wall. The Wall was built in times long ago and is there to contain the roaming entities of the north.
The magic of the northern Old Kingdom prevents engines or any modern technologies from operating; the time period of the north is very much that of a kind of middle ages, with more modern elements. Fighting is done with sword, and by hand. Technology is the province of the Wall Builders, people whose talents prove most successful with clock-work and machine creating. Even here the Charter plays a major role.

The magic that ran free in the north was taken on in the far distant past and regulated: The Charter constrains most of the magic.


Charter mages and adepts, baptised at birth, learn how to reach into the constant swirl of the magic that takes the form of thousands of Charter Marks. They can extract them, weave them together and produce complex spells.
The Charter relies on the continued existence of the King of the realm, specially erected Charter Stones, the Clayr, a community of prophetic women, and the Abhorsen (yes, that is abhor and whoreson). These last are feared, and so found repugnant; their purpose is to return the dead to death. They use specially  cast  hand bells, each with its own tone and purpose. There are seven, from the least dangerous to use, to the last, only used when all else fails: the last takes the user and the danger through the last gate of death from where there is no returning.
I did say earlier ‘most’ magic is constrained by the Charter: not all. There is the free magic; this can take on forms of distinct entities, and is unpredictable and willful. They are dangerous and value their freedom as paramount. They can be constrained, but not destroyed.

The Abhorsen title comes from a long lineage of Charter mages with the ability and talent to travel into death and back. There are nine gates to be traversed before there is no return. Strong free magic creatures can lurk at various gates, waiting their chance to seize an unwary person in order to come back out of death and be free once again. The Abhosen’s bells rung in particular sequences can chain the  magic and banish it.

D M Cornich’s Monster Blood Tattoo

Foundling, G P Putnam’s and Sons, 2006
Lamplighter, G P Putnam’s and Sons,  2008
Factotum, G P Putnam’s and Sons, 2010

D M Cornish’s world is unique, it is a world of vinegar seas and harsh landscapes. It also seems to be a perpetual wet winter landscape. Technology includes firearms.
What is strange about this place is that monsters roam free. There are the huge, antlered nickers, and the smaller bogles, and everything in between.


The people have fought and cleared enclaves for themselves, and are gradually driving the monsters back. They have their own Dukedoms and society exists at a Dickensian level, full of rich details of clothing, necessities and behaviour.

In the past experimenters combined monster organs with human bodies. The results were people with enhanced powers. The downside was the need to take regular doses several times a day of noxious ‘treacle’ to prevent organ rejection
These enhanced abilities helped them fight the monsters better: they are the wits and teratologists. The Wits can send out pulses of neural energy. It has to be directed, though or the pulse affects everyone within range. The pulses confuse and disrupt the minds of their targets, rendering them incapable for periods of time. Teratologists come in all sorts. The sort we meet, Miss Europe;


as a ‘fulgar’ she has the ability to send out blasts of electricity. She can combine these with the static in the air and arc victims with bolts of lightening.

And then along came orphan Rossamund, a boy.


He becomes apprenticed to the Lamplighters, but is kidnapped on his way there. On his escape he encountered Miss Europe and met friendly bogles.
It is a world of sinister workings; unseemly types have constructed beings from body parts, Rever-men, that have a limited life essence. They can be controlled by sinister wits, and be immensely strong. Once killed their bodies disintegrate.

There are hints and suggestions throughout about the nature of Rossamund: is he indeed a Rossamundi? Another form of monster? He looks human, but doesn’t smell human, so has to use nullodour to disguise this. The books charts his growth into knowledge and self knowledge. He ‘grows into his strength’, monster strength. But what of his position as Factotum and friend to Monster-killer Miss Europe? She has to reluctantly learn that not all monsters are bad.

And so we come to the Duke of Sparrows. His minions had been keeping on an eye on Rossamund’s progress all along.

In the background of this realm there is the threwd; it is detected in the wild places, the untamed land as a sense of being watched, of threat. The monsters are part of the threwd; it is part of their wild nature.

Each book is fully illustrated, and contains a copious Explicarium and huge appendixes of terms, clothes styles of the different levels of occupations, of money, measurement, levels of society and social and cultural expectations.                `


Both series of books contain mysterious women-only communities. In The Old Kingdom we have the Clayr. They live in opulent quarters beneath a glacier. Adepts use the glacier for ‘seeing’ and prophecying.
They are intriguing.
Their attitude to the male is interesting: they chose a temporary mate from amongst the visitors and  merchants. Not often does a Clayr leave to set up permanently home with a husband, family.

Similarly in Monster Blood Tattoo there is a community of powerful women, the ‘columbines of Columbris’. We meet Threnody in The Foundling. She is Marchess-in-Waiting, that is, she is to take on her mother’s role when she retired. Threnody, though  is willfull and struggles under these stifling expectations, and attempts to thwart her mother’s designs for her. She is young and an untrained Wit; this causes a problem earlier on in the book. She is determined to train as a Lamplighter to once again thwart her mother, and the destiny laid out for her.

Threnody is mirrored in Miss Europe. Miss Europe is Dame-in-Waiting of Vaimes. In effect a high candidate for ruling the Half-Continent. She threw it over to become a woman of action as opposed to a wheeler-dealer in government. Threw it over, but kept the privileges of her birth-right. Her fortune she earns as bounty-hunter for whoever paid best to have monsters killed. And there are always people willing to pay. In Factotum we see the plotting and behind-the-scenes dealing throw jeopardy her way.

In the Old Kingdom series book Clariel we meet Lady Clariel, related to the King. Her mother is the best Goldsmith in the realm as well as being (estranged) daughter of the current Abhorson. Clariel’s own ambitions are modest, she just wants to be a Borderer and live alone in the Great Forest. She finds a future mapped out for her, trapped into a political marriage in the main city whose life and pent-in closeness she detests. She must assert herself, but is young, has no money, friends, and is dependent upon others. She finds that political machinations and economic uncertainty have put the future of the Borderers in jeopardy: her safety is being cut away from under her.
The Academy head is a sympathetically drawn character, distant and overawing, but fair and helpful even towards Clariel’s narrowly-based hopes and options. Mistress Ader, the Academy head, has a very rich backstory


It is possible to bring into this discussion Jonathon Stroud’s Bartimaeus books:
The Amulet of Samarkand, Corgi Books, 2003
The Golem’s Eye, Corgi, 2004
Ptolemy’s Gate, Corgi, 2005
prequel The Ring of Solomon, Corgi, 2010

This series is set mostly in England, one where Parliament, the Government, the elite, consist of trained magicians. The rest of the population are kept in subservience as ‘Commoners’. They live in a kind of parallel early twentieth century. And they are growing restless under this yoke.

There is the hilarious proposition in book 2 that William Gladstone was a powerful magician, who triumphed in person over his enemies by sheer magical skill. It is not far from depicting Abraham Lincoln as a vampire slayer, and the American Civil War as fought between vampiric South and human North. The film was great fun.

So, what form does this magic take? Usually it is the conjuring of powerful djinn, afrit and beings from the ‘Other Place’ to do their bidding.
And  the magicians? We see young Nathaniel being trained, only his ‘master’ was nowhere near as capable as the pupil. The magicians are commoners who are trained up with magic books and apparati.
Nathaniel raises a 5-thoudsand year old djinn called Bartimaeus.
Jonathon Stroud has created a character of wicked wit and quite appealing mischievousness in Bartimaeus. His quick repartee is delightful and often runs rings around greater djinn than himself.

Prague was the magical capital of this world, until challenged by London and Gladstone. Then the balance of power shifted, and Prague became a lost city. Of course Bartimaeus has seen empires rise and fall many times, and is not impressed.

Some Commoners are born with greater and different forms of resistance to the magic of the elite. An underswell is growing; we meet Kitty, a rebel and fighter. Her counter is Nathaniel; they are of similar age, and of similar grim determination and temperament. Nathaniel admiitted a grudging admiration for her will and fighting spirit. Their paths are constantly being crossed, much to the amusement of Bartimaeus. Could she be the one to bring his better nature back after being swamped by his deepening immersion in government and the elite?

The last two books of the series deal with Bartimaeus’ backstory, outside England and way back in the past in Egypt and the Middle East.
It is hard to identify any current political or cultural parallels in these stories, however.

There are definitely resemblances, echoes if you will, in the first conjuring of Bartimaeus by Nathaniel, of the conjuring of Rincewind by Eric, in Terry Pratchett’s Eric pastiche of Faust.


How both Australian books treat with government and politics is very interesting.
In the Old Kingdom the King is usually depicted as absent, or out of touch but is always out of the picture
The Monster Blood Tattoo world is more of a Republic ruled by professional politicians. They are depicted as seedy and double-dealing; in effect the rulers are just as corrupt as the majority of city dwellers of regional capital Brandonbrass.
Is this Australia’s deep feeling about her relationship with England, ‘the old country’? About their own government and officials?

There is a joke Les Murray, the Australian poet tells: What is the difference between Australian literature and yogurt?
Only one has a living culture.
Les Murray’s writing career has been to successfully change that equation. There are many major Australian novelists.

It is informative to look at these two Whole-World series’ in this light. Neither book has an Australian setting. Climatically both books portray colder, wet climates; continents, yes, but Great Forests and moorlands in the Old Kingdom; Wet swampy areas (the Ichormere) and cold, wet weather in Monster Blood Tattoo.
Why do both writers deliberately place their works in the European tradition?

Garth Nix’’s Shade’s Children is the only book I know of either writer set in Australia. Sydney, to be exact; but it is a parallel world. I particularly like this book. I do nor discuss the Keys to the KIngdom series, her, which is indeed also partly set in Sydney.

In the Old Kingdom series his characters can drive you up the wall a bit: I have a special dislike for Nicholas Sayre modeled as he is on so many dreadful boy’s boarding school story characters.
We never really get to know Garth Nix’s main characters: Sabriel still remains a blank to me, as does Lirael. The book Clariel is full of clothes’ details: different Guilds wear different colours and styles in different combinations and most he describes. This does hold the story up, which does not really kick into gear until about half way through. It is a Big story of challenge, identity and denial of the self. It explores the concept of freedom on the individual level, and its implications.

In the Old Kingdom we have a Great Concept, explored in detail: the Charter, the free magic, the Wall.
The actual plots of the books are creaky and at times quite clumsily executed. Last of all are the characters: Garth Nix’s characters are mostly ciphers, boy’s-own story types. He centres a large number of the series on teenage girls; they have a passing interest in hormonal matters, it is without shame and only temporary. The central concern is discovering oneself in the world, one’s uniqueness, and how they can fit in.

In Monster Blood Tattoo we spend a lot of time in the anteroom to the inner life of Rossamund, we get to know him a little, his fears, hopes, dreams.
Mr Numps is delicately depicted, a tender-hearted, fragile man. There is a kindness in the depiction Garth Nix cannot approach.
Verline, the young Orphanage worker however almost tips over into ‘Dickensian maiden’ territory.
Threnody is an interesting attempt at an independent girl character


both drawn to and struggling away from female identity as she knows it amongst her community. She reads romances of city life, yet chooses the remote outbacks and heathlands where Lamplighters work. Again it is a temporary position – she knows full well she has a fall-back; it may seem hateful to her, but it is always there. Like a waiting trap.
As you can see there is some depth to a number of D M Cornish’s characters.

The strap-line to Monster Blood Tattoo reads:
‘Not all monsters look like monsters. Some everyday folk are the worst monsters of all….’
and this is ably demonstrated in the series.

D M Cornish is currently well on his way with a follow-up book. It does read very well. Excerpts can be read on his webpage:

Garth Nix’s own page is at:

I remember as a 10 year old reading a children’s fiction book about a boy and girl travelling down the Murray-Darling rivers of New South Wales on a paddle boat. It was wonderful, atmospheric, magical in its right. What was the name of the book? Wish I knew.

All D M Cornish images are his own work.