Arthurian Africa? Two novels by Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein, The Winter Prince (1993)
Elizabeth Wein, The Sunbird (2006)

Elizabeth Wein has an unusual take on the Arthurian legend in her Lion Hunters series. She starts out in The Winter Prince focusing on Medraut (Mordred in other versions), who is usually portrayed in a fairly one-sided and unsympathetic way as the villain of the tale. Wein’s Medraut, though, is a complicated man with great capacities for love, sacrifice, and healing as well as cruelty and vengeance. He is tormented by his tainted origins, by his horrible mother Morgause, and by his stifled potential for kingship; he must work his way painfully to a realization of where his true loyalties lie.

Further complicating things, Wein has given Artos (Arthur) two legitimate children, daughter Goewin and her twin brother Lleu. (In this version of the tale, there is no Lancelot, and Artos’s wife Ginevra is a mature and sensible woman with a talent for mapmaking.) Lleu, the heir to the throne, is a sickly child, but with Medraut’s help he grows in strength and skill. No one, however, can give him the indefinable quality that has allowed Artos to hold his fragile kingdom together, and Goewin and Medraut both suffer from knowing that either of them would be a better ruler.

Wein creates an absorbing picture of sixth-century Britain and the brave, stubborn people who must have survived in that harsh land: charismatic but very human Artos, bright and frustrated Goewin, and the brilliant, flawed Lleu. As a window into Medraut’s soul, the first-person narration is both compelling and disturbing. Indeed, it must be said that with its scenes (described or implied) of incest, torture, and attempted murder, this book is not for the squeamish, nor for younger readers, however it may be marketed. But it intrigued me enough to want more.

Warning: spoilers for the second book, A Coalition of Lions, follow.

In later books, action moves to the African kingdom of Aksum (Ethiopia), a place that was briefly glimpsed in The Winter Prince as Medraut reminisced about his travels, when he formed ties with the noble Kidane and his beautiful daughter Turunesh. Following the collapse of Artos’s kingdom (told about in A Coalition of Lions), Medraut and Goewin both move to Aksum, where Goewin becomes the British Ambassador and Medraut rejoins Turunesh. The Sunbird centers on their son, Telemakos, born after Medraut returned to Britain. An odd, engaging and precocious child, his talents for hiding and listening are called on by his aunt, Goewin, to foil a plot by greedy merchants that would bring plague to Aksum. In so doing, he is tested to the limit (more torture, here very graphically described indeed); but will his suffering allow his father to finally exorcise some of the demons of his own past?

It is in The Sunbird that Wein perfects a laconic style that uses telling details to convincingly place us in a country that never was, but should have been. As the tense and thrilling plot unfolds, we become ever more emotionally invested in her wonderfully diverse characters, and more enchanted with the rich, highly cultured but dangerous land of Aksum. Fortunately, a pair of linked novels about Telemakos follow: The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom.

The new e-book versions from Open Road Media are a joy to read: impeccably transferred to digital format, with attractive new covers, and adding a lengthy biography of the author (with photos). The Winter Prince also includes illustrations but gives no credit for the illustrator; the drawings are somewhat amateurish in appearance, and I wonder if they are actually by the author. I do not remember them from the print version. Anybody have a solution to this mystery?

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Life During Wartime: The Two Mrs. Abbotts

D.E. Stevenson, The Two Mrs. Abbotts (1943)

Between Miss Buncle Married and The Two Mrs. Abbotts, seven years elapsed, and the world changed utterly. England was now in the midst of the Second World War, and the screwball antics of the first two volumes perhaps seemed out of place to their creator. Whatever the reason, her third outing with Miss Buncle and Co. is distinctly different in tone and structure. Highly episodic, with quick jumps between multiple plot strands that seldom tie into one another, it lacks the narrative tension of the first two books, and also the satirical take on certain characters that provided much of the comedy.

You would never guess that Archie Cobbe, for example, now a rather dull and respectable farmer, was the troublesome disinherited sibling of Miss Buncle Married. The marvelously eccentric Marvell family of that book is almost completely absent, with the exception of Lancreste—once the most devilish of the lot, here he is merely shown dolefully pursuing an unattractive female while waiting for his RAF assignment. And alas, Miss Buncle (now Mrs. Abbott #1) has renounced her authorship for good, it seems, and is given very little to do in general. Stevenson seems to have lost interest in her, and has turned instead to another literary dilemma: that of popular author Janetta Walters, who wants to escape from rapid production of “high-powered tushery” but is hampered by her domineering sister. Although this is one of the more fully developed elements in the book, it is interrupted by many others that are no more than briefly touched on, and often left unresolved. This gives a strange sense of impermanence and distraction—which, come to think of it, is also perhaps a reflection of the wartime setting.

This setting indeed provides much of the interest in this book, which no longer hovers in a timeless English-country-village-land but is very much set in a specific era. Evacuees, German spies, rationing, and billetted soldiers all have a role to play—not out of the self-conscious research of a historical novelist, or with the deeper political agenda of a more “serious” writer, but simply because this is the way life is right now. It’s an interesting example of how the eternal sphere of the domestic comedy is shaped by the pressure of external events.

In short, lovers of Miss Buncle’s Book shouldn’t expect more of the same, but this amply readable story has pleasures of its own.

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The Miss Buncle Books

D.E. Stevenson, Miss Buncle’s Book (1934)

D.E. Stevenson, Miss Buncle Married (1936)

‘I’m an author,’ she said to herself. ‘How very odd!’ —from Miss Buncle’s Book

In the early 20th century, Scottish novelist D.E. Stevenson produced a steady flow of popular light fiction. Several of these novels are now back in print, including the trio about “Miss Buncle,” thanks to Persephone Books in the UK and Sourcebooks in the US. When I read the premise of Miss Buncle’s Book, it sounded irresistible: what happens when a dowdy spinster in a small English village writes a pseudonymous novel about her neighbors?

Well, Miss Buncle’s Book did not disappoint. After a bit of a slow start spent maundering about the village bakery, we meet Barbara Buncle and learn about her book. This “Chronicle of an English Village” has been written in all naive simplicity in the hopes of earning a few pounds, and is devastatingly accurate in its observations because Miss Buncle “has no imagination at all.” The publisher she submits her manuscript to recognizes that it will sell like mad, and although he is surprised when the author “John Smith” turns out to be a rather unassuming lady, and that “his” witty satire is the product of a supremely innocent mind, he signs her up on the spot.

Of course, the very thinly disguised residents of the village begin to recognize themselves when the book becomes a bestseller, and work their way into various ridiculous complications according to their natures. They even start to fulfill some of the destinies that Miss Buncle (belying her own self-declared lack of imagination) has created for them.

I believe this is why Miss Buncle’s Book has lasting appeal: it gives form to the truth that without imagination, without the stories we tell ourselves, there would be no movement and no development; life would come to a standstill. The imagination comes as an unwelcome disruption for those who prefer to live life as an endlessly recurring sameness, but if we follow its song it may lead us around the corner into an unexpected future.

Such is certainly the fate of Miss Buncle, who, after writing a second book that makes the village entirely too hot to hold her, escapes her confirmed spinsterhood into matrimony—and so we have the sequel, Miss Buncle Married. The happy couple leave the dull round of London bridge parties and settle down in a (different) English village. Naturally, they can’t escape being caught up in some absurd situations, notably when Barbara hears the reading of a will that is meant for someone else entirely. Seized with the novel-writing bug again, she produces a scenario that makes everything turn out perfectly—and then endures agonies as she realizes that to publish it would mean having to jump town again. How can life go on without the assistance of art?

Miss Buncle Married explores another dimension of the imagination (here, the dangers of meddling and the happy consequences of sometimes NOT being able to follow our desires). Like its predecessor, it will never be mistaken for great literature, but is an amusing and not entirely thoughtless way to spend a few evenings. But the great question for me at the end was: how can Barbara not be allowed to publish her book? It felt like a betrayal of her creative impulse, and I’m hoping that in The Two Mrs. Abbotts, just re-released by Sourcebooks, I might find some satisfaction. Look for a review in a few days to find out what I thought.

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Joan Aiken: Storytelling Magic

Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)

And though the house had witnessed many strange scenes, wolf hunts and wine drinking and weddings and wars, it is doubtful whether during its whole history any of its inmates had had such adventures as those of Sylvia and Bonnie Green.
Joan Aiken is a true storyteller–a spinner of tales that in another age would keep a crowd spellbound around a dying fire, or make restless children eager for bedtime.  Today, of course, she writes books: over a hundred of them to date.  Whether she is writing a nursery tale for the youngest listeners or a thriller for adults, her books are based on the good, old-fashioned principle of the primacy of plot–and are saved from being mere potboilers by her quirky imagination and sure command of language. Many of her novels are tongue-in-cheek homages to the nineteenth century, that great age of plot-driven narrative, of Jane Eyre, The Moonstone, and Nicholas NicklebyThe Wolves of Willoughby Chase (first published in 1962) plunders all of these and more in its chronicling of the adventures of Sylvia and Bonnie, two children left at the mercy of a wicked governess.

None of the classic ingredients are left out: the wicked governess and her unsavory accomplices, faithful old servants, a resourceful gooseherd, a vast mansion riddled with secret passages, shipwrecks and rescues, ravening wolves, penitential orphanages, near-fatal illnesses, a penniless maiden aunt and a bluff family lawyer.  From the ominous snowbound opening in which men huddle together “for fear of the wolves,” to the closing lines quoted above, there’s never a dull moment.

There’s not a scrap of subtlety, either, but it’s all great fun.  If you missed Aiken as a child yourself, find one to read aloud to, and stop each session on a cliffhanger.  There’s no other time in life when “What happens next?” is such a seriously important question.

This is the first of a long-running children’s series.  Later volumes abandon the adventurous but somewhat bland Sylvia and Bonnie to mainly follow the escapades of Dido Twite, a more idiosyncratic urchin introduced in the second book, Black Hearts in Battersea.  Subsequent volumes play with the idea that an alternate world exists in which Britain’s Hanoverian line of monarchs never came to the throne.  The current monarchy would thus be reduced to the status of Pretenders–how’s that for a fantasy?

Aiken’s works also include dozens of short stories, which have been collected into several volumes including A Necklace of Raindrops, originally published in 1968 and reissued n 2001 with fine new line drawings by Kevin Hawkes. An age range is not indicated, but I would say these eight tales would be most enjoyed by a younger audience.  Again, they beg to be read aloud; often cumulative and repetitive, they invite young listeners to anticipate the next episode.

Aiken obligingly includes refrains suitable for chanting along, such as this extremely silly one from “The Elves in the Shelves”: “Elves in the shelves, mermaids in the bathtub, penguins in the icebox, rabbits in the coal bin, peacocks on the table, and seals in the sink.”  There’s much delight in wordplay and humorous reversals, as in “The Pie in the Sky,” in which an old woman mistakenly rolls some sky into her piecrust and is carried away by the floating pastry.  Taking a ridiculous idea to its extreme sometimes raises unexpected questions, as with “The Three Travelers,” in which an abandoned rail station becomes the departure point for three unlikely adventurers.

Aiken can also write beautifully in a more poetic vein, as with the title story. When the North Wind becomes trapped in a tree, he rewards the man who rescues him with a wonderful necklace for his little daughter, which each year gives her a new magical power, but is coveted by a jealous schoolmate.  Aiken is a master of the modern fairy tale, writing with clear knowledge and command of traditional elements while incorporating a contemporary idiom.  Look for more of her story collections, such as Smoke from Cromwell’s Time or A Harp of Fishbones, to further experience the full range of her fertile imagination.  For anyone who feels the pull of the lure of Story, Joan Aiken has much to offer.

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The Sally Lockhart Trilogy

Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke (1986)

Philip Pullman, The Shadow in the North (1988)

Philip Pullman, The Tiger in the Well (1990)

 

Before there was Lyra Belacqua, there was Sally Lockhart. Prior to creating the unforgettable Lyra of The Golden Compass and its blockbuster sequels, Philip Pullman was perhaps best known for his trio of books featuring another kick-ass female: a pistol-packing, checkbook-balancing, mystery-solving Victorian orphan. I adored these books as a teenager (like Sally herself, I was sixteen when the first volume was published), but hadn’t read them in years when the chance came to review them. Would they still be as compelling as I remembered, half a lifetime later?

The Ruby in the Smoke certainly doesn’t waste any time in getting our attention. “On a cold, fretful afternoon in early October, 1872, a hansom cab drew up outside the offices of Lockhart and Selby, Shipping Agents, in the financial heart of London, and a young girl got out and paid the driver…Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.” From this arresting opening, the story moves briskly along, following Sally as she tries to figure out what the deadly phrase “The Seven Blessings” means, the real circumstances of her father’s death, and why her own life appears to be in danger. Along the way she makes the fortuitous acquaintance of Frederick Lockhart, a young photographer, and his actress sister Rosa, who provide her with a job as a bookkeeper and a welcome alternative to living with her odious aunt.

This was Pullman’s second published children’s book, and like his first, Count Karlstein, was based on a play that he wrote for his middle-school students. One can easily imagine it on the stage, with its swift scene changes, colorful characters, and dramatic dialogue. It is strongly reminiscent of the more sensationalistic Sherlock Holmes stories (Pullman also wrote a play called “Sherlock Holmes and the Limehouse Horror”), with
its cursed jewel, opium dens, and vaguely ominous Chinese secret society. It’s a confection, an exuberant and unapologetic melodrama, one that is rescued from banality by Pullman’s skill in handling these time-worn elements and making them feel fresh and exciting again.

In The Shadow in the North, Sally has grown up. A strong, independent woman, she runs her own financial consulting business in the City of London. Fred wants to marry her, but she hesitates because she balks at the notion of all her property automatically becoming his, at least until the Married Woman’s Property Act is passed. In the meanwhile, another deadly plot surfaces to lead her into danger: who is behind the mysterious North Star company, and what exactly are they manufacturing? Fred is engaged in a seemingly unrelated investigation of a music-hall magician who can’t quite explain why he is the target of so many homicide attempts. As the two strands come together, Sally and Fred are drawn deeper into danger than ever, and closer to one another.

Even twistier and trickier than its predecessor, The Shadow in the North is equally entertaining. Pullman also continues to catalogue a wide array of Victoriana, from spiritualism to railroads to feminism early motion photography. It can hardly be considered a serious historical effort—and I have to question the plausibility of Sally’s career, inspiring though it may be. But it does give young readers a vivid and entree into the period, one that can be tempered by further reading later. For me, this was probably the first step on a path that led me to a college degree in English literature and a thesis on Charlotte Bronte. Fellow feisty orphan Jane Eyre is certainly one of Sally’s ancestresses.

The Tiger in the Well takes place a couple of years later, and Sally is now a mother. Her idyll of independence is shattered when she receives a summons that claims that her daughter belongs to a man she has never met, who now wants to dissolve their supposed marriage and claim his child. She embarks on a desperate quest to prove him wrong, in which she gains an unlikely supporter: a Jewish Socialist writer, who has charisma to burn. Can they defeat the evil from Sally’s past that has arisen to haunt her?

In this novel, Pullman aims to take a giant step into more serious, adult themes and situations. In doing so, he sometimes loses the verve that gave much of the charm first two books. When a social worker literally takes Sally on a tour of the dreadful living conditions in the East End, didacticism threatens to outweigh drama. (Of course, this may simply be an homage to Dickens, who did exactly the same thing.) The violence, both actual and threatened, is several degrees crueller and more painful to imagine. Sally’s anguish is excruciating, and the fate Pullman posits for Sally’s little daughter is horrible to contemplate. Perhaps that’s why this was always my least favorite of the three books.

Still, once you start reading, it’s impossible to put down, as are the first two. Pullman’s talent as a storyteller is evident from the beginning to the end. If you haven’t yet met Sally Lockhart, you have a treat in store. I’m glad I got to visit her again.

2006 Phoenix Award Honor (Shadow in the North)

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Monica Furlong: Wise and Wonderful

 

Monica Furlong, Wise Child (Random House, 1987)
Monica Furlong, Juniper (Random House, 1990)
Monica Furlong, Colman (Random House, 2004)

“After breakfast, you must have a look at Daisy and the rest of the garden.  Then we’d better do some lessons.”
            “In magic?” I asked.  I was both curious and scared.
            Juniper laughed.
            “I thought we’d begin with reading, writing, astronomy, fairy stories–that kind of thing.  Later on we’ll do a bit of Latin.”
            “Girls don’t learn Latin,” I told her.  “It unfits them for marriage.” (I was quoting my Uncle Gregor’s views on the education of girls.)  “And I never heard of a school that taught fairy tales.”
            “All learned people learn Latin,” she said.  “It’s bound to come in useful.  Fairy tales, on the other hand, are about real life.” — from Wise Child
 

Fairy tales and real life intertwine to create a most unusual education in Monica Furlong’s Wise Child and its two sequels.  In a stark, elemental setting based on medieval Britain, dramatic battles between good and evil drive the plot–but the narrative really turns on the quiet struggles within the souls of the three protagonists, each a young person with the potential to become a “doran.”

The word, from the Gaelic “dorus,” an entrance or way in (not unlike the English word with the same meaning) signifies “someone who has found a way in to seeing or perceiving.”  Learning to perceive the pattern at the heart of being, and to love and protect it, is the way of a doran.

Ignorant outsiders may call her “witch,” though, for they fear her power without understanding it–and this is one of the dangers that threatens in the first novel.  Wise Child (a teasing nickname for a small girl who uses big words) has become the ward and pupil of the village healer, Juniper. Initially full of fears and suspicion bred by village gossip, the child grows to love her enigmatic but kind teacher.  But those fears still live in others, particularly in the malice of the local priest.  Wise Child will need all the strength she has found through her schooling to bring herself and her teacher to a place of safety.

“Wise Child” may not yet deserve her name except in jest, but Juniper is certainly a wise woman–full of healing skill and knowledge, yet humble and with a sense of humor.  Her house is a place of mystery and beauty, a sanctuary high up above the more mundane and petty world of the village.  Though Wise Child sometimes wearies of the hard daily work of keeping house and learning herb lore, she gradually recognizes that it is in such small tasks–not in learning flashy magic tricks–that the real work of becoming a doran lies.

Juniper sometimes seems a bit too good to be true, but there’s something archetypally satisfying about such a wise female figure–as also in George MacDonald’s stories, where she appears repeatedly.  Akin to Sophia and Shekinah, avatars of divine wisdom, she stands for “the love that was woven through every fiber of the world,” as Wise Child says; and without which the world would inevitably fall apart.

At the other pole of feminine power stands Wise Child’s mother, Maeve.  A legendary beauty and sorceress, she is faithful to nothing and no one but her own willful pleasure.  She tempts her daughter with an alternate way of life, a way of using power for one’s own ends rather than in serving the whole.  Wise Child’s instinctive, irrational longing for the mother who has abandoned her threatens to overturn everything she has learned. In Wise Child’s struggle to choose her own way is every daughter’s fight to free herself from the devouring side of her own femininity.  Thus do fairy tales–where the fairy godmother and the wicked stepmother are two sides of the same coin–teach us about real life.

Written in a graceful, intelligent prose style, full of luminous images, Wise Child glows like one of the tapestries on Juniper’s loom–“with blues and purples and violets, with browns and corals, vivid scarlets and the most delicate pinks.  The colors might have clashed and made a painful confusion of effects, but each graded so gently and subtly into the next, or else lay beside a color with which it was in such perfect harmony, that the total effect was delightful.  It made you feel glad as you looked at it.”

In the first novel of the trilogy, we learn a few tantalizing details about the past of Wise Child’s teacher.  In the sequel, Juniper, she tells her own story–a tale of a very different apprenticeship.  Born to a relatively privileged life, as the beloved only daughter of the king and queen of Cornwall, she is not pleased to be sent off to labor under the harsh and taciturn discipline of Euny, the local doran.  Nor is she entirely pleased when she learns her mother will give birth to a son, displacing her from the line of rule.  But as she gathers her growing skills as a doran to fight against the threat to the kingdom posed by her wicked aunt, Meroot, she must consider what kind of power is truly worth having.

As rich in detail and character as its predecessor, Juniper is an absorbing read. The development of the relationship between Euny and Juniper–from aversion to acceptance to love–is convincing and true.  We see how the lessons Juniper learns–about attentiveness, about the importance of seemingly trivial details, about trusting oneself and others–will grow in her into the wisdom that permeates Wise Child.

Readers of these two books will be left with many questions.  Do Juniper’s old enemies come back?  What is the outcome of the journey she and Wise Child embark on?  After a fourteen-year pause, Monica Furlong finally completed the answer in Colman, just before her death in 2003. Narrated by Wise Child’s cousin and friend, it tells how Juniper and her companions return to Cornwall for sanctuary only to find it suffering again under Meroot’s evil rule.

Colman is much more of a pure adventure story than Wise Child and Juniper.  Though the title character has talent as a doran, he resists it–a conflict which could have been developed in an interesting way, but instead means simply that the focus of the story is more on external events and less on the process of training which was such a strong element in the other two books.  I found this a disappointment.

I also found the characterization more stiff and awkward; the characters seem constructed rather than alive. There’s some uncomfortably modern psychologizing, as Wise Child has to come to terms with her feelings about being a doran.  This doesn’t follow at all from the way the first book ended, making it a jarring transition. While a respectable and reasonably exciting tale, Colman never fully drew me into its world.  Still, Monica Furlong has achieved a rare kind of quiet beauty in her books, which has won her many devoted readers.  I feel sure that they will continue to be enjoyed for many years.

Incidentally, while Furlong is known in the U.S. primarily as the author of Wise Child and its sequels, her obituary in the London Times does not even mention these books!  In her home country of England she was famous as a journalist, radio broadcaster (in spite of a terrible stutter), and social critic. She was a key player in the success of the campaign for women to be ordained as priests in the Church of England.  Among her many published works is a classic biography of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

Perhaps against this illustrious background, the author of the Times obituary found her “children’s novels” not worth mentioning–but her knowledge and experience of the path of spiritual development is no less evident there.  Those who know the power of stories to inform and transform our lives will know how to value them rightly.

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A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia

 

Laura Miller, The Magician’s Book (2008)

I’d be willing to wager that most readers who prowl these pages fell under the spell of words at an early age, finding both enchantment and release in their power to transport us to a different world. Laura Miller can trace her own bespellment to a particular book, and even a particular moment: the day that her second-grade teacher handed her a copy of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. From that day on, visiting Narnia was something she felt she had to do or die. It’s an experience that many of us who encountered Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia in childhood share–I certainly did.

Many may also relate to Miller’s painful awakening some years later, when she found out that Lewis had planted Christian themes and motifs in his seven children’s books. Raised Catholic but thoroughly disillusioned with the Church, Miller felt betrayed by this intrusion of strangulating doctrine into a world she had considered completely free. She turned away from the Chronicles for many years, until, having become a journalist and critic herself (she is a cofounder of Salon.com), she felt the need to revisit and reconsider a book that, however flawed, indelibly affected her identity as a reader.

The Magician’s Book is the result, ranging through the realms of memoir, biography, literary criticism, and a bit of social and political history to explore the mystery of Narnia’s compelling hold on the imagination, even for those who do not share Lewis’s religious agenda. Miller purposely gives little space to the Christian elements in the Chronicles, which have been exhaustively covered elsewhere. Instead, along with the narrative of her own journey through, away from, and back to Narnia, she explores the roots of Lewis’s imagination in landscape, relationships (most importantly his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien), and especially his own life as a reader. She considers those aspects of Narnia which have been labelled sexist and racist, as well as those that make it so enduringly compelling.

As is appropriate in a book devoted to Lewis, a master craftsman of English prose, Miller’s own writing is lucid, graceful, and a pleasure to read. She covers a vast amount of territory with ease, skillfully transitioning from one aspect of the Chronicles to the next, and from her personal experiences to a more objective critical view. By drawing on her correspondence and interviews with other readers, including Neil Gaiman, Susannah Clarke, and Jonathan Franzen, she widens the field even further. Anti-Narnians Philip Pullman and John Goldthwaite are also given a hearing.

The particular pleasures of reading in childhood are brief, but indelible for those who have experienced them. Laura Miller’s book is a rare opportunity to revisit them with the eyes of an adult, gaining the insights of maturity, while fully respecting the reality and validity of the child’s perspective. Her portrait of C.S. Lewis is equally balanced and insightful, giving welcome critical consideration to a remarkable man who has all too often been either white-washed by his partisans or demonized by his detractors.

If you have ever opened the door of a wardrobe with a secret hope of finding something there besides coats and mothballs, do open The Magician’s Book. You may find that that elusive magical country is closer than you think.

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Waging Peace: Power of Three

Diana Wynne Jones, Power of Three (1976)

One of the things I love about Diana Wynne Jones’s books is that they are always thoughtful without being didactic.  One never has the sense of being offered a “problem novel” with some topic-du-jour to be chewed on for one’s own good.  They always deliver a cracking good story, funny, inventive and compulsive reading.  But at the center of the tale is some real dilemma, some aspect of being human, which gives life and direction to the storytelling and makes it linger in the mind after the book is finished.

What kind of sacrifice does it take to end a pointless feud between warring peoples?  This timeless (and timely) question is the kernel of Power of Three.   Its setting is simply known as the Moor, and in a few pages Jones instantly gives us an impression of an enchanted landscape, misty, green, and full of old magic.  The people of the Moor seem to have something magical about them as well, for in the opening scene one of them, young Orban, draws down a curse upon himself when he kills a Dorig, member of an enemy race.

 As a seven-year-old, Orban’s sister Adara witnesses this act with horror but is helpless to prevent it.  It will fall to Adara’s children–“Ayna and Ceri who both had Gifts, and Gair, who thought he was ordinary”–to work out the way in which the curse can finally be lifted.  In the process they learn much more than they had ever expected about the Dorig, about the Giants (an even more hated and feared people), and about their own family’s past.

Jones’s picture of the Moor with its three uneasily cohabiting peoples is a quiet masterpiece. Inexperienced writers use pages of exposition to do what she does here simply through narrative voice, tone and dialogue.  And just as we’re settling into this marvelously convincing world, she gives it a little twist to shake things up a bit.  Everything depends on one’s perspective, as Ayna, Ceri and Gair have to learn.

In fact, the more I try to define this book, the more difficult I find it.  It’s as hard to capture its essence as to get a hold of one of the shape-shifting Dorig. Is it a world-building high fantasy?  A relationship-based family narrative?  A quest adventure?  An introspective psychological study?  A story about stories?

You’ll find a bit of each in Power of Three, woven into a seamless tale that draws you onward with Jones’ trademark humor, compassion and originality.  I can’t recommend anything more highly than that.

Originally published in 1976, Power of Three has gone through several hardback and paperback editions.  The one I have in hand now is the HarperTrophy paperback with a cover illustration that I find somewhat misleading, dominated as it is by a dragon-like countenance with fiery eyes.  The spiral designs around the edges are more satisfactory in terms of capturing the flavor of the story.  Maybe the cover artist found it as difficult as I do to pin down a definitive image. Just don’t get the impression that this is a book about flaming-eyed monsters; it’s much more about people, about how their choices and decisions, strengths and weaknesses, past and future weave together into a web as complex as Celtic knotwork.

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My Favorite Witch and Wizard: Howl’s Moving Castle

Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (Greenwillow, 1986)

Some people just don’t “get” fantasy. They are unable to comprehend the appeal of stories full of people who never existed and never could have, genealogical tables composed entirely of unpronounceable names, and endless endpaper maps portraying craggy coastlines that look like Wales, but aren’t, quite. They prefer to stay within the known world, with names which somebody, somewhere, can pronounce, and lands reliably mapped by National Geographic.

There’s plenty of great reading in the realms of realistic fiction, to be sure; but there is nothing quite like the pleasure of opening a book and stepping into a world that is purely of the imagination, yet inwardly coherent and recognizably real. Something in the human mind and spirit, something of its boundless possibilities, can perhaps best be expressed thus. Some authors, we can feel, are not so much painstakingly inventing a world full of cumbersome accoutrements, but discovering one that reveals a hidden aspect of ourselves.

Such a world is given to us by Diana Wynne Jones in Howl’s Moving Castle, one of her blithest and most enchanting novels. “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three,” she begins, and immediately we are caught up in the realm of fairy-tale logic, where everyone knows the eldest of three is doomed to failure, should three siblings set out to seek their fortunes.

Sophie Hatter, who happens to be the eldest of three sisters, never questions this law of existence. She resigns herself to a mundane existence in the family hat shop (not even being “the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success”). Her determination to be ordinary is disrupted by a call from the wicked Witch of the Waste, who casts a very inconvenient spell on her; and by the fearsome Wizard Howl, who, in spite of his reputation for sucking out the souls of young girls, allows her in to his mysterious moving castle, and seems to be in need of some saving himself.

As Sophie puzzles through the riddle posed by witch, wizard and castle, she finds that all is not as it seems, including her assumptions about herself. Is magic all about showy transformations and fiery battles? Or is there even more power in the stories we tell ourselves?

Creating a fairy-tale pastiche that brings something new to the old tales in a satisfying way is not so easy. Jones succeeds brilliantly with a comic tone from somewhere between Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett, starting with the chapter headings: “In which Sophie talks to hats.” “In which a Royal Wizard catches a cold.” “In which Sophie expresses her feelings with weed-killer.”

Jones is a master at creating fast-moving stories full of surprises. Unlike some of her rivals, though, she never leaves us feeling empty or cheated at the end. Her books have a quality I can only refer to as “heart,” not in any cheaply sentimental sense, but springing from shrewd and compassionate observation of human relationships. Howl and Sophie are one of my favorite examples of this. Their bickering could rival that of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick.

‘By the way,’ Howl said, ‘Mrs. Pentstemmon will call you Mrs. Pendragon. Pendragon’s the name I go under here.’

‘Whatever for?’ said Sophie.

‘For disguise,’ said Howl. ‘Pendragon’s a lovely name, much better than Jenkins.’

‘I get by quite well with a plain name,’ Sophie said as they turned into a blessedly narrow, cool street.

‘We can’t all be Mad Hatters,’ said Howl.

How they work through to an understanding of themselves and each other is literally the “heart” of the story. (Read it to find out why.)

Once you enter the land of Ingary, I’m sure that you won’t want to leave. Fortunately, Jones has obliged us with a sequel, Castle in the Air, in which tales from the Arabian Nights are given the same lovingly irreverent treatment.

1991 Phoenix Award winner

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