From the Archives: A Guide to Blackstock College

Throwback Thursday is a feature of my new blog, Entering the Enchanted Castle, that allows me to take a look back at some of my favorite posts from past years on ECBR. This week I’m linking up one of my most popular posts, which was also one of the most fun to write — for reasons I think will become clear as you read on. This post originally appeared on October 31, 2015, as the kick-off post of Witch Week.

TamLinIn Tam Lin, Pamela Dean takes her college experience and mixes it with elements of the well-known sixteenth-century ballad about a young man entrapped by the Fairy Queen, who is then rescued by his mortal lover from becoming a Halloween sacrifice. It’s a wonderful novel about that time between adolescence and adulthood when the world opens up, revealing both its promise and its dangers. It’s about love and friendship and books and learning and life, and how they all intertwine in the process of growing up.

Because I attended the same school as the author — Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota — every time I reread Tam Lin I find a special pleasure in identifying and imagining the buildings, landscapes, and events that are so lovingly described in its pages. Dean says in a note that “Blackstock is not Carleton,” but really, it’s pretty darn close. For those who don’t have the advantage of having been there in person, here is a guide to help you visualize some of the geography I know and love so well.

As we approached the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication and my own graduation in 1991, it was interesting to note how much the Carleton campus has changed in that time — far more than it had changed since the setting of Tam Lin in the early seventies, which on my first reading seemed like the remote past. The core remains, though, and if you stroll the campus with book in hand you’ll still recognize much of it.

In any case, if you ever do have the chance to go to Carleton, whether for a day, a term, or the whole four years, take it. Even if the fairy queen doesn’t actually ride through the Arb on All Hallows Eve, it truly is a magical place.

Heartfelt thanks are due to Matt Ryan, Carleton’s Associate Director of Web Communications, and to the Carleton Archives for their help with obtaining the images in this post. For requests to use these images elsewhere, please contact the College.

BlackstockCampusMapA map showing the “Blackstock” names for Carleton buildings that existed in the mid 1970s, when Tam Lin is set. Keep in mind that some sizes and distances have been changed in the book, and some buildings eliminated.

Major Locations

In the text the Blackstock name is given first, and then the Carleton name (if different) in italics. Attentive readers will note that the name-pairs often have some obvious relationship — e.g. Watson becomes Holmes. I’d be grateful to anyone who can cast light on the more obscure ones (Dunbar? Murchison?).

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Ericson Hall (Nourse Hall)
Janet, our heroine, lives here with her two roommates during her freshman and senior years, having a distinct prejudice in favor of the old-fashioned style of dormitory. I liked it too, when I lived there as a freshman. There really is a Little Theater in the basement, scene of a highly charged production of The Revengers’ Tragedy in the book and of countless student productions through the years in real life. I never heard of any ghosts, though.

Eliot Hall (Evans Hall)
Janet and her friends live here during her sophomore and junior years, in Column A — the building’s oddity being that it is arranged in vertical columns rather than horizontal floors to reduce noise. In its Carleton incarnation, this unfortunately also did away with much of the floor-based socializing that sustains student life, and so it was remodeled some years ago to a more conventional floor plan. Eliot/Evans also housed Janet’s and my favorite dining hall, where one could enjoy the view across Bell Field without having to trudge all the way to the edge of campus (see Dunbar, below). Alas, that too is gone, replaced by a more central, modern facility. Still remaining is the Cave, the student hangout in the basement where Thomas (the Tam Lin character) drowns his sorrows in weak beer.

Dunbar Hall (Goodhue Hall)
Janet’s second-favorite dining hall is here, with even more spectacular view thanks to its floor-to-ceiling windows, but lower popularity due to its distance from the center of campus. That’s gone too, repurposed into an enormous “superlounge.” Proximity to the Arboretum makes it a good choice for outdoorsy types, and Janet spends a lot of time going back and forth over the bridge that links it to the main campus (as do many of the more unsavory characters).

Masters Hall (Laird Hall)
Home of the English department in Janet’s time and mine, this former science building is a proud edifice facing the center of campus, with a lofty, high-ceilinged interior. She happily spends many hours here delving into the treasures of English literature, as did I. The warren of temporary buildings behind Masters/Laird where Janet has to hunt for her advisor either never existed at Carleton or was gone before I got there, though “Laird Annex” was a computer lab where I printed out my papers using the college computers.

Library (Laurence Gould Library)
Also known as the Libe, due to the Carleton/Blackstock penchant for abbreviating everything. Janet first encounters Thomas in the stacks here, seeks clues to the identity of the Ericson ghost in the archives, and finds peace in its “padded rooms” for studying. Because it’s built into a hill, it’s much bigger than it appears from its front elevation.

Chester Hall (Old Music Hall)
In her most obvious deviation from actual Carleton architecture, Dean makes the comely but rather petite old Music building into a looming, menacing supernatural presence of considerable grandeur. I do remember a listening room and music library, but not a marble-floored hall suitable for roller skating. A significant event takes place in one of the practice rooms, but I can’t say whether that is based in reality or not.

To my loss, I never spent much time in this enormous natural preserve during my time at Carleton. Janet is wiser, and as a Blackstock faculty child she has a longstanding knowledge of its byways. Her first romantic encounter takes place here, as well as meetings of the more supernatural variety. It’s a good place to locate your fairy court, if it’s going to be attached to a midwestern college.

Janet made a ceremonial stop in the middle of the bridge. She knew this stream in all its manifestations, from cracked mud set about with slimy green rocks to the foaming mass that covered the knees of the trees and lapped at the concrete wall that separated the parking  area from the woods. Today it was about midway between those two. All the rocks were covered, and the grass that overhung the banks like combed hair drifted sideways in a mild brown current. The air was full of dusty sunlight and a slow fall of yellow elm leaves. The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, thought Janet, recalling favorite poems with a pleasurable melancholy. — Tam Lin, pp. 46-47

Minor Locations

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Taylor Hall (Burton Hall) – Janet dislikes the dungeon-like dining hall in the basement of this dormitory on the far west side of campus, which causes a rather sticky situation when she ends up uncharacteristically going there one day.

Womens Center (Cowling Gymnasium) – Site of Janet’s freshman fencing class, this smallish gym is in convenient proximity to the East side dorms where she lives.

Murchison Hall (Musser Hall), Forbes Hall (Myers Hall), and Holmes Hall (Watson Hall) – These modern dormitories get short shrift in Janet’s book, but I lived in two of them and they weren’t so bad. I was definitely glad I never had to live in Musser, though.

Appleton Hall (Boliou Hall) – The building where Janet has her first Greek class is a pleasant place to study art and art history. The fountain in front tempts Carleton students to splash in it on hot summer days.

Olin Hall – The science building that looks like a radiator doesn’t even get its own Blackstock name. It does have an open-air auditorium nearby, though, suitable for impromptu performances by Music and Drama majors.

Observatory (Goodsell Observatory) – This historic building is one of the gems of the Blackstock/Carleton campus. Janet takes astronomy just so she can learn to use the telescope, an aim with which I sympathize.

Student Union (Willis Hall) – In Janet’s time, the student union is crammed into this tiny old building with an iconic clock tower. At Carleton this function was eventually to be taken on by the repurposed Sayles-Hill Gymnasium (see Room Draw, below).

Sterne Hall (Severance Hall) – This attractive dormitory also boasts a “Tea Room” in the basement where Janet and Thomas buy greasy french fries. In my time this was just another dining hall, but we still called it the Tea Room.

Music and Drama Center – Janet frequently walks past this much-maligned modern construction but oddly never sets foot inside it, in spite of her love of music and drama.

Chapel – Janet also admires this lovely building from a distance but never goes inside, even though she must have done so at some point. At Carleton, weekly convocation gatherings in the chapel are a longstanding tradition; once they had a religious element but this has been replaced by secular lectures and presentations. Janet mentions Convocation exactly once.

She looked out the window in time to catch the best view of Blackstock, as the bus climbed the hill that led them out of the river valley the town was built in. The buildings between which she ran and bicycled and trudged laden down with books made one tight cluster, the chapel tower, the brick battlements of Taylor, the black glittering clock tower of the Student Union, the brick stack of the heating plant and the mellow sandstone of the Anthro building crammed in the center of a circle of trees, green and red and yellow. You could have put the whole thing in your pocket. — Tam Lin, pp. 138-139


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The Tunnels – The steam tunnels that so conveniently linked many buildings on the East side of campus were closed due to safety concerns after my freshman year. I don’t remember seeing Homer in Greek on the wall, but there’s a lot of other amazing graffiti down there, including a reproduction of Tenniel’s Jabberwocky, a Twister board, and the yellow brick road.

The Town (Northfield) – Janet and her friends go downtown to buy bedspreads, eat sandwiches at a diner, and pick each other up from the bus — all typical activities for students needing to get off campus for a while.

The Old Theater (Old Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis) – The theater where Janet and Thomas go to attend highly meaningful performances of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Lady’s Not For Burning was demolished in 2006, replaced by a new waterfront complex. (I’m not sure why Dean already called it the Old Theater in 1991 though. Did she have some inside information?) This article from NPR gives some historical background, along with interior and exterior photos of the theater. It also includes shots from the first and last plays to be performed on its stage: both productions of Hamlet, appropriately enough.

Schiller – In a significant early scene, Janet gets involved in a pitched battle over the bust of the German poet, which is jealously guarded by groups of students who try to steal it from one another while also making dramatic appearances at public events. Yes, this really does happen at Carleton, and there are more wacky stories about it than you can shake a stick at. The idea is to keep things fun, clever, and nonviolent, which is Carleton in a nutshell.

Room Draw – The dormitories at Carleton (and presumably Blackstock as well) are mixed, without designated dorms for upperclassmen. Rooms are assigned via a quota system, whereby in the spring each student draws a random number that allows him or her a place in line to choose from remaining rooms. Janet and her friend Molly both draw extremely low numbers for their sophomore room, which is why they are so glad that their third roommate Tina is still willing to stick with them even with a high number that might have given her a chance at a single. At Blackstock room draw and registration take place in the old gymnasium, which by my time at Carleton had been made into the new campus center.

Traying – The temptation to take trays from the dining halls and use them to sled down Bell Hill is something few Blackstock/Carleton students can resist, and Janet and Thomas are no exception.

They had made the bottom of the slide properly: instead of stopping abruptly in the hollow made by everybody’s stamping feet, the tray skimmed halfway across the huge expanse of Bell Field, slowed, and slowed, and stopped somewhere in the middle. The setting sun lined the bare branches of the trees across the stream with gold, but down here there was a blue and gray twilight. — Tam Lin, p. 285

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of the Blackstock/Carleton campus, and that if you don’t know it through either its fictional or real-life incarnations, it’s intrigued you enough to take a look!

Escapism is good for your health: March Magics

Well, I’m quite sure we could all use some cheering up right now, so it’s the perfect time to celebrate March Magics – thanks to Kristen from We Be Reading who has hosted the event (originally DWJ March) for umpteen years. As we hole up avoiding dangerous germs, and tear our hair about other dire situations, we can at least escape to some magical worlds thanks to the wonderful works of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones.

To me, this is a healthy form of escapism because both authors were keenly aware of the negative side of life, of the injustice, stupidity, hypocrisy and malice that cause such chaos and harm in our world. Their stories are an imaginative response to the question of how we can meet such challenges — with courage, with determination, and above all, with a sense of humor.

So far, I’ve read two books that reminded me how valuable this is. Terry Pratchett’s A Blink of the Screen is his collected shorter fiction, which doesn’t mean all short stories. He says short stories “cost him blood” and he’s only produced about 15 or so. I think they may all be in this volume, starting with the very first story he sold at the age of 13 (he’s embarrassed by its inclusion but it’s surprisingly good), and rounded out by miscellaneous “squibs” that include the Ankh-Morporkh national anthem, a fictional biography of an unknown nobleman in the National Portrait Gallery, and even text for a set of Discworld trading cards.

It’s a buoyantly eclectic collection that fitted my scattered attention span, and could be recommended for those who have yet to try Pratchett and don’t want to commit to a whole novel. The longest story, “The Sea and Little Fishes,” features one of my favorite Discworld characters, the archwitch Granny Weatherwax, and slyly explores the theme of real goodness/badness vs. the appearance thereof. It’s one of Pratchett’s recurring themes, but while in his novels he sometimes belabors the point, this is a snappily paced piece with enough development to be satisfying — so it’s really too bad he didn’t write more short stories in this vein.

I skipped a couple of the pieces (more SF/cyberpunk-oriented) that weren’t my style, but enjoyed some of the shorter pieces that take a “what if” sort of idea and run with it — like a based-on-a-true story speculation about how the chicken crossed the road, and a vignette imagining what it would be like to be trapped in a series of sentimental Christmas cards. I was impressed once more at how Pratchett can write books and stories that are light but not lightweight, intelligent without being dreary, and alive to the magic of language and storytelling. So whether you’re already a fan or not, I think it’s worth picking up and browsing. If you do, be sure to let me know which were your favorites.

Extremely ugly cover on my edition – Don’t let it put you off

I also reread The Homeward Bounders, which I believe is the first book in which Diana Wynne Jones plays with the idea of multiple universes that she so brilliantly explores in other writings. It’s a small book full of big ideas, starting with one that doesn’t seem so fantastic these days: what if the world is a game being played by powerful entities who keep themselves invisible? And how can we free ourselves from this manipulation, and take back reality for ourselves?

The storyteller is Jamie, a boy who chanced on the game-players (known only as Them) and was cursed to “walk the bounds,” moving from world to world without ever entering play. He’s given the hope that he may return home, though, and hope is an anchor … for what, exactly, only comes clear at the end.

Those final pages go by quickly, in the author’s typically headlong ending style, and belie their philosophical depth, leaving readers still with questions to ponder. We don’t get a conventionally reassuring conclusion, but I think it’s all the better for teen (and adult) readers to have to grapple with in our troubled times. It came as something of a shock for me on a first reading; now, seeing how it’s foreshadowed from the first page, I can only feel how inevitable and right it is.

As I read I also remembered my fondness for the characters: Joris the hero-worshipping demon hunter; Adam, the “posh boy” who gets in a bit over his head; and especially bad-tempered Helen, who hides behind her hair, loves creepy critters, and has a “deformity” that could save the world. Then there is Jamie himself, who on his wanderings through the worlds  becomes an stand-in for our own search for home, the elusive place where we belong.

Is it a hopeless quest? That depends on how you look at it. As always, I’m grateful to have my perspective widened, my imagination stretched, and my world expanded by such a venture into the fantastic. It’s the best medicine I can think of right now.

What have you read, or would like to read, for March Magics?

A wish come true: Howl’s Moving Castle

Illustration from Howl’s Moving Castle © 2019 by Marie-Alice Harel

For a long time, I’ve been wishing that the Folio Society would publish something, anything, by Diana Wynne Jones. And this year, my wish finally came true! Howl’s Moving Castle was the title for the 2019 House of Illustration competition cosponsored by Folio, and the winning entry has duly been published just in time for the holiday gift season. I hope you will put it on your list as well.

I’ve already written about the book itself here, and you can also read Jenny’s guest post from the first Witch Week. From these you will learn that Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the most enchanting books by one of our favorite authors, and one that we most often recommend to new readers. In his introduction to the Folio edition, YA superstar author Marcus Sedgwick agrees with us: “If a single exemplar of Wynne Jones’s life’s work had to be chosen, Howl would be a brave contender, for here we find everything that identifies her work.”

Illustration from Howl’s Moving Castle © 2019 by Marie-Alice Harel

Sedgwick’s introduction is one of the bonuses you’ll find in this edition, a concise but thorough appreciation that places the novel and its author in the context of fantasy literature, highlighting both its roots in tradition and its innovative qualities. To new readers, I would suggest saving it for after you’ve read the novel itself, because it does contain plot points that would be better discovered as they occur in the story. If you already know the story, though, it’s a pleasure to see Wynne Jones (as he calls her) given due honor by a fellow author, one who benefited and learned from her example.

Illustration from Howl’s Moving Castle © 2019 by Marie-Alice Harel

Excellent design, of course, is the main point of a Folio edition, and this one is a treat. From the slipcase with its iconic door image and occult symbols, to the clever binding design with magical silver accents, to the evocative endpapers and chapter headings, it’s a beautiful production.

The full-page color illustrations by competition winner Marie-Alice Harel are also delightful, sensitively drawn with a muted but not drab palette, and each with a detail that slyly pokes out of the picture frame. But six illustrations are not enough! What about Calcifer the fire demon, Sophie’s sisters, or the Witch of the Waste? What about the flowery countryside, the pastry shop, or the exotic world of Wales? There were so many wonderfully visual scenes and vividly drawn characters I would have liked to see, but we have to be content with what we have.

What we do have is a lovely book, and I hope you will buy lots of copies for lucky recipients, so that Folio will be convinced to publish more books by Diana Wynne Jones. Charmed Life, Fire and Hemlock, Power of Three, The Spellcoats, Year of the Griffin, Deep Secret … I can always keep wishing.

Illustration from Howl’s Moving Castle © 2019 by Marie-Alice Harel

For more information, including a  video with Marcus Sedgwick and Marie-Alice Harel discussing the new edition, see the Folio website.


A book for all seasons: Watership Down

Richard Adams, Watership Down (1972)

Lately I’ve been disappointed that my son’s interest in reading seems to have flagged. He happily reads Tintin comics and my old Cricket magazines for hours, but the sustained attention required by a novel has been elusive.

Until I started reading him Watership Down, that is. I thought this 400-page chunkster would take us weeks to read at bedtime, but we’re almost done — because he seized it from me after the first couple of days and tore through a hundred pages at a stretch. And I had to seize it back from him to catch up; I didn’t want to miss a thing.

What is so compelling about this book, that it could enchant equally a twelve-year-old boy and his harried mom? I loved it as a child, but now I have to admire even more Richard Adams’s achievement. He has managed to write a story that is truly for all ages, and that still holds up decades after it became a surprise publishing sensation.

An adventure story about a group of rabbits trying to find a new home might seem a notion whose appeal is confined to the nursery, but there is nothing cute or sentimental about Adams’s writing. There’s a lot that could be considered absurd from a purely naturalistic point of view — rabbits do not have a spoken vocabulary, or tell stories, or have military-police type organizations — and yet Adams somehow manages to convince us utterly of the reality of his world while he is describing it. And the shift in perspective that invites us to consider the world from a small animal’s point of view is enriching and thought-provoking.

It’s not surprising that Watership Down was categorized on publication as a children’s book; one could hardly publish a book about talking rabbits in any other way. Yet there’s no reason why it can’t be read with pleasure by adults, and there are many sophisticated elements which may be appreciated more by experienced readers. The frequent shifts in tone, for example, which could have been incredibly awkward, are deftly handled to bring out the tension between the rabbit and human worlds while simultaneously integrating them into a coherent narrative.

The epigrams to each chapter, chosen from such un-child-like authors as Euripides and Auden, still ring in my memory after many years, while the themes of courage, leadership, brotherly love, and the primacy of freedom made a deep impression. And the brilliant pseudo-folktales told by the rabbits at various points of their journey are as memorable as any handed down by a real human culture. Not just random interpolations, they reflect and interact with the main narrative in significant ways, showing how central storytelling is to our experience of the world, to our very survival.

The landscape and natural phenomena of this very particular corner of England are lovingly, carefully described, but in a way that enhances rather than detracting from the exciting plot. We can’t understand the rabbits at all in disconnection from their context, and this may be the most important message Adams has to teach us. We humans have distanced and disconnected ourselves from the natural world, with tragic results; but through our imagination we have the power to connect again, and that is a source of hope even in the darkest circumstances.

I’m so glad my son has discovered the joys of this marvelously exciting and transformational journey, and that I get to travel along with him. Have you also been to Watership Down? What did you discover?


Classics Club: The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

Penelope Lively, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973)

When I read Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger, I was underwhelmed. Unfortunately, I can’t remember quite why. I think it was because I could not connect emotionally with the main character, and found the novel ultimately empty and dull in spite of the literary skill of the author. This happens to me a lot with acclaimed novels of the last century or so.

However, given that Lively is an anointed Great Writer, I wanted to give her another chance. So I decided to try a very different book, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. And this time, I could see Lively’s greatness, not so self-consciously occupied with War and Betrayal and other Deep Adult Subjects, but put at the service that most fundamental, most formative of literary forms: the tale for children.

Thomas Kempe is the ghost of a seventeenth-century apothecary whose resting place has been disturbed by renovations when a new family moves into his home. His violent manifestations and messages become a serious problem for ten-year-old James, who inevitably gets blamed for everything by the annoyingly modern-minded people around him. With the help of a local builder who takes a more sensible view of the issue, and a diary from the boy previously visited by this supernatural nuisance, he must find a way to put Kempe to rest once more.

It’s a simple narrative trajectory, but it’s the way Lively treats it with such lovingly crafted detail that makes this a special book. James perfectly captures the essence of Preadolescent Boy, and has the perfect sidekick in Tim, a Disreputable Dog (the only character in the book, Lively explains in a preface, directly taken from life). The intrusion of a spirit from the distant past, causing havoc and upsetting the usual order of things, allows her to explore the mind of a child on the threshold of adulthood, and the way our past selves both pass away and remain forever in some eternal bubble of time.

Funny, finely observed, and written with an unfailing sense of the music of language, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe demonstrates the power of story as embodied idea. Rather than making some dry, intellectual statement about the nature of time and memory, Lively has crafted her thoughts into living pictures that leave the reader free to draw deeper meaning from them … or simply enjoy an entertaining tale. To me, this is the best kind of fiction, lacking the preachiness and snobbery unfortunately often found in so-called “adult” literature (including, I’m afraid, Lively’s own).

The one weak point in the story, I felt, was Thomas Kempe himself, who didn’t fully come to life for me — and not just because he was a ghost. An abrupt turnabout in his character at the climax of the story lacked sufficient motive, and added to the sense of his being a mere narrative device rather than an actual person. A bit more attention to this aspect would have made an excellent novel even better; I couldn’t help thinking that Diana Wynne Jones would have made a better job of it.

In the preface to the Folio Society edition, Lively appears a bit baffled by the success of her early book, and admits that “writing for children left me long ago.” This seems sad to me, and makes me wonder if some spark of vitality had vanished by the time she got around to Moon Tiger. I’m interested to read more of her fiction, and see if I can again be inspired by the creative energy that impressed me here.

Have you read any of Lively’s other novels? What can you recommend?

Classics Club List #18



March Magics: The True State of Affairs

It’s the magical month of March — time to celebrate two favorite fantasy authors, Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, thanks to Kristen of We Be Reading who hosts March Magics each year. It’s a free-form event this time — read and post whatever and whenever you like, but be sure to visit Kristen’s blog to see what she’s up to, and connect with other fans.

This year, the selected theme is “Nothing but the shorts,” focusing on the dozens of short stories penned between the two authors. Because of my current book acquisition ban, I’m limited to the books I have on hand — and I have no stories by Terry Pratchett, and only a few by Diana Wynne Jones. So I decided to reread my copy of Everard’s Ride, a book I cherish not so much because it’s a rather valuable signed limited edition, as because it’s proof that an underrated master was finally getting some well-deserved recognition with this special production (done for the 1995 Boskone conference at which she was guest of honor).

But I also cherish it because it has one story that for some reason was never republished anywhere else, in the many confusingly overlapping compilations and anthologies of DWJ stories. And within this story is a poem I love, one of the few poems I’ve seen by her — though surely she must have written some for her own pleasure, if nothing else. At almost 100 pages, “The True State of Affairs” is more of a novella than a story, perhaps a discarded early draft for a novel. It feels unfinished, at any rate, frustratingly fragmentary — no explanation is given for the protagonist apparently being transported from modern England to a place bearing some resemblance to the universe of the Dalemark series — and tantalizingly lacking in closure.

I love it, though, because it’s a story about the risky business of expressing and defining and discovering ourselves through language. It’s written by a prisoner on scraps begged from her jailer, a prisoner who doesn’t understand the circumstances of her imprisonment, but who has to try to comprehend her predicament, remember who she is, and keep herself from going mad. In other words, it’s about life. What is the true state of affairs, for any of us?

Truth is the fire that fetches thunder
Kindled of itself, and only mine
In the heart that had its fashioning.

Looking out from her confinement, she sees another captive, and weaves stories about him that may or may not be true. From this she enters into a clandestine correspondence that leads her into further danger, emotional as well as physical. Who can say what really lives inside another person? What is truth — in our perceptions, in our ideas?

In this strange, ambiguous tale, with its uncharacteristically bleak ending, Diana Wynne Jones captures something of the mystery of self and other, without reaching any easy or comfortable conclusions. As with all of her work, she reminds me that each one of us human beings is a story in the process of being told, and makes me want to listen.

What do you plan to read this month? What are your favorite stories by these authors?

New release review: Stellar stories from Tachyon

This season, three fantasy masters have story collections out from Tachyon Publications — a splendid opportunity to feast yourself on a rich assortment of weird, funny, whimsical, lyrical, dark, thought-provoking tales that beautifully explore the full range of our imaginative landscape. If any of these are among your favorite authors, you will surely want to pick up their latest offerings — and if you’ve not yet had had the pleasure of making their acquaintance, this is the perfect opportunity to do so. Whether you devour all the stories or just sample the ones that are to your taste, there’s a good chance you’ll find something that interests you here.

I’ve already mentioned Jane Yolen’s The Emerald Circus, which Tachyon kindly allowed me to offer as part of the Witch Week giveaway last November. I described it then as “a master storyteller’s riff on various well-known tales including The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and of course the Arthurian legend. Three Arthurian stories are included, of which my favorite is the novella Evian Steel, a striking re-imagining of the forging of Arthur’s sword in connection with the power of women’s magic. If only Yolen had been able to fulfill her intention of making this the central portion of a novel … perhaps one day she will? A new introduction by Holly Black gives a tribute to Yolen by the next generation of fantasy writers, and each story has an endnote about its creation and original publication, paired with a thematically related poem — quite a unique feature!”

Other standouts for me were “Blown Away,” which imagines an alternative fate for Dorothy from the point of view of one of the Kansas farmhands (including a stint in the Emerald Circus of the title), and “Sister Emily’s Lightship,” which makes the unlikely pairing of Emily Dickinson and an alien visitor seem almost inevitable. Yolen has made me look asquint at all the classic books and authors on my shelves now…what antics might be going on just beyond or around those hallowed pages?

From Yolen’s literary extravaganza I moved on to The Overneath by Peter S. Beagle. His first collection in some years, it includes uncollected work along with several stories previously unpublished in print, and many of them are dazzling. The title comes from the breezily inventive “The Way It Works Out and All,” in which Beagle himself appears as a character along with fellow fantasy author Avram Davidson, who’s discovered a way into the mysterious “plumbing” behind the ordinary world. I love this image, and it could be taken as a metaphor for the uncertain and sometimes dangerous ways the author has to tread in bringing the gifts of the imaginative world to us. Beagle casts himself as being more reluctant in this endeavor than his intrepid friend, yet I suspect he’s no less of an adventurer at heart.

Such sly humor is only one of the narrative tones at Beagle’s disposal, though, as he brings us a couple of stories about the wizard Schmendrick (from his famous novel The Last Unicorn); tales of three other very, very different unicorns; a melancholy fairy tale resonant with themes of aging and forgiveness; tales of technological magic that comes via laptops and wireless transmitters; and much more — as a former Seattle resident I was especially pleased to see the Fremont Bridge Troll get his very own story. Beagle’s notes at the head of each selection further illuminate their origins and his creative process.

Jo Walton is a newer addition to the fantasy and science fiction scene than either of these two long-established names, yet has quickly proved herself as one of the most versatile and inventive writers around. In Starlings, her first collection of short works — mostly not exactly stories, but chapters from unwritten novels, fragmentary fiction, writing exercises, poems, and even a play — her experimental spirit is strongly in evidence. Readers looking for a polished set of conventional short stories may be disappointed, but those who can take each piece on its own terms will find much to enjoy.

Actually, I thought that Walton spent way too much time apologizing for not writing “real” stories. I found many of her “non-stories” delightful, from the first, a trio of twilight tales that reminded me strongly of Joan Aiken, to the last, a play based on an Irish legend (and where does one get to encounter something so highly non-commercial these days?). A selection of poems completes the volume, many of which are also based in myth, legend, and pop culture — “Godzilla Weeps for Baldur,” anyone? If one piece doesn’t do the trick for you, just move on; at the very least you’ll encounter a wild and wonderful imagination at work along the way.

Thank you, Tachyon, for these bursts of magic to enliven some cold winter nights. I hope you’ll give them a look.

New Release Review: The Girl in the Tower

Katherine Arden, The Girl in the Tower (2017)

The Bear and the Nightingale was one of my favorite books of 2017, and just shy of one year later author Katherine Arden has produced a sequel — greatly pleasing those of us who are weary of waiting years for a follow-up book. And I’m glad to say that The Girl in the Tower is a worthy successor, showing no signs of a sophomore slump. A third book is already slated for August of 2018, which should bring the trilogy to a rousing conclusion.

Girl is a tauter and leaner book than Bear, with a more streamlined plot and fewer POV switches, but still with the atmospheric Russian setting steeped in both history and folklore that so enchanted me in the first book. What was built up over many chapters is now taken for granted in this second volume, with few new elements added, but characters and themes are extended and deepened. New readers will definitely want to start with book one, and not jump into the middle of the story, as they would thus miss half the pleasure of entering into Arden’s half-realistic, half-mythological world. (And you might want to go get that book right now before reading the rest of this review, to avoid spoilers. If you like that one, I’m sure you’ll want to continue straight on to the next.)

On the run from her remote village, where she’s been branded as a witch by a malicious priest, Vasya encounters her long-lost brother Sasha and sister Olya and enters into a perilous deception that brings her into a treacherous world of shifting alliances. As she journeys to Moscow, powerful but vulnerable heart of her people’s land, she must try to reconcile the old powers that still speak to her with the demands and prejudices of this bewildering new world. An explosive climax brings secrets to light and sets the stage for further journeys.

I was especially happy that Vasya got to be reunited with her siblings, who disappeared from the action somewhat abruptly in the first book. Arden fruitfully explores the tensions between them, as well as Vasya’s struggle to express herself in a world that represses and limits female power. Vasya’s relationship with the frost demon Morozko is also developed into a poignant Beauty-and-the-Beast story arc that yet resists falling into mere stereotype. And a wonderful new character is introduced in Vasya’s niece, who, it seems, will play an even more important role in the third book.

I’m definitely looking forward to that one, and glad that we won’t have a terribly long wait. In the meantime, if you enjoy the intersection of historical fiction and fantasy, this series may prove a perfect winter treat for you.


New Reprint Review: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Patricia A. McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974)

Though McKillip’s early novel has become a classic of fairy-tale-flavored fiction, a favorite genre of mine, I’ve somehow managed not to read it until now. I’m so glad I finally did, thanks to a new, beautifully designed paperback and e-book edition from Tachyon books. This is a lyrical, thoughtful exploration of love and power, pride and forgiveness and freedom, rich with evocative imagery and resonant language. I’ve already read it twice in a row, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it again.

Daughter and heir of wizards, silver-haired Sybel lives on a mountaintop alone but for the magical beasts she’s captured with her powers. When a baby is brought to her to raise and love, then taken from her again as a boy, it draws her into the political machinations of the lands below. How she learns to find her own true strength is a tale that takes us deep into the secrets of the human heart, and out again into the dangerous, enchanting world.

I could say more, but I think it’s best to let McKillip speak for herself; a taste of her prose will quickly tell you whether this is a book for you.

“You are a strange child . . . so fearless and so powerful to hold such great, lordly beasts. I wonder you are not lonely sometimes.”

“Why should I be? I have many things to talk to. My father never spoke much—I learned silence from him, silence of the mind that is like clear, still water, in which nothing is hidden. That is the first thing he taught me, for if you cannot be so silent, you will not hear the answer when you call.”


“You can weave your life so long — only so long, and then a thing in the world out of your control will tug at one vital thread and leave you patternless and subdued.”


“What do you think love is- a thing to startle from the heart like a bird at every shout or blow? You can fly from me, high as you choose into your darkness, but you will see me always beneath you, no matter how far away, with my face turned to you. My heart is in your heart. I gave it to you with my name that night and you are its guardian, to treasure it, or let it whither and die. I do not understand you. I am angry with you. I am hurt and helpless, but nothing will fill the ache of the hollowness in me where your name would echo if I lost you.”

Though it has no external connection to Arthurian legend, there are thematic resonances in this tale of love lost and betrayed, of powerful, magical women, of the double-edged sword of passion and revenge. So I’m very excited that thanks to Tachyon, I’m able to offer a giveaway of this lovely book during Witch Week: Dreams of Arthur, taking place from October 31 to November 6 — plus another one of their new publications.

Which one? Come back on October 1 for more news about that, and the rest of the week.


New Release Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (2017)

I opened The Bear and the Nightingale with great anticipation and not a little trepidation; since the trend for fairy-tale fiction exploded some years ago, there have been some brilliant entries in the genre and some derivative duds. Katherine Arden’s debut novel looked promising, with its half-magical, half-historical Russian setting and an enticing cover, but what looks good doesn’t always turn out to be so in the reading.

Fortunately, from the first pages I was entranced, as Arden quickly led me into a truly wonder-full world, in which the time-honored motif of the mistreated stepdaughter gains new strength and richness through her multi-layered telling. There’s so much to discover and enjoy that I’d like to encourage you to just pick it up and explore it for yourself … but to name a few favorite aspects, I especially appreciated how elements of folklore and myth were treated in a way that brought them to life for modern readers, while feeling both genuinely atmospheric and psychologically true. At the same time, the historical setting — a medieval land of wooden huts, wandering monks and tribal machinations — is economically but convincingly developed through telling details of life and language.

Toward the end, I found that Arden’s storytelling weakened a bit. The villains became more one-sided and less interesting, and the battles with monsters started to feel too much like a video-game slugfest for my personal taste. I’m hoping that in the sequels (and yes! there will be sequels!) she’ll carry the skill she shows so amply in the buildup of this story through to the very last pages. I will definitely be watching for her next effort with great interest, and confidence that this time my expectations will be rewarded.