Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

July 31, 2009

Silver on the Tree

The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 5.

In many ways, this is a wonderful book. But in a lot of others, it makes me really angry.

Written in 1977 (when mass immigration from the Commonwealth was still relatively new in most of England) it’s explicitly anti-racist, which is wonderful. Will’s family defend a Sikh child (and correctly identify his ethnicity) against a racist bully and his racist father, and the racism is explicitly linked to the Dark. On the other hand, it still doesn’t give active roles to women – Jane’s only task is to avoid being eaten by a lake monster – and demonises people with red hair.

It’s set in Wales again, both in the real and immediate landscape of West Wales and in Cantre’ Gwaelod, the Drowned Hundred – the land lost when the dykes failed and the sea came in, between Llyn[1] and Gower, that now forms Bae Ceredigion. On the other hand, the cast take a train (an antique steam train, in fact, that the Light sends when it’s needed, and which then turns into a boat – I’m reminded of the dream travel sequences in the first and next-to-last Sandman books, though of course they were much later) back to the Chiltern Hills for the arbitrary finale.

It’s arbitrary, because we hadn’t heard about the Midsummer Tree before, nor that the mistletoe on it opened its flowers once every seven hundred years and that the side whose champion cut the mistletoe at the instant of its full flowering could permanently banish the other from Time.

For that matter, we didn’t have (or at least, I didn’t see) any foreshadowing that one of the supporting cast had been a stealth Lord of the Dark until she gets suddenly unmasked and banished on the train.

The Light never tells its champions what’s going to happen, any more than it tells the readers, so this ties in well with the single thing about the book that angers me most.

At the end of the book, after all they’ve gone through, after being chased around and stalked and threatened by the Dark, everyone who’s not a wizard-by-predestined-birthright is made to lose their memory for their own good. The one grownup is given a choice, but resigns it, and asks the Light to choose for him; the children aren’t even given that choice. It’s not even that they go Susan, and think it was all a game; they can’t remember any of it. And John Rowlands, the one mortal adult at the finale – who is a really good character – gets to live out the rest of his life in the comforting illusion that his wife was nothing more than the ordinary loving woman she seemed, and forget everything about the Light and the Dark and the Old Ones, forget that he stood firm against the greatest darkness that ever was, forget that victory hinged on his judgement.

Going back to the bright spots for a while, when Will and Bran go through Cantre’ Gwaelod we see guest appearances from Gwion[2] and Gwyddno Garanhir, and we get a long section all about craftsmanship, which I can’t do better than to quote.

‘It was made by one who was close to the Light,’ Gwion said, ‘but who was neither a Lord of the Light nor one of the Old Ones – there are none such bred in this land… He was the only one who had the skill to make so great a wonder. Even here, where many are skilled. A great craftsman, unparalleled. But the Riders of the Dark, they could roam freely through the land, since we had neither desire nor reason to keep any creature out – and when they heard that the Light had asked for the sword, they demanded that it should not be made. They knew, of course, that words already long written foretold the use of Eirias, once it was forged, for the vanquishing of the Dark.’
Will said, ‘What did he do, the craftsman?’
‘He called together all the makers in the land,’ Gwion said. He tilted his head a little higher. ‘All those who wrote, or brought life to others’ words or music, or who made beautiful things. And he said to them, I have this work in me, I know it, that will be the peak of everything I can ever make or do, and the Dark is trying to forbid me to do it. We may all suffer, if I deny them their will, and I cannot therefore be responsible alone for deciding. Tell me. Tell me what I should do.’
Bran was gazing at him. ‘What did they say?’
‘They said, You must make it.’ Gwion smiled proudly. ‘Without any exception. Make the sword, they said.’

And the Dark’s revenge on the craftsman was to bring a great depression on him –

Fear of age, of insufficiency, of unmet promise. All such endless fears, that are the doom of people given the gift of making, and lie always somewhere in their minds.

Don’t we all know it…

[1] The y there should have a circumflex, but HTML 4.0 does not support Welsh very well. “Llyn” without a circumflex means “lake”, and this particular geographical feature is a peninsula, which is rather different.
[2] Yes, that Gwion. And when he packs lunch for the children, he gives them apples and hazelnuts.

Upcoming event – Tigana re-reading

Filed under: meta — Tags: — Sam @ 11:12 am

I’ve been reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana recently, prompted by a friend asking me to write something about it, and making notes. Sometime in the nearish future I’m going to write them up in a series of posts – one for each of the five parts – and put them up spaced a day or two apart. (I’d probably have finished the notes by now, but got slightly distracted by H1N1. Messy, but not dangerous for me, thank goodness.)

So if you want to refresh your memory of the book, or start reading along, you have time!

NB: if you’re the kind of person who dislikes spoilers – and most scifi & fantasy fans seem to be – then you’ll definitely want to read the book first, or avoid these posts. You Have Been Warned.

July 29, 2009

The Grey King

The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 4.

Very Welsh, and feels right to me. Given that I spent a lot of my A-level science lessons looking out of the window at Cader Idris, if I’m happy with it then anyone should be.

I can’t find any Welsh spelling mistakes – though Welsh is a language with a lot of stratification and regional variation – and Bran’s Welsh pronunciation lesson to Will is pretty much spot on.

It does well on Welsh mythology, too; at one point, Bran and Will are asked riddles, the answer to which are Triads – Who are the three wise elders of the world?[1] Who are the three generous men of the Island of Britain?[2]

As far as plot goes, this one lives out the first prophetic verse we heard at the end of Greenwitch, and emphasizes very pointedly that the Light is Not Nice. Unpleasant things have to happen to good people, or the Dark will win and everyone will be vastly more unpleasant to each other. To be more specific, the Light has to do unpleasant things to good people, and there isn’t any mention in the text of alternatives being considered & rejected – the things the Light do are the right things to do because the Light did them. On the other hand, victory is by no means predestined[3], so the idea of just treading out the predestined steps is a little problematic. Of course, it’s not the only problematic thing – it’s heavy on the “birthright” angle. Anyone trying to reach the plot coupon who wasn’t born to do so will be killed, and all that.

[1] The owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the eagle of Gwernabwy, and the blackbird of Celli Gadarn. Oddly, the romance of Culhwch and Olwen lists five – the ouzel of Cilgwri, the stag of Rhedynfre, the eagle of Gwernabwy, the owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, and the salmon of Llyn Llyw.
[2] Nudd the Generous, son of Senyllt, Mordaf the Generous, son of Serwan, Rhydderch the Generous, son of Tudwal Tudglyd. And Arthur himself was more generous than the three.
[3] Well, except in the sense that we’re reading 1970s children’s fantasy.

July 26, 2009


The Dark is Rising sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 3.

I remembered this one as being rather weak compared to the other three (obviously, I’m not counting Over Sea, Under Stone in here, because that’s by far the weakest of the five) but on re-reading it stacks up well.

Will Stanton, from TDIR, meets the three children from OSUS for their followup quest. The grail they found has been stolen from the museum, so they need to get it back and retrieve the leftover part – an extra scroll which was hidden inside the grail, and fell into the sea. Interestingly, there isn’t any arbitrary puzzle solving involved here – instead, Susan wins by going to the ancient local ritual of constructing the Greenwitch (a wicker effigy) and making an unselfish wish for her to be happy, whereupon the Greenwitch decides to help her and give her the plot coupon.

The Dark’s purpose for the Grail isn’t frustrated; instead, it gets characterized as something necessary but unexplained, which will ultimately serve the Light. There’s a lot of middle-book syndrome going on.

Interesting use of unsympathetic resonance: the Dark’s agent in this book is a painter, who does nasty, scary work… but it’s still good art, interesting and creative and Artistic. And it’s a spell (technically, three spells – the spell of Mana, the spell of Reck, and the spell of Lir – and the same three spells the Light were going to use) which Merlin had forgotten was possible.

July 22, 2009

Mendlesohn & James – A Short History of Fantasy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Sam @ 11:05 pm

This is precisely what it says – a history of the fantastic, beginning with mythology and moving through fairytale and the Gothic novel to the beginnings of Fantasy As We Know It and then forward to the present day.

The first text mentioned (in passing) is the Epic of Gilgamesh; the most recent is Alice in Sunderland (graphic novel, Brian Talbot, 2007). At 280 pages including chronology, glossary, and further reading, there’s little enough space for any particular text, but plenty of them are given a thorough enough discussion that it’s clear where they fit into the braided narrative of fantasy.

An extensive “Chronology of important texts” always invites the reader to tick off what they’ve read, and I’m mildly disappointed by my lack of erudition there; but I’m pleased to find that I’m familiar with most of the texts referenced in the main body, at least until the last chapter (2000-2010).

Clearly, I need to read more heavyweight-recent SF!

The Dark Is Rising

By Susan Cooper. Book 2 in the eponymous sequence, and there are probably fewer similarities to Over Sea, Under Stone than there are differences. Luckily, nearly all the differences are improvements.

It’s a classic coming-of-age-into-magical-powers tale, as Will Stanton discovers he’s the last of the “Old Ones” (special magic immortal people) to be born, and that the “Dark” (an immanent power, not fully explained in this book, which seeks to do all the usual things) is about to try something really nasty.

It was rather a surprise to find that since I’d last read this, I’d been spending time in the setting – Buckinghamshire has changed a lot since it was written in 1973, but Windsor Great Park is still very much there. Unlike the first book, it’s very much at-home – magic changes the world, overlays a new mystery onto it (mostly through timeslips) but it’s still Will’s own home, bounded by Roman roads and running water, and still very English and very much a family story.

Whilst Will’s needed to save the world, this mostly seems to be a matter of arbitrary destiny rather than any particular skill or competence on his part, and the reasons for any given plot McGuffin are shrouded in myth. Which isn’t a bad thing at this point in the series! I have all five books here, and I’m making a point of not reading each one until I’ve written about the last; otherwise, I won’t be able to treat them separately at all.

July 17, 2009

Over Sea, Under Stone

The Dark Is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 1, and there’s a reason the sequence is named after Book 2 instead.

Yet another piece of Utterly Classic British Children’s Literature, this time published in 1965. Like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, it features middle-class urbanized English children going on holiday and having Adventures – this time, in a fishing village in Cornwall, where they retrieve an ancient and incredibly important treasure. Said treasure was hidden 900 years ago, presumably by someone fleeing the Normans, and concealed by writing down a treasure hunt in two only mildly cryptic steps and then leaving the map in someone’s attic. It’s also part of the Arthurian cycle – they’re after a grail. (“What’s a grail?” “A kind of cup.”) It’s not just any grail, though – this one has all the stories of Arthur engraved on its panels. So it’s presumably not the Grail…

Everything was Planned, and Prophecy works out nicely; interestingly, though, we don’t get to see the prophecy. The archetypal White-Haired Guy (Professor Merriman “Merry” Lyon, who turns out to be the archetypal White-Haired Guy) protects the children while they get on with things, and then tells them afterwards that it was all planned that way and that History trusted they would be able to do it. There’s no overt magic involved, and the enemies do nothing scarier than kidnap one child from the middle of a carnival procession and then feed him lemonade and sandwiches. Oh, and Loom While Wearing Cloaks. (One’s a Hastings, interestingly – also the adopted name of a villain in Weirdstone.)

The first 30 pages or so get rather racist – the children go exploring through their rented house, and pretend they’re in the jungle. With “rude natives” surrounding them.

Simon: And I should have gone exploring into the interior and the rude natives would have turned me into a god and tried to offer me their wives.
Barney: Why would the natives be rude?
Simon: Not that sort of rude, you idiot, it means – it means – well, it’s the sort of things natives are. It’s what all the explorers call them.

That’s 1950s England for you… not that we stopped having those kinds of Educational Books for quite some time after that, of course. I still saw quite a few of them (second-hand, at least) growing up in the 1980s.

It’s not a bad book, but rather slight.

July 16, 2009

Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series

Filed under: rereading,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 11:45 pm

It’s difficult for me to know what to write about these books, as it always is when I love something so much.

YA sf about wizards – what’s not to like? And it’s definitely sf, not fantasy, despite all the, um, magic. There’s a good solid rationale behind it, there are laser guns, there are nonhuman aliens of any number of kinds, and the books are liberally strewn with meta-SF references. Urban SF, possibly, as opposed to urban fantasy.

When Duane does use realworld science to support her plot hooks, the results can sometimes be a bit unfortunate – for instance, in book 8 the world suffers from Thinning (and all the adult wizards go totally Susan, leaving the kids to save the universe – what a surprise!) because the amount of dark matter in the universe is stretching space too much and making everyone depressed and despairing. However, that’s a minor oddity, and this effect doesn’t turn up often enough to be problematic.

Amusingly, these books score really high on the pagan-friendly chart, according to the Internet. But wizards… magic… references to Powers who were known by the names of pagan gods… talking animals! So why amusing? Well, the world is set up like this. Initially, things were created perfectly, we’re told. The universe is friendly, and loving, and yearns towards sentience and life. And then one of the Powers that served the One – the best and brightest of them – decided to create something entirely new. Entropy and death. Cast out, he became the Lone Power, roaming the universe cackling and twirling his moustache, tricking species into accepting his “gift”, and hating all that lives and grows in its own way. Sounding familiar yet?

How about if I say that sacrifice (especially substitute sacrifice) and redemption are the main themes of the series? Or that it keeps dropping hints that there’s a good and useful side to the Lone Power’s gift, and that by passing through its effects wizards (and species) can become wiser and stronger? Or that helping the Lone Power trick itself into accepting redemption is usually the way to win?

This isn’t just Christian, it’s outright Catholic. It isn’t Christian allegory in the style of CS Lewis, mind – watered-down Sunday-School-by-stealth. There aren’t any prissy English children wandering like tourists through a universe other people control, dancing on the author’s puppet-strings while he acts out a cute little Bible story. These are real people, worried about real and important things, thrown into a job the Powers That Be think they can do. Nobody’s special because of their genetics (though wizardry does seem to run in families) and sometimes it takes nonwizards to save the day. The viewpoint characters are more often female than not, and a fair proportion of them are non-white (it’s American, so Spanish names indicate PoC – I always have trouble remembering that) and there’s a heavily implied gay couple in a major supporting role.

Oh, and yet another thing that makes it work far better than either Narnia or Harry Potter? Families. This series presents realistic, three-dimensional families, with all the trouble and wonderfulness that they lead to. Being a wizard doesn’t get you out of living in the real world; indeed, quite the reverse. This isn’t escapism here.

July 13, 2009

Species classifications

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Sam @ 10:03 pm

One of the infallible signs of traditional SF – a ten-letter species classification. ‘Doc’ Smith used it, James White used it, and I’ve just found it in a Diane Duane. (Wizard’s Holiday – in which Duane shows off her Star Trek roots)

July 9, 2009

The other side of escapism – fantasies of service

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 5:56 pm

I’ve started re-reading Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, more or less concurrently with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books. I didn’t pick them as a pair deliberately, but they do have quite a bit in common beyond the wizards-in-cities schtick – they’re both fantasies of service.

A lot of people characterize SF as escapist, both as a positive and a negative term – it takes you away from the real world, it takes you to a better one, and so on. But there’s a definite tradition of engagement as well, and the whole it might be you trope isn’t always about Being Special, about being the One Princess Destined To Whatever. Sometimes it’s just about validation – the hope that one day, someone will turn up and hand you a magic sword, a talking horse, or the root password to the universe. And then they’ll say, It’s yours now. Do good with it.

Mercedes Lackey is a perfect example of this. If the Powers want you for a sunbeam Herald, they’ll send a shiny telepathic horse to kidnap you and be your best friend, and then you’ll jump into harm’s way for everyone’s good. Or from her urban fantasies, Diana Tregarde has the Guardian power – when she’s certifiably Doing Good, she gets an extra huge magic battery to plug into.

Duane’s Wizards do it a bit differently. Wizardry is, by definition, service; using magic reduces entropy and slows down the heat death of the Universe. It’s a choice you have to make for yourself, and one you have to keep on making, and the reward for a job well done is always another one.

What more could we wish for?

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