Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

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 22, 2009

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 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.

June 22, 2009

Alan Garner – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

They soon left the village behind and were riding down a tree-bordered lane between fields. They talked of this and that, and the children were gradually accepted by Scamp, who came and thrust his head onto the seat between Susan and Gowther. Then, ‘What on earth is that?’ said Colin.

They had just rounded a corner: before them, rising abruptly out of the fields a mile away, was a long-backed hill. It was high, and sombre, and black. On the extreme right-hand flank, outlined against the sky, were the towers and spires of big houses showing above the trees, which covered much of the hill like a blanket.

A Puffin book, edited by Kaye Webb, with a cover illustration by George W. Adamson and a map by Charles Green, this copy makes a delightful physical object as well as a wonderful read. It’s Garner’s first novel, published in 1960, and grows like a short, sturdy tree from the Cheshire earth of his home.

I hadn’t read this for ten years or so, but everything came back quickly: Cadellin the wizard (I read this early enough that I can’t bring myself to use the Welsh pronunciation); Fenodyree, who’s always been one of the reasons I far prefer dwarves to elves; Durathror the elf-friend; the Lady Angharad, who lives on one of the Two Floating Islands of Logris; and Gaberlunzie the wanderer, who wears a broad-brimmed hat and rides an unusually fast and strong horse. The text, of course, doesn’t tell us who he is, but we can make a guess, and it isn’t King James V. (‘Gaberlunzie’ is a Scots word for a licensed beggar, probably from the gaberlaine coat they wore; the story is that James V disguised himself thus to walk amongst his subjects, just like Certain Other People did.)

It does show a distinct anti-industrialist bias, but that only places it more firmly in the mainstream of British fantasy of the era – the classic example is that the lios-alfar of Weirdstone did a Dymchurch Flit some centuries ago, into the highlands of “Prydein” (Scotland, rather than Britain, here) and Sinadon (Castell Caer Lleion near Conwy, not to be confused with Caerleon-on-Usk of Arthurian legend) and across the Westwater into the Isle of Iwerdon (Ywerddon is the Welsh for ‘Ireland’) because the noise and pollution were just getting Far Too Much for them.

The mythology and the place-names are a bit mix-and-match, but that’s part of its charm – Welsh wizards and Norse dwarves battle creatures from Norse and Irish mythology, showing us a well-worn layered history to the land. Almost none of the names are used much like their mythological antecedents, but I can’t bring myself to care. Speaking of names, of course, this novel does have one of the absolutely characteristic markers of early 20th Century British children’s literature – a Susan.

Unusually for portal-quest fantasy, the map in the front is very constrained in space – it covers an afternoon’s hike, mostly over gentle ground, rather than the leagues, weeks, months, kingdoms of most of these books. Gowther knows every inch of it, and we can tell the author does too, but he bears his earmarkings lightly and they never wear.

June 16, 2009

In the pile – fear & hesitation

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , — Sam @ 12:17 am

One of the next books in the to-re-read pile is Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, which I recall being a truly wonderful book.

On the other hand, if I re-read that then I will almost certainly need to proceed to Dragonshadow, which is extremely different in tone and has some disturbing aspects. It’s also very good, but I remember it being very much not what I’d expected.

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