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.

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

Greenwitch

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

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 7, 2009

William Morris – The Well at the World’s End

I’ve had one or the other volume of this sitting on my bedside table for the last six months, since it’s slow, dense reading. Last night before bed, I finished it off, and after that much time spent on it I’m damn well going to write about it.

Morris wrote this in the early 1890s, and it was published by the Kelmscott Press in the year of his death in 1896. It’s an expression of his lifelong love of the mediaeval and of the Matter of Britain, though this text is closer in feel to the numerous accretions than to the “core” Arthurian tales. Fundamentally, it’s fanfic – the devoted craft of someone who can’t accept that there isn’t any more of their obsession, and damn well writes it themselves.

A lot of what I can say about this involves “despite” – it is, overall, good and fresh despite the pseudo-mediaeval style (there’s enough cod in there to restock half the Atlantic) and the interminable dullness of every scene wherein someone shows love or affection to someone else.

I think it has that freshness for two reasons. First, it has a strongly English sense of place about it – Morris may have been unreasoningly in love with the form of the mediaeval epics, but he still understood their matter. When Ralph leaves Upmeads, he goes through Wulstead, the Abbey of St Mary at Higham[1], Bourton Abbas, and the Wood Perilous. Those are all good English place names where today you might find stockbrokers and real ale; and meseems that in the Wood Perilous might one
venture at cheap and hope to behold squirrels, ramblers, and suchlike woodland beasts.

Secondly, it’s mostly free of tired fantasy conventions. Well, technically Lord of the Rings is free of tired fantasy conventions, since it was the wellspring of most of them, but The Well at the World’s End has the added advantage that it didn’t inspire legions of imitators. I’ve a soft spot for books with no non-human characters or antagonists, too.

As for where the breadcrumbs lead next – I’ve some more of Morris’s work on the same shelf, and the next literary heritor on is JRR Tolkien. Large swathes of The Hobbit were inspired by Morris’s depictions of early Germanic life, and in his 20s he wrote self-consciously in the style of Morris. He got better though.

The other apparent followup is early Sheri S. Tepper – her True Game books et seq – though those owe as much to Dunsany as to Morris.


[1] The story is set very much in the far-off reaches of this world – the early pages make mention of “a house of good canons, who knew not the way to Rome”.

July 4, 2009

Lord Dunsany – Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Sam @ 12:24 am

Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea.

Like all of Lord Dunsany’s work, this is a beautiful and strange story. The full text is available online here. It’s about the same unconquerable, barely expressible yearning for the Sea that Legolas experiences in The Lord of the Rings, and which seems to be an interesting characteristic of elves-done-properly generally. (Not that the characters in this story are elves, or even elvish; people are quite strange enough for Dunsany as it is.)

It’s hardly an exclusively fantasy, theme, however – Kipling and Masefield both expressed it perfectly.

For some reason I cannot articulate, this story reminds me of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. It may be mere coincidence.

June 22, 2009

Lucy Bond – Red Tape and Cold Iron

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 11:16 pm

Red Tape and Cold Iron, or A Proposal for the Re-Introduction of the Faery Folk To the United Kingdom (Jim Baen’s Universe, 2, 6)

This is a nicely polished little semi-precious stone of a short story, elaborating around a whimsical conceit. Someone wants fairies back in Britain, because they’ve been reading too many of the wrong kinds of books; someone else has a rather better idea of what fairies are like, but wants them back there anyway. Civil servants, I have observed, can be really quite nasty pragmatic at times…

Interestingly, Bond has chosen to narrate everything rather than present the action; it’s quite a traditional fairy-tale stylistic technique, but normally we’d hear some dialogue too, especially since so much of this story does consist of discussions and negotiations. The other oddness about her choice is the lack of any framing story – we do have to wonder who the narrator is, and why they’re telling us all this.

The writing could have done with a bit more editor’s pencil, but it’s still delightful – very arch, mannered and precise, with tongue very firmly in cheek. I want to quote huge swathes of it, but this one will have to do.

[S]he was, none-the-less, a Folklorist, and it is very hard not to be a lover of real ale if one is a lover of olde Englande.

And casting spells with horse-brasses, no less… that’s Olde Englande for you. Full of bloody fairies.

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 18, 2009

Philip Palmer – Debatable Space

This is a peculiar book. It’s got a really stunning idea at its heart, which is a corollary of quantum entanglement communications: the idea that, denied anything but perfect virtual telepresence on an alien world, humans could well turn into despotic psychopaths, lording it over their own colonial subjects.

However, for reasons best known to himself, Palmer has chosen to cloak it in the trappings of a comic space opera – the kind of story usually described as a Zany Caper and lovingly wrapped in a cover by Josh Kirby (mayherestinpeace). The story opens with a ragtag bunch of misfits pursuing a career in piracy and kidnapping – IN SPACE! Complete with a kidnapping victim who isn’t what we think… but then that was the pirates’ plan all along, and it turns out they’re not just pirates but revolutionaries, and the story unfolds from there.

The end product reads as though Terry Pratchett, at the point when he first sat down to write The Dark Side of the Sun, had instead been hit by a stray particle of inspiration intended originally for the creative imagination of Alastair Reynolds. The first comparison I thought of was Rob Grant; or taken a little further, darker, more intense, it might have been Deathstalker. It’s almost certainly significant that all these examples are very British writers.

Palmer’s very good at pacing his revelations out, and we get a good idea of the backstory through the self-absorbed maunderings of Lena, the kidnapping victim, who is less an unreliable narrator than a flagrantly incompetent liar with intermittent flashes of self-awareness.

On the other hand, it’s hard to care. The characters aren’t exactly two-dimensional, but I’m up to page 346 (I write these reviews as I go along) and the only one I couldn’t summarize in a twitter-length is Lena. This is quite likely deliberate, of course – it’s absolutely standard for the comic-space-opera form that the characters don’t matter any more than the set, and what’s important is the mad hijinks and narrow scrapes.

The science is mostly based around string theory, though “rubber band theory” would probably be a more accurate name. This isn’t a criticism; I appreciate a good line in technobabble, so long as nobody cares if I skim-read it and get back to the interesting bits. The military strategy, on the other hand, is devastatingly incompetent. Sacrificing millions of soldiers to win a battle, without any narrative explanation of why a sneakier tactic wouldn’t work? That’s one thing. Doing so when you’ve already established that your civilization has more than enough skills and resources to build throwaway robots by the million? Oh, dear.

What we never see, throughout the whole book, is any of the Enemy. The Cheo (and yes, that is derived from “CEO”) we see at a distance in Lena’s diary-excerpt flashbacks, but only her descriptions – nobody else so much as gets a line or a name. Having finished it now, I get the impression Palmer was aiming to do a character-focused piece all about Lena, but didn’t know how to write anything SFnal except Red Dwarf episodes. That’s an unfair and sweeping generalization, I freely admit, but it’s abundantly clear from the tenor of his writing, and especially from his afterword, that he’s new-come to SF writing. I’m not sure how far his reading stretches; he namechecks Verne, Asimov, Orwell, Heinlein, Bradbury, Sturgeon, and “a host of others for creating the genre that is now the playground for a whole new generation of writers”, and more interestingly he names a couple of planets after Pohl and Kornbluth.

“It is a novel full of exaggeration and hyperbole. Spaceships travel amazingly fast, antimatter missiles are thrown like water bombs, some humans are genetically modified to swim like dolphins or run like panthers, the battles are astonishingly vast in scale, and anyone who doesn’t die horribly in combat can live for centuries in a state of perfect health and simmering libido.”

See, that’s someone who’s just discovered SF imagery and really wants to share it with everyone, but doesn’t realize that there are thousands of people in his own country alone who read hundreds of SF books a year and might well read nothing else. It’s so sweet!

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