Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

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 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.

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