The Alchemists’ Council by Cynthea Masson

At the World Fantasy Convention in 2015, I happened to receive a free copy of Cynthea Masson‘s The Alchemists’ Council (ECW Press, 2016). It introduced me to a transdimensional universe in which alchemy is treated as a metaphor for ecological sustainability. I’ve never read alchemy treated in this way before and the subject matter was treated in a complex, dialectical fashion that I found really appealing.

It was such an engaging read that I reviewed it for The Bull Calf Review. You may read the full review here.

http://www.thebullcalfreview.ca/cynthea-masson

The current issue of the Bull Calf Review has also published reviews done by several of my colleagues, Zain R. Mian and David Pitt. It has also published my Poetics teacher from my undergrad years at McGill, Joel Deshaye, as well a review by the 2016-2017 Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke. The Bull Calf is an “accessible, academic, and diverse tri-annual collection of reviews and retrospectives” and was founded at McGill in 2010.

Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant

Red Moon and Black MountainLast January, Dorothy Bray, a professor at McGill University where I study, handed me an old Ballantine Adult Fantasy classic: Red Moon and Black Mountain (1970) by the well-named Joy Chant. Rediscovering the Ballantine fantasy books proved to be a nostalgic romp through territory supposedly familiar to all of us who read and love fantasy novels. The Ballantine series was where the motifs and cliches of the genre supposedly had their birth, but my experience was not of reading yet another derivative fantasy novel. Those who pick up Joy Chant are in for something deeper.

Joy Chant, although otherwise obscure, is an author of classic heroic fantasy. Her work is a product of the generation more or less directly succeeding the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Lord Dunsany–at least, that is how the Ballantine series markets itself. Here the tradition of heroic fantasy is pure. There’s no steampunk, cyberpunk, slipstream, or New Weird; historical fantasy, urban fantasy, and magic realism are likewise nowhere to be seen. This is the fantasy of the hippies and the anti-Vietnam protesters. There is something fundamentally distinct about this period of fantasy, still untouched from the complex generic fusions and postmodernisms of later generations. There is a nostalgia here I never experienced myself, being too young to witness these novels’ actual publication, but it has nonetheless left its mark on me indirectly. These novels were the fantasy Guy Gavriel Kay and Charles de Lint grew up reading. It was the fantasy several of my McGill professors grew up reading, namely Profs. Bray, Brian Trehearne, and Sean Carney, among others no doubt.

(An excellent history of fantasy up until the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series is given by Jamie Williamson in a book published by Palgrave Macmillan called The Evolution of Modern Fantasy.)

Ballantine for better or worse made fantasy what it has become today, by marketing authors who could write novels in the bestselling styles of Tolkien, Lewis, Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, and other fantasists from earlier in the century. I am inclined to think there would be no shelf space at your library or bookstore labelled ‘fantasy’ if it were not for this series.

Joy Chant’s contribution to the development of the genre was small but one of high literary quality. It may not be easy to get your hands on a copy of Red Moon and Black Mountain, but if you happen upon it at a second-hand bookstore, you will discover a novel written in the high style of Tolkien but with child protagonists worthy of Lewis–who, by the way, Chant represents realistically and profoundly. Like YA novels today, Red Moon and Black Mountain can be enjoyed by adults as well. Indeed, Lin Carter writes in his introduction that he was convinced, after reading Chapter 3, “The Battle of the Eagles”  “that this was not only not going to be  a children’s book, but also that it was going to be a masterpiece” (x).

The three Powell children, Oliver, Nick, and Penelope, are off exploring an English country road when they pass a gate and inexplicably tumble into a secondary world known as Vandarei. Nick and Penelope find themselves alone on an icy mountaintop. Oliver, their big brother, is no where in sight. Fortunately, Princess In’serinna rescues them with her retinue of bodyguards on their way to witness a battle between the white and black eagles, the result of which battle will foretell the fate of the land. The dark lord Fendarl has been bound within Black Mountain, but the wards that hold him at bay wear thin and he is preparing to test the terrible power he has mastered against the magic of the Star-Born.

Meanwhile, Oliver finds himself among the Khentor, a race of nomad plainsmen. He becomes Li’vanh to them, adopting to the Khentor way of life, forgetting his old name, Oliver Powell. Since he clearly does not come from Vandarai, Li’vanh is viewed as a deliverer from another world. A man, where in England he had only been a child. Tuvoi, the Chosen One.

As the red moon waxes, Fendarl begins to mass his forces and the power of the Star-Born wanes. An epic catalogue of the armies of Vandarei marches forth to do battle against the dark lord and its massed horde. In the ensuing battle, Oliver will be forced will confront his destiny, at a dear cost.

Joy Chant writes in the style of classic fantasy, a refined, formal mode that is, however, not unfamiliar with techniques of stream of consciousness to grant immediacy of emotion to what the child protagonists are feeling and sensing. Every sentence is measured and intoned consistently with faultless delivery. It is the kind of style to expect from a Ballatine classic.

The vulnerability of Penelope and Nick is lovingly rendered and they are believable as children who suddenly find themselves wrapped up in a strange, frightening world. Penelope must conquer her fear of heights and Nick is chased by wolves in one harrowing scene. By the end of the novel, the reader has the sense that the characters have matured and conquered their fears, although it is Oliver who ages the most profoundly in the end.

Sleepless Knights by Mark H. Williams

Sleepless KnightsAt the beginning of another MythCon, this one in Colorado Springs–where I am now, giving a presentation–it is fitting to review the book of the first MythConer with whom I ever struck up a conversation. This is one of the only cases where I knew the author before I knew he was an author. I found him waiting in line to be registered at the desk and we started to talk.

“Mock,” he told me his name was, but then I realized he had an accent, that his name was “Mark.” He too was reading through John Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet at the time and I thought I was one of the only people in the world to be reading it. We struck up a rapport.

‘Mock,’ incidentally, is more or less what he does to the Arthurian tradition in Sleepless Knights, a novel shortlisted for the 2014 Mythopoeic Prize for Adult Fiction. Last MythCon, it went up against Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Land and the winner, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (which, also incidentally, I have just heard recommended as an audiobook by Mary Robinette Kowal on the Writing Excuses podcast). Mark is also a playwright and scriptwriter, having written for the Horrible Histories series–and traces of that series’s humour winds up in Sleepless Knights. I still have my old copy of Horrible Canadian History on a shelf downstairs.

If Sleepless Knights had been nominated for this year, I like to think it might have had a better chance of winning, since the MythCon theme this year is on the Arthurian Mythos. A review now, during the conference, is certainly a propos

Toby Whithouse, a writer for Doctor Who and Being Human, calls Sleepless Knights “a cracking good read” and his British jargon accurately describes the book’s Monty Pythonesque humour. It is a unique mixture of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day–a very British but wholly unconventional pairing.

Lucas is King Arthur’s butler. He has served the Master with absolute devotion for thousands of years into the modern era, when one Ritual Day, Arthur vanishes to unknown parts. It is fundamental that Lucas rally the team and keep the Knights of the Round Table together. But since the glory days of Camelot, Sir Kay has become a book-hoarding murderer, Sir Lancelot has become an inspirational speaker, and Sir Pellinore is a crazed and delusioned hunter after the mysterious Questing Beast. Soon the only thing that can save them is Merlin himself.

But when they find the place in Wales where Merlin is said to lie in waiting, they unwittingly open a path to the Otherworld, unleashing a mass destructive Apocalypse that only the knights have a clue how to fend off. But as the modern era begins to grow uncomfortably aware of the existence of King Arthur, it becomes Lucas’s responsibility to ensure his Master’s safety and the integrity of the Round Table.

Sleepless Knights also contains a series of flashback chapters to the glory days of Camelot in which we see Lucas in his element, directing kitchen staff during a busy festival. How does a butler assist and provide for the guests with minimal intrusion? How does a butler organize the seating around the Round Table, especially when one of the knights, Sir Mordred, is destined to betray Arthur? There are passages where Mark successfully captures the sang froid of Kazuo Ishiguro’s butler Mr. Stevens, who at one point in Remains of the Day expresses admiration for the ability to remain calm and professional even if a tiger takes up residence under the dinner table. The difference with Sir Lucas is that he is slightly less repressed and has to deal not with tigers, but werewolves. Mark provides a fresh angle on Arthurian legend seen from the perspective of a servant. It is not so long before Sir Lucas must venture on a quest of his own.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well I enjoyed Sleepless Knights. One thing Mark did well and that I wanted a lot more of was Lucas’s sang froid attitude. That voice was strong in the beginning chapters, but the Apocalypse, for obvious reasons, provides only a few opportunities for exhibiting calm orderliness under Otherworldly duress. The only resistance I encountered in reading it was, since I read it nightly chapter by chapter, I had some difficulty picking up the thread of adventure after the day caused me to forget what was happening right before I put the book down. Some chapters end after suddenly introducing a wholly new situation–Sleepless Knights is, after all, a wild, cartoony, dragonback ride. That’s part of what makes it funny and I was happy to trust in the author through several out-of-nowhere surprises, which were eventually explained. The good thing is that these defects simply act as motivation to binge-read Sleepless Knights all the way through.

Mark confided to me that there is, actually, some textual/historical evidence for the existence of Sir Lucas in Arthurian legend. That satisfies the scholar in me. I suspect the reference might be to The Chronicles of Godfrey of Wales, the source text to which he appears, by his own admission, to have consulted. Sleepless Knights is a great example of a how a lost detail in a tale can be exploded into the concept for a whole novel.

 

If you appreciate a laugh and a wacky adventure, I certainly recommend Sleepless Knights. Order the book from the Atomic Fez website and get it as a nice present in the mail. These Canadian publishers specialize in ‘eclectic, genre-busting fiction.’ Support them! Support small presses!

Mark H Williams, author of Sleepless Knights. Photo taken from back cover.
Mark H Williams, author of Sleepless Knights. Photo taken from back cover.

Greenmantle by Charles de Lint

GreenmantleWhat happens when you combine Robert Graves’s The White Goddess with Martin Scorsese’s mafia flick Goodfellas? I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t be far from Charles de Lint’s 1988 ‘mythic fiction’ novel Greenmantle.

Called the father of urban fantasy, Charles de Lint is the author of dozens of novels that combine fantasy with mainstream fiction. Perhaps ironically then, many of his novels concern the hipster class of bohemian folk musicians who certainly live beyond the ‘mainstream.’ However, Greenmantle abandons the usual urban settings and artsy protagonists of de Lint’s other fiction for a single mother and her bookish daughter who settles in the Ottawa suburbs.

De Lint stays true to mainstream fiction’s value of depicting how real people deal with real situations–it’s just that sometimes those situations are fantastic. Ali, the teenaged protagonist, moves outside the city after Frankie, her mother, wins the Wintario lottery. Ali’s fondness for classic works of fantasy that many readers will never have heard about–and the fact that she has moved between several different homes with her mother over her childhood–sets her apart from other teenagers. While living on the outskirts of a great forest, Ali makes the friendly acquaintance of a mysterious Italian neighbor, as she puzzles over the distracting, unearthly sounds of pan pipes that emerge from the bush.

This calm, even idyllic setup is preceded by intense scenes that seem to come from a Mario Puzzo novel. Tony Valenti, a member of the Sicilian fratellanza, is framed for the murder of his godfather–a crime he did not commit. He escapes Europe to hide away in his safe house in Canada while the heat dies down–right next door to Ali and Frankie. Meanwhile, Earl, Frankie’s ex, concocts a scheme to force her to sign over the Wintario money.

Alone, these plots could fuel a high-stakes thriller. Combined with the fantastic presence of the god Pan in the woods behind Ali and Frankie’s home, Greenmantle becomes something more than that.

An incarnation of the Horned One described in Robert Graves The White Goddess, Pan is a mystery, a being who appears at times as a human, a stag, a goat-footed satyr, or a combination of forms. The piping that summons him affects everyone differently, although for most people it produces feelings of hope. The only problem is, it seems, that a pack of baying hounds constantly hunts the great stag. Is the mystery’s power failing in a world that has no more need of mystery? Not only Greenmantle, but Charles de Lint’s entire oeuvre, seems to ask this question.

Without ever really making the thematic connections between the three interweaving plots explicit, de Lint places Frankie and Tony in the role of the hunted stag. Men from the fratellanza are coming to kill Tony, just as the baying hounds pursue Pan, and Earl is on the hunt for Frankie. I was half-expecting Tony to become the stag at one point, rather like how in Greek mythology–specifically, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses–Diana, the Virgin Goddess, transforms Actaeon into a stag. ‘The hunter becomes the hunted’ is both a mythological trope and something you can hang on the cover of an airport thriller novel. De Lint somehow makes it all work, elevating his thriller to the status of visionary art.

De Lint describes his chief inspiration for Greenmantle as Lord Dunsany’s novel The Blessing of Pan, in which a Christian vicar attempts to evangelize neo-pagan worshipers. Wolding, the paganized village in Dunsany’s story, becomes New Wolding in Greenmantle, after the inhabitants of the former village immigrate to found an independent, hidden, and self-sufficient village in Ontario. This gesture is one of several references to the history of fantasy contained in the novel itself, which reveals de Lint’s consciousness of writing within a tradition that stretches back long before Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. De Lint inhabits his ‘second generation’ status as a fantasy author with innovative purpose.

There is magic, mystery, and brutal murder behind the covers–certainly a work of adult fiction. Yet women and men should be equally attracted to reading this wonderful book. De Lint has a facility of writing strong female characters and, in my reading, I found the ‘male’ and ‘female’ elements of this novel to be well-balanced; it has features that will strongly appeal to guys and gals. One scene in particular includes Frankie lecturing Tony, who is a slightly macho Italian, on some of the finer points of feminism–a memorable scene.

Greenmantle is classic Charles de Lint and a great introduction to an author who should be read more frequently.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

Photo Credits:

Charles de Lint: author page

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

Haroun and the Sea of StoriesThe following is an excerpt from the presentation I made earlier this week for my seminar on (Post)Colonial Geographies with Professor Sandeep Banerjee at McGill University.

The young protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s children’s fantasy novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories asks his father Rashid Khalifa, a great storyteller better known as the Shah of Blah, or the Ocean of Notions, What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (22) Upon being asked this question Rashid falls silent and finds “he had run out of stories to tell” (22).

So begins Haroun’s great quest to restore his father’s gift for storytelling, a journey that will take him all the way to the Sea of Stories, which is being poisoned by a dark lord named Khattam-Shud, “the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself” (79). On the way, Haroun meets an array of quirky characters who become his allies, including Iff the water genie and Butt the hoopoe bird (who don’t tolerate Ifs or Buts!). Haroun flies to Kahani, an invisible moon that shadows the visible one. There he travels the Sea of Stories to Gup City, capital of a kingdom of story-loving blabbermouths on Kahani who are at war against the Chupwalas, or “quiet fellows” (215), led by Khattam-Shud. He must help the kingdom rescue the princess Batcheat from the dark side of the planet, where the Chupwalas are poisoning the Streams of Story.

The Sea of Stories is a representation of intertextuality and the war between Gups and Chups is a battle over that initial question: “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (22). While the Chups are represented as bureaucratic functionaries interested in utility instead of fables, the Gups are defenders of the Sea. In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute writes an entry devoted exclusively to the idea of an Ocean of Story. Somadeva, a Kashmiri poet, collected various stories in the eleventh century in the Katha Sarit Sagara—“a kind of encyclopedia of story types” (704). The English translation by Norman Penzer is the ten-volume anthology The Ocean of Story (1924-8). Like The Arabian Nights, The Ocean of Story influenced Rushdie. Clute takes the notion of the “Ocean of Story” to refer “to the current critical understanding that almost every traditional STORY exists in multiple versions; that it is exceedingly difficult to sort these versions into chaste stemmata” (704). Stories interpenetrate each other in patterns that defy linearity. Rushdie describes this effectively in his description of the Sea of the Streams of Story:

“it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. […] the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves […] It was not dead but alive” (72).

The Sea is an intertextual body of water. However, when the Chups, who disbelieve in the utility of Story, poison the Sea, these Streams of Stories, about rescued princesses, for example, become scrambled and filled with horrors, until they are meaningless. Haroun’s mission is to stop the poison and let the Sea replenish itself.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories opens in Rashid and Haroun’s home in the Valley of K, in a “sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name” (15). Rashid mentions that the Valley of K used to be called “Kosh-Mar,” which is from the language of “Franj, which is no longer spoken in these parts” (40). A cauchemar in French is a nightmare, but it also sounds like câche-mer, or “the place that hides a Sea” (40). This nightmare-country is full of “sadness factories” and “ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts,” a magical image of an unevenly developed social reality. Mr. Sengupta, who is a clerk working for the City Corporation, “hated stories and storytellers” even though Rashid has a use in society: “the politicos needed Rashid to help them win the people’s votes” because he gains the people’s confidence by admitting “everything he told them was completely untrue” (20). As far as Rashid is concerned, the falseness of stories is what makes them useful.

Trouble starts, however, when Mr. Sengupta runs off with Rashid’s wife Soraya, spurring the initial question asked by Haroun. The rest of this book review essay is an inquiry into this question: what use are false stories? Rushdie intimately connects the prospect of storytelling and art to the Khalifas’ desire for their home town’s improvement, suggesting that art may indeed have a significant use—inspiring social change.

First, thought, I would like to speak more particularly about one intertext in particular that is involved in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun meets two talking and singing guppy fish in the Sea. Their names are Goopy and Bagha, a male and a female fish, but their names are taken from the male protagonists of Satyajit Ray’s film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). This Bengali film is furthermore based on a short story written by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray, who participated in a Bengali cultural renaissance, according to Wikipedia.

The King of Ghosts; Bhoot-er Rajah
The King of Ghosts from Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

The film explores the redemptive and magical power of art. The film begins with Gopinath, seen as eccentric in his village for his love of the tanpura and his avoidance of hand labour, being exiled by the local king. On the road he meets Bagha, a drummer, and they both adopt the title ‘Bayen,’ meaning musician. Encountering a tiger in the forest, they are saved by a band of ghosts, who then grant them three boons: clothing and food, the ability to travel, and the ability to entertain. Goopy and Bagha gain the favour of the King of Shundi, whose peasant population is stricken dumb by an epidemic, similar to how the Chupwalas are speechless in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Using magic to subvert the Empire of Halla’s attempt to invade Shundi, Goopy and Bagha capture the King of Halla, who is the good King’s long lost brother. Soon after the people of Shundi have their speech restored, thanks to a magic potion. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, as in Goopy Gyne Bagha Bynne, the power of art—storytelling and music—is seen as highly redemptive, inspiring social change and peace.

John Clute makes the connection between Story and music in works of fantasy more explicit:

“In modern fantasy, when they are performing their task, protagonists or COMPANIONS who are musicians […] tend to become LIMINAL BEINGS, and articulate in memorable form the relationship between different levels of being in the world. They put into a form […] some version of the essential STORY being enacted, which may be memorized, or followed, or obeyed” (673).

Goopy and Bagha embody this role in the film. They mediate the social relations between the lower classes and the upper classes as well as between the Kingdoms of Shundi and Halla. Furthermore each of their actions move the story towards the fairy-tale ending that culminates in their royal marriages to the daughters of the Kings of Shundi and Halla. This happy ending represents the healing of the brokenness of the land and alludes to the potential founding of a utopia in the new union between the kingdoms.

Yet what use is Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a story that is not even true? What use is Haroun and the Sea of Stories? What use are the ageless fairy tales that lay behind these modern forms? To the literary scholar, it is useful to consider how such “essential” stories are in fact mediating the historical moment and the social relations that produced them (Clute 673). But literary scholars are not the typical audience of such books. How could there be a social benefit from these stories, which do not even offer accurate, realist representations of social reality? Is magical realism and fantasy a mystification, a distraction?

The question I would like to direct our attention to can be whittled down to the following: do Ray and Rusdie affirm the possibility that immaterial labour, which is what storytelling arguably is, can bring about a utopia? Do the stories themselves have any agency, or is the potential for social revolution limited to the labours of the artist?

It is useful to think of these ideas, consulting two theorists: Walter Benjamin and Frederic Jameson.

Walter Benjamin in “The Author as Producer” invites us to consider the author’s position is society rather than, say, the attitude of the artist or his/her text towards the relations of production, which are defined by capitalism and comodification (222). The movie and the children’s novel are part of a real social system. Furthermore, they are disseminating a representation of a pair of musicians and an old storyteller who must survive within the social milieu of their own fictional society. Benjamin argues that a revolutionary writer is in effect counterrevolutionary if he or she has a mere attitude of solidarity with the proletariat, but not in terms of his or her position as a producer (226). Though the author may belong to a higher, privileged class by virtue of education, he/she can still use this education to help the working class.

Rushdie’s position within society as an intellectual embedded in the capitalist system of the book market seems to be at odds with the theme of social restoration in his novel. However, perhaps Rushdie has done as much as he can do while still embedded in the system of capitalism. At any rate, it seems rather clear that capitalism helps in the dissemination of Haroun and the Sea of Stories and the in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne‘s wide distribution. The relationship between artist and capitalism is not necessarily limited to the notion of ‘selling out.’

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie

Frederic Jameson is a historical materialist theorist of utopia and science fiction. One of his theories, which he expresses in “The Politics of Utopia,” is that representations of utopia mediate the current social structure of the society that produces that representation. This simply means that when you read a utopia–for example, the society in Divergent–it says more about the society that imagined the utopia than it does about the possibility of actually realizing it.

Looking at Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I speculate that it is partly Rushdie’s reaction against the fatwa uttered against him by Ayatollah Khomeni for his writing of The Satanic Verses, which he published just before Haroun. Are we talking about a utopian society more accepting of fable, dreams, and the value of untruth? Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, on the other hand, might be a comment on the utopian horizon India imagined for itself at the beginning of the rise of its national film industry, which is nowadays in competition with Hollywood.

Both Rushdie’s book and Ray’s film are works that celebrate culture and imagine the greatest possible society will arise in a world that tolerates, sponsors, and embraces the arts and all that art represents. But in the unequal distribution of power in the global market and between the classes of society, can cultural utopia–not the existence of one but the existence of a representation of one, which might be all that is possible with the concept of utopia–change our lived, socio-economic reality?

I highly doubt that it can do so on its own. But by inspiring people to be agents of change, I think these authors are trying to suggest that it can.

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Photo Credits:

Rushdie: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Satanic_Verses_controversy

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Works Cited:

Benjamin, Walter. “The Author As Producer.” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Transl. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Shocken, 1978.

Clute, John and John Grant. “Music” and “Ocean of Story.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Jameson, Frederic. “The Politics of Utopia.”  New Left Review 25 (2004): 35-54.

Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories: A Novel. London: Granta, 1990.

Julian the Magician by Gwendolyn MacEwen

20140717_155257Julian the Magician is the work of a poet of the mythic, the magical, and the exotic: Gwendolyn MacEwen. Although she is better known for her poetry–and mostly, I suspect, by academics rather than the general public–I recommend reading her today. Her style is a “sort of powerful poetic mad half-abandoned prose somewhere between [Kenneth] Patchen and Virginia Woolf,” and is filled with mystical significance and humour. Julian the Magician is an early example of Canadian literary fantasy.

Set in a vaguely Renaissance setting–not exactly medieval, since Julian has studied Paracelsus–Julian the Magician concerns the travels of a miracle maker who believes he is Christ. He has studied alchemy, myth, and Kabbalah, but has dropped those disciplines in favour of sorcery. The work of a magician is similar to that of the illusionist, but more specifically, Julian’s art is “the means of inducing the state of suspended logic” (16). His job is to “[unscrew] hinges on all doors” that block belief and thus let his audience come to believe in his magic (20). The problem is that the people become fanatic about his supposedly godlike powers.

Wandering the countryside in a cart, Julian journeys with Peter, his young assistant, Johann, a bitter man, and Aubrey. Julian’s journey mirrors that of Christ, MacEwen putting her own spin on the baptism, the wedding feast at Cana, and lastly, the trial and Crucifixion. The difference is that though Christ was God incarnate, Julian is simply a magician, and does not want to be thought of as anything more than human. In one scene, for example, the audience sees him turn water into wine, but Peter is convinced that the liquid in the jugs is still water.

When Peter reads over Julian’s journals, which the magician keeps private, Julian’s mind is revealed to be … incomprehensible. His thought processes are intensely metaphoric, similar to his abandoned speech, which his followers struggle to understand. Gradually, it becomes apparent to the wise reader that Julian’s magic is an analogy for the poet’s ability to manipulate words and string them into mysterious meaning. The poet’s role is to suspend reality–but the poet should never be deemed godlike. If so, she/he endures the same fate at society’s hands as Julian and Christ suffer.

When Julian becomes framed for murder, a crime that could unravel the belief he has sown into a community, the only solution is to endure crucifixion at the hands of his accusers. Will the faith of the community be shattered forever? What legacy survives the magician’s death? You will have to read the book to discover your own answer.

“Without time and location,” states MacEwen in the role of the editor of Julian’s journal, “we cannot place his figure anywhere in history.” The historical period and place where Julian plies his trade is unspecific to make it universal, a reflection of all magicians and poets in all times. It is the poet and the magician’s tragedy that their revelations, filled with the greatest significance for them, become incomprehensible to future readers and generations. But since Insomniac still offers this hard-to-find book for purchase online, at least Julian the Magician can find that readership now, sixty years after its first publication. A new generation can now discover MacEwen and be initiated into Julian’s mysteries…

Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of Julian the Magician
Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of Julian the Magician

The Year’s Best Fantasy, eds. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

year's best fantasyIt’s like fantasy tapas, or if you prefer, a buffet: fantasy short stories contain all the excitement and inspiration of a novel, in a way that requires less commitment. Instead of reading a five-course fantasy series of 900+ pages, you can hunker down for a 10- or 20-page adventure. And while you’re at it, eat at the best place in town: read Hartwell and Cramer’s Year’s Best Fantasy series.

There are anthologies like it, but the books I read were edited by Hartwell and Cramer, and every story in their anthology series is a gem. What I love in particular are the author bios at the start of each entry, which can drop you the names of certain magazines worth submitting to, a boon to readers who also happen to be writers hungering for a chance at publication.

A great way to discover new writers and read the shorts of those who you might already know. Though the anthology has gone completely online in recent years, I still possess three physical anthologies. They contain tales from such noted authors as Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Tad Williams, Jeffrey Ford, Gene Wolf, and Holly Black–but also many upcoming authors who have been published only rarely. You can buy them from Tor.com or on Amazon.

Hartwell and Cramer define fantasy broadly, to include such various approaches as supernatural fantasy, adventure fantasy, satirical, and humorous fantasy.  There is no pure science fiction, which I think is great, being a fantasy purist, but an occasional tale with a science fiction bent occasionally appears, if fantasy elements are present in the story. These anthologies are for people who believe that fantasy can be as good, and as necessary, as literary fiction. They provide a survey of the genre from every direction in which it is expanding.

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman
Peter S. Beagle
Peter S. Beagle

Examples of what you might find in this stellar series (in Issue 8) include a library that comes to life in Holly Black’s “Paper Cuts Scissors.” Civic gods are challenged by a knight and his puppet companion in Garth Nix’s “Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz Go to War Again.” Mark Chadbourn takes us to a supernatural Elizabethan England in which a famous poet is threatened by fairies in “Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast.” And who could ever forget “Still Life with Boobs” by Anne Harris in Issue 6?

Other treasures in this series include a short story that eventually became Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book in Issue 8: “The Witch’s Headstone.” Though 7 years old, Issue 8’s stories are timeless and Gaiman entertains as always. Very slightly more recently, Issue 9 (2008) presented us with Naomi Novik’s first short fiction. She is otherwise known for her Temeraire series, in which dragons fight Napoleon during the Age of Sail. Legendary author of The Last Unicorn Peter S. Beagle has two stories in Issue 9 as well, including “The Rabbi’s Hobby,” which I found great.

Year’s Best Fantasy also includes  experimental fantasy. For example, in Issue 9, Catherynne M. Valente writes a story through a catalogue, chronicling a rivalry between two explorers in “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica.” Garth Nix also writes a story entirely in newspaper headlines in Issue 6’s “Read It in the Headlines!”

Another reason I love this series is that Canadian authors receive substantial representation. For  example, Nalo Hopkinson had “Soul Case” published in Issue 8 and Claude Lalumiere, a Montreal author, appeared with Issue 6’s story “Being Here,” and has been published in other more recent issues. For any Canadian fantasy fans out there, you know how perfect this is beautiful. Canadian fantasy is running strong, claim the editors of YBF, with many of the stories they selected appearing in the Tesseracts anthology series published by EDGE.

If anyone is looking for a March break read, get your tongs ready and pick the choicest cuts from this great buffet of literature. You won’t be disappointed; these are the best of the best, served from the very best chefs–err, authors–that fantasy has to offer. (Now this “story-buffet” metaphor is making me hungry!)

Issue 9 was printed in a limited run after Tor.com began to publish the series online. Therefore, you will have to get the most recent additions to the series online.

There has also been some editorial eye-skip in Issue 9, maybe because of the online move. This resulted in more typos. I suspect that the online format makes it easier to miss them. If this is an issue for you, get the earlier editions of the series: they are just as good! That being said, the online editions will hopefully not affect your reading experience too much.

tapas
Comparing literature to food makes me hungry and nostalgic for dinner time in Spain.

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Image Credits:

Tapas: http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tapas

Gaiman: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Gaiman

Beagle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_S._Beagle

Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson

lord foul's baneBeware! Leper unclean! shout the crowds.

Don’t touch me! responds Thomas Covenant, the antihero of Stephen R. Donaldson’s memorable epic fantasy trilogy. In this exchange, which Convenant repeats in his mind like a mantra for his sanity, Donaldson summarizes the conflict of his protagonist. Despite being unlikeable, Covenant tends to garner your empathy. He’s a man whose marriage to his wife and his writing career crashes on the day he discovers he has been infected with a rare disease that makes him a cripple and a social outcast.

And that was before he was brought, against his will, to the Land.

Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane is the first novel in Donaldson’s signature trilogy, and a book that made experiments in the epic fantasy genre. Published 1977, around the time of the epic fantasy surge that saw the rise of Terry Brooks and other Tolkienistas, Thomas Covenant broke a rule by turning a leprous antihero into a protagonist and implying that the fantasy world he travels through is only a dream.

What a phenomenal idea, as original today as it must have been forty years ago.  This is a book well worth rediscovering.

Thomas Covenant fights a losing battle for his health. He is missing three fingers and his wedding ring is the only sign he carries of a relatively happy past life. A social pariah in small-town America when we first see him, his great rebellion consists of a journey to personally pay his bill at the Bell Telephone Company. A woman has taken the liberty of paying his bills for him, because they just don’t want a leper walking through town. In an effort to reclaim his humanity and connection to the community, he makes his epic quest to town.

On the way, he gets knocked over by a police car.

When he awakes, he is in the Land, surrounded by darkness as Lord Foul, the incarnation of Despite, gives him a quest. He must deliver a message to the council of Lords that Drool Rockworm, a Cavewight has the Staff of Law. This, Foul promises, is cause for despair. All life in the land will be obliterated soon if Covenant does nothing. Still quite ignorant of his situation, hethen finds himself high upon Kevin’s Watch, a pinnacle in a mountain range where he first surveys the Land.

A Pre-Raphaelite Landscape
A Pre-Raphaelite Landscape

The Land is sublime in all its Pre-Raphaelite glory: rolling green hills, vast mountain ranges, mighty rivers. It exudes an aura of health, the vitality of all its living things. Rather like New Zealand, where the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed, it is a source of beauty and goodness.

Soon Covenant makes the acquaintance of the Stonedownor, a tribe of squarely-built, rock-solid humans who specialize in stone-lore. And his quest begins. Men, women, and giants are drawn to him, thinking that he is the incarnation of the hero Berek Halfhand–who lost half his hand from an axe during an epic battle against Lord Foul aeons ago. But Covenant cannot comprehend this lore, doubting even that the Land exists, preferring it as a dream: that his half-hand is the result of leprosy, not prophesy.

He must journey to Revelstone, the seat of the Lords, who are the most powerful magicians in the Land, although their strength is much diminished from the Lords of old. Protectors of the Land’s health, the Lords will do everything in their power to defeat Lord Foul at his game. But all the while, Thomas Covenant doubts.

His wedding ring has become a powerful source of wild magic, perhaps the most useful weapon with which to fight Drool, if he can master it. However, he has no wish to. Because to buy into the reality of that magic and the very existence of the Land would be to sacrifice his sanity.

As a leper, Covenant’s priority is survival. Every day, he tests his nerves by shaving with a straight razor and checks his extremities for signs that his disease is spreading. Meanwhile, “dis-ease” is spreading across the Land in the form of Drool’s bane. As wrongness spreads and reality itself thins, Covenant must at once resist the Land’s seductions while finding a way to get back home.

Thomas Covenant’s tale is existential, filled with the conflict between hope and despair, survival and death, madness and sanity. In a wonderful, if cheeky, move, Donaldson actually provides a reading guide to his own book in the world of the story. A wizard hobo in Covenant’s hometown gives him a slip of paper on the “fundamental question of ethics”:  is it noble to fight for a heroic, moral cause if the world we believe in is an illusion, or is it more courageous to rebel against that world, which we know to be a lie?

In one option, we buy into a lie, but can perform good deeds within that lie. The other option has us resist that lie, holding out in the hope for a more accurate reality, at the expense of neglecting the world. This is how we come to admire Covenant, even as it is the same reason we hate him.  If the Land is an illusion, it means he doesn’t have to be good. Yet though his rebellion against the Land seems cowardly, we still see his courage in his attempts to master his sanity.

Another less philosophical  but more academic reason to read this book is that it fully develops the four-part structure of the fantasy novel outlined by John Clute in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy. (I discuss this a little more in depth here.) This structure consists of wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing. Wrongness is mentioned explicitly as part of the disease that afflicts the Land, while a strange phenomenon of thinning happens in the presence of some forms of evil magic. The well-being of the Land itself can be restored through healing. And, in the end, Thomas Covenant does have a severe recognition in which he recognizes that he is in a story crafted by a brilliant but cruel hand with an eye for paradox and irony.

Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever will compel many readers to become seduced by the Land, even though it is Covenant’s mantra to resist it.

Stephen R. Donaldson, author of Thomas Covenant
Stephen R. Donaldson, author of Thomas Covenant

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Image Credits:

Stephen R. Donaldson: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_R._Donaldson

Cover: http://sfbook.com/lord-fouls-bane.htm

landscape: http://2hpencil.com/tag/pre-raphaelite-brotherhood/

The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle

Secret History of FantasyIf you’re like me, you have probably starved for an original fantasy novel. So many novels and short stories rely too heavily on The Lord of the Rings and the epic fantasy genre that spawned from it. Are there any original fantasy works that use impossible situations without having elves, orcs, and dragons run across the page? Oh, and I don’t have that much time to read.

The answer? Peter S. Beagle’s anthology of short stories The Secret History of Fantasy.

True, it has a dragon on the cover. But it is half-concealed, placed against a minimalist white page. If we were to judge a book by its cover, we might guess there is a literary sensibility that went into these selections. You’ll find big-name authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Yann Martel, Gregory Maguire, and Ursula K. Le Guin on the cover, as well as other authors with whom you may be unfamiliar, but will remember once you’ve tasted their stories.

This anthology represents the top fantasists of the field. Each story has its own original flavour of the fantastic. Who could forget the remarkably compelling mythagos of Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood?” What is a mythago, you ask? It is a “myth-imago” or “myth-image,” basically a mythic archetype that runs amok in Britain’s oldest forest in Holdstock’s classic novel–here cut to the length of a short novella.

A John Howe illustration of Mythago Wood.
A John Howe illustration of Mythago Wood.

This anthology is filled with other wainscots. For example, there is Stephen King’s tale of Mrs. Todd, a lady who is obsessed with uncovering the shortest shortcuts from place to place, and ends up driving her car into another world. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Empire of Ice Cream” is a tale of a boy who is forbidden from eating ice cream due to his medication and forms a relationship with a girl he sees during one of this synesthetic trips.

Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, which is perhaps the most famous reworking of the classic novel The Wizard of Oz, returns with a story about the Scarecrow. Steven Millhauser’s description-heavy story of the P.T. Barnum Museum is also remarkable in how it is nothing at all like a fantasy adventure–more of a reflection on a setting’s affect on the people who visit and work there. The museum ends up becoming a metaphor for how we all encounter the fantastic, the wondrous, the inexplicable, and how we all remember our childhoods. Yann Martel, the Canadian author of Life of Pi, adopts an even more alternate route and writes an experimental poem in “The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company.”

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin

Another brilliant feature of this anthology are the supplementary materials. Peter S. Beagle is serious about fantasy and he lets readers become serious about the genre with him. Ursula K. Le Guin, author of A Wizard of Earthsea, and David G. Hartwell, also a fantasy anthology editor, each write essays which Beagle includes in an appendix. Le Guin’s essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” describes the critical reception of fantasy up to the present day and how perceptions that fantasy should be dismissed because it is childlike and escapist have improved over the years. The roadmap to fantasy, she argues, is more inexplicable than the simplicity of Tolkien-derived drivel would suggest.

Hartwell in “The Making of the American Fantasy Genre” gives the history of how Del Rey capitalized on the Tolkien phenomenon in the late 70s and published The Sword of Shannara, the first of many Tolkien homages that sold like hotcakes.  Terry Brooks’ first novel thus helped make epic fantasy the repetitive form it eventually became. Both essays provide you with a historical perspective on the development of a genre you love to read.

The Sword of Shannara: the book the popularized the epic fantasy genre.
The Sword of Shannara: the book that popularized the epic fantasy genre.

Peter S. Beagle uses this anthology to propose that fantasy has become stilted due to the staleness of epic fantasy. The market tends to favour a 2,000-page, derivative, Tolkienesque trilogy over more experimental but well thought-out fantasy novels. He attempts to show readers the diversity of fantasy–which may be the broadest genre in the world in terms of narrative possibility. If you ask me, it is impossible not to love this anthology. I would say fantasy is more diverse today than it was 40 years ago. But I would have to agree with Beagle that it is difficult, at least for new writers, to escape the stranglehold of genre.

If it is time for a renewal in fantasy, then it will be through short stories and novels like the ones Beagle has published in The Secret History of Fantasy. There are infinite angles to a fantasy story and Secret History attempts to show us some of those doors. But, like the myriad rooms and passages located inside and underneath the Barnum Museum, you can always count on the fantasy genre being bigger and more expansive than your even imagination can acknowledge.

Peter S. Beagle
Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn and editor of The Secret History of Fantasy

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Image Credits:

The Sword of Shannara: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sword_of_Shannara

Mythago:http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/dec/24/le-guin-authors-guild-deal

Ursula K LeGuin: http://www.rc.umd.edu/person/ursula-k-le-guin

Cover: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7850063-the-secret-history-of-fantasy

Peter S. Beagle: http://www.jeancocteaucinema.com/ai1ec_event/peter-s-beagle/?instance_id=

The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I, by Stephen King

gunslinger coverGunslinger.

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What do you get when you combine Tolkien and the Western? Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

Meet Roland, the last gunslinger. He’s Aragorn meets John Wayne. A solitary man “wandering but not lost,” he carries two six-shooters that were once his father’s pistols. His single quest, which he pursues with an instinctual audacity, is summarized in the iconic first line of the novel. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Aragorn is a lonely wanderer like Roland, but "not all who wander are lost; the crownless again shall be king."
Aragorn is a lonely wanderer like Roland, but, as the prophecy says, “not all who wander are lost; the crownless again shall be king.”
John Wayne is a famous actor in classic Westerns, another archetype for Roland.
John Wayne is a famous actor in classic Westerns, another archetype for Roland.

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Every single sentence seeps with the brooding, gritty mood of the Western genre and with the unforgiving cadence of a landscape that has, we are continually reminded, “moved on.” The desert is the “apotheosis of all deserts,” a world reminiscent of the American Southwest. In fact, it takes place in the future, a post-apocalyptic world that shares certain features with King’s other epics, such as The Stand, Salem’s Lot, and It.

Gunslinger desert3We follow Roland as he runs among the ruins of a technologically advanced civilization identical to the twentieth-century USA. Most gadgets have ceased to work and people have fallen into a semi-feudal, semi-frontier society of small settlements. Petroleum, for example, is so valuable that one man becomes a Delphic oracle by inhaling fumes at a gas station.

The story follows Roland as he encounters a dweller in the wilderness named Brown and his talking raven Zoltan. Forming a brief but tense friendship, he tells them both the story of his journey to Tull, where he falls in love with a woman named Allie and has an adventure with the fire-and-brimstone preacher Sylvia Pittson. But the man in black has passed through town and his spells have laid a trap. As Roland tells his story, you find out that he is an ambiguous figure with a capacity for both heroism and merciless violence.

His real challenge comes later, when he meets Jake, a boy from New York. He takes Jake as his own ward as he pursues the man in black over the mountains at the end of the desert. In the end, however, his bond with the boy will come in conflict with his destiny, pushing Roland’s moral endurance to the limit.

This novel has entranced me ever since I read a Gunslinger novella years ago “The Little Sisters of Eluria.” I had no context to the narrative, but I immediately took to the crazy, gritty story of zombies and cannibal nuns. It further drew me on after I learned where King got the title for his series: a song from Shakespeare’s King Lear sung by Edgar, who is posing as a madman at the time.

Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum
I smell the blood of a British man.”

Gunslinger 2Just as the “child” Rowland (“child” or “childe” refers to a squire who has yet to be knighted) pursues the Dark Tower, so does the last gunslinger. But he isn’t British: he’s definitely American. And he is no longer a “child,” but a man. In fact, Roland at one point recalls his own rite of passage ceremony, in which he duels Cort, his training master in Gilead, Roland’s now-vanished hometown. Another work of literature featuring Roland is Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Stephen King’s series, however, remains the longest sustained treatment of Roland’s quest. (Of course, he is not a gunslinger in Browning, but a knight errant.)

A third factor that drew me to read The Gunslinger was how it was inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Sergio Leone’s movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In his understated introduction to the expanded edition, Stephen King describes how he knew he was going to get Norse mythology wrong if he wrote an epic too similar to Tolkien. So he borrowed from a genre with similar epic potential, a genre that forms the central mythos of American identity: the Western.

Stephen King, author of The Gunslinger
Stephen King, author of The Gunslinger

I would have to agree that King wrote a more honest Tolkienesque epic fantasy novel using the Western. Books like The Sword of Shannara slave too closely to the plots of the “father of modern fantasy” so as to seem derivative or worse: a simple copy. Tolkien borrowed from Norse and Celtic mythology because that was the mythology of his homeland, Great Britain. King borrowed from the Western mythology of his own country, the United States.

I once wrote a website (with bad links) that presented an academic argument proposing that the genre of modern fantasy was born of an Americanization of British myths into the framework of the “American monomyth.” Essentially, this monomyth is like the stereotypical Western plot: an paradisaical community is threatened by an outside force, the ordinary law can do nothing to stop it, then a hero emerges from within the community, or occasionally from the outside, and stops evil in a final battle or shootout. The story ends with him riding into the sunset. I would not say that King follows this formula precisely, but the way in which The Gunslinger was conceived reminded me of my old observations of the fantasy genre.

Shining through the baggage I brought to it, The Gunslinger left me thirsty for more. The most powerful, resonating aspect of this story is how the mood almost seems to dictate the plot. The world has moved on is the novel’s refrain and the story moves on too. Things are always going to get worse, but Roland’s resolve to encounter the man in black remains a force of constant momentum. A fair word of warning: this novel ends only at the beginning of the series, with a revelation as to the true shape of Roland’s quest, which he at first pursues rather blindly. These facts about the Dark Tower he discovers only at a terrible cost to himself and those few whom he loves.

Gunslingerdesert

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Photo Credits:

Stephen King: http://thescribblerblog.wordpress.com/2009/02/05/stephen-king-denounces-stephanie-meyer-other-writers/

Cover: http://thoroughlyrussellcrowe.com/news/2013/12/russell-crowe-book-club-2-the-gunslinger/

Gunslinger 1: http://craighallam.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/book-review-the-wind-through-the-keyhole-by-stephen-king/

Gunslinger desert 1: http://www.thedarktower.org/palaver/showwiki.php?title=Towerpedia:Mohaine+Desert

Gunslinger 2:: http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?p=11719683

John Wayne: http://www.doctormacro.com/movie%20star%20pages/Wayne,%20John-Annex.htm

Aragorn: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/lord-of-the-rings/images/31401318/title/aragorn-photo