Archive | February, 2012

The Tales of Alvin Maker

27 Feb

In the Tales of Alvin Maker series, an alternate-history view of an America that never was, Orson Scott Card postulated what the world might have been like if the Revolutionary War had never happened, and if folk magic actually worked. In Card’s books, America is divided into several provinces, with the Spanish and French still having a strong presence in the New World. The emerging scientific revolution in Europe has led many people with ‘talent’ (i.e. magical powers) to emigrate to North America, bringing their prevailing magic with them. Race and culture seem to shape the way that the abilities of people of different groups develop. For example, white Europeans have cultivated skills that we might recognize from the folklore and traditions of colonial America and western Europe; Native Americans align themselves with the rhythms of nature but also use blood to perform some of their magic; and people of African descent channel their skills into creating objects of power, in a manner somewhat similar to the beliefs and practices of voodoo. While many people in Card’s world have a limited supernatural ability, or ‘knack’ to do some task to almost perfection, Alvin Miller, who is the seventh son of a seventh son, discovers that his knack far surpasses those of everyone else. In particular, he can change both living and nonliving matter simply by force of will (hence the title ‘Maker’). This power comes at a cost, however; not only does Alvin feel a great responsibility to use his power for good, but there are forces that actively seek his demise.

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Urban Faerie

23 Feb

Exactly what is it that allows the fairy tale, a story archetype that by all rights should have disappeared with powdered wigs and petticoats, to survive, and even thrive, in the new millenium? Perhaps it’s because they concern important lessons – warnings, morals, aspects of the unknowable, ancient folk wisdom – or maybe it’s just for their pure entertainment value. Whatever the reason, fairy tales, in one form or another, are still enjoyed today. Whether it’s classics collected by the Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang and Charles Perrault, or new tales, such as Charles de Lint’s Newford stories or Neil Gaiman’s tales of American Gods; fairy tales, stories of fantasy, myth and legend, are still creating wonder and magic for people around the world. Perhaps this is why they survive, because no matter when or where a fairy tale is first told, they embody universal images and truths that, over the centuries, have passed beyond time or place, and become one with the vast tapestry of human consciousness. But naturally, as times change, the stories people tell also change. Cities give rise to their own types of stories – the urban legends that make the rounds from time to time, stories that utilize elements of the old ways, but with a metropolitan spin on them that just didn’t exist until the modern city was created.

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The OTHER Da Vinci Code

19 Feb

Okay, apologies in advance, I promise that this is the one and only time that I will ever mention Dan Brown on this website (probably). You’ve all, unless you’ve been in outer space for the past ten years, heard of a little novel called The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown’s cash cow has made him millions of dollars, hit the silver screen and annoyed almost as many people as it has entertained. If you found it hard to believe that the Renaissance artist and all-round genius Leonardo Da Vinci passed on the secret history of the offspring of Christ through cryptograms (or backwards crossword puzzle word searches or whatever), the suggestion that he actually embedded a secret soundtrack into The Last Supper may just be a step too far for some people. Let’s look at the evidence. Continue reading

Did Philip K Dick Dream of Electric Sheep?

15 Feb

By the time of his death in March 1982, Philip K Dick had become perhaps the most respected of modern science fiction writers. He was also, with the possible exception of H P Lovecraft, the most neurotic of major science fiction writers, obsessed by the notion that human beings were trapped in a ‘web of unreality’. His persecution mania developed to a point where he could undoubtedly have been described as a paranoid schizophrenic. Yet, towards the end of his life, Dick became convinced that he had been ‘possessed’ by a kind of super-alien or angel, who went on to reorganize his life. Whilst a number of people have cast doubts on some of Dick’s more bizarre claims, his case is perhaps too complex to be dismissed as simple self-delusion.

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13 Feb

The Maryland Book Bank

A lot of people enjoy reading because it gives them the opportunity to immerse themselves in a completely different world.  Readers can transport themselves into past eras or imagined futures, travel to distant countries or discover new cultures.  In some cases, authors successfully create entirely fictional and fantastical worlds for readers to visit, where the places and creatures within are given life by the unbridled imagination of the writer (i.e. The Lord of The Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter).

White Planet, a new fantasy novel by Ash Silverlock, introduces readers to the icy and mysterious planet of Rygarth, where a small colony of humans is struggling to survive in inhospitable conditions amongst dangerous creatures.  As the first part of the series The Ice World Chronicles, White Planet sets the foundation for the story surrounding the Tunguskan Icehold and its place within Rygarth.  It…

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The Mark of the Beast

11 Feb

The mythic tradition of shape-shifters (or more specifically theriantropes, capable of transforming from human to animal shape) is one that is as old as storytelling itself. Although the werewolf is undoubtedly the best-known human-to-animal shape-changer in popular culture today, when we turn to world mythology we find that transformation legends are attached to almost every kind of animal. The most notorious combine human and animal predations, and even innocuous ones, such as swan-maids or goat-men, can be very dangerous. Animal people are not fluffy critters; in ancient lore those who could assume beast-form were forces to be reckoned with. They could command strange magics, summon hordes of beastly allies, seduce you in the night or simply tear your throat out. Even their human forms were disturbing – often beautiful, always unpredictable. In the present day there is a clear demarcation between humans and animals. Mankind is civilized, living in cities, working behind desks and leading ordered, structured lives. Animals also have a clearly defined place – many are pets or beasts of burden, serving human masters, others are entertainments in zoos or circus sideshows, and some, the majority even these days, exist as they have always done in their natural habitats in what is left of the wild. But these dividing lines, always shifting and transparent, have perpetually been viewed in certain circles as nothing more than that, arbitrary and meaningless, for at his core every man and woman is an animal and every beast is an echo of the human soul. This may not seem so apparent now but perhaps there was once a time in the dim mists of history when the division between man and beast was so blurred that it was non-existent and all beings shifted easily between forms that were both humanoid and animalistic. Even today, the signs of the beast within are everywhere, if you look carefully at your friends and neighbours. Spot that cat-like gleam in your lover’s eye? The bullish tilt of a rival’s head? The feathered shadows cast behind that homeless person in the park? Did you, perhaps, even see them in the mirror that one time?

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7 Feb

There are very few works of fiction which so defy classification that they stand alone, a genre all to themselves. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, consisting of Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, published between 1946 and 1959, is such a work. Although usually labelled as fantasy, Peake’s trilogy really has few of the characteristics common to novels in the genre. For instance, though realised in the fantastical setting of the gothic, crumbling castle of Gormenghast, the books have no magic and no intelligent races other than humans. There is no ‘Quest’ or ‘MacGuffin’ (or indeed anything in the way of a conventional plot) and there is no focal antagonist to link the three books, although there is a memorable, almost Dickensian, cast of gothic and grotesque characters. The trilogy has been critically lauded and is recognised as one of the landmark literary achievements of the 20th century, however, for some reason it is largely ignored by many modern readers. This includes, strangely, a lot of fantasy readers, although this may be precisely because it has so few of the conventions of the genre, as described above. As far as I’m concerned though, for the Gormenghast trilogy to be eschewed in this way is not only unfair but actually a tragic omission from the experience of any lover of books in general. Peake’s novels are overflowing with imagination, humour (both light and dark), razor sharp dialogue and above all, beautiful, ornate, descriptive prose. For example, take Peake’s description of Gormenghast’s Tower of Flints, tallest of the castle’s spires, in the novel’s opening paragraph: ‘This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow’. Why doesn’t anyone write like that anymore?!

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George R R Martin: Genius or Hack?

3 Feb

One of the most popular multi-volume fantasy epics of modern times is George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – a popularity which has been magnified tenfold by the success of the recent HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones. Martin’s immense saga, which spans five books and around four thousand pages already, with a further two volumes (at least) to come, has been a fixture on the bestseller lists since the first volume was published back in 1996. Overall, the series has sold more than seven million copies in the USA and more than 15 million copies worldwide, winning genre awards in the process. Critically and commercially acclaimed, the series was untouchable in fantasy circles until the turn of the millenium. It was only when the fourth book was published after a five year delay that the dissenters began to appear, starting a trickle of criticism that eventually became a flood by the time of the fifth book’s publication just last year. By this time the intervals between volumes had begun to get longer – it had gone from the two years separating each of the first three books to five years between A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows, then six years between that book and A Dance with Dragons. We have titles for the sixth and seventh books in the series – The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring – but no timetable as to when they will appear. In a sense, however, the delays only appear to be part of the problem and the last two entries in Martin’s saga have been criticised for being slow-paced, filled with padding, unnecessarily introducing lots of new characters and not sufficiently advancing the main plot. Are these criticisms justified and, ultimately, is this a series that is worth following and one that will stand the test of time?

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