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‘Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner ****

I received a copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies from a dear friend for Christmas. We studied Townsend Warner’s fantastic masterpiece of a novel, Lolly Willowes, together whilst postgraduate students, and have both retained a fondness for her inventive work. I was unaware that this collection, printed by Handheld Press, had been published, so it was a lovely surprise to open.

The pieces within Of Cats and Elfins are previously uncollected, and range from between 1927 and 1984, spanning Townsend Warner’s entire writing career. It is, says its blurb, a ‘forgotten collection of fantasy stories and folk tales about human bravery and dispassionate animals, written in the darkest days of wartime Britain’. It includes Townsend Warner’s 1927 essay, ‘Elfins’, and the entirety of her Cat’s Cradle book, which was originally published in the United States in 1940, and the United Kingdom in 1960. Of Cats and Elfins is intended as a companion volume to Kingdoms of Elfin, a collection of Townsend Warner’s fantasy stories, which were published by Handheld Press in 2018.

Of Cats and Elfins features a meticulous introduction by fantasy author Greer Gilman. She writes of the diversity collected here: ‘Fantasy ran underground with Warner, flashing out like a hidden river, each time in a new landscape: witchlore; myth; folktale; invisible kingdoms. What they share is Warner’s worldview, her inimitable voice.’ Greer goes on to give a lot of specific critique of the pieces collected here.

The first piece in this collection is ‘The Kingdom of Elfin’, which sets out Townsend Warner’s imagined fantasy world. Here, she writes: ‘It is a sad fact, but undeniable; the Kingdom of Elfin had a very poor opinion of humankind. I suppose we must seem to them shocking boors, uncouth, noisy, ill-bred and disgustingly oversized.’ There are several Elfin stories to be found here, all set in a vividly imagined and expansive land, which is redolent almost of that in The Lord of the Rings. Townsend Warner’s worldbuilding is faultless; there is such a thoroughness to it. I enjoyed this part of the collection to a point, but I did find it a little difficult at times to suspend my disbelief, and feel that I would have got more out of it if I had read Kingdoms of Elfin previously.

Townsend Warner’s wicked sense of humour is displayed throughout the Elfin stories, and can also be found at times in her animal stories. These tales have an almost Aesop’s Fables-style feel to them; some could be construed as moralistic. There are echoes of the fairytale here too, but Townsend Warner makes the genre something all her own. The unexpected lives in each of these stories, which follow many different animal species – magpies, foxes, phoenixes, a tiger who learns the meaning of ‘virtue’… In ‘Introduction’, as an example, the many cat characters can interact – in clever flourishes of speech, and witty asides – with the humans they live alongside. This piece is my favourite in the entirety of Of Cats and Elfins; I found it quite delightful.

Entwined throughout is the wonder of the natural world, something which feeds into each of these stories. Her descriptions are exquisite. In ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain’, for instance, she crafts: ‘But in the shadow of the wood, where the sun had not penetrated, the thorn trees were at the perfection of their bloom. They were very old trees, gnarled, and tufted with greenish-grey moss, dry and dead-coloured. It did not seem possible that these angular boughs should have pit out the lacework of milky blossoms: each a blunt star, each with its little pointed pink star within it. It seemed rather as though light had rested upon the dead boughs and turned it into blossom.’ In ‘Introduction’, the first piece in the Cat’s Cradle collection, she writes: ‘The house was handsome too, its good looks sobered by age and usage – a seventeenth-century house with a long façade… It gave an impression of slenderness, of being worn smooth and thin like an old spoon… the general tint of the house was that of a ripening pear with streaks of vague rose and pale madder flushing its sallow skin.’

I must admit that I am not really a fan of fantasy, and it is a genre which I rarely – if ever – reach for. Townsend Warner is a firm favourite of mine, however, and I will gladly read all of her work. This sounded both intriguing and charming, and it was; there is a real otherworldly quality to it. It was a joy to reacquaint myself with Townsend Warner, and I was struck once again by her inventiveness, and the myriad ways in which she was well ahead of her time.

Of Cats and Elfins collects together a full bibliography of Townsend Warner’s published work; it reminded me both that I have hardly explored her oeuvre to date, and that a lot of her work is sadly very difficult to get hold of, particularly for an affordable price. This collection is wonderful to have; it provides such wonderful escapism, and I very much appreciated the lively unpredictability of her work.

Of Cats and Elfins is undoubtedly odd, but rather enchanting. It reminded me throughout of Scottish author Naomi Mitchison, whose work has so enchanted and – I admit – mildly confused me in the past. The collection is highly memorable, and whilst I was perhaps a little less enraptured by the Elfin stories than many readers will be, I will certainly be thinking about them in future. I would like to revisit this collection, particularly if I do pick up the Kingdoms of Elfin tales at some point – although unless I make a dramatic U-turn in my reading life and start enjoying fantasy novels, I’m not sure that this will be at the top of my to-read list.

Regardless, Of Cats and Elfins is highly recommended, whether you are a fan of fantasy, or just of Modernism. There is so much to admire here, and a great deal to consider. If you have never read Townsend Warner, and my comments here have enticed you to pick up one of her books, I would point you towards Lolly Willowes as a starting point. Of Cats and Elfins, though, would be a good choice to follow her most famous novel with.

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‘Lonely Castle in the Mirror’ by Mizuki Tsujimura

Lonely Castle in the Mirror (かがみの孤城), written by the Japanese author Mizuki Tsujimura and translated to English by Philip Gabriel, is a magical and moving coming-of-age story that was published by Doubleday only a couple of weeks ago. The novel won the Japan Booksellers’ Award in 2018 and has been lauded and praised by many since. I was planning on reading it as soon as I heard about it, so when the English translation was announced I was over the moon with joy.

English version published by Doubleday on April 22nd, 2021.

Before we get on with the story and my thoughts on it, it’s worth mentioning that this is a YA novel and its protagonists are junior high schoolers and not adults. It has already been likened with the quirky tales of Sayaka Murata (author of Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings), while the Guardian has called it “the offspring of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and The Virgin Suicides” (cannot find a link, but this quote is all over the internet), but I feel both those comparisons don’t do the book any justice and only serve to mislead and possibly disappoint the reader who comes expecting something along the lines of the aforementioned books. As long as you know what sort of story this is, you will be able to truly enjoy it for what it is.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror borrows many western fairy tale elements and creates a whimsical and enchanting story that will certainly tag the heartstrings of many readers. If I had to compare it to another novel, that would definitely be The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, although Lonely Castle goes in an entirely different direction.

Set in modern day Tokyo, the novel recounts the story of Kokoro (meaning ‘heart’ in Japanese) Anzai, a 13 year-old girl who, after a rather traumatic event that has left her unwilling to go to school, one day discovers that the mirror in her room is shining in a peculiar way. Upon examining the mirror, she gets transported through it to a castle, where she meets six more children around her age, as well as the Wolf Queen, who seems to be the person in charge. The Wolf Queen gives them about a year to find a key which will grant only one of them a wish. However, after the wish is granted, all of them will forget about the castle, the moments they have spent there and one another. The children can enter the castle through their mirrors at any moment they want, but they are forbidden to spend the night there, although they each have their own rooms in the castle. If they overstay, then the wolf will come out and devour them.

As the story progresses, we learn more about each teenager, all of whom refuse to go to school for their own reasons, and we follow them as they get to know one another and discover that they are not alone in whatever they are going through. The narration is in third person, but we follow Kokoro’s point of view as she reveals more and more about the incidents that made her unable to go to school, and as she unravels the mystery of the castle along with her new friends.

I really loved the fairy tale elements and the magical atmosphere that Tsujimura creates, as well as the way she uses those fantastic elements to talk about real-life problems that many of us will have also experienced as teenagers. Through the themes of friendship, bullying, losing people close to you, social insecurity etc., Tsujimura explores what it is like to be an outsider, to not be able to fit it and to find friendship and meaningful connections even when you least expect it.

Japanese cover of the novel, originally published in May 2017.

There is also the underlying mystery of the castle and its goings-on, which I also found quite interesting (can never resist a good mystery!), although I was able to figure out most of its solution pretty early on. It definitely gave the novel a unique flair, though, engaging the reader and keeping them eager to uncover the mystery. I also really liked the seven teenagers, I thought they were all unique and I was eager to know more about their specific circumstances and what led them to be invited to the castle.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror is almost a 400-page novel, and I have to admit that it does drag on at times, especially during the middle. The writing is simple, as is the case with many Japanese novels, so if you’re looking for flowery and poetic language, this book is not for you. The translation is very well done (as is to be expected by a renowned translator like Gabriel), but there are still some nuances and cultural differences that readers may need to be aware of when reading. For example, in many scenes we see Kokoro or the other children staying silent and not talking back when scolded or reprimanded, even if they are not in the wrong. Although this attitude isn’t very common in the western world, it is quite common in Japan.

According to the Publisher’s Note at the end of the book, Japanese children’s mental health is second to last among 38 developed and emerging countries, a fact that is shocking and alarming, yet one that makes this book even more important for all the teenagers and young adults that are going through difficult times for one reason or another. No wonder, then, that Tsujimura’s novel resonated with so many young Japanese people, and I’m certain it’s going to equally resonate with many young people outside Japan as well.

Literature has the power to pull you out of the darkness, even momentarily, offer you consolation and company, and show you that most problems have solutions. The castle in the mirror was a much-needed escape for Kokoro and the other six teenagers, a way out of their gloomy daily lives and unbearable circumstances, much like what literature and even more so fantasy literature is to all of us. However, while providing this escapist quality, the castle (and fantasy) equips the children with the necessary means to pluck up their courage, face their fears and dispel what makes their reality unbearable. In the end, this is exactly what this book does, too – it works as an anchor, as a speck of light, as a warm hug that gives its readers the necessary courage to fight their own battles and face their own unpleasant realities, creating their own path in life.

Overall, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a wonderful and magical tale, deeply rooted in reality despite its fairy tale and fantasy elements. It’s a heart-warming and touching novel that will resonate with many, regardless of their age, as we can all see a part of ourselves in Kokoro, Aki, Rion, Masamune, Ureshino, Subaru or Fuka, the seven students.

This also serves as my first post for this year’s Wyrd & Wonder, the month-long event that runs through May, celebrating fantasy and the fantastic. If you’d like to learn more about it and sign up, head over to this post.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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Short Story Fridays: 5 Unique and Compelling Fantasy Short Stories

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It is no lie that most of fantasy literature consists of chunky tomes and series that go on for multiple volumes. A well-built fantasy world needs space and time to be fleshed out, since it’s something completely new to the reader. As much as this is true, however, one can also find shorter pieces of fantasy that might lack the volume but are equally captivating and well crafted in their world building and execution.

So here are 5 fantasy short stories (some might be considered novelletes, but they are all less than 50 pages long) that I have read recently (some not so recently), and which I believe are excellent bite-sized stories for anyone who craves a quick dose of quirky and enchanting fantasy without needing to invest in hundreds of pages. From Indian and Chinese inspired fantasy settings, to steampunk and fairy tale worlds, you’ll definitely find at least one story that tickles your fancy.

(Most of the following stories are available to read for free online. I have provided links to their official sites where applicable for those interested.)

‘The Shadow Collector’ by Shveta Thakrar

“In the garden where girls grew from flowers, their days washed in the distant trills of the queen’s wooden flute, a gardener toiled. His name was Rajesh, and in his spare time, he collected shadows. Shadows of nectar–loving hummingbirds, shadows of laughing fathers, shadows of hawks who preyed on squirrels.”

‘The Shadow Collector’ is one of the most unique fantasy short stories I have ever read. In just a few thousand words, the author manages to create an enticing and mesmerising world inspired by South Asian culture. Her writing is lyrical and evocative, so much so that you can almost smell the fragrances and paint a rich mental picture of the scenes described. I loved every single word of this story and my only complaint is that I wanted more of this world and more of Thakrar’s writing (luckily, she’s coming up with a full-length novel in August).

You can read ‘The Shadow Collector’ at the Uncanny Magazine Issue 6 here.

‘The Terracota Bride’ by Zen Cho 29387827._SY475_

After reading Sorcerer to the Crown in April, I’ve been mesmerised by Cho’s writing style, so as soon as I found out about ‘The Terracota Bride’, I dove right into it. The story is set in the Chinese inspired underworld, where Siew Tsin, the main character, finds herself after her untimely death. Conspiracies, revenge, love and heartbreak, as well as a mysterious artificial woman made out of terracota are intertwined in a gripping story with a truly relatable female protagonist.

 

10290982 ‘Clockwork Fairies’ by Cat Rambo

Not only is Rambo’s ‘Clockwork Fairies’ set in a re-imagined version on Victorian England, but it also features a female woman of colour who is also an inventor and a brilliant steampunk setting. Desiree is a talented engineer who creates mechanical fairies and has to face the prejudices of the men-dominated society she inhabits. The story is told through the eyes of Claude, her fiance, who is a truly unlikeable character. I wouldn’t want to reveal more about the story, but I do enjoy a refined steampunk world and ‘Clockwork Fairies’ certainly lived up to all expectations.

You can read ‘Clockwork Fairies’ at Tor.com here.

‘Red as Blood and White as Bone’ by Theodora Goss redasblood

Steeped in fairy tale elements and tropes but featuring a dark twist (and not the kind of dark fantasy twist you might imagine), Goss’s ‘Red as Blood and White as Bone’ is a charming fairy tale-like story that punches you right in the gut by the end of it. Klara is a young and rather naive kitchen maid who, having grown up as an orphan, is a strong believer of fairy tales. One day, a ragged woman appears outside the castle where Klara works, and the girl immediately assumes she is nothing but a princess in disguise…

I really enjoyed the story and the fact that it was written like a fairy tale made the ending even more powerful in my opinion. Whether you enjoy fairy tale retellings (although I wouldn’t really call this story a retelling, rather simply inspired by fairy tale traditions) or you just want a story with an expected twist, ‘Red as Blood and White as Bone’ is a perfect choice.

You can read it at Tor.com here.

brightmoon‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by J.Y. Yang

Last but not least, ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ is one of the most original and imaginative tales I’ve read lately. J.Y. Yang is mostly known for their Tensorate novella series, about one of which I had talked a bit more in my Favourite Books of 2018 post. Yang weaves fantasy worlds that are inspired by Chinese tradition and folklore and yet are so original and inventive that are truly a delight to sink one’s literary teeth into. This story is filled with starmages, ansibles (people who use their singing voice to open portals), queer romance in space and schemes to overthrow the government, taking the reader to a wild ride through its wholesome world.

You can read it at Tor.com here.

Have you read any of these short stories? What are your favourite fantasy short stories? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Better late than never, they say, and so my first contribution for the Wyrd and Wonder 2020 event is of course posted a couple of days before the end of the month 🙂 I’m thinking of making Short Story Fridays a weekly staple, in order to talk about short stories and short story collections/anthologies in a more regular manner.

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‘Highfire’ by Eoin Colfer, or On Reading Favourite Childhood Authors as an Adult

Some of the books I read as a child have deeply shaped who I am as a reader and a person today. Apart from the kid classics and the adventure tales, a huge majority of the books I consumed as a child belonged to the fantasy genre. Especially after the huge blast the release of the Harry Potter series brought along, a plethora of fantasy books targeted towards young audiences (and not only) suddenly became widely available. Of course, most of them were simply copies of the magic school trope, but there were a select few that managed to distinguish themselves from the mass and offer something entirely fresh and innovative. 50699113._SY475_

One of these books for me was the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer. Although I haven’t read the series since then, so I don’t know if I would still feel the same about it as an adult, these books were the first ones I had read that combined fantasy elements (fairies, gnomes, etc.) with high-tech technology and the prodigy teen protagonists I so used to love reading about.

But that was just a very lengthy introduction the purpose of which is simply to illustrate the importance Eoin Colfer’s books had for the juvenile me as a reader. Having read nothing else by the author for more than a decade, I was enthralled when I found out that he would be releasing a brand new fantasy book, for adults this time around.

Highfire is the story of the very last dragon on earth (nicknamed Vern from wyvern, as he’s not a large Game of Thrones type of dragon), who has successfully been hiding from humans in his ‘lair’ in Louisiana. That is until Squib Moreau, a teenager whom disaster tends to follow, accidentally finds out about his existence and a whole lot of chaos ensues.

The novel is teemed with Colfer’s well-known humour and casual writing style, as well as with his characteristic action-packed scenes. Although some readers might recognise traces of Colfer’s other characters in those of Highfire, it is actually rather evident that this book in not meant for children, as there is strong language throughout the book and some rather gory descriptions.

And now comes the difficult part. Although I did enjoy reading Highfire, and it did make me nostalgic about reading Colfer’s books as a kid, I was also slightly disappointed by it. At times, the language felt way too casual for my taste and it seemed like the only thing that made the story one geared towards adults was mostly the profanities and the gory descriptions.

This does not mean that Highfire is a bad book, not at all. It’s a very action-packed urban fantasy novel filled with humour and the classic good versus evil battle with a lot of twists. I am sure readers looking for a fantasy book that breaks the mould and differentiates itself from most fantasy that is out there will definitely enjoy reading about Vern and Squib’s shenanigans, as long as they know what sort of story they are getting into. I was falsely expecting a different type of story, and this is the main cause of my disappointment.

Have you read Highfire? What did you think of it? Have you read any of your favourite childhood authors as an adult and had a different opinion on their writing?

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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Two Reviews: ‘The Year of the Runaways’ and ‘The Paper Menagerie’

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota **** 9781447241652
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is an urgent, momentous novel about the experience of three young men who immigrate from India to the United Kingdom in hope of finding work. From the very beginning, Sahota’s study of his characters is incredibly detailed. I loved the inclusion of so much cultural minutiae, and found that the use of words in different Indian dialects without their translations being given adds yet another layer to the whole. The story is incredibly evocative of place and space, and every single strand of story has been well pulled together. The way in which the different characters’ stories intertwined was clever.

The Year of the Runaways is a relatively slow novel, in the very best way. The backstories of each of Sahota’s characters are eminently believable, as are their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The novel is so immersive that it becomes difficult to put down. The Year of the Runaways is an eye-opening book, and I felt so empathetic toward all of the protagonists, as well as their wider families. I read this important book with rapt attention, and cannot recommend it enough.

 

24885533The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu ***
So many reviewers have loved The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and as I am always keen to discover new short story authors, I borrowed a copy from my local library. I am neither a fan of science fiction nor of fantasy, and so wasn’t sure if I would enjoy these tales as much as a lot of my friends have. I found some of the inclusions to be quirky and inventive, and preferred Liu’s writing when the magical realism was present, and no robots, etc., were. Some of the tales here engaged me far more than others, although I half expected as much when reading the blurb before I began.

The Paper Menagerie is varied in terms of its content, but I found it rather a mixed bag. I adored the rather beautiful title story, but a lot of the others fell short in comparison. However, his voice has a wonderful consistency to it regardless of the perspective used, and each tale is nicely told. Liu clearly has an expansive imagination, and comes up with some fascinating ideas, but a lot of them were too firmly rooted in science fiction for my personal taste. The Asian culture which is dispersed throughout was fascinating, however, and was one of the real strengths of the book for me.

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘The Lie Tree’ by Frances Hardinge ****

Finding a book to read after submitting my Master’s dissertation this August has been one of the most daunting tasks of the past few months. Nothing I picked up seemed interesting enough to keep me reading and now I have several books of which the first ten to twenty pages have been read but have unfortunately been set aside for the time being.

9781509837564the lie tree illustrated edition_4The Lie Tree was almost one of those books. Usually, when I go through a reading slump I either read something I am certain I will like or something very short to get me back into reading. My copy of The Lie Tree with its 490 pages is definitely not a short read but it certainly sounded like one of those books I am bound to love since it contains mystery, fantasy and historical elements. Plus, the edition I own was illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell, whose work I first encountered through his collaborations with Neil Gaiman, and that certainly contributed greatly to my picking up this book.

The story takes place in Victorian England and it follows Faith, the daughter of a once renowned scientist whose recently bad reputation in society due to some scandal that arose from his research resulted in his family fleeing home and seeking refuge in a smaller town. Secrets never stay hidden for long, however, and their new society labels and mistreats their family again. Faith, being the curious and science-loving girl that she is, is determined to find out what her father’s research was all about and what discovery of his led to their family’s demise. The fantastic elements are not apparent from the outset but I couldn’t speak more about them without revealing some plot spoilers.

Perhaps due to its length, the story starts off in a rather slow manner and it takes the first hundred pages or so for the mystery and the actual plot to truly begin. I usually don’t mind slow books, but for a murder mystery book a slow start isn’t really the best introduction for the readers. The mystery itself, though, was very well crafted. For the very attentive reader the culprit might have been obvious from earlier on, but for me, suspecting everyone due to their dismissive behaviour towards Faith and her family, the revelation was quite a shock. The fantastic elements included, as I mentioned before, are not ever-present and fantasy has been inserted in the world of the book in a very crafty and believable manner.

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Chris Riddell’s stunning illustrations.

The writing is sometimes lyrical and others more practical, but beautiful nevertheless and very fitting to the entire atmosphere of the novel. I really enjoyed Faith’s character, a young girl growing up in an era when female curiosity and desire to learn was everything but rewarded and when women had to hide their research behind the name of a much more powerful and well-established man. The novel raises those issues in a subtle yet satisfying manner, as Faith’s indignation for her being treated unfairly by society and family alike merely for being a girl is evident throughout and is what ultimately empowers her and gives her courage to investigate the mystery surrounding her father. It reminded me somehow of Marie Brennan’s The Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which also centers around a lady scientist in Victorian era who struggles to get her research and scholarly profession accepted by society.

Overall, The Lie Tree is an utterly compelling novel which successfully combines mystery, fantasy, feminist and social issues, as well as a coming-of-age story. Although it starts off very very slowly, the pace picks up after a while and the story becomes so intriguing that it’s impossible to put it down. It’s also a very spooky story with many gothic elements, so I guess it’s a very fitting recommendation for Halloween as well. I’m very glad I didn’t put this book aside like all the rest that came before it, as it was definitely worth reading it.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

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Reading the World: ‘The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy’, edited by Johanna Sinisalo ****

Although I have showcased rather a lot of Finnish literature during my 2017 Reading the World Project, I felt that The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, edited by Johanna Sinisalo, would add something a little different to proceedings.  It is an anthology which is comprised of the work of twenty distinct Finnish authors, who span the period 1870 to 2003.  They range from the well-known – Moomin creator Tove Jansson and Arto Paasilinna, for instance – to those which have not been published in English before.   The entirety, with its rather broad scope, has been translated by David Hackston, and is one of the books in the Dedalus series of Fantasy Literature in Translation.

I must begin by writing that I am not personally the biggest fan of fantasy literature; I picked this up because much of it is involved with magical realism, mythology, and Finnish folklore, three topics which I find markedly interesting.  The Independent writes in its review of the book: ‘These excellent stories share an edginess that’s quite distinct from the quirkiness many contemporary English writers prefer to celebrate.’

In her introduction to the anthology, Sinisalo writes: ‘Literature written in the Finnish language is surprisingly young.’  In fact, written literature has existed for only a few centuries, and secular literature only since the 1800s.  Most Finns did, and still do, write in Swedish, which has official language status throughout the country.  As with other Nordic countries, literature is incredibly important for the population; many people read, and Sinisalo points out that ‘literature is read, bought and borrowed from libraries more than almost anywhere else.  Statistically Finns are among the most literate people in the world.’9781903517291

In The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, a lot of the entries are short stories, but there are also some carefully chosen extracts from longer works.  Each entrant is among good company; six of the twenty authors included have received the most prestigious literary award to exist in Finland, and many have been translated in a whole host of different languages.  Sinisalo has intended to ‘build up a cross-section of Finnish fantasy, both thematically and chronologically.’  Whilst the stories included are largely very different, Sinisalo writes that when compiling the book, she ‘observed that certain distinctly Finnish elements and subjects recur throughout these stories, albeit in a myriad of different ways, but in such a way that we can almost assume that, exceptionally, they comprise a body of imagery central to Finnish fantasy literature.’

Throughout, the sense of place and nature is so strong, and the collection is not simply a conglomeration of run-of-the-mill fantasy; rather, it is incredibly literary.  Finland’s rich history inspires the stories, which include such fantastical elements as werewolves, and resurrections of stuffed creatures, as well as isolated storms which play havoc.  Different perspectives have been used, including a very striking story told from the voice of a ghost.  The prose, overall, is beautiful, and its translation has been handled marvellously.

Some stories, of course, appealed to me more than others; I half expected that this would be the case.  However, the collection read as a whole is incredibly rich, and presents a splendid thematic idea.  It has reminded me of stories which I adore, as well as bringing new writers to my attention – Sari Peltoniemi’s ‘The Golden Apple’ is a firm new favourite, for example – which can only be a positive.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Travel Light’ by Naomi Mitchison ***

Travel Light is the story of Halla, a girl born to a king but cast out onto the hills to die. She lives among bears; she lives among dragons. But the time of dragons is passing, and Odin All-Father offers Halla a choice: Will she stay dragonish and hoard wealth and possessions, or will she travel light?”(Amal El-Mohtar, NPR, You Must Read This). 

“From the dark ages to modern times, from the dragons of medieval forests to Constantinople, this is a fantastic and philosophical fairy-tale journey that will appeal to fans of Harry Potter, Diana Wynne Jones, and T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone.”

9780860685623-us-300I borrowed Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light from my University library for three reasons: firstly, I had never read any Mitchison and felt I should rectify that, particularly as she’s a Scottish author; secondly, its original Virago green spine stood out to me on the shelf; and thirdly, the storyline sounded both weird and wonderful.  I must admit that I don’t ordinarily read books with elements of magic to them (with the exception of Harry Potter, of course), but I read the first page whilst I should have been looking for thesis-applicable tomes, and felt that it sounded rather promising.

I had earmarked Travel Light to be an inclusion in the final Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon which I will be taking part in (largely because when in the process of PhD studies, your entire life often feels like a readathon in itself), but ended up reading the first three chapters the night before because I was too intrigued to let it lie until morning.  From the outset, I was reminded both of the Icelandic sagas and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series; it’s a fun and slightly strange amalgamation of the two at times.  There are touches of the general fairytale to it too.

Travel Light is one of those books that continually keeps the reader guessing.  Nothing quite takes the direction you expect, and elements of the plot are therefore quite surprising.  I’m normally very put off with the presence of talking dragons in fiction, but here they just seemed to fit here.  Well written and well paced for the most part (I must admit that it did become a little dull toward the middle, but it did soon pick itself back up again), I have come away wondering why Mitchison’s books aren’t more widely read.   If Travel Light is anything to go by, I feel that they have a lot to offer, particularly for fans of the mythical and mystical.  A strange little book, but a memorable one, which I’m pleased I chose to borrow.

NB. Travel Light might be difficult to get hold of as it looks to not currently be in print, but if you’re after something a little different, it’s well worth the effort!

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Flash Reviews: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ and ‘Uprooted’

Time for some more flash reviews!

Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser *** 9780753826546
I am very much interested in Mary’s story, but haven’t studied any history of the period since I was at secondary school. I chose to read Fraser’s account of hers because she is so well revered; I thought that if anyone could present her tale in a fascinating and memorable way, it would be her. Alas, I have a few issues with the book. Mary Queen of Scots held my attention for the first 150 pages or so, but I felt as though it shifted after that point, losing some of its initial sparkle. Fraser’s effort is also a little protracted; it would have been better, and far more successful, had it been presented in a book of half this size. As it is, Mary Queen of Scots (book, not person – although she did stand at the height of five foot eleven…) was rather a behemoth.

The entirety is very repetitive; there is so much emphasis placed upon the (frankly largely unimportant) details of Mary’s appearance and height, and the reiteration of such things feels unnecessary. Fraser’s writing is not bad, but given her stature as a biographical historian, I had expected that it would be far tighter, better structured, and more expansive. Much of the vocabulary is used again and again, sometimes in the same sentence. The book could have been riveting – indeed, I thought it would be after reading the witty and amusing introduction – but it felt flat.

I would like to pick up another Fraser in future to see how it compares, but I shouldn’t think I will be doing so for quite some time. After all, the wrist ache needs to subside first…

 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik **
9781447294146I must begin by stating that I am not really a reader of fantasy novels, and tend to prefer a healthy dose of realism. That said, I largely decided to try ‘Uprooted’ since it was splashed all over my Instagram feed, and everybody was saying how amazing it was.

I did not find this an amazing book. Whilst the beginning captivated me, and left me wanting to know what was going to happen, I felt as though it immediately became plodding and rather dull. The narrative voice did not feel a realistic one to me, and it was repetitive to boot. The pacing was off, too. Reading it felt like wading through a pool of treacle; the end was in sight, but I just couldn’t bring myself to get there.

The elements of fairytale here would have captured my attention if they hadn’t been so trite. This book had so much scope to be good, and even original, but I feel rather disappointed that I had to abandon it 100 pages in; it just wasn’t doing anything for me.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard’ by J.K. Rowling ***

First published in April 2014.

I decided to eventually borrow The Tales of Beedle the Bard from my local library, and read it in less than an hour one chilly February evening.  The book itself is lovely, despite the fact that the copy which I borrowed was very worn and looked as though children had chewed on its corners. 

I had hoped that it would not be disappointing, as I have sadly found the other Harry Potter companion books to be so.  I remember reading a lot of mixed feedback for this book – some gushing, and others not very complimentary at all – around its publication, so I did not set my expectations too high upon beginning it.

Beedle the Bard supposedly lived in the fifteenth century, and was the original author of these stories.  The additional commentary to the volume has been ‘written by’ Professor Dumbledore, and the entirety is said to have been translated by Hermione Granger.

Five stories in all are collected in The Tales of Beedle the Bard – ‘The Wizard and the Hopping Pot’, ‘The Fountain of Fair Fortune’, ‘The Warlock’s Hairy Heart’, ‘Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump’ and ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers’.  The introduction to the volume states that this book is ‘a collection of stories written for young wizards and witches.  They have been popular bedtime reading for centuries…  [Here] we meet heroes and heroines, who can perform magic themselves, and yet find it just as hard to solve their problems as we do’.  The introduction is quite amusing, comparing the tales rather favourably to ‘Muggle’ fairytales, and stating such things as, ‘Asha, Altheda, Amata and Babbitty Rabbitty are all witches who take their fate into their own hands, rather than taking a prolonged nap or waiting for someone to return a lost shoe’.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a very quick read, and the stories themselves are more like fables really.  The illustrations are sweet, and the use of imagined history in Dumbledore’s commentary works well too.  Whilst it is a nice addition to the Harry Potter stories, The Tales of Beedle the Bard does feel rather underwhelming, and it does become a little repetitive after a while.  I presume that I probably would have preferred it far more had I still been a child upon reading it.

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