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Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

One trend I haven’t really kept abrest of is that of the glut of fantasy series written for kids in the aftermath of the Potter phenomenon. I like a good adventure story with some inventive magic thrown in as much as, and perhaps even more, than the next person (I still adore Edith Nesbit, one childhood favourite I’ll never grow out of), but walking into the children’s section in book shops and seeing very little other than the fantasy authors du jour is a little tiresome. 13-year-old Cousin Kimmy had, however, suggested Jonathan Stroud, so he was on a to-read list — and the trip we took last week to Goa seemed like a great excuse to pick up the first in his Bartimaeus Trilogy. Nothing like a fat, exciting, low-stress beach read, eh?

And Stroud did deliver, with a novel that was great fun to read and has me wanting to get hold of the next in the trilogy as soon as possible. The basic premise might sound very similar to that of the Potter books — young boy, no family, being trained in magic in a world where magic coexists with ordinary life. But that’s where any semblance of similarity ends. While Harry had a definite renegade villain in the shape of Lord Voldemort, Stroud gives us a world more complex, where everyone seems to exist in a grey moral area. The magical government of Stroud’s Britain isn’t necessarily streamlined; there seem to be a variety of factions and power struggles within its hierarchies. The so-called “enemy” in fact, isn’t actually outside the system. This throws, as you can imagine, all sorts of codes of behaviour into uncertainty; and you can never tell where the next “villain” is going to come from. Perhaps, in fact, the villain is actually the one from whose eyes we peer out at this world…

We do all of this peering from two perspectives — that of Nathaniel, a young apprentice magician, and that of Bartimaeus, the djinni he summons to do his will. Ah, you’d say, he probably wants to rid his magical world of some dark menace and needs a djinni to do the work for him (in Stroud’s magical world, most magical tasks are carried out by magical beings; humans only give the orders). This is where I was first startled and intrigued; Nathaniel isn’t intent on dispelling some evil, not at all. What he’s after is revenge — he wants to get back at Simon Lovelace, a powerful senior magician, at whose hands he has suffered humiliation. It’s true that Lovelace is ruthless and attempting to wrest power for himself… but this isn’t Nathaniel’s primary concern and he only realizes it later. Something very interesting is happening here, because it really is impossible to tell what sort of magician Nathaniel is going to grow up into. There is a humanity, a capacity for caring in him, but it seems circumstantial, evident only in certain contexts, and there’s no telling what adverse circumstances could do to him and what sort of moral centre he will develop.

This dark vision of youthful magical initiative is conveyed most effectively by the use of two voices — an omnicient third-person narrative telling us the story as Nathaniel experiences it and a first-person one that is the voice of the djinni Bartimaeus. Nathaniel is a complex and enigmatic character, but it is Bartimaeus who really carries the book, with his sharp-tongued, jaded commentary and his breadth of knowledge of Nathaniel’s magical world, coming from his great age of 5000 years. The third-person parts of the story are usually full of adventure and Stroud’s own brand of highly vivid description that draws you in, but it’s Bartimaeus who is always funny and readable; I found myself perking up every time I turned a page and found him speaking on the other side.

My one serious quibble with The Amulet of Samarkand is just that it lacks a certain philosophical balance. Bartimaeus, like every other magical servant, is aware that he can’t escape human orders, even while he might have an opinion on them, and hence, tends to be detached from the moral dilemmas of the tale. This gives us only a view of an approach that is largely opportunistic, aggressive, intent on self-preservation, and even somewhat petty; there is no denying that Nathaniel lacks (in this first part of the trilogy at least) a certain morality. This is interesting, up to a point, but there is also a further point at which having some sort of contrasting vision embodied in some way and drawing Nathaniel into inner conflict would really propel this book far out of the ordinary; there’s only so much that physical chases and confrontations can do. I have my hopes that Stroud might do this in the second and third installments. For now, well, I enjoyed this; and no, it wasn’t just because I was reading it in the shade of palm trees at the beach.

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Cover of MortMort is, according to the results of the BBC’s Big Read, the UK’s favourite Discworld novel. Not hard to see why, really. This is Pratchett at his best, hitting his form–and presumably also Pratchett long before editors began to canonize his manuscripts and be afraid to actually trim the fat. Mort is in stark contrast to the previous Pratchett I read, Thief of Time, which was fun, but verging on sloppy. It’s tightly written and plotted, genuinely funny and witty, full of really good jokes. Really good ones, really fresh ones. I spent a lot of time with this book just grinning–and not in the way a skull does. Which only goes to show how delightful this book was–I’ve actually read it once before, but enjoyed it as much as if it was a new discovery.

Enough waffling. Mort is the first of the books in the series that focus on Death (the Anthropomorphic Personification). The eponymous character, Mort, is a young lad who goes in search of work and ends up being hired by Dearth, as an apprentice, to assist in the work of ushering souls from life into the next world. Death lives in a black castle in his own realm where time stands still, has a servant named Albert, a gleaming white horse named Binky, and, not least, an adopted daughter named Ysabell. Mort does not fall in love with the daughter, though Death appears to want him to; instead, he develops a mad crush on a princess and, when she dies, refuses to do his job of taking her soul across, thus altering reality. And that’s all of the plot you need to know for starters, really.

The awkward, determined Mort is enormously likeable, but it’s Death who’s the star here. Death is the Grim Reaper of European cultural imagery; he carries a scythe and rides a white horse and is hidden under a voluminous cloak. Death is fascinated with life and the living, especially with the human race and its foibles. His realm, created by him, is a way of trying to fit in; he eats (lord knows how), and drinks, and attempts to go to a party, and, as Ysabell says, though he didn’t FEEL sorry for her, he probably THOUGHT sorry for her when he was adopting her. He’s also fond of kittens. Poor chap. The loneliness of being Death doesn’t escape Pratchett’s pen.

Such is the power of Pratchett’s characterization that he, reportedly, has received numerous letters from people who are terminally ill, saying that they hope that when death comes for them, he will be Pratchett’s Death. This isn’t as inane as it sounds, though the pseudo-religiosity of this sentiment is mildly alarming; Pratchett’s Death is humane and even sympathetic, ready to help a soul on into the unknown. He abides strictly by the rules of the universe, but he does carry out his task reliably, solidly, with no malice. That’s what you’d want at the end of life, I think. It’s what anyone would want. Pratchett has unerringly written a character that embodies so much of what we think and feel about death.

Pratchett, who has Alzheimer’s disease, also recently made a case for having a euthanasia tribunal, to permit people who are terminally ill to decide when they want to end their lives. It’s another mode of making death humane, making sure it doesn’t have to come after long soul-sapping suffering. Evidently, the Death of the Discworld isn’t without his underpinnings in our world.

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It took me a good while to warm up to Terry Pratchett. That wasn’t entirely because I made the mistake of first trying out The Colour of Magic, which, though his first novel set in the Discworld, is not the best introduction to the series at all, since it’s entirely a parody of the fantasy genre, making familiarity with said fantasy genre a prerequisite to enjoyment. No, it was something akin to the trouble I have with Tolkien–I love the characters, the world is richly imagined, the plots full of twists and turns, the density of the telling so very satisfying, but the style just doesn’t work. Where Tolkien is ponderous, Pratchett is far too sketchy. He seems intent on cutting from one scene to another, building parallel action sequences that are just a tad clumsy in their relationships with each other, and that get increasingly wobbly towards the middle and end of each book.

And yet… and yet… Pratchett is gosh-darn so much FUN to read. That sly sense of humour, that unerring accuracy in aiming the arrows of parody, those groan-inducing puns, that sheer absurdity in stretching the possibilities of his little universe–nobody does it better. Well, Douglas Adams did, but he is, alas, no longer with us and we are infinitely poorer for it. For now, we have Pratchett; and perhaps the reason I have grown so fond of him is that he does all of this, he makes us laugh, and increasingly, he also makes us think and feel. The Discworld series is a long one — 35 books or thereabouts — reading the books in order is both an unnecessary and difficult ask, and after a while, it becomes hard to remember in which book Pratchett excelled at what, but this much is certain: Pratchett’s interests have slowly moved beyond simply mocking this world and have expanded to encompass not only the psychological and emotional underpinnings of his Discworld characters and their development in the time of the Disc but also a sort of echo of the science that drives our universe.

The characters that people Thief of Time aren’t Pratchett’s best-drawn. I felt a trifle distanced from them most of the time. But it’s a memorable book because of the figure of Death, which remains interested in humanity and which becomes here a pair of eyes (or eye sockets, I suppose, given that he’s a skeleton) through which the reader can peer as, dream-like, the science of time is ravelled and unravelled and woven into the texture of this plot. It does take a second reading to understand the principle behind the action in some passages; not even the helpful explanations characters give each other, mostly the History Monk, Lu-Tze, to his pupil, Lobsang Ludd, can make it immediately comprehensible. But when you read through a second time and the pattern settles into your understanding–that’s when Pratchett’s book really lives. I may not always be able to see beyond the flaws in his work, but watching him experiment with writing the Discworld universe in all its aspects–now scientific as well as cultural, sociological, and historical–is entirely enthralling.

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