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Gaiman and McKean make for a stellar team. One a master of dark, yet whimsical fantasy writing, the other an artist who introduced a post-modern, industrial aesthetic to the comic industry. During Gaiman’s seminal Sandman for DC’s mature reader’s Vertigo imprint McKean provided much of the amazing cover art and continued to do so for various spin-off titles that emerged afterward. He also interpreted the esoteric script for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth as a Jungian nightmare that elevated DC’s Batman mythos far above its pulp origins.

The dynamic duo have moved on from comics to greener pastures, with McKean providing the credit sequence for Gaiman’s television series Neverwhere (as well as the cover for the tie-in novel). Later McKean took on directing, with his assured debut Mirrormask, scripted by Gaiman (of course) a hallucinatory vision of a rust-brown dream world, with winged gorillas, stone titans and dark queens waiting within.

With this book the pair took their inspiration from Gaiman’s daughter’s complaint about his ‘crazy hair’. The story’s narrator explains to young Bonnie just how crazy his hair really is. Featuring pirates, a polar bear, exotic birds, butterflies and even stalking tigers, it is very crazy hair indeed.

Hunters send in

Expeditions

Radio back

Their positions

Still, we’ve lost

A dozen there

Lost inside

My crazy hair.

Eventually Bonnie attempts to groom the narrator, only to disturb a mysterious voice inside the hirsute jungle. She is suddenly seized and pulled into the world of hair and has many amazing adventures.

Gaiman’s rhymes accompany McKean fantastic visuals throughout. Giant, cracked follicle seas; tentacle-like strands stretching out from the narrator to Bonnie; a comb thieving blue polar bear; and curiously lifelike merry-go-round creatures. Although one line describes – Butterflies and Cockatoos/ Reds and Yellows/Greens and Blues –  McKean’s attempt at my favourite Australian birds look more like parrots. I guess that’s the problem with living on the other side of the world.

In keeping with classic fairytales, while the story of a man with a head full of wonderful creatures seems a fanciful notion, McKean’s angular art-style and crowding shadows introduce a perfectly sinister note to the proceedings. Much like Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, this is a fairy tale that flirts with scaring the children reading it, while also letting them know it’s ok to be afraid. I attended a signing for this book some months ago in Dublin and McKean spoke about the importance of not censoring dark material in children’s books. He believes it is just as important to frighten your audience as it is to make them laugh, or cry, much like readers of any other age-group. I am eagerly awaiting McKean’s next project, a children’s book on explanations of the meaning of life, written by Richard Dawkins. From the following article

“We take thirteen questions about the world and answer them initially in the ways we have in the past – myth, religion, folk stories – and then present our best scientific answer, which hopefully proves to be even more astonishing and magical than the others.”

What I admire most about Gaiman & McKean’s approach to children’s literature is their refusal to condescend to young readers. It’s something that can so easily scuttle a story, as if kids are unable to tell when they are being lied to, or being force-fed an insipid tale of good triumphing over evil. These two creators do not pretend that there are not reasons to be afraid of the dark, but instead remind their readers that often it is more important to not spend one’s whole life running from shadows.

In short, this is a magical fable that should be enjoyed by everyone. Pick it up.

I felt like I was trapped in one of those terrifying nightmares, the one where you have to run, run till your lungs burst, but you can’t make your body move fast enough. My legs seemed to move slower and slower as I fought my way through the callous crowd, but the hands on the huge clock tower didn’t slow. With relentless, uncaring force, they turned inexorably toward the end–the end of everything.

Lady, I hear ya.

It’s almost been a year since the events of the first book and Bella Swan’s birthday has come round. Turning eighteen only serves to remind her that she is growing older, while her vampire boyfriend Edward remains seventeen. And a high school senior! So things are already not proceeding that smoothly for the ‘teenage’ couple when they decide to celebrate Bella’s birthday at the Cullen family household. Then Edward’s adopted brother Jasper is sent into a frenzy at the sight of Bella’s blood caused by a small papercut. As this confirms the worst fears of Bella’s vampire swain, he decides to leave her and the town of Forks, taking his family with him to some unknown destination.

Abandoned by Edward, Bella falls into a deep depression, only surfacing when she reacquaints herself with Jacob Black, who still nurses a crush on her. She enjoys his company and so tries to insist that their relationship is simply a friendship. Jacob proves to be extremely persistent, taking her gentle refusals with good humour and puppy-dog eyes. Still she cannot forget her passionate obsession for Edward Cullen and even begins to experience hallucinations of his presence when her life is in danger. Eventually Jacob’s warmth and affection slowly wears away her resolve and she starts to think of a life without Edward. Until one day he simply cuts off all contact. Feeling lost and bewildered she wanders into the forests surrounding Forks, only to meet Laurent, a member of the vampire pack that had hunted her the previous year. He brings her a message from Victoria. They’re going to kill her and with the Cullens gone, there is no one to protect her. Bella’s fate seems sealed, but then a pack of werewolves arrive to defend her. One of them even looks familiar to her. Are there any boys in Forks that are not mythical monsters!

Are we sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin. Perhaps my description of the plot implies that this is an exciting tale of danger. Well, it’s not. Not be a long shot. There are upswings of excitement in the narrative, but they come few and far between. I hate all the male characters. I am sick of the endless descriptions of Edward’s perfection and in this book Jacob’s muscular frame also heaves into view. The only other things Meyer seems interested in are cars! There’s a major disjunct in the story after the Cullens leave, with the plot of the first book seeming to repeat itself when Bella discovers yet another clan of fantasy creatures living nearby. As for the main character, I dislike how what little description of Bella we get show her to be a clumsy clod, a ‘magnet for danger’ and completely unable to cope without a man in her life. The religious subtext of the books also bothers me. Worst of all, Bella’s rejection by Edward leaves her an automaton, focused on being a ‘good girl’ for her dad, cooking, cleaning and keeping her grades up. She never feels any anger towards the vampire, which usually helps when you’ve had your heart broken.

On the other hand… I don’t like these books, but lots of folks do, so who am I to throw the first stone? After all I just reviewed Brandon Sanderson purely to get a bead on how he would finish up the Wheel of Time series and they are terrible books. Maybe the kids reading Twilight will grow out of them and find Jodi Piccoult. Or if they’re fans of the beefcake, maybe they’ll discover Anais Nin? Also if the Volturi are a dig at the Church of Rome, well I’m not too bothered by that. Hell it reminded me of a Bill Hicks quote. So I guess live and let live is my conclusion. I’m tired of all the obnoxious complaining about Twifans, as it only led to this.

Furthermore…Team Alice? Oh Meyer, you cad!

The two men shared a look. Finally Breeze spoke. “Lord Ruler knows, I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge. But, Kell, I do question your reasoning. Are you sure we can do this?”

“I’m positive,” Kelsier said. “Previous attempts to throw down the Lord Ruler have failed because they lacked proper organization and planning. We’re thieves, gentlemen – and we’re extraordinarily good ones. We can rob the unrobbable and fool the unfoolable. We know how to take an incredibly large task and break it down to manageable pieces, then deal with each of those pieces. We know how to get what we want. These things make us perfect for this particular task.”

I should explain how my reading speed works. Basically, I need to be interested in the book I’m reading to finish it quickly. For example, the book I have had the hardest time finishing in time for review on this site so far has been Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It bored me silly and I just managed to get my piece published in time, despite it being quite a slim book. So why am I reviewing a book that is over six hundred pages long? I am very interested in Brandon Sanderson. See this is the fellow who has been handed the unenviable task of wrapping up Robert Jordan’s overlong and unwieldy Wheel of Time series. Which I first began reading in 1992. I grew out of the books, but I just want the series to end, so I can find out what happens. So I tackled one of Sanderson’s own books, to see what kind of writer he is.

The story begins with a land shrouded in mists and covered in black ash. The Lord Ruler controls the lands of the so-called Final Empire, his reign over a thousand years old. The people his armies enslaved long ago are known as skaa and they believe him to be nothing less than a god. One night in a regional settlement the cries of a young girl are heard as the provincial lord’s men drag her away. The skaa do nothing. Tired and frightened, they accept that this is the way of things. A stranger who has recently arrived goes out into the night in pursuit. When he does not return the people assume the men who kidnap their daughters killed him as well as the girl. In the morning they awake and find the young child they thought lost returned. The castle has been burned to the ground, the soldiers defending it dead and their lord stabbed to death by the stranger. His name is Kelsier and he is what passes for a hero in these times.

The Lord Ruler’s capital is known as Luthadel and for most of Vin’s short life she has lived on its streets, stealing to survive. Her brother is gone and she is utterly alone. Until Kelsier, the man referred to by the skaa as The Survivor finds her. He invites her to join his crew of thieves, men who work together and even seem to trust one another. What makes her special? Vin, like Kelsier, is a Mistborn, capable of drawing power from diluted solutions of metals and alloys. Allomancy is an ability restricted only to the nobility who serve the Lord Ruler. Any who hide among the skaa and practice these powers are hunted down and killed by the agents of the Final Empire, known as Inquisitors. All of Kelsier’s men have some ability with alomancy and he has a plan. They’re going to pull off the biggest con of all. Collapse the Final Empire itself.

As I was reading, I had this niggling sense of familiarity. A crew of thieves with special powers? A long-con designed to financially cripple a powerful enemy? A hero with a tragic past and a precocious young women with amazing abilities….this is the fantasy version of Inception!(which you can read me kvetching about here and here).

It’s also a post-nationalist fantasy, something of a constant since the time of Tolkien. The setting is mostly urban, you have morally gray heroes and a fantastically bleak premise (the jacket reads ‘What if the Dark Lord won?’) – Sanderson has, unwittingly or not, become a torch-bearer for Moorcock’s revisionist take on the fantasy genre.

Well developed characters, interesting concepts and a climax that actually delivers (this is the first book in a series), I am impressed.

He turned to the back of the paper, and studied the advertisements. For sale, one Lilliputian, good needleworker. For sale, two Lilliputians, a breeding couple; one hundred and fifty guineas the pair. For sale, stuffed Lilliputian bodies, arranged in poses from the classics: Shakespeare, Milton, Scott. For sale, prime specimen of the famed Intelligent Equines, late of His Majesty’s Second Cognisant Cavalry; this Beast (the lengthy advertisement went on) speaks a tolerable English, but knows mathematics and music to a high level of achievement. Of advanced years, but suitable for stud.

My first exposure to Jonathan Swift was not Gulliver’s Travels, but his satirical essay A Modest Proposal, an attack on the view held by the English that the Irish were a barbarous people. Let’s just say it spoke to me. When I saw the title of Adam Roberts’ book I was intrigued. How would he go about writing a sequel of sorts to Swift’s most famous work? As it turned out his objective was a broader one than that, touching on several authors during the course of the novel.

Abraham Bates credits himself as a moral man, moved by Christian mercy to plead the case of the Lilliputian people enslaved by the British Empire. It is over a century since Lemuel Gulliver returned from the lands of the so-called ‘Pacificans’, his tales leading to an occupation of those wondrous countries by European nations. The ‘little people’, are now reckoned to number only in the thousands across the whole world as a result of this invasion by ‘big folk’. The British Empire owes their great successes since the invasion to the technological skill of the Lilliputians, gifted with powers of invention due to their miniature size that have led to clockwork wonders. Even still Bates is dismayed by their enslavement and is contacted by an agent of France. In exchange for his assistance, he is promised the swift liberation of the Lilliputian slaves and the overthrow of the British Empire at the hands of an alliance between the French and the Church of Rome.

This is also the story of Eleanor, sold into marriage with an industrialist who business thrives on Lilliputian handiwork. Her mother made the match in order to secure her own lifestyle and Eleanor becomes resigned to her fate. She buries herself in the study of the natural sciences, with reading her sole pleasure, a retreat from the cruelties of the world outside her door. One night following her marriage to Mr. Burton, she witnesses an event that she feels might be turned to her advantage, but shortly thereafter the French invade London, with an advance force of Brobdingnagian Giants laying waste to everything in their path.

The French have yet another weapon to hand. A calculating machine, perfected by one Charles Babbage. When Eleanor and Bates meet, they learn that whoever should control this computational device, could decide the course of the war. Together they race across England, unaware that their world is being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s.

If that’s not a broad enough hint, it soon becomes apparent that Swiftly uses its relationship to Gulliver’s Travels as a skin. In reality the book is a parody of H.G. WellesWar of the Worlds. Through this comparison Roberts draws out the similarities between both writers, equal in their criticism of the British Empire and the brutal hidden histories of civilization. The Brobdingnagians marching across the Channel resemble the Martian Tripods of Welles’ book; there is also a sudden outbreak of pestilence across England.

My one complaint is while the period detail is excellent – religion and the fear of committing some social impropriety are straitjackets to each of the characters; the evolutionary theories of Lamarck are rejected as the ‘Pacificans’ are seen to be proof of God’s plan –  I am frustrated with hints of condescension towards the views of sex held by these characters. One of the pleasures of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle of books is that he made the thoughts and actions of historical figures from the 17c seem modern. Here there’s a mocking tone to Eleanor’s discovery of sexuality (she takes out a book from the library of the mating habits of pigs) and Bates’ tortured excitement at his own desires.

While that made me think less of the overall project, the book is gifted with an excellent premise. In keeping with its Anglo-Frankish conflict it swings from Swiftian to Rabelaisian satire. Fascinating.

Annie wasn’t a hero. She was ten years old and had long blonde hair and blue eyes, and her father said she’d make an excellent damsel one day. He had her practicing her screams every morning for an hour and said they were the best he had ever heard. But now her father was missing and there were no heroes available, and her mother wouldn’t stop crying.

For my final review of Children’s Literature Week I have chosen S.E. Connolly’s debut, Damsel published by Mercier Press. It is a short and sweet fantasy tale about a girl setting out to rescue her father from an evil wizard. If ever you found yourself reading Harry Potter and wondering why Hermione Granger wasn’t the main character instead the bumbling eponymous wizard messiah, I reckon this is a neat corrective. More than that though, it’s an excellent first novel from a young Irish writer, whom I hope to see more from some day.

Angelina Cerestina Tiffenemina Brave (aka Annie) is a young damsel-in-training who’s famous father was once a mighty hero. Having promised his wife that his adventuring days were behind him, he focused on raising a family and writing his guide to becoming a hero, so that other young men could learn from his experiences. Then one day he heard the wizard Greenlott was loose on a rampage and set off to defeat the evil mage. When he did not return, a messenger arrives at the Brave household with the news that Tristan Brave had been captured.

As Greenlott has already defeated most of the heroes in the land, Annie takes it upon herself to vanquish him. She sets off accompanied only by her ‘fiery’ pony Chestnut and her dog, Squire, as well as an incomplete copy of her father’s guide to being a hero. Following the advice in the book she manages to evade threats including under-bridge trolls, giant spiders and dragons. She also learns the dangers of kissing a frog. Along her travels she befriends Roger, who claims to be a prince and while he does carry a sword, is not altogether reliable. Can a girl be a hero? Or has Annie nothing better to look forward to than screaming for rescue and looking pretty?

In the interest of full disclosure, the author’s sister is a friend of mine. She was pleasantly surprised when I reported back to her how much I enjoyed reading Damsel, assuming that I was just being kind. If anything, I found it to be a fun and inventive tale that pokes fun at the standards of romantic fantasy. Annie does not mind being a damsel as such, but she would prefer to have a choice as to whether she could be a hero. Throughout the book she is frustrated with how the folk they encounter assume Roger is the real hero, despite his occasional cowardice and bookish manner. The author cannily does not allow the dynamic between them to be too one-sided. Sometimes Roger helps Annie escape from danger, but when you need someone to risk life and giant spider-goo, she’s your girl.

I will happily continue to sing this book’s praises and have already foisted copy onto my in-laws. It is a sweet and rewarding tale, with a neat wry tone and some beautiful illustrations from Axel Rator.

This being the last entry in Children’s Literature Week, I would just like to say I’ve had a great time reviewing these books and I hope you enjoyed reading ‘em. Just because a writer writes for children, it doesn’t mean the books should be silly and unimportant. Often the most important things we learn during our lives we first discover as children. The books we read should be equally as enriching and inspiring. Cheers folks.

Arthur was also counting on the promised intervention by ‘Will’, who he supposed was the same person or entity as ‘The Will’, that Mister Monday and Sneezer had talked about, who he presumed was also the giver of the Atlas. He figured that if he could get close to the House, it would do something to help him get inside.

So I see from this book’s Author’s Note, that Garth Nix was born in Melbourne. I am of the opinion that many fine things can be found there and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. The first in a series of novels called The Keys to the Kingdom, this is the second fantasy franchise by the gifted Nix. A few years ago I began to see copies of his Old Kingdom trilogy – Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen – everywhere in bookstores. Sadly I never tried them out (I was wary due to a glut of Harry Potter imitations at the time), but after I have finished this run, I reckon Mr Nix is going to become a fixture of my bookshelf.

The book opens with an Inspector going about his duties inspecting the security of a very special item. Of course, this being a fantasy novel, the item in question is a paragraph from a very special Will. It is secured locked inside a crystal cage. Surrounded by a number of metal sentinels. On a dead star. The Inspector himself, is no ordinary bureaucrat, but a winged servant of a higher power who is partial to snuff. Shortly after his arrival the living aspect of the Will of creation manages to effect a jailbreak and escape to Earth, with Mister Monday’s determined lieutenants Dawn, Noon and Dusk hot on its trail.

Meanwhile during Arthur Penhaligon’s first day at a new school, he collapses due to an asthma attack. After he is revived by a girl named Leaf, he witnesses the arrival of the strange Mister Monday, who is tricked by the Will into giving the boy a mystical minute hand and a mysterious atlas. Arthur is expected to die soon, so it is hoped that his frail condition will allow the artifacts to revert back to Mister Monday shortly thereafter, neatly allowing the trustee of these objects to avoid any punishment for allowing the Will to escape. The minute hand is in fact a magic key that can effect the will of its user. The atlas can only be read by a bearer of the key and explains the nature of the House, a structure that represents each level of reality. The world Arthur knows is only the second plane of this structure, there are many others above and below, sitting atop the vast chthonic Nothing that spawns the mysterious creatures Mister Monday uses to control his realm.

Arthur is surprised to find his asthmatic condition is relieved whenever he holds the key in his hand. Unfortunately Leaf’s family and a number of other children at school fall victim to a mysterious plague. Learning that the disease is being spread by agents of Mister Monday as they hunt for him, Arthur travels to the weird House that has appeared in his neighbourhood that only he can see. Inside he discovers a world of magic far bigger than the walls that contain it, filled with fallen angels, a talking frog, dog-faced men, dinosaurs and deadly Bibliophages. A world where words have power and little children enslaved by the legendary Piper have toiled for thousands of years. Determined to save the lives of his friends and defeat the corrupt Mister Monday, Arthur strives to find the secret of the Will.

This is an entertaining first chapter in a series of novels for children. Nix drops references to ancient myths, religion and modern day paranoia about disease in order to give shape to his world. Arthur Penhaligon is an orphan whose biological parents died in a flu epidemic. At one point he travels in time to the period of the Bubonic plague. Death is a constant in his life and is used within the book to fuel the mythic fantasy Nix has constructed.

While a Christian God is never explicitly named, the hierarchies of angels, from Seraphim down to Cherubs, resemble the mysterious figures Arthur meets. Nix also draws on Roman myth, as Monday and his servants resemble the quotidian minor gods of days and hours.

I cannot wait to read Grim Tuesday.

‘As for your stay here, you must not cherish any hope of leaving this place. Escape and death are the only ways. I do not imagine you want to die, and, as for escape, the nearest settlement is Dartnor, some leagues from here and off the main road – a mining town. And of course there is the tainted ground which the highlanders prefer to call badlands. I’m sure you noticed them in your journey here. On all sides of Obernewtyn lies the wilderness. Do not imagine that you have seen wilderness before, perhaps even roamed in it, for this is true wild country, untamed by men. The forests are filled with wolves of the most savage kind and there are still bears living in the heights. Even stranger things dwell in these shadow-pocked high mountains.’

The very first line of this book describes a nuclear holocaust. Aha, I thought to myself, post-nuclear apocalypse. Something of a common enough trope for a long period of time and I note that Obernewtyn was published in 1987, so still during the dying embers of the Cold War. Isobelle Carmody reverses expectations by going on to write something that’s more akin to Tolkien-inspired fantasy though.

Elspeth and her brother’s parents were killed by the tyrannical Council for the crime of ‘sedition’. Both of their children still do not know what exactly this involved. They find themselves orphaned in a land ruled with an iron fist by a religious hierarchy that worships a god called Lud and rejects all technology. The few remaining fertile lands are controlled by the Council, who employ an enclave of clergy known as Herders to enforce their belief that the holocaust was a punishment from god and they are his chosen people. Some children are born with mutations due to radiation. The Council hunts them down and sends them to work on labour farms. Less obvious mutations can leave the child undiscovered for many years. These hidden mutants are referred to as Misfits and are greatly feared, for the Herders teach that they are possessed by demons.

Elspeth is a Misfit. Her brother is unsympathetic, as over the years he has begun to confuse keeping them both safe from harm, with gaining power and prestige. He wants to become a Herder and is more concerned that if his sister’s secret is discovered, it may rob him of his chosen career. Despite the danger, Elspeth enjoys the abilities she has gained as a Misfit. Sometimes she has premonitions, she can hear thoughts and even, she learns after meeting an old cat named Maruman, speak telepathically to animals.

Then one day an agent from the secretive institution known as Obernewtyn arrives at the orphanage, hunting Misfits. Elspeth is denounced and taken across the blasted countryside to a mountainous fortress where a mysterious Dr. Seraphim is said to perform experiments on children born with mutations. There Elspeth is forced to endure endless days of hard labour, but she also discovers a sense of liberation through being in the company of her own kind. No one has ever seen the strange doctor who is said to run the institution, but occasionally children disappear from their bunks, only to be found later delirious and weakened. Elspeth and her new-found friends decide to plot their escape from Obernewtyn, fearing they will be next. The villainous Madam Vega and her pet Misfit Ariel have other plans for her though and soon she finds herself caught in a struggle between the forces of Obernewtyn and the hidden rebel army of Henry Druid.

Right, first things first, when I announced Children’s Literature Week, I mentioned in the comments that I wanted to get away from the books I had read as a child, primarily Tolkien and Lewis. Seems I have fallen at the second hurdle. Isobelle Carmody riffs shamelessly on Tolkien, even lifting whole lines from The Lord of the Rings and Germano-Celt names. At one point Elspeth has a vision of a giant eye searching for her. At times the book seems derivative of A Canticle for  Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr (dytopian religious fanatics) and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (nuclear holocaust creates fantasy world).

So I am sorry to say there is nothing here I have not read before. I could damn it with faint praise by saying it’s readable (Obernewtyn is like Hogwarts but more realistic, i.e. depressing), but it pains me to do so.

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