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“Everybody has a part to play,” her mother said. “Bart Seston raises cattle, the butcher slaughters them so we can have food. A midwife brings people into the world, an undertaker buries them when they die. Life is good sometimes, hard sometimes, bad sometimes, and good again.”

“I don’t always understand your part,” Fiona said.

“I am the voice that says ‘I know’ when someone tells me “This is too hard for me to hold on to by myself.” I am the soul who reminds other souls that they are not alone. I cannot bring them solutions, I cannot make their troubles disappear, I can only say that I hear them and I understand. Sometimes that’s enough.”

“Sometimes it’s not,” Fiona said.

Ten years ago I discovered historian Frances Yates through her fascinating account of the life of Giordano Bruno. What interested me the most was her defining the magical systems of Bruno, which he proposed should become a function of the Catholic Church, as a form of early psychology. In effect mysticism was treated of as a means of explaining the secrets of the unconscious mind – centuries before Freud proposed the notion of such a mental facility. I would ally Bruno to more contemporary theorists, such as Julian Jaynes‘ notion of the bicameral mind‘s evolution causing changes in how humans came to perceive reality.

I enjoy fantasy fiction that is not afraid to endorse ‘mythic consciousness’, as a legitimate way of approaching a story. The likes of Yates and Jaynes are rare in that they are academics happy to not condescend to pagan belief systems and mysticism. Of course for writers of the fantasy genre this is their bread and butter – but they also need to beware of that modern chauvenism towards early attempts to explain the world.

The Safe-Keeper’s Secret opens in the traditional manner of a fairy tale. A midnight dash on horseback to an isolated village. An infant child stolen away from the court of a cruel king, hidden in a safe home. What follows feels  traditional and surprisingly unique.

Fiona and Reed are raised as siblings by Damiana, the safe-keeper of the village of Tambleham. Only she and her sister Angeline are aware of the true identity of the child delivered to them by the rider from the capital Wodenderry, on the same night Damiana gave birth to her own child. As both women as safe-keepers the secret is safe with them, for that is their purpose, to carry the secrets of people that cannot be bourne alone. Of course some secrets are too difficult to hide. Reed is widely believed by the villagers in Tambleham to be the illegitimate heir to the throne, a claim that Damiana neither confirms or denies.

Fiona believes that she will follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a safe-keeper herself. However, Thomas a truth-teller predicts that she her life will take her in a different direction. As safe-keepers cannot divulge a secret given  in confidence, truth-teller’s are incapable lying. Furious Fiona remains determined to prove Thomas wrong, but some secrets once revealed have a habit of changing everything.

What I enjoyed most about this book is how subtle the use of magic by author Sharon Shinn is. Safe-keepers and truth-tellers live according to certain mystical precepts and yet their roles in the community are akin to a confessor, or therapist. Shinn also introduces the idea of a dream-maker, a person who endures great suffering so that others can get their greatest wish, similar to the biblical notion of the scapegoat.

The domestic setting of the story I found remiscent of my favourite fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist. I enjoy these kinds of novels, because fantasy I believe is simply an approach to story that embraces unreality. The overabundance of sword and sorcery tropes in fantasy fiction is quite limiting. One issue I have with this book is that the critical notices featured on the blurb mention Robin McKinley twice, an author I am not familiar with. Of course I am speaking to my own ignorance here, but I do think this book could have a wider appeal. While the story opens much like a fairy tale, the plot takes in the uglier side of country living, the miseries safe-keepers have to carry alone such as child abuse, or forced incest. Maybe Shinn does not need the controversy attracted by Tender Morsels, but this is a book with a lot to offer.

Gently told with rich storytelling.

I can feel the panic welling up inside me once more, a swelling wave of hysteria and dark despair. If there was only one person I could turn to, one person to confirm that I haven’t gone crazy, that world has…But there’s not. I have nothing, no one to hold on to, not one anchor to reality except for what lies inside my head.

What lies inside my head. All these memories. So many of them, with such detail. How can they all be lies?

About ten years ago I began rabbiting on to whomever would listen about something I called ‘modern fantasy’. In a nutshell, I was on the look-out for stories set in the present day that belonged to the fantasy genre, but featured neither magical swords, or elves. A modern update of the type of fiction Hope Mirlees and Lord Dunsany wrote before the Tolkien cottage-industry swept across the genre.

Jonathan Carroll is one such writer, as is John Crowley, who’s Little, Big to my mind ranks up there with classics such as Lud-in-the-Mist. The next name I mention when discussing this topic is Charles de Lint. Nowadays I imagine his work would be pitched to take advantage of the current ‘urban fantasy/dark romance’, sub-genres. Yet his writing manages to be both highly metaphorical, while also rooted in character building. His novels tend to feature large casts of twenty-somethings faced with dreamlike realities that they have to muddle their way through, in between paying rent and dealing with lousy relationships.

Trader seems at first to be have an atypically narrow cast of characters, as it begins with two men, Max Trader and Johnny Devlin, switching bodies. Max is a luthier, a craftsman who finds it easier to judge the quality of a piece of wood than the people he meets outside his workshop. Johnny is a user, who accepts no responsibility for his life and takes a selfish pleasure in manipulating people, such as his ex Tanya, into doing favours he has no interest in returning. Only now Johnny finds himself in Max’s body and it seems all his financial woes are over. He owns an apartment, a successful business and people even stop him in the street having read an interview with ‘Max’, in specialist magazines. His body’s original owner is having a much harder time of it. Max wakes to the sound of two women screaming at him to repay money he has stolen. That same day, still confused at being trapped in this new body, he is evicted and with no money is force to live rough on the streets.

Then he meets the man wearing his body, who casually dismisses him with the threat of calling the cops. After all who would believe this story?

Young Nia does. She lives in Max’s building and befriended him before the body swap happened. She can see that this new Max speaks, moves and acts completely differently. It almost seems as if someone else is inside Max, controlling him and then she begins to suspect that he is not the only one to have been changed.

The stage is set for a conflict between the two men that will cross from this world into another dimension, where their very souls are threatened by spirits and old gods.

As I said initially this seems to be a simple story a good man and a bad man trapped in each other’s lives. A magic realist The Prince and the Pauper perhaps. But de Lint brings a lot more to the table. When Max becomes homeless it is easy for people to assume when he talks about his life being stolen from him, he simply means the livelihood he squandered that led to his living rough in city parks. He meet a fortune teller names Bones, who off-handedly reveals he has invented his whole precognition gig – but that doesn’t mean it is not true. When he talks to Max about living in a second skin, he assumes the Indian means being down and out, having to reinvent yourself. Once again though, why can it not be both.

An assortment of bohemian artists and performers are introduced, the ideal people to give any credence to body swapping and ream worlds malarkey. Sometimes their interludes feel distracting though. I felt we never learned enough about Devlin, although he’s a louse seems to sum it up.

An entertaining fable, with sense of whimsy.

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