As Fabulous Realms has today reached the milestone of one hundred posts, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to do something that I’ve been planning to do for some time. Long-time followers of this blog will be aware that I regularly put the spotlight on a ‘mythic archetype’ or fantasy genre, draw out its identifying features and provide what are in my view some of the finest examples of the form. Along the right hand side of this blog site, you’ll see that I’ve grouped my posts into general categories, many of which are self-explanatory but some of which may require a little more in the way of explanation for the casual reader or non-fantasy fan. What do I mean when I talk about ‘Sword & Sorcery’, for instance, and is this the same thing as ‘Epic’ or ‘High’ fantasy? What’s the difference between ‘Urban fantasy’ and ‘Contemporary fantasy’, and where does ‘Paranormal Romance’ fit in? Is ‘Dark fantasy’ the same as horror and is ‘Science fantasy’ the same as science fiction? These questions may or may not have exercised you at one time or another but I thought that it might, all the same, be interesting to explore the – not quite one hundred – ‘Fabulous Realms’ of fantasy fiction in search of answers.
I thought I’d try something a little different with this post. Instead of looking at a specific fantasy theme, author or book, I wanted to take a look at three books, each written in a very different era but all nevertheless having a great deal in common. Robert Holdstock’s World Fantasy Award-winning Lavondyss can be read as a stand-alone novel as well as forming part of the Mythago sequence. A product of the drab, materialistic eighties, much of Lavondyss is set in a much earlier, but still recognisable age – rural England in the forties and fifties. With much of the action centering on deep woods and wild, hidden places it almost seeks to re-establish a disappearing link between the modern era and a more innocent age that has virtually been lost beyond the possibility of recall. Jan Siegel’s Prospero’s Children appeared a decade later, at the end of the nineties, and in common with much of the fantasy fiction from that time it brims over with epic, apocalyptic themes, perhaps reflecting the uncertainty surrounding the rapidly approaching end of the millennium. The setting, however, is solidly small scale: a house in the wilds of Yorkshire that straddles more than one world. This house becomes the focus in a struggle between the ancient forces of good and evil and a young witch girl’s coming of age. Freda Warrington’s Elfland is a 21st century novel, filled with modern characters with current concerns, yet whose lives are touched by the irresistible lure of the twilight realm of Faerie. Somehow, despite the fact that a gap of over twenty years separates Lavondyss from Elfland, both novels – together with Prospero’s Children – can be seem as forming part of the same tradition. Located on the elusive boundary between mythic fiction and urban fantasy, Holdstock, Siegel and Warrington’s work also represents the very best in a peculiarly British approach to fantasy. Let’s take a closer look at their books.
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.
It’s been a while since I read an entire book in a weekend but that was the case with the advance copy I recently got my hands on of James Treadwell’s debut novel Advent, partly because I’ve been waiting for someone to write a book like this for what feels like a very long time! Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the high esteem in which I hold The Dark is Rising and that is perhaps the best comparison to make at the outset – reading Advent is like re-visiting an older, darker, more mature version of Susan Cooper’s famous novel. Treadwell’s book is brimming over with all of the elements that fans of everything from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen will know and love – ancient magic, a struggle between good and evil, burgeoning wisdom and a young man’s coming of age. What I particularly like about Advent, though, is that the novel isn’t merely derivative and that its author mines less familiar areas of fantasy and mythology such as alchemy, necromancy and the Faust legend.
Charles de Lint’s urban fantasies, including Moonheart, Greenmantle and Yarrow, have earned him a devoted following and critical acclaim as a master of contemporary mythic fiction. At the heart of his work is the ongoing Newford series. Familiar to De Lint’s readers as the setting of the novels Memory and Dream, Someplace to be Flying and The Onion Girl, among others, Newford is the quintessential North American city, tough and streetwise on the surface and rich with hidden magic for those who can see. The fictional city of Newford could be any contemporary North American city… except that magic lurks in its music, in its art and in the shadows of its grittiest streets, where mythical beings walk in disguise. Newford is populated by a regular cast of characters not too different from you or I, each looking for a bit of magic to shape their lives and transform their fates. There is Jilly Coppercorn, painting wonders in the rough city streets; Geordie Riddell, playing the fiddle while he dreams of ghosts; Angel gathering the waifs, strays, poor and lost to her homeless shelter; Holly Rue and her antique book store complete with hobs and brownies and a dozen others. Their lives intertwine with the fey beings with whom they share Newford – gemmins who live in abandoned cars, mermaids who swim in the grey harbour waters; desert spirits who crowd the night; crow girls; wolf men; vengeful ghosts and many more. I challenge anyone who has read any of the Newford books or short stories not to fall under De Lint’s unique spell.