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.
There aren’t many works of fiction like Lavondyss, and that’s a shame because there have been very few times that I’ve been so utterly immersed in a book that I’ve read it in virtually one sitting, which is what happened to me the first time I picked up this novel by Robert Holdstock. Lavondyss is set in and around a primeval tract of woodland known as Ryhope Wood, which to outward appearances is simply a three-mile-square fenced-in wood in rural Hertfordshire. Needless to say, however, there is much more to Ryhope Wood than this, and in the course of the novel the impossible secret that it is hiding is slowly revealed – it is a place lost to time where familiar mythic archetypes such as King Arthur, Robin Hood and Herne the Hunter come alive in twisted and terrifying ways. The story involves the estranged members of the Keeton family and their experiences with the forest and its enigmatic inhabitants, the ‘myth imagos’ (images of myth) or mythagos for short. I’m not going to talk about the plot in too much detail (read it yourself – it’s worth it!) because for me the story is less important than the effect of Robert Holdstock’s writing, which is powerful and evocative, especially in its description of Ryhope Wood. You really feel the forest come to life around you as you read, almost as if you were walking in the woods with the characters in the book. As for the mythology, it’s clear that Holdstock is a writer who really knows his stuff – all of the mythagos have an authentic ‘feel’ in the way they are described and in their actions, which are often irrational and violent.
Be warned that there is nothing particularly ‘cosy’ about this novel – many of the characters, human as well as mythago, are at times nasty and vengeful as often as they are heroic and benevolent, while things rarely turn out the way you want them to or expect. Robert Holdstock does not tend to do happy endings! Although you’ll find Lavondyss in the fantasy section of most bookshops it really doesn’t fit in with much of the rest of the genre because of the maturity of Holdstock’s writing. You can tell that the author’s inspiration is myth rather than fantasy (an important distinction I feel) and in this sense he continues the tradition of British writers such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and T H White, albeit for a more adult readership. Sadly Robert Holdstock is no longer with us (he died in 2009) but he left behind a number of books that share the setting of Ryhope Wood. If you enjoy Lavondyss I would hugely recommend reading its award-winning predecessor, Mythago Wood, which is in my view equally as good. The later books in the Mythago sequence are, sad to say, just not up to the same high standard – the strange power that made Holdstock’s earlier writing so compelling faded away by that stage.
Prospero’s Chilren was an unexpected treat that I stumbled across quite by chance several years ago. The book had received little publicity and its author Jan Siegel was a writer that I had never heard of before. Nonetheless my attention was caught by the book’s cover, which featured the haunting artwork of Alan Lee and the arresting tagline “A mythical key is about to be found… but what kind of door will it open?”. Of course, I had to find out the answer to this question and I was not disappointed by the result, which has made this one of the most treasured books that has sat on my shelves ever since then. The opening premise of the book will be familiar to readers of countless children’s fantasy novels from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe all the way to the Harry Potter series. When Fern Capel and her brother Will arrive at a mysterious, isolated house for their summer holidays they soon find themselves thrust into a world of ancient, unsleeping magic that exists alongside our own. The house hides many secrets, among them a talisman which has been sought by the forces of good and evil for years beyond count – a key that grants access to a magical and corrupt land that was destroyed millenia ago. At the epicentre of the struggle because of her unusual Gift, a power that has lain dormant within her until now, Fern finds herself by turns courted, pursued and threatened by a motley array of characters: the enigmatic wanderer Ragginbone, the sinister art-dealer Javier Holt and the minions of the power-hungry sorceress Alison Redmond.
One of the charms of Prospero’s Children is the way Siegel seamlessly interweaves ancient myth with the modern age. The book features mermaids, magic and lost worlds, yet never feels overtly fantastical or too detached from the world we know. Fern Capel is very much her own woman – independent, opinionated and unwilling to be led by characters who are years, or in some cases centuries or millenia, older than her. Prospero’s Children and its two sequels The Dragon Charmer and Witch’s Honour draw heavily on both British and World mythology, including the myth of Atlantis, Arthurian lore, Norse legends and even Hindu and Chinese folk traditions. Siegel’s writing is faultlessly beautiful and at times reminds me of Tolkien at his very best – rich, evocative and powerful. Like Tolkien, Siegel is clearly at great pains to make sure that every name sounds just right and characters like Caracandal, Azmordis, Malmorth, Zohrầne, Bradachin, Eriost and Nehemet all have names which suit them perfectly as well as being full of mythical resonance. There is no doubt that Prospero’s Children sounds somewhat derivative in outline but what distinguishes this tale from a hundred others is the quality of Jan Siegel’s writing, which is lyrical and captivating, and her sketching of the main characters, all of whom you bond with instantly, especially the heroine. I’ve always found it a bit of a disappointment that there are only three books in the Fern Capel series (Siegel did write another related trilogy afterwards under her real name of Amanda Hemingway but it’s not nearly as good). Unfortunately it now also seems to be out of print so, if you want to read it, you will need to seek this excellent series out on the internet or in one of those fast-disappearing independent bookstores. Take my word for it though, it’s worth the effort!
The last book that I’m going to mention in this post is one that I came across in my favourite bookshop – Forbidden Planet in London – in the usual (for me) accidental way. I remember that I was actually looking for the latest edition of my favourite comic (Sandman, since you ask – and yes, there will certainly be a post about it in the not too distant future), when I saw a book called Elfland with an odd but alluring cover of a woman with what looked like fairy wings treading through a starlit forest. Despite the fact that I was already overloaded with shopping, having just come there from Bond Street, I couldn’t resist having a quick peek, especially when I saw that it was written by Freda Warrington, an author who I had admired for many years but who had somehow never reached the big time. I was hooked from the first page. Elfland starts with the premise that the race of Aetherials, who are indistinguishable from humans apart from certain physical characteristics and their link to a world beyond our own that resembles the Land of Faerie, have lived among the rest of us since the dawn of time. Despite this somewhat otherworldly concept, this book is firmly rooted in reality and is focused on two families, the Wilders and the Foxes who are at different times good friends, passionate lovers and mortal enemies.
Rather than being a traditional fantasy epic in terms of having its characters go on a quest, Elfland‘s epic feel comes from the span of time it covers and the personal journeys that its characters go on during this period – in particular the heroine, Rosie Fox and the (anti-)hero, Sam Wilder – when their race’s very existence is threatened. Whilst there is plenty of ‘magic’ and ‘fantasy’ in this novel, it is never allowed to overwhelm the humanity of the characters or the very real struggles and losses that they experience, and I feel that Elfland is all the better for this. Well-written and gripping, in some ways this book feels a bit like Wuthering Heights with fantasy elements (I know that sounds a bit weird but trust me, it works!). The good news is that this is only the first volume of Warrington’s Aetherial Tales series but the bad news, once again, is that you’re unlikely to find a copy of Elfland in your local Waterstone’s – it just isn’t mainstream enough. You’ll almost certainly have to order a copy if you want to read it, unless of course you feel like heading down to a certain famous bookshop in London…
So there you have it, three books which in my view represent the very best in contemporary British storytelling. What is notable about each book is that they all in some way draw upon a common wellspring of literature, myth and fable. As mentioned above, Mythago Wood makes use of mythic archetypes such as Merlin and Robin Hood, while being written in a style that is reminiscent of masters of the genre such as Alan Garner. Yet Holdstock is so much more than a mere imitator, making bold use of this material in ways that by turns shock, stir and challenge his readers. Similarly, although Prospero’s Children bears superficial similarities to the Narnia and Dark is Rising books, Siegel goes so much further with the concepts introduced by Lewis and Cooper, exploring and revealing where the others merely hint and tantalise. In many ways Elfland is the greatest of the three, however, simply because it comes last and has the difficult job of standing out from the remarkable works that came before it. If it doesn’t sound too grandiose I almost see Warrington as a modern day Lord (Lady?) Dunsany, who seeks to inspire and enchant readers with her vision and originality. In this endeavour she succeeds admirably without once sacrificing the contemporary resonance of her story, proving, as Holdstock and Siegel did before her, that there is magic in the modern day – if you know where to look for it.