Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Love on a Branch Line

27 January 2014

Love on a Branch LineLove on a Branch Line by John Hadfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A tasteful and thoughtful comedy mixing myth, wish-fulfilment and English charm.

It is the late 1950s. Jasper Pye is an earnest young civil servant living with his mother, stung when various people, including a girlfriend of sorts, call him a bore. Just as his frustration peaks, he is commissioned to visit an odd little unit of Her Majesty’s Government based in a castle on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk – a wartime stopgap measure mysteriously prolonged. Ostensibly there to inspect it, his real, informal brief is to recommend its closure.

The locality is called Arcady, a strong hint that we will soon disconnect from the everyday flow of time. The last part of his journey is on a steam train, owned by Lord Flamborough, who has purchased the local branch of the line. Legless since 1926, the Earl lives on the train, travelling endlessly forward and back. His family’s motto is hic manemus: here we remain. Jasper alights at a station called Arcady Halt.

The unit is staffed by the stern-seeming Scot, Professor Pollux, his assistant Quirk, and their secretary, the young, plain, eager-to-please Miss Mounsey. They have long ceased doing any real official work. Closing the place might seem a done deal.

The problem is that Pye is slowly seduced by Arcady. For a start there are Flamborough’s three lovely daughters: the nympho Belinda, unhappily-married Chloe, and the virginal, too-young, but frenziedly romantic Matilda. They leave him very disoriented and hovering between desire and disgrace.

Belinda makes a playful reference to Freud, whose symbolism is never far away: the mother, Lady Flamborough, keeps whisking Jasper away to attend to her flowers; the Flamborough family has only married within its own extended ranks for generations; and then there is her husband’s severed legs.

The residents of Arcady are lotus eaters. The Lady has her floral borders and beds, the Lord his steam train and jazz music, while others have sunk into the honey of cricket, alcohol, collectables – fixed and narrow desires like Flamborough’s branch line.

Myth plays an important role, but nothing is laboured in this delightful book.

Sometimes bravery is needed not to face hardship, but to take the leap into joy. That, I think, is the true challenge Jasper faces.

In 1994 the book was adapted into a four-part series, which was very friendly to the intentions of the book, though there are subtle differences in the ending.

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Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones series)

18 May 2013

A Song of Ice and Fire, 5 Book Set Series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with DragonsA Song of Ice and Fire, 5 Book Set Series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From a distance the Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire series looked hypermarketed, blockbusterish, cliched.

No. Real quality.

The books are blockbusterish in some ways – the pseudo-medieval setting, padded out with extended descriptions of secondary people, events and situations. But the series has attracted readers far beyond fans of this genre, due to the rich characterisations, plot, and imaginative depth, garnished here and there by passages of very good writing. It is further enhanced by the TV series, of which more later.

As Wikipedia will tell you there are three intersecting themes. The vaguely European realm of Westeros has fallen apart as the rulers of various statelets vie for the high throne, left vacant by the fall of the 300-year-old Tagaryen dynasty. From the icy north the realm is threatened by wild peoples and other forces less easily understood. Meanwhile from Essos, the Mediterrean- and Mahgreb-like south-eastern lands, the exiled Tagaryen scions, brother and sister, long to retake their family heritage, the Iron Throne. Before long the brother departs, leaving only the young teen Danaerys Tagaryen to carry on.

At first magic is presented only through hints and references, but as the stakes rise a range of supernatural forces and personages step forward.

The warring provinces of Westeros sink down to amazing levels of chaos, carnage and misery. Yet, the darker the night, the brighter the star. Danaerys swiftly matures into someone intrepid, resourceful, brilliant, and above all compassionate. She who at first seemed just one more schemer looks more and more like the hope of the world. For all that, she is sometimes just giggling 14-year-old. Still, she acquires an army. And Danaerys is the only person alive who owns dragons. Three of them: young, but rapidly growing, just like her. But like anyone trying to improve things, Danaerys is, needless to say, set upon from all sides by people trying to drag her down. As her power grows she is a magnet for the sinister and the supernatural. Yet she has aid as well.

There is a vast range of characters, all the central ones complex and well drawn. Some are noble and strong-willed, others vile. A very appealing aspect of the series is the number of characters who are vulnerable or damaged in some way. A dwarf man; a fat youth, kindly but fightened; a woman knight ridiculed for her massive muscularity; a crippled boy; a bastard (when that really meant something); a helpless captive princess; a prince trapped as ward/prisoner in another noble’s household. As a reader I keenly felt the difficulties and pain they each face due these limitations, but I never felt that their lines or descriptions had been vetted for political correctness by reference groups. Such a welcome change. Remarkably for a modern novel, you find older, non-alpha males allowed some dignity, as are older women. Beware though – even central characters can die, which adds sharpness to every menacing situation.

The female characters are generally forceful, and some, refreshingly, are allowed to do genuinely bad things – though at least one of these women has been sanitised in the TV series, lest the audience stir uncomfortably. On other hand there are many prostitutes, and scenes of abuse of both women and men. Westeros is a harsh place. The TV series is R-rated.

The TV series cannot capture the full complexities of the story line, but does bring to life the key characters and scenes beautifully. Magnificent casting in almost every case.

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The Wicked Wood

15 April 2012

The Wicked WoodThe Wicked Wood by Isobelle Carmody

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Fairytales traditionally stirred a sense of wonder and engaged with vague but powerful longings, or occasionally loathings. By these standards the current collection fails. For me the only story with any authentic emotional power was ‘Glutted’, in which the dwarf man evoked revulsion. Today there seems to be an irresistable temptation to rework fairy stories to be politically correct, giving the wicked witch a grudging respect for the kick-ass heroine, and the cruel ugly sister a moral learning curve. This misses the source of the fairytale’s emotional power.

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Wicked Lovely

25 February 2012

Wicked Lovely (Wicked Lovely, #1)Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Okay-ish in some ways. Faery in this tale evokes no sense wonder. In most ways it is like a stage set, a few fold-out screens, behind the drama of teen romance. The only authentically fay element is in the tensions set up between possibility and the need to follow rules, mapped simultaneously onto fairyland and adolescence, and here some interesting situations emerge.

The world teems with fairies invisible to mortals, except for those few with the Sight. Power is held by the sinister Winter Queen Beira, who mocks victims with a thin motherly persona. She is rather like Dolores Umbridge in a bad mood. She will not surrender power to her son Keenan, Summer King. That will only happen with the emergence of a Summer Queen – a girl who is willing to risk clasping Beira’s staff, and who is deemed suitable by hidden higher powers. So Keenan keeps seducing mortal girls seeking the right one. If a girl is tough enough to have a go but fails the test she becomes Winter Girl, a semi-powerful ice lady but no match for Beira. The incumbent Winter Girl only escapes her role when another girl has a go at the task – but the rules insist that Donia tries to dissuade the girl from doing so. Young women who fall in love with Keenan but funk out from even trying for the role of Summer Queen become mere Summer Girls, ditzy good-time followers of the weak King.

Aislinn is the latest mortal girl to be swept into this scenario, dealing with Winter Girl Donia. But Aislinn is busy forming a relationship with mortal boy Seth. Covered in face-rings, Seth is nevertheless squarely within the romance tradition: assertive with other males, but ever-sensitive and attentive to the heroine.

Strength of character can often leave a girl isolated and sad, while insipid creatures who go with the flow are rewarded, up to a point. Other strong females make the best of friends and the worst of enemies. Yet for the strong female happiness is there to be had, and not necessarily within an endless chain of nuclear families.

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