Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE SECRET COMMONWEALTH by Philip Pullman

Cover art © Chris Wormell

The first part of Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, “The Book of Dust Volume One: La Belle Sauvage,” was the best book I read in 2017, and I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since. While not as thrilling as the first book, it did not disappoint.

Pullman began writing about the world and characters herein in 1995 with a prior trilogy with the overall title “His Dark Materials.” The first book, “The Golden Compass” in the U.S., “Northern Lights” elsewhere, introduced the character Lyra, a young girl living at a college in Oxford, essentially on her own, but cared for by the entire college staff. This was an Oxford in a parallel world with many differences, the most striking being that every person has a sort of animal familiar that is both a separate being and part of the person at the same time. In childhood, the companion is changeable, trying out different animal forms, eventually becoming settled on one by the time the person reaches adulthood. The companion animals often represent or echo the personalities of their humans in some way. They talk to and provide company for each human, but can also talk to other companion animals and humans. Their lives are closely tied to their humans, but also somewhat separate. Lyra’s companion, a marten named Pantalaimon, is an important part of the first trilogy, the plot of which includes people being separated from their companions with devastating results for both, and Lyra’s attempt to stop it. That takes Lyra to other parallel worlds, including one where she must separate herself from Pantalaimon, something both found horrible.

“La Belle Sauvage” takes place twelve years before “His Dark Materials,” when Lyra was an infant, and focuses on a boy, Malcolm Polstead, and his attempts to protect baby Lyra from those who want to imprison and use her for their own ends. The book’s second half is an epic journey through a flooded England in Malcolm’s canoe (the name of which is the book title) with Malcolm’s friend Alice and baby Lyra pursued by a villainous man, Gerard Bonneville.

Surprisingly, “The Secret Commonwealth” opens about twenty years later, and about ten years after the events told in “His Dark Materials.” Lyra is now a student at Jordan College, where she grew up, but she knows nothing about the events of “La Belle Sauvage.” Malcolm is a teacher at the college, but has not told her their history, nor has Alice, who also works at the college. Sadly, relations between Lyra and her animal companion Pantalaimon are strained and unhappy. The two can’t seem to get along anymore, always arguing and fighting over ideas Lyra has come to embrace about magic and animal companions. Nor has Pantalaimon ever quite forgiven her for their brief separation. Because of it, Pantalaiman and Lyra can spend time apart, and while out one night alone, Pantalaimon witnesses a murder near the college. He and Lyra retrieve information hidden by the murdered man which leads to trouble and danger for both of them. While they are in hiding at Malcolm’s parents’ inn, they have their worst fight ever, and Pantalaiman leaves Lyra to head off on his own. Lyra is soon on a journey as well, away from those who would arrest her in Oxford toward a mysterious place in the middle east. Malcolm is also soon headed that way, as is Pantalaimon. The separate journeys of the three, and the growing unrest and violence in that part of the world over, of all things, oil made from roses, make up the majority of the book.

The only bad thing about this novel is that, like many middle trilogy books, it takes us deep into trouble without delivering much resolution. That must come from the third book of the trilogy, which will probably arrive no sooner than another two years. Otherwise, this was an excellent read, and is highly recommended. Now I want to reread “His Dark Materials” to see what further connections I might find there to this story. If you haven’t done that in a while, it might be a good idea to reread those first before this one.

And Then I Read: LYONESSE: THE WELL BETWEEN THE WORLDS by Sam Llewellyn

Cover art by Jon Foster

Idris Limpet lives in coastal Westgate, a town in the sinking island of Lyonesse. In times past, walls were built around the island to keep the sea out, but in places it is now crumbling. There are also deep wells in the town of Wellvale where poisonous water erupts periodically, gradually killing parts of the island. From those wells, monsters are fished out that have surprising properties: if they dry out they become highly flammable fuel. The monsters are intelligent, and have unusual mental and physical powers.

Idris knows little of this until he is branded a Cross — a mix of monster and human — and slated for death. A stranger rescues him and brings him to his castle in Wellvale. The rescuer is Ambrose, a magician, who at first Idris takes for an enemy, but soon comes to see as his rescuer and friend. On the way to Wellvale they are joined by a girl Idris’ age, Morgan. The youngsters are to be trained as Monster handlers, something Idris proves good at, but his true destiny is far more important and dangerous.

This is the strangest version of the Arthurian legends I’ve ever read, based on versions told in the Isles of Scilly off the southern coast of England, the home of the author. It seems like a mix of those old stories with elements from Harry Potter and movies like “Monsters, Inc.,” an uneasy mix that works sometimes, but pulled me out of the story at others. Still, the writing is good, and I enjoyed the characters and setting. I will probably look for the sequel, thus far there’s only been one.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katharine Arden

Published in 2017, this first novel is fantasy with an unusual historical background, taking place in Russia in the fourteenth century, a time and place I knew very little about. Russia as a nation did not exist then, it was a collection of city-states and land owners under the general rule of The Golden Horde, the Asian invaders that swept into eastern Europe led by Genghis Kahn two hundred years previously. In the book they are off-scene and referred to as the Tatars. There is also the influence of the Eastern Orthodox church, which has a large presence in the area, holding positions of power in the cities, and with priests and monks in the countryside presiding over small churches.

The family of Pyotr Vladimirovich lives on the outskirts of the northern forests, where the old pagan gods and elemental creatures are still worshipped alongside the new Christian god in an uneasy partnership. Pyotr is the lord of his village and surrounding lands, but his family is not lordly. They work the fields, hunt and celebrate the seasons alongside their friends and fellow villagers. In addition to worshipping in their small church, they leave offerings to the local spirits of the house, the yard, the stable, and so on. Pyotr’s three sons and a daughter are surprised to learn that their mother is pregnant again. She is old and frail, and Pyotr thinks she will not live through her pregnancy, but Marina is determined to do so because her own unspoken powers sense her new daughter will have strong powers too. Marina gives birth to Vasilisa, called Vasya, but does not long survive her.

As Vasya grows, she comes to understand that the unusual creatures and powers inhabiting their home and land that she can see and talk to are not visible to others. In the forest she meets more dangerous beings, but manages to avoid their clutches. When Pyotr takes a new wife, Anna, it turns out she also can see the spirits, but to her they are demons, and she is frightened of what she sees, and spends as much time as she can in the church. When she realizes Vasya can see and talk to these spirits, Anna is sure she is a dangerous witch.

A new priest, Konstantin Nikonovich, comes to the village church, and he and Anna conspire against Vasya. After a while, Konstantin is seduced by a dark power that wants to destroy the village, while Vasya is befriended by another old god who tries to protect her and help her save the village and her family. As these warring elements clash in an escalating battle for the hearts and minds of the people, Vasya begins to discover her own magical abilities, but will they be enough to save her?

I enjoyed this book, and will buy and read the rest of the trilogy. I had some problems at first with the names because each person has two or more versions, and it makes keeping track of who is who confusing, but I found both the characters and the plot engaging and exciting. While this is largely a familiar battle between good and evil, there are many twists and turns that kept me guessing, and the magic and fantasy elements are fresh and unusual.

Recommended. Thanks to Andrea Bergner for the suggestion.

Rereading: THE OTHER WIND by Ursula K. Le Guin

From the illustrations by Charles Vess.

Concluding my coverage of “The Books of Earthsea,” the recent omnibus edition of all Le Guin’s Earthsea material beautifully illustrated by Charles Vess in color and black and white.

“The Other Wind,” published in 2001, is the sixth and final long book. Not only does it continue some of the stories from the earlier books, it tackles a major problem in the structure of the imaginary world itself: the fate of those who die. In previous books we’ve learned that they are relegated to wandering a gray, dry, barren land beyond a wall of stones, unable to recognize or interact with those they knew in life, unable to rest or find any solace. This was always a grim fate dealt to the people of Earthsea’s island kingdoms, though some on the fringes thought they had another path. Ged, the main character of the series, made a harrowing journey through the land of the dead, and was stripped of his magic there in “The Farthest Shore.”

As “The Other Wind” begins, a village sorcerer, Alder, is being tormented by dreams about his dead wife in the land of the dead. He is repeatedly drawn to the stone wall at the edge of it while the dead reach for him, asking to be set free. Alder seeks out Ged, in his retirement on the island of Gont, and Ged sends Alder on to Havnor to tell his story to the king, Lebannen, Ged’s companion on that journey through the land of the dead. When Alder arrives, he finds the kingdom already threatened by dragons who are attacking from their strongholds in the west, even the western shore of Havnor. Ged’s adopted daughter, Tehanu, part dragon herself, goes with the king and his troops to confront the dragons, and what she she learns there brings everyone to a meeting on the island of Roke, the heart of Earthsea’s wizardry. Great changes are coming, and Earthsea will never be the same.

I found this novel much more satisfying in this reading after having gone through all that came before it recently. I salute Le Guin for taking on this rethinking of her classic world-building and making it all work extremely well.

Beyond the last novel are some shorter pieces. “A Description of Earthsea” lays out the entire history and structure of the world in a long essay. There’s not much new in it, but it’s interesting all the same.

“The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names” are early stories written before Le Guin had solidified her ideas about Earthsea. Interesting but not of major import.

“The Daughter of Odren” is a sort of ghost story about a family blessed by wealth then cursed by wizardry. It’s well told, but again not of great importance.

“Firelight,” on the other hand, is important because it tells of the last days of Ged. Though short, it’s exquisitely written by an author who had reached an age herself where she understood old age perfectly.

Finally, “Earthsea Revisioned” is a lecture given by Le Guin in 1992 when she had finished “Tehanu,” and she explains the changes she is making to her world.

I certainly gained a great deal of pleasure from reading this new edition of the Earthsea stories, and the illustrations by Vess make it even better. Highly recommended.

And Then I Read: THE LIGHT FANTASTIC by Terry Pratchett

The second Discworld novel continues right on from the first, in fact they are essentially one long story. The main characters, the failed wizard Rincewind, who is acting as a tour guide to TwoFlower and his magical Luggage, had fallen off the edge of Discworld at the end of “The Colour of Magic,” and are saved by the Octavo, a powerful book of eight spells because of the those spells has lodged itself in Rincewind’s brain. The Octavo changes reality to return them to the center of Discworld, where they continue to get into all kinds of trouble. Now even more groups are after the two, because they want the spell, or the Luggage (which can, at times be full of gold). Meanwhile, Discworld itself is in danger from a star that is approaching it, threatening cataclysmic destruction.

While amusing at times, this book felt like something of a retread of the first one, and I did not enjoy it as much. Perhaps Pratchett rushed to capitalize on the success of the first one, I don’t know, but later Discworld books I’ve read have more and better ideas. Mildly recommended.