Thursday, 17 November 2016
Wednesday, 2 November 2016
Tuesday, 23 February 2016
The wonderful Catherine Fisher has been writing high quality children's/YA fantasy for twenty five years or so and some of her early works fully merit the status of modern classic.
Fintan's Tower, first published in 1991, is one of her earliest. Rereading confirms that it is still a must read for fantasy enthusiasts, and a strong recommendation for today's children.
Like her other early work*, Fintan's Tower is very much in the post-Garner tradition; in fact in the early nineties Catherine Fisher essentially revived for a new generation of readers the style of location-rooted, myth-based fantasy which Alan Garner had pioneered twenty five years earlier. This novel draws strongly on Catherine Fisher's own Welsh home and heritage and sees a young boy, Jamie, and his sister Jennie, follow the clues in a magic book which indicate that Jamie has been chosen for a special destiny. They accompany strange and seemingly magical companions through a portal into the mythical 'Summer Country' to rescue an imprisoned youth from the titular tower. The mythology is broadly Arthurian and Grail but with a strong Welsh bias, the emphasis being on early versions from such sources as the Mabinogion where the Grail is a magical cauldron. None the of this is particularly original, and in fact it is not originality which is the strength of this early Cathetine Fisher.
Although sharing much of the mythological base, this book is considerably darker and more brooding in atmosphere than the derring do of Lloyd Alexander's much earlier Chronicles of Prydian, and, in Alan Garner terms, it is more cousin to Elidor than to the more 'children's adventure' feel of The Wierdstone or Moon of Gomrath. However it is the quality of language here that is exceptional, as are the power and structure of the storytelling. In fact this is very short book, almost a novella, but it is is no way thin. Rather it is richness concisely expressed. Moreover, by its end, the story does more than just draw on myth but has morphed into a myth in its own right, engendering universal resonance on many levels. It is this more than anything which makes Fintan's Tower an absolute classic of its genre.
Throughout the nineties Catherine Fisher continued to explore and develop this genre, experimenting with a variety of sources and settings. In 1997 her Belin's Hill, for example, intimately blends a contemporary boy's own fire trauma with the story of a witch burning, with the much older mythologies of a putative Camelot and with the malevolent presence of an ancient god. It is a truly ground-breaking book and has the particular courage to end very disturbingly. By early this century, her landmark Corbenic had fully developed her storytelling to a stage where the mythology is simultaneously an adventure and a metaphor, a working through of the protagonist's own issues. In this she has helped prepare the way for a whole host of 'psychological' fantasies which have followed. All of these books are well worth the trouble of seeking out. In a world where much young adult reading revolves around vampires, werewolves, fallen angels and the like, it would be good to see more young people also accessing this strand of fantasy which instead tunes the imagination into the rich vein of archetypal celtic mythologies.
Also around the turn of the century, Catherine Fisher wrote her quartet The Book of the Crow. This was the first of her fantasies to feature a largely invented world as opposed to drawing on existing mythologies. This is also well worth tracking down, and led, perhaps, more directly to the fine works of fantasy for slightly older readers which have dominated her writing in the present century.**
* The Conjuror's Game (1990) and The Candle Man (1994) come into the same category, and also remain well worth reading. In 2004 these three short novels were published together in one volume and retitled The Glass Tower: three doors to the other world.
**Some of which I hope to write up very soon on my other blog Magic Fiction Since Potter
Monday, 28 December 2015
Of course, children's fantasy from the second half of the twentieth century was essentially launched by two staggering and seminal creations, Tolkein's Middle Earth and C S Lewis's Narnia (the latter never a personal favourite, but undeniably influential). Here are, in my view, some of the finest works which followed on their heels, but in no way stood in their shadows. They were, and remain, great books in their own right. All are hugely enjoyable reads too.
In some instances I have picked out a single book or sequence to represent a writer of several great fantasies.
The towering greats:
Elidor, The Owl Service, Alan Garner
The Dark is Rising Sequence, Susan Cooper
The Earthsea Trilogy, Tehanu, Ursuka K Le Guin (there are also other amazing follow-ups, but they came much later)
The Chronicles of Prydian, Lloyd Alexander
The Dalemark Quartet, Diane Wynn Jones
The Song of Wirrun Trilogy, Patricia Wrightson
Other wonderful, and often influential books, well worth seeking out:
The Prince in Waiting Trilogy, John Christopeher
The Whispering Knights, Penelope Lively
The Young Wizard Sequence, Diana Duane
The Changes Trilogy, Peter Dickinson
The Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley
Red Moon and Black Mountain, Joy Chant
The Hounds of the Morrigan, Pat O'Shea
Marianne Dreams, Catherine Storr
Fintan's Tower, Catherine Fisher
The Redwall Series, Brian Jaques
Beadbonny Ash, Winifred Finlay
The Wind On Fire Trilogy, William Nicholson
Charlotte Sometimes, Penelope Farmer
The Snow Spider Trilogy, Jenny Nimmo
Boy in Darkness, Mervyn Peake
The Ghost Drum, Ghost Song, Ghost Dance, Susan Price
The Troy Game, a Jean Morris
(I am sure this list will grow as I remember and dig out other books from my reading past.)
At the turn of the century two other massively influential children's fantasy creation emerged, one of great literary merit, the other of (deservedly) unprecedented popularity. They were of course Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials triology and J K Rowling's Harry Potter sequence. It is my quest to seek out the best of what has followed in the footsteps of these two giants that is the subject of my companion blog Magic Fiction Since Potter.