A year in books or, What I read in 2020

This year, for the first time, I kept note of the books I read for pleasure or curiosity. As ever, it was mostly fiction. It’s been an odd year and, given external events, I tended towards books I thought I’d enjoy. That means there are a lot of new (to me) novels by authors I’ve read before because I wasn’t feeling terribly adventurous. I’ve got to the point when I can be certain I’ll love almost anything by James Robertson, for example, and am mildly annoyed he’s not written more books.

On the whole, my new reading this year skewed modern. There are a lot of recent books, a good many from the twentieth century, but only David Copperfield plus a couple of translated classics to represent older work. Several novels were enjoyable, undemanding books to pass the time on the train during my commute, back in the days when travelling to work was still something one did. There’s a fair amount of historical fiction; I was slightly surprised, however, how little new science fiction and fantasy I read this year, although several of the historical novels tended towards the fantastical (thinks of The Heavens, which is fantastic in at least two senses of the word, and Hamnet).

Of the novels that I read for the first time, the two I enjoyed most were Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Stefan Hartman’s The Convert. The Mirror and the Light was wonderful – I’ve reread it twice, trying to see how Mantel does it – but not a surprise, given my response to the first two books in the Cromwell trilogy. The Convert is a novel I picked up simply because I liked the cover and then pounded through in a mad rush. It’s an historical novel set in a time and in a set of places I knew little about, but it’s also a book about the author’s experiences writing that novel. The focus zooms in and out, fragments of the past are woven into fiction. In that way, it’s comparable to Laurent Binet’s HHhH, another book I think wonderful and urge on people whenever I can. It’s notable that both HHhH and The Convert are translations (from French and Dutch, respectively) and thus written outwith the mainstream sweep of UK/US fiction.

The rereads were mostly done in those times when I wanted familiarity. Many of the books on that list I count as old friends. No matter how often I pull them from the shelf, Sutcliff, Renault and Lively never fail me and were I to make a similar reckoning next year there would be something by all of them on the reread list. Alas, not all rereads offered the reassurance I sought. Revisiting two books by P.D. James proved a disappointment, despite I’d been impressed with them years back and kept a place for them ever since. Each was a careful evocation of a rather melancholy milieu and finely drawn character studies, and then both mood and mode were abandoned in the final third in favour of idiotic sensationalism. I reread all the Little House books this year, spurred on by reading around the lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. I reread Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, because I’ve been watching the adaptation and wanted to compare other people’s images with my own.

The Nonfiction list is a mix of research for a novel and books that caught my fancy. The standout on that list is Hadley Freeman’s House of Glass, an account of her Jewish family’s experiences in pre-war and wartime Europe. It’s compassionate, thrilling and heartbreaking in equal measures. Recommended.

New to me fiction
Ayobami Adebayo Stay With Me 
Oyinkan Braithwaite My Sister, the Serial Killer 
Max Brooks Devolution 
Max Brooks World War Z 
Octavia E. Butler The Parable of the Sower 
Octavia E. Butler The Parable of the Talents 
Graeme Macrae Burnet The Accident on the A35 
Susanna Clarke Piranesi 
Moray Dalton One by One They Disappeared 
Moray Dalton The Body in the Road 
Moray Dalton The Night of Fear 
Abi Daré The Girl with the Louding Voice 
Charles Dickens David Copperfield 
Jane Dougherty Thicker than Water
Alfred Duggan The Little Emperors 
Alfred Duggan Winter Quarters 
Alfred Duggan Besieger of Cities 
Lucy Ellmann Mimi 
Anne Enright Actress
Michel Faber The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps
Samantha Harvey The Western Wind 
Stefan Hertmans The Convert (trans. David McKay)
Homer The Odyssey (trans. Emily Wilson)
Christopher Isherwood A Meeting by the River 
Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa The Leopard (trans. Archibald Colquhoun)
Colum McCann Apeirogon 
Katharine McGee American Royals 2: Majesty
Hilary Mantel The Mirror and the Light 
Andrew Miller Now We Shall Be Entirely Free 
Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty 
Liane Moriarty Nine Perfect Strangers 
Benjamin Myers The Offing 
Justin Myers The Last Romeo 
Sandra Newman The Heavens 
Maggie O’Farrell Hamnet
Philip Pullman Serpentine 
Ian Rankin A Song for the Dark Times 
James Robertson To Be Continued… 
James Robertson 365 Stories 
Marilynne Robertson Jack
Meg Rosoff The Great Godden
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
A.F.E. Smith Dawn Rising
Judith Starkston Of Kings and Griffins 
Noel Streatfeild The Circus is Coming (republished as Circus Shoes)
Noel Streatfeild Curtain Up (republished as Theatre Shoes)
Adrian Tchaikovsky The Dogs of War 
Walter Tevis The Queen’s Gambit 
Virgil Aeneid Book VI (trans. Seamus Heaney)
Winifred Watson Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day 
Carlos Ruiz Zafon The Shadow of the Wind 

Joan Aiken The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Laurent Binet HHhH (trans. Sam Taylor)
Craig Brown Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret
Agatha Christie Crooked House
Agatha Christie Death Comes as the End
Agatha Christie Peril at End House
John Dickinson The Widow and the King
Michel Faber Under the Skin
Michel Faber The Book of Strange New Things
Penelope Fitzgerald The Blue Flower
Ian Fleming On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Georgette Heyer These Old Shades
P.D. James A Taste for Death
P.D. James Devices and Desires
M.M. Kaye The Far Pavilions
Ursula K. LeGuin A Wizard of Earthsea
Ursula K. LeGuin The Tombs of Atuan
Ursula K. LeGuin The Farthest Shore
Ursula K. LeGuin The Other Wind
Penelope Lively Cleopatra’s Sister
Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel Bring Up the Bodies
Philip Pullman Northern Lights
Philip Pullman The Subtle Knife
Philip Pullman The Amber Spyglass
Mary Renault The Persian Boy
Dorothy L. Sayers Have His Carcase
Vikram Seth A Suitable Boy
Rosemary Sutcliff Blood Feud
Rosemary Sutcliff Blood and Sand
Rosemary Sutcliff Sword at Sunset
Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House in the Big Woods
Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder On the Banks of Plum Creek
Laura Ingalls Wilder On the Shores of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder The First Four Years

Nick Ashton Early Humans
Julian Barnes The Man in the Red Coat
Mary Beard Pompeii (reread)
Tracy Borman The Private Lives of the Tudors
Shaun Bythell Diary of a Bookseller
John Drinkwater Nero: Emperor and Court
Richard Fortey Trilobite
Caroline Fraser Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Hadley Freeman House of Glass
Roy K. Gibson Pliny: Man of High Empire
Anne Glenconner Lady in Waiting
Stephen Jay Gould Bully for Brontosaurus (reread)
Stephen Jay Gould The Flamingo’s Smile (reread)
Stephen Jay Gould The Lying Stones of Marrakech (reread)
Stephen Jay Gould Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (reread)
Isabel Hardman Why We Get the Wrong Politicians
Adam Higginbottom Midnight in Chernobyl
Robert Knapp Invisible Romans
Diarmaid MacCullough The Reformation
Helen Macdonald Vesper Flights
Robert McFarlane Underland
Emily Maitlis Airhead
Hilary Mantel Mantel Pieces
Pliny the Younger Letters (trans. B. Radice; reread)
Adam Rutherford How to Argue with a Racist
A. N. Sherwin-White The Letters of Pliny
Will Storr The Science of Storytelling
Hugo Vickers The Sphinx: The Life of Gladys Deacon – Duchess of Marlborough
Wynne Williams Pliny: Correspondence with Trajan from Bithynia
Rex Winsbury Pliny the Younger: A Life in Roman Letters

Posted in beloved books, fantasy novel, novel, thoughts, Twentieth Century Fiction | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

Banish misfortune (traditional music in fantasy)

Yesterday was the solstice, midwinter’s day here in the northern hemisphere. Dull it was too, a few cold spots of rain, and too overcast to see the Great Conjunction*, but this year is coming to its end and the dark days will slowly lengthen and lighten, beginning today. I don’t blog much, mostly because I’m not writing much (and so the question beats Am I still a writer?). In the time when I’m not working or writing, I’m either listening to music or reading. At this time of year, the old books and the old tunes are the best. Comfort food for the soul.

Banish misfortune is an Irish jig, probably the cheeriest of all of them (if ever a tune can be said to live up to its name, it’s this one). I don’t know when or where I heard it first, some pub session probably. I borrowed both thought and tune for a midwinter’s night in After the Ruin**, as you can read below. If any one asks how it travelled into the Later Lands, I’ll shrug and say it must have slipped through a window between worlds.

From Chapter 6: Banish misfortune

“Now there’s a space of silence, what should I play?”

Banish misfortune,” she answered, softly, “as you played the first night I ever saw you.”

He sketched the melody upon the lute, half a tune and half a thought. “I had not thought you listened, love, that night.”

“Oh, Assiolo, every word you’ve said, each note you’ve struck, is sealed fast in my memory.”

He looked up, smiling, music bubbling from beneath his fingers.

“I knew you on that evening,” Marwy Ninek said, quietly lest other ears than his heard her, “of all the men, in all the world, I knew you as my own. When you looked into my face, I wanted to run to you and say, I’m here!

His eyes met hers but the lutesong never faltered, a paean of love and freedom, giving her the strength she needed to go on: “Assiolo, though I said no word, that night, and made no move, I think my heart would have withered and died had you gone your way upon the road next morning.”

“For me as for you that night,” he said, “and, knowing that, how could I have a thought to leave you lonely? Now listen, love, and let my music tell you all I’ve ever wished for you, then and now and forever and for always.”

At last he let the full tune come dancing out to fill the hall with music and drive sorrow and misery away into the dark. Some smiled to hear it, others danced, and even Yatta Tala tapped her toe upon the floor for all her face was scowling. Beyond the doors, beyond the walls, in the wind and rain, the year was turning but here, within the hall, was fellowship and laughter and company and dancing. The past was gone, the future not yet written; ’twas time to look ahead with light feet and bold hearts and smiling faces. Marwy Ninek leant upon the table, resting her head in her hands, and gazed at Assiolo, her happiness welling up inside her like a sweet spring on Cal Mora-side.

“The tune’s the charm,” she said, and Assiolo nodded, his eyes alight with love and merry laughter.

Yatta Tala came up sniffing. “That’s pretty, lad, but that she’s here tonight says there’s more to you than music.”

Marwy Ninek flushed and stiffened but Assiolo only bowed his head, full courteous but for the smile lurking at the edges of his lips. His fingers never ceased their movement ’cross the lutestrings, plucking and picking to conjure forth his melody.

“That’s between us two, mistress, but what I can, I’ll show, if you’ve a mind to see it.”

The old weaver sucked her teeth and settled herself into the chair beside him. For a little while, all was the same: Assiolo played, music rippled, men and women danced. Then, slowly, the light changed in the rafters, a soft glow as of sunrise in the summertime brightening the hall. Assiolo made no move, he said no word, but on all the ivy strands twined round the beams white roses grew, and on the holly boughs at every arch were other roses, red as blood. Music rippled, music swelled, and then the beams above their heads were beams no longer but branches of flowering trees, elder boughs laden with curd-white blossom and the hall was filled with the honey-heavy scent of summertime. Some stared to see such things, others laughed to find themselves a-dancing beneath the summer trees. Assiolo laid down his lute and drew Marwy Ninek onto his knee but still the air was full of music for a blackbird sat on the topmost twig, its yellow eyes shining in the sunlight, its yellow beak open in song, and the song it sang was Banish misfortune.

“A trick.” Yatta Tala sniffed. “A foolish seeming.”

“No seeming,” said Marwy Ninek, “but the thing itself.”

She twined her arms around her lover’s neck and kissed him softly, cheek and chin. Then the blackbird sang the louder and Assiolo said, “I did but answer to your will, mistress. The tune is honest, and the thought likewise: what harm to deck it out in fancy?”

The weaver shook her head. “The world is as it is, lad, and fancy’s but a step away from folly.”

“ ’Tis easy enough to put an end to fancy, an it displease you; the rest, being the truth, I will nowise hide.”

The blackbird flew away into the shadows, sunlight faded into firelight, the branches were but beams bedecked with holly and with ivy, and men and women rubbed their eyes and thought, as memory slipped away into a haze of beer and wine and barleyspirit, How foolish, how very foolish, to think there were roses flowering at midwinter.

Yatta Tala scowled and went her way, to sup spiced wine and scold her granddaughter, though, often and often, her sharp eyes turned back to Assiolo and Marwy Ninek and, each time, her lips pinched tight, as if to hide her thought or keep her words unspoken. But Assiolo cupped his hand beneath his true love’s chin and turned up her face to kiss her long and lovingly, and neither cared that all and any saw it.

*Typical, 800 years since it’s fallen after dark, and so close to the shortest day, and then clouds block out all hope of a sighting. Ah well, my great-grandchildren may be around for the next one. I’ll wish them clearer skies.

** After the Ruin contains several significant midsummer’s days too, and a satisfying number of equinoctes. The turning year provides structure and symbolism – what’s not to like?

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Book Review: ‘Of Kings and Griffins’ by Judith Starkston

A long time ago now I reviewed books for a now-mothballed website called Heroines of Fantasy. It put me in the way of books, I’d not otherwise have encountered. When the site shut down, I got on with other things, mostly offline, and let the world of book reviewing carry on without me. I do, however, continue to follow various authors on Twitter and recently one of them, Judith Starkston, got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in reading her book, Of Kings and Griffins. And, as it seemed exactly the type of book that would have appealed to the readers and reviewers of Heroines of Fantasy, I decided yes, I was interested.

kings & griffins cover image amazon

A vicious king, vengeful griffins, and a scheming goddess. Can Tesha outmanoeuvre foes from these three different worlds?

For Tesha, priestess and queen, happiness is a world she can control, made up of her family and the fractious kingdom she and her husband rule within the Great King’s empire. But now the Great King is dead, and his untried son plots against them. Tesha fights back with forbidden sorcery and savvy. In yet another blow, the griffin king lures Daniti, Tesha’s magical blind sister, into a deadly crisis that Daniti alone can avert.
As danger ensnares everyone Tesha loves, her goddess offers a way out. But can Tesha trust this offer of divine assistance or is it a trap—one that would lead to an unstoppable bloodbath?

Escape into this award-winning epic fantasy series, inspired by the historical Hittite empire and its most extraordinary queen.

Tesha and her husband, Hattu, are priestess-queen and king, respectively, of a minor kingdom set within the empire of Hitolia. At the book’s beginning, the Great King, Hattu’s elder brother, is dead, and his son by a minor wife has inherited his throne and suzerainty. Mutual distrust exists between this young Great King and his experienced and battle-tested uncle, and indeed within the wider royal family. Domestic tensions are strained further by the relationship between Hitolia and the recently defeated state of Egarya, as well as by an incursion into Hitolian territory by bordering tribespeople in search of resources, which threatens to develop into war by means of both swords and sorcery. Meanwhile Tesha and her sister Daniti must use their very different forms of magic to hold their own against the demands of gods and griffins. [Note: Of Kings and Griffins is the third volume in an on-going series. I found this book a perfectly satisfactory stand-alone story, but, if you’d prefer to begin at the beginning, the first instalment is Priestess of Ishana.]

My first impression was justified: this carefully researched, big picture historical fantasy is exactly the type of book likely to have found its way onto Heroines of Fantasy. It’s a secondary world fantasy, one in which the imagined world closely resembles that of the Hittite empire, but with the addition of gods, griffins and magic. Events encompass both petty family quarrels and a clash of empires, the plot involves confrontations between dark and healing magics, and challenges set by gods to mortals. On the human level, there is a great deal of intrigue and spying and a satisfying measure of realpolitik. The sisters, Tesha and Daniti, are complicated characters, not flawless, capable of error, fully active and engaged with events. They have a loving, mutually supportive relationship and Daniti’s blindness in no way limits her ability play an important part in safeguarding the kingdom, indeed it enables her to engage with the griffins as no one else can.

An immense amount of research has gone into the preparation of the book; its afterword, discussing the parallels between plot and history, is fascinating. If you’ve a bent towards the ancient history of the near and middle east, you may mark how the names of the states and characters echo those of real places and people and how its plot follows much of the interfamilial manoeuvring that occurred around 1274 BCE during the clashes between the Hittites and Egyptians. There’s a nice realism informing its recreation of past mores and manners: Hitolian sensibilities tend towards those of the period inspiring them rather than clinging tightly to the present. The past is indeed a foreign country and people did do things differently there.

I read Of Kings and Griffins with a great deal of curious interest. It’s an ambitious story and, as noted above, one on a grand scale. And yet, despite appreciating the extent of the research (and intelligent conjecture) informing the story, despite admiring the expanding fractals of that story, I found myself a critical rather than a fully engaged reader. Historical fantasy, like Of Kings and Griffins, sets itself the double challenge of both creating a plausible secondary world and recreating an historical one. This book was not, to my mind, entirely successful in meeting this challenge. Often, I felt I was an observer watching from a distance whilst a guide took me through myriad details rather than a participant embedded in the scene. This distance distracted me from the characters and they never quite came alive in my mind. Although each part of the story was satisfyingly complex, the griffins thread unwound largely in parallel with the war and politics threads, rather than all intertwining to make one whole.

I found a huge amount I admired in Of Kings and Griffins but I’m afraid it wasn’t in the end a book that captured my imagination: I read with immense respect for its research and ambition rather than with love for the story. Despite that reservation, I’d recommend you take a look. Taste in stories is as individual as that in food.

External links

Judith Starkston blogs about writing, history and archaeology here; you can find all her books on Goodreads here.

Amazon UK

Amazon US


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Dawn Rising by A.F.E Smith

This isn’t so much a book review as a whoop of delight.

A.F.E. Smith, author of the Darkhaven novels, has a new book out. It’s called Dawn Rising and is an absolutely fabulous read.

Dawn rising cover image


I’ve been hoping it would appear for quite a long time. Aeons ago (or so it seems), I encountered the early chapters of an early draft on a now defunct authors’ site and loved them. Since then, Smith has won a Harper Voyager new writers’ competition, which led to the publication of the Darkhaven series. They were fantasy thrillers – highly enjoyable books, all of them – but still I hoped that one day Dawn Rising would find its way out into the world.

At the end of last month, it did. And it fulfilled every promise of those early chapters. It’s a portal fantasy, highly patterned yet completely gripping with an excellent feel for place, pace and character. It’s emotionally complicated too. I’m not going to say anything about the plot (you can read the book’s blurb below) but will say I think Smith has superb grasp of story, the shape of it, how it interacts with and reflects other stories, how the basic elements can be recombined to create something that is simultaneously familiar and entirely itself.

It’s a triumph. Do go and read it.

Dawn Rising by A.F.E. Smith, published by IronWright Books

Alyssia Gale is a daydreamer. A liar. An attention seeker. Everyone she’s ever known has found a label to stick on her, but one thing’s for sure: she can’t be telling the truth. The flashes she sees of the dark and difficult lives of four other people, living in a world that’s not her own … they can’t be real. Alyssia understands that as well as anyone, even if she does keep catching herself thinking of the people she sees as friends.

Then she’s pulled into that other world by blood and dark magic, and realises that everyone she’s ever known was wrong.

To start with, her focus is on surviving until she can find a way home. Yet it doesn’t take long for her to figure out that where before she was merely a spectator, now she can change things. And with one of her friends being forced into an abusive marriage, and another trapped in the cruellest of prisons, there’s plenty that needs changing. She just needs to survive long enough to do it.

What she doesn’t know is that something connects her to these four people. Something she never could have imagined. And it’s not long before she isn’t just fighting to find her place between the worlds – she’s fighting to protect her closest friends from a narrative that wants them dead.

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The false friend

Another silkie (well, one glimpsed a couple of weeks ago) and another villanelle. Silkies don’t usually fare well upon the land and this one is, I’m afraid, no exception.

The false friend

I took his skin and put it on,
I’d longtimes thought it would fit me.
So tempting, when I found him gone,

To dig up friendship. Whereupon
I found it buried ’neath a tree.
I took his skin and put it on,

Left him a man the land upon
And swam a silkie in the sea –
So tempting when I found him gone.

And, sure, I grant I did him wrong,
Though he erred first in trusting me.
I took his skin and put it on,

Gave him my half life, pale and wan,
And claimed his double life for me.
So tempting, when I found him gone.

Regrets, like friendships, are bygone
Forsook for wonders ’neath the sea.
I took his skin and put it on;
So tempting when I found him gone.

Posted in poetry, selkie, verse, villanelle | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments

Lovers’ vows

It’s a couple of days too late for this to be a Valentine.

Beneath the tree (Lovers’ vows)

An apple tree beside the sea,
It grows for you and grows for me,
And, in the shade, beneath the tree,
A touch for you, a kiss for me.

We whisper what all lovers say,
At the first dawn of the first day:
Swear, you and me, beneath the tree,
Shall be, and be, and be, and be.

Swear I the stem and you the shoot,
Swear you the leaf and I the root,
And I the flower and you the fruit.
Swear you the singer, I the song,
This the right, the world the wrong;
They the weak, and we the strong.

And yet, and yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget:
The tide will rise, the tide will fall,
And words will halt, and words will stall,
The leaves from off the tree will fall.
The light will fail, the day will fade,
No matter promises are made.
By time itself we are betrayed.

In our beginning is our end.
Our little stock of time we spend
So carelessly, beneath the tree.
A kiss for you, a touch for me.

And so the moments slip away.
All will be lost. Except this day
Will stay, and stay, and stay, and stay.
And you and me, beneath the tree,
Shall be, and be, and be, and be.

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Twitter – and other – poems

It’s been a long time, for which I offer neither explanation nor apology.

Here are a few recent poems. The shorter ones have featured on twitter. I’m there more often than I’m here, but still not often.

I took his skin and put it on
(I’d long time thought it would fit me –
So tempting). When I found him gone,
I took his skin and put it on
Left him a man the land upon
And swam a silkie in the sea.
I took his skin and put it on.
I’d long time thought it would fit me.

Grave thoughts

As I am so shall you be
Think on that. As you pass by
Pause a moment – you will see
As I am so shall you be
The same winds blow on you and me
Though further down the road am I.
As I am, so shall you be.
Think on that as you pass by.

The margins (revision two)

Look around. These are the margins:
End of the day, edge of the world
The moment between ebb and flow
When the tide pauses and is still.

End of the day, edge of the world.
Take a breath. Remember this,
When the tide pauses and is still:
The taste of salt, the touch of rain.

Take a breath. Remember this
Dull half-light thickening to dusk,
The taste of salt, the touch of rain,
The rising curlew’s twicefold call.

Dull half-light thickening to dusk.
As the tide turns and rushes to the ebb,
The rising curlews, twicefold, call,
Summoning souls in the grey evening.


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After FantasyCon

I’m back from FantasyCon, and have had enough time now to catch up on sleep. It was a wonderful weekend – I’d had my doubts ahead of time as last year’s had felt a bit cliquey – but this year it was great fun. Being on a couple of panels helped enormously; it gave me a focus and raised my profile a bit. As a result I spent a lot more time talking with other authors between sessions, which is surely the real reason to go to these events. So thank you, Toby Venables, Anna Smith Spark, John Garland, G.V. Anderson, Eliza Chan… It was lovely to meet you all, and I hope I see you all again next year, if not before.

The Grimdark panel, chaired by Susan Bartholomew, was my highlight. Well, it was my first panel and one always remembers the first time. I was a bit surprised to be on it – After the Ruin is full of terrible things happening to innocent people but I’d not call it grimdark: it lacks the nihilism I associate with that (sub)genre of fantasy – but it was a group of well-read people talking about books to a room full of people interested in books, and that’s about as good as it gets. Oh, and Watership Down is the grimdark writer’s grimdark. Who’d thunk it!

And conversations late into the night with Eric Steele, and John Garland, and – of course – Irene Soldatos, about epic poetry, and heroes, and mythology, and Superman… So much fun and so inspiring to talk so much and listen.

It’s in Chester next year. I’ll be there.


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Fantasycon 2017

It’s been ages, I know, since I last posted here. I’ve ticking away in the background – revising a novel, reading up on Pliny the Younger as background for another, completing a teaching qualification – but all these are things easiest done in private.

But I thought I should break silence to say that I’ll be at Fantasycon in Peterborough this weekend. More than that, I’m taking part in a couple of panels on Saturday, one on Grimdark Fantasy and the other on Good versus Evil. Good, meaty topics, both of them. It should be an interesting evening, and it’s one I’m very much looking forward to; it’s not every day one gets to talk about books in such august company. And I do like talking about books… So – if you’re there – do come along and say hello.

On Sunday night, after the Con, I’ll be reading from After the Ruin as part of Fiction Fix at the Draper’s Arms in the Cowgate, Peterborough – many thanks to Helen Gould for the invitation.

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Detecting folk songs

One of my favourite authors is Dorothy L. Sayers. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve reread or simply revisited her detective novels, even though I’ve known whodunit in each of them for years. Her best known books feature Lord Peter Wimsey, shell-shock survivor, man about town, bibliophile, and sometime copywriter for an advertising agency.

Now, I encountered Lord Peter at an early age and he is still, for me, the sine qua non for detective fiction. Poirot, Rebus, Grant, Wexford, even Holmes… All have their merits and their notable successes but none to my mind can, quite, match Lord Peter (let us not consider too closely the follow-up books penned by Jill Paton Walsh, other than to say that Wimsey without Sayers is like a fine wine, corked). He might begin as a set of characteristics and catch-phrases, a caricature of the English upper classes, but over the course of his investigations the layers of mannerisms are stripped away to reveal the man. It’s a powerful examination of the aftermath of conflict.

So why am I wittering on about Lord Peter? Well now, this started up as a blog about folk songs. And – lo and behold – there’s an easy link between Lord Peter and folk song: Strong Poison  (1930) takes both its name and its epigraph from Child Ballad no. 12, Lord Randal (sung here by Alasdair Roberts).

The ballad comes under the general heading of murder ballads. It’s a broad category; many (most?) of the Child Ballads deal with unnatural death of one sort or another. It’s slightly unusual in that it gives the victim’s account: Lord Randal makes his accusations of who poisoned him and how and when, and instructions as to how to deal with his murderer.  It was his sweetheart, of course, with the poison, in the stewed eels. Love seldom goes well in ballads, as I may have mentioned this once or twice before.

Strong Poison opens with Harriet Vane on trial for her life for the murder of her erstwhile sweetheart, Philip Boyes. It is alleged she used poison, although stewed eel does not feature in the dinner the dead man ate on his last evening. And, like Lord Randal, Boyes accused his lover on his deathbed. So far book and ballad run in parallel.

But, whether or not Strong Poison was inspired by the ballad, their courses diverge from that point. It needs to be so – there’s not a lot of plot in Lord Randal; it’s a snapshot of a moment and doesn’t concern itself with what happened before or after. Ballads are like that. Detective fiction, on the other hand, requires rather a lot of plot and a linear progression from problem to solution. Fortunately for Harriet, Lord Peter is around to ask a few questions about that last dinner. His taste in reading is also useful; familiarity with late 19th Century poetry provides the reader with a last, late clue.

It’d be stretching interpretation far beyond breaking point to call Strong Poison a retelling of a ballad. Oh, the supernatural is invoked in Lord Peter’s cause but there’s a rational explanation. You can, if you try hard, find touches here and there evoking balladry; there are, for example, red roses like splashes of blood – a folk song image if ever there was one – in the first line of the book. At best one can conclude that Sayers borrowed an idea or image and ran with it. Literature is like that: the more one reads, the more connections between different forms and stories become apparent.

We never find out if Lord Randal’s sweetheart did, in fact, poison him. It’s not a spoiler to say that Harriet Vane didn’t poison Philip Boyes. Nor to say that, in detective fiction, wronged women can end up living happily ever after. Not quite yet – there’s another couple of books to go before that happens. I don’t think folk songs or ballads feature in them at all.

In an amusing coincidence, as I was writing this post, The Guardian published an article on the likelihood of the murder strategy used in Strong Poison.

Posted in Child Ballad, Dorothy L. Sayers, folk song, novel, personal opinion, Twentieth Century Fiction | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments