Monday, 16 April 2012

Tales Of The Underground

“Matthew has loved Ariel from the moment he found her in the tunnels, her blond hair shining and her bee’s wings falling away.  They live together in Safe, a refuge deep underground for those fleeing the harsh city Above – as does Whisper, who speaks to ghosts, and Atticus, who has thick claws for hands, and Jack Flash, who can shoot lightning from his fingertips.

But one terrifying night, an old enemy invades Safe with an army of shadows, and only Matthew, Ariel, and a few friends escape Above.  Forced to survive in the most dangerous place he can imagine, Matthew strives to unravel the mystery of the shadows’ powers and Safe’s own secret history.  For he knows he must find a way to remake Safe – not just for himself and his friends, but for Ariel, who’s again faced with a life she fled, and who needs him more than ever before.”

Above is Leah Bobet's first novel, although I’ve been following her work online for a while now, given she’s been publishing short fiction and poetry since approximately 2001.  Those seeking her earlier work might like to consult her online bibliography for short fiction here.  Alternatively, samples of her recent poetry can be found here and here.  She also maintains a blog here.

In Above we’re introduced to Matthew, the boy with lion’s feet and gills (the legacy of his father and mother respectively) on supply duty prior to Sanctuary Night - the night when those wanting the sanctity of Safe’s quarters has their right to live there reconfirmed.  Matthew is the Teller for Safe, the one responsible for collecting everyone’s stories and recounting them subsequently.  Safe is populated by the unwanted from Above (essentially, our own world and specifically the city of Toronto); the Sick or mentally ill, those marginalised by society and the Cursed.

Before long, Safe is raided by a shadow army and Matthew and a few fellow escapees, including Ariel, a girl who turns into a bee when threatened, are forced into the world Above, aided by the sympathetic Doctor Marybeth.  Life in Safe being the only one Matthew has ever known, this forces him to confront the reality of the history and Tales provided to him by others, whilst seeking a way to retake his home.  The Tales are cleverly woven into the narrative and assist, rather than detract from, our understanding of the overriding narrative arc – as well as aiding in our grasp upon the characters as we navigate the world of Above with them.

Above is populated by precise and poetic prose, with clear care and attention paid to drafting.  Ultimately, this rewards the dedicated reader with a complex and far reaching story in which there are no simple solutions to the problems presented in the aftermath of the raid on Safe, nor trite “happily ever afters” for those seeking to re-establish their broken community and save themselves in the process.
The social commentary related to the marginalised within society and characterisation emphasising this aspect of the novel is similarly adept.  Thus, Corner is far from the maligned villain suspected at the outset of the narrative and whom the inhabitants of Safe have been taught habitually to fear.  Similarly, Ariel provides an effective illustration of psychiatric institutionalisation, warts and all.  The premise of hope in help within its walls depends upon the aid of good doctors, such as Doctor Marybeth, as opposed to the influence of the previously destructive “Whitecoats”.  The move, however, is when all’s said and done, one towards healing and renewal.  This, then, is the image with which we are left as reader.  That of regeneration and survival.  The move towards progression.  Ultimately, this makes Above a story of humanity and all the more real for it.   

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Lesser Known, Lesser Spotted

On the subject of things that go bump in the night, this brings me to Robert Neill's “classic novel of witchcraft”, Mist Over Pendle, which has been a firm favourite of mine for a while now, despite being less well known than some of the more recent titles I’ve highlighted in previous blog entries.  (For US readers, this will be The Elegant Witch).

“When several local people die in mysterious circumstances, Squire Roger Nowell dismisses talk of witchcraft as superstition.  But soon a series of hideous desecrations take place, and there are unmistakable signs that a black coven is assembling to plot a campaign of evil and destruction.”
Such is the premise at the outset of Mist Over Pendle.  The reader travels with Roger Nowell’s niece Margary Whitaker from Holborn into the Forest of Pendle and shadow of Pendle Hill itself, bringing both into confrontation with the inhabitants of the Rough Lee and “dark elegance” of Alice Nutter.  Soon enough, Margery becomes aware that life in Pendle has definite “undercurrents” and that these are such that some of them run “muddily”.
The novel is an account of the Pendle Witches, a fascinating subject in itself and Neill provides vivid descriptions of his Demdike, Chattox and Squinting Lizzie to populate well-known local history.  We also see Jennet Device, the child informant responsible for the eventual apprehension of her own family who formed part of the recent BBC Four programme, The Pendle Witch Child, presented by Simon Armitage.
Pendle Hill, too, seems to feature as a distinct character in itself, filled with brooding emotion, as well as the calculated manoeuvres of “our Alice”.  For those familiar with the territory the novel explores within its seventeenth century context, the level of detail and close attention to it by the author is pleasing.  Neill displays a similar level of skill in the language utilised by his characters throughout the narrative, which, again, adds to the “feel” of the tale.  We also see signs of the troubled religious times within which the events of the narrative took place.

Add to this an intriguing story arc, almost in the guise of a detective style “who dunnit” (to which the reader is already privy to the details of, unlike the characters populating the narrative itself) and you have a rewarding reading prospect.

Ultimately, though, it is the characters who provide the definitive “hook” to reel you in in this instance.  Margery is sufficiently quick witted to prove more than a match for Alice Nutter in their on-going game of “cat and mouse”.  Roger, Margery’s distant magistrate cousin, who we grow to know rather better over the course of the narrative, is pragmatic, sardonic and wise by turns.  Neither feels forced nor clichéd in their depiction.  Their battle against the Lancastrian world of poisons, curses and familiars feels real and we get a genuine sense of the frustration displayed by Richard Baldwin, the “stout Puritan”, as they search for the proof of witchcraft necessary for a committal to Lancaster.
Nor does Neill leave us devoid of any romance beyond the intrigue surrounding Pendle coven.  In Margery and Frank and, equally, Grace and Miles, we see genuine developing relationships, the success of which we are invested in.  Not bad all told for an author concerning whom little is known.   

Saturday, 14 April 2012

In Anticipation

I was interested to see the recent announcement that Alan Garner is to conclude his Weirdstone of Brisingamen Trilogy (begun as long ago as 1960) with the forthcoming Boneland.  The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Moon of Gomrath were books I was introduced to at school during “story time” in my senior classes and which I remember fondly for their mix of local myth and legend, coupled with the summoning of the Wild Hunt.  This is one I’ll be looking out for later this year, in light of the anticipated August publication date.

Additionally – Rowling’s first adult publication is also due for release.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Going Ghostly

“Just your average boy-meets-girl, girl-kills-people story…”  So begins the blurb for Kendare Blake's  Anna Dressed In Blood.  We’re introduced to Cas Lowood, who travels the country, together with his kitchen-witch mother and a cat who can smell the spirits with whom Cas himself comes face to face.  Add in a father whose mantle Cas has taken over, following his demise at the hands of a ghost he set out to kill and who left him partly eaten and so far, so Supernatural.  (Particularly when we first greet Cas as he encounters a hitchhiker behind the wheel of his 1969 Camaro Rally Sport, specially picked for the job at hand). 
It’s when he arrives in the new town of Thunder Bay, Ontario, in search of the spirit known to the locals as “Anna Dressed In Blood” that the Buffy reminiscent narrative really gets going.  Here, Cas encounters the eponymous Anna, who has previously killed each and every person who has set foot inside the Victorian house she previously called home since her death.  For some reason, however, she spares Cas’s life, which leads him to the conclusion that she doesn’t want to kill and is actually possessed by a dark force - the same one which leads her to rip her victims apart and hoard their bodies. 
Despite the YA tag (or, indeed, perhaps because of it), Blake doesn’t hold back from disclosing hard hitting descriptive details when dealing with the deaths during the course of the novel – one character is literally torn in two before our eyes.  Anna’s death, too, pulls no punches and makes for particularly difficult reading, both emotionally and literally; filled with blood, hatred and her desperation to escape during the attack.
The twist in showing Anna as victim as well as killer is an interesting one and one which results in an altogether fresh read, previous Buffy and Supernatural comparisons aside.  Soon enough, Cas is gathering together his new (and only real) set of friends to confront an older and more horrifying threat than that he envisaged facing in Anna herself…
As a reader, you can’t help sympathising with Anna as the narrative progresses and Blake shows similar skill in her general characterisation, avoiding cliché in her depiction of the popular Carmel and the less than popular Thomas, who becomes Cas’s somewhat reluctant sidekick.  It was also nice to see a novel with a strong male protagonist, given the recent apparent trend within the YA genre to view a story arc from the female perspective, a la Hunger Games, Delirium and Divergent, to name but a few.  Cas, too, unsurprisingly, develops from the aloof hunter, alone as a result of his own conscious choice to be so and looking for revenge for his father’s death during the story’s arc.
As an aside, it was also nice to see the attention to detail in the typescript for the novel, which is an off red, similar to the colour of dried blood; particularly fitting for what makes for a clever horror story.  Whilst the ending ties matters together satisfactorily, it also leaves things neatly placed for the forthcoming sequel, Girl of Nightmares, which will be available later this year.