Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Prospero's Children

I found this series of books by chance when I took The Greenstone Grail (Amanda Hemingway) out of the library. On opening it, I found that the author had written an earlier book, Prospero's Children, under a different name, Jan Siegel. "Aah," I thought, "I've read that - in fact, not only have I read it, I think I know where there is a copy." Once found, it went straight onto the pile for a re-read. At the same time, a Google search told me that there were two sequels, as there are with The Greenstone Grail. By now happily engrossed in the latter, and with the prospect of further additions to the bookshelves, I was rather pleased.

In the first of the three books, Prospero's Children, Fern Capel and her brother Will accompany their father to Yorkshire to look at a house that has been left to them by an elderly cousin. Although Fern, who has been "managing" her father since her mother's death, regards the house as too cold and impractical to keep, it nonetheless exercises an odd compulsion which makes them return, this time with their father's girlfriend, Alison, whom Fern deems unsuitable for her father. It soon becomes clear that Alison is there for her own ends; not only a witch, she is also under the sway of an Old Spirit, Azmordis, who speaks to her through a stone statue in the house, and she is using the Gift - her magical powers - to search for the key to the Gate of Death, which she means to open. In so doing she inadvertently opens the door to the lost land of Atlantis, dying in the process. Only Fern now has the Gift and can go to Atlantis to find the key and close the door.

The last third of the book focuses on Fern in Atlantis, offering a marked contrast to the first two-thirds. The reader moves into an exotic land, with the introduction of many new characters. On first reading I found the
re to be a disjunction between the two sections, but on re-reading, much later, this seemed less awkward. The main actors of second section have been introduced in the first, and new introductions are well-handled: Siegel has some deftness throughout in engaging the reader's sympathy for her characters, even where weaknesses are evident. Particularly strong and attractive are Ragginbone, the Watcher who aids Fern and Will, and his companion Lougarry, a "reformed" werewolf. The book ends with Fern, survivor of the loss of her first love and the fall of Atlantis, returning having sucessfully closed the door.

The Dragon Charmer takes up her story twelve years later, on the eve of her marriage to a man she like
s but doesn't love. Returning to Yarrowdale, the house in Yorkshire, Fern soon finds herself under attack and, before her wedding can take place she has fallen into a coma from which she cannot be woken. Will, her friend Gaynor and Ragginbone protect her while she is unconscious, while trying to discover what has happened. The final book, Witch's Honour, completes the story of Fern and Morgus; in an echo of the previous book, a young woman has fallen into an unexplained coma, and her brother seeks out Fern in an effort to understand what has happened. Morgus, meanwhile, has recovered from the near-fatal injury Fern caused her, and is seeking revenge. Fern herself has reason to fear that the Old Spirit has not forgotten her, since she finds herself repeatedly dreaming that she has succumbed to his will.

In both these books there are echoes of the familiar, as well as the exotic. Siegel has constructed her own mythology of other worlds, Lovecraftian Old Spirits, Greek myth and Arthurian legend, which also runs through her second trilogy. At times this sits a little uncomfortably - I found the introduction of Kaliban, son of Morgus (Morgause of Arthurian legend) and Cerenunnos, a trifle contrived. There also seemed to be a rather redundant prolepsis in the first book ("It's a dragon: don't look into its eyes - ") which makes little sense until the second. And although the Dragon Charmer appears in the final book, the dragon itself appears only relatively briefly in the second and, much as I like dragons, I feel it offers little beyond a dramatic denouement. I expected its return in Witch's Honour but, like the unicorn of the first book, it had been set free and had gone. While I'm carping, though, in three, if not all four, of the books I am discussing here, the drawing of a circle has led to the invocation of the same spirits - Pythias, Cerenunnos, Hexate, the Child - which becomes just a little repetitive. The transfer of the world tree from the Otherworld to this world, on the other hand, made a pleasing focus for the last book, and gave a continuity through the second two which was perhaps lacking between the first and second: it felt as though the 12-year gap between the events of the first two was a real-time gap, though publication dates belie this. Nonetheless there seemed to be a maturity in the writing of Witch's Honour which had not been so evident in the previous novels, and which seems to continue in The Greenstone Grail, where we are back in the same constructed mythology with the Mabinogion slightly more in the ascendant.

Siegel/Hemingway reminds me quite strongly at times of early Alan Garner. It's an element I find attractive in both her writing and plotting and in my mid-teens I would have loved these books. Despite my caveats about occasional structural weaknesses, these novels have a degree of moral intensity and a thoughtfulness about issues of responsibility and honour which is refreshing and attractive. I look forward to the final two of the second trilogy with much pleasure.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Recent reading

A Place of Safety by Caroline Graham: this is, I think, the most recent of the Midsomer books, and the eighth in the series. One of my problems with it was the difference between Barnaby in the TV series and in the books - this is the first I've read. I have no problem with the author creating a character that is their own, and not a television adapter's, but Barnaby and Troy, like Morse and Lewis, are duller than their TV counterparts, and less appealing. In A Place of Safety Barnaby is preoccupied with family and his anniversary, and increasingly crabby as he fails to solve two possibly related murders. While the victims both seem to have suffered from dysfunctional families, I felt that contrast with Barnaby's own domestic situation lent little to the novel. Indeed, I felt that his family would feature just as largely whatever the plot, and existed only to lend some depth to his uninteresting character. His thought processes offer little beyond the mundane, and both he and Troy strike me as fairly stereotypical policemen, in contrast with the protagonists in the works of say, Donna Leon or, closer to home, Peter Lovesey. The plot was rather unexciting, too, though no doubt it will adapt well enough. I have to admit to preferring Midsomer and its gory goings on in the TV version, although Joyce gains least from the transfer, being perhaps a little more sharp-tongued in the original - heaven knows, she needs it!