The Witch in the Wood by T.H. White (1939) 94 p.

This is a weird one. It’s the second book in TH White’s larger work The Once and Future King, and at one stage it was extensively written and republished. From descriptions online I seem to have read the revised version, which is much shorter, but I’ve seen conflicting information as to which is called The Witch in the Wood and which is called The Queen of Air and Darkness. My ebook version, which is the series as a single work, has it as The Witch in the Wood, anyway.

This is also an odd one because it’s much, much shorter than The Sword in the Stone and also far less interesting and eventful. It’s split between the Scottish island of Orkney, with a plotline involving the witch-queen Morgause, her four children, and the bumbling knight King Pellinore and his companions, and a different section further south involving Arthur, Kay and Merlyn as they fight an uprising. This section was the more interesting; White’s time-travelling Merlyn, with his contemporary language and knowledge of the 20th century, is a wonderful character, and the three of them have interesting discussions about the nature of politics, war, and the justification of force. I thought this was an interesting quote (even though I disagree with it), given that it’s the eve of the Scottish independence referendum:

“I could never stomach these nationalists,” he exclaimed. “The destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees.”

Overall The Witch in the Wood seems to be a bridging novel, between the establishment of the series in The Sword in the Stone, and the later novels, which is presumably where the meat of it all is. I wouldn’t say I’m disliking the series, but so far I haven’t seen anything to support the popular claim that it’s one of the greatest fantasy series of all time, and if it wasn’t for that claim I probably wouldn’t be pushing on with it.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014) 595p.

The Bone Clocks marks a return to David Mitchell’s love for a fractured narrative that crosses time and space, as we saw in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. It begins on a hot summer’s day in Kent in 1984, as fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes runs away from home after a fight with her mother. Other segments involve different characters, all linked to Holly in some way, and we follow the course of her life’s loves and losses into the present and the near future.

But The Bone Clocks is also a fantasy novel. It involves – not to give too much away, as far too many reviews do – a battle between immortals. These figures remain in the background at first, in strange encounters which are alarming and intriguing. (There’s a particularly memorable scene as character Hugo Lamb is confronted in the Christmas snow outside his house by a homeless man he spoke to earlier that day, and it becomes apparent that the man’s body is being possessed by someone else entirely.) This background war eventually bursts into the main scene in the book’s penultimate chapter, and perhaps goes a little too far in terms of its expository vocabulary. Again, I don’t wish to give too much away, but while I would have been disappointed if this aspect of the book wasn’t explored more deeply, I don’t think I wanted to go that deep, and it was something of a relief when that segment ends and places us in The Bone Clocks’ final section, in a world ravaged by climate change and fuel exhaustion, dominated by a powerful China and slouching towards apocalypse.

The Bone Clocks has predictably been attacked in a number of quarters for committing the cardinal sin of involving genre elements. I can only be puzzled by this. Were these critics reading the same David Mitchell as everyone else over the past fifteen years? Have they not also travelled along the Mongolian steppe as a disembodied spirit in Ghostwritten, lived among the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian tribes in Cloud Atlas, watched a ninja raid on a monastery in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet? Granted, The Bone Clocks does marry the fantasy and science fiction of books like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas and the realism of books like Number9dream and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet much more strongly than anything he has previously written. I can understand why some readers might find it slightly jarring. But if you expected a straight-laced “literary” novel you have only yourself to blame. Mitchell has built his career on the fanciful and the fantastic.

I suspect part of this snobbishness also comes from his writing style. I love Mitchell’s vivacious prose. He has an effortless way of emphasising the colour and the beauty of life, whether he’s painting a picture of a hot summer’s day in Kent, a teenage girl and boy eating fish and chips on a beach and watching the sunset; a heaving pub in snowy Cambridge before the Christmas break; a Swiss chalet in the Alps; the “nuclear sunshine” of my own hometown of Perth, Australia. A lot of critics refer to his style with phrases like “fireworks” or “pyrotechnics” or “colour and movement,” with a disapproving tone. This attitude, I’m sure, comes from the same wellspring as the idea that genre elements are a disqualification. This is what makes a David Mitchell novel such a useful litmus test for determining whether a critic is somebody who genuinely appreciates fiction for the joy and wonder it can bring, or whether they’re a crusty old bore with a rigid belief that serious fiction isn’t supposed to be colourful, imaginative, or popular; someone who believes that Real Literature is supposed to be austere.

Enough of that, anyway. I enjoyed The Bone Clocks tremendously, as I expected to. It falters in parts and is not quite the brilliant novel Cloud Atlas was, but it is nonetheless the best novel I’ve read so far this year, the finest fantasy novel of the year, and another grand accomplishment from one of the world’s greatest living writers.

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver (1976) 181 p.

Working my way through the canon. Raymond Carver is one of the most pre-eminent writers of the past century, ranking alongside Hemingway, Chekhov and Cheever as a master of the short story. (And also as one of the key figures giving rise to the romanticism of the alcoholic author, along with Hemingway and Kingsley Amis.) Will You Please Be Quiet, Please is his first collection of short fiction, published in 1976.

Carver, again like Hemingway, is famous for having a fairly bare style. I’m not a fan of this. I’m OK with it when Hemingway uses it to describe lion hunting in Africa and skiing in Switzerland, but not so much when Carver uses it to describe unhappy middle-class couples in mid-century America having evasive conversations. I like short stories to have either a vivid, baroque writing style, or an interesting plot, or ideally both. Carver sadly checks neither box. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please has a few stories in it that piqued my interest – specifically “Jerry, Molly and Sam,” about a father driving his kids’ dog out into the middle of nowhere and abandoning it, and “Are These Actual Miles?”, about a man in financial trouble who suspects his wife of infidelity – but for the most part I found them formulaic and somewhat empty; brimming with dull moments of epiphany. I half-suspect whoever wrote the Wikipedia page for this collection is taking the piss; consider this synopsis for the story “How About This:”

A couple comes to look at the woman’s father’s deserted place in the country. Maybe they will move there.

It’s all well and good to cite the Iceberg Theory and have a story where much remains unsaid and you have to read between the lines, but I don’t have much inclination to do so in stories about struggling relationships (and more than half the stories in here are about struggling relationships) with bitter comments made in restaurants and living rooms. I don’t really feel like googling an analysis of a story after I’ve read it. This collection often feels like it comprises of stories made to be dissected in a classroom discussion, rather than to be read, appreciated and enjoyed.

Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee (1974) 125 p.

Coetzee’s first novel Dusklands is a fairly short piece of work divided into two halves: an American military psychologist’s report on propaganda techniques being used in the then-ongoing Vietnam War, and a manuscript detailing a journey undertaken by fictional South African pioneer “Jacobus Coetzee” which descends into violence and blood-letting.

Like Coetzee’s future works, Dusklands is grim and depressing; an examination of dominion, colonialism and exploitation. Jacobus’ story is the more overtly oppressive of the two, and I actually think the book would have worked better if the narrative halves were switched; beginning with the violence of 18th century colonial South Africa, followed by the more subtle brutality of psychological warfare by foreign occupiers in Vietnam.

Coetzee’s writing, as always, is beautifully clear. His powerful, distinctive voice is evident even in this early novel. Dusklands contains some wonderful scenes – I particularly liked a description of Jacobus’ hunting party as described by the trail of litter, bullets and bodily fluids they left in their wake – and also some horrible, disturbing scenes. (Oddly enough, for all the violence in the book, nothing made me squirm more than a description of Jacobus attempting to pierce a pus-filled sore on his buttocks.) Dusklands is a strong first novel, and stands up well against the masterpieces that would follow it.

Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld (2010) 485 p.

This is the second book in Scott Westerfeld’s inventive steampunk YA trilogy, in which World War I is reimagined as a swashbuckling adventure in which the Central Powers use enormous robotic fighting machines while the Allies use genetically engineered creatures for war, from the kraken-like beasts of the Royal Navy to the “fighting bears” of the Russian Army. Having escaped Europe aboard the Royal Navy airship Leviathan, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne Alek and his girl-disguised-as-a-boy friend Deryn find themselves in Istanbul, melting pot of cultures, a city and a nation on the brink of a revolution and being tugged both ways by the Clankers and the Darwinists to join the war.

On paper these books are good – imaginative, swashbuckling, well-written and deftly plotted. It’s sort of hard for me to objectively judge them. I find my attention wandering, but maybe that’s my fault. I’d never say I’m too old to be reading YA fiction (because nobody is) but maybe I want something more complex than cliche dilemmas (noble boy in commoner’s clothing, tomboy in a man’s world) and sound and fury set pieces (lots of giant robots and crashing destruction). Or maybe I’m unfavourably comparing the trilogy to the masterpiece of YA fiction that is Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series – which is also unfair, since my love of that series probably stems in part from nostalgia, i.e. the fact that I read it when I was actually a Young Adult. (The days, man. Those were the days.)

So what can I say? Never mind my self-indulgent fretting. I can say with some conviction that Behemoth is a worthy successor to Leviathan, that it’s solid YA adventure fiction, and that if I’d read it in high school I would have loved it. Adult readers – your mileage may vary.

My short story Denmark was published the other day at Read Short Fiction, and you can read it online for free.

It may seem like I’ve been very productive lately, but actually all these recent stories were mostly written last year or at the beginning of this year and have been waiting to be accepted or published. I have nothing in my Duotrope queue now. This is it. Zip. Zilch. Nada. It’s all over.

The Eye In The Door by Pat Barker (1993) 280 p.

The second novel in Pat Barker’s WWI Regeneration trilogy, The Eye in the Door takes place in early 1918, when the war is going poorly for Britain and the nation is gripped by a scapegoating campaign against pacifists and homosexuals, led by right-wing MP Noel Pemberton Billing. This novel focuses less on the real characters of Dr. Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon (though they’re still present) and more on the entirely fictional construct of Billy Prior, a young officer who was formerly treated for trauma at Craiglockhart and is now working as an intelligence agent for the Ministry of Munitions in London.

I enjoyed this novel a fair bit more than Regeneration, because it expands the scope beyond the corridors of Craiglockhart and examines more fully how the First World War affected British society. It’s particularly interesting that, as in Regeneration, there are no scenes actually set at the front; we see this landscape of muddy trenches and shell craters quite often, but only ever in dialogue and memories and flashbacks and nightmares.

This was a dreadful place. Nothing human could live here. Nothing human did. He was entirely alone until, with a puckering of the surface, a belch of foul vapours, the mud began to move, to gather itself together, to rise and stand before him in the shape of a man. A man who turned and began striding towards England. He tried to call out, no, not that way, and the movement of his lips half woke him. But he sank down again, and again the mud gathered itself into the shape of a man, faster and faster until it seemed the whole night was full of such creatures, creatures composed of Flanders mud and nothing else, moving their grotesque limbs in the direction of home.

Barker has no illusions about the war – it was a brutal and ugly and above all pointless waste of human life, conducted between malevolent empires. This may seem like an obvious thing to say when these books were written in the 1990s, yet even today there are idiots who think that soldiers in WWI were “dying for our freedom;” twisting the circumstances of a past war to fit the political objectives of our modern wars. Britain, like most Western countries at the time, was a deeply unfree and undemocratic society in which women couldn’t vote, homosexuality was a jailable offence and the Irish people (right on Britain’s doorstep – let alone the people of Africa, India and South-East Asia) were brutally oppressed.

The Eye in the Door shows us the ugly side of British society in those years – the conscientious objectors who were beaten or arrested, whose families were shunned and had human shit shoved through the letter boxes, whose sons were dragged into prisons and beaten and kept naked in winter with a folded uniform left at the base of their beds. A society in which, even though a desperate war was going on, London’s newspapers were full of news about a ridiculous with-hunt of “sodomites,” spearheaded by a man later certified insane.

I’m glad I stuck with this series; I’m still not a massive fan of Barker’s writing style, but I appreciate her determination to uncover every unsanitary corner of a horrific time in history, and to give a voice to the segments of society our current leaders would prefer us to forget, even today, when we should know better.

My sci-fi flash fiction piece Futures Market was published this week at Daily Science Fiction, and you can read it for free online right here.

Daily Science Fiction is a really neat idea for a sci-fi journal – you can sign up to them for free and they’ll email you a short science fiction or fantasy story every weekday, tending towards flash fiction but with longer pieces on Friday. Getting a story published at DSF has been a long-held goal of mine, so it’s nice to finally be in there.

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman (2014) 401 p.

I read The Magicians, the first novel in Lev Grossman’s wildly brilliant fantasy trilogy, in 2012 when I was 23 years old and had been living in Melbourne for about a year. I read it at a time when I’d first moved out of home and moved to a new city, when I was first trying to actually start my career, and when I was gradually realising that the dream I’d been harbouring since I was very young of one day being a successful writer was probably not going to happen. Dream is the wrong word, probably; it was not something I aspired towards, but something I assumed would just happen. It went unexamined, and I was honestly embarrassed when it dawned on me sometime that year, as I was being thoroughly introduced to the Real World, that it was still glimmering away at the back of my mind when I was old enough to know better.

I mention this because it meant I read The Magicians at precisely the right time in my life. It follows the coming of age of Quentin Coldwater, a sulky nerd from Brooklyn who finds himself recruited into Brakebills, a secret school for magicians, and later discovers that he can visit the unexpectedly-real magical world of Fillory (a Narnia stand-in) that he grew up reading about. But only on the surface is The Magicians a book about what Hogwarts and Narnia would be like if they were real; more broadly, it’s a novel about failure and loss and ennui, about the quarter-life crisis post graduation, when what you’ve been dreaming about for so long is finally accomplished but turns out to be hollow and unsatisfying. It was a book that well reflected how I felt that year: not unhappy, but listless and discontented.

Goodreads is full of angry reviewers who were promised “Harry Potter for grown-ups” and failed to read anything beyond that. Also with reviewers whingeing, apparently without any self-awareness, that Quentin is “unlikeable” – not to come off as a literary snob, but that’s a sure sign of an immature reader. OK, no, there’s no way to write that without coming off as a literary snob. But come on, “unlikeable?” Even reviewers who praise these series can’t help but snipe at Quentin for taking so long to grow up; the archetypical man-child of Generation Y. But aren’t we all like Quentin, at least a little bit? This is why it always irks me when readers toss books aside because the characters are “unlikeable”: it displays a lack of honesty, and sympathy, and perhaps reveals fear. We might all wish to be Harry Potter, but odds are we’re more like Peter Pettigrew.

Anyway, a major part of why this subversive approach works so well is because Grossman, like so many of us, was raised on fantasy stories and has come to recognise the truth; not the simple, obvious truth that familiar narrative templates are an unrealistic way to expect your life to turn out, but that so many of us ostensibly acknowledge this while still being disappointed by it. I’m not just talking about Hogwarts and Narnia here; nobody actually thinks that’s going to happen. I mean every narrative – all of them, in every form. I knew full well, for example, that it was ridiculous to move to a new city and expect my life to be full of wise-cracking early 20s adventures with a tight-knit circle of friends like any number of TV sitcoms, but that didn’t stop me feeling gnawingly disappointed about it, suspicious that everybody else was having a great time and living up to their full potential, unable to relinquish the nagging feeling that my life was not all it could be. Grossman himself has a great autobiographical essay about a time right out of college when, full of stupid dreams and ideas, he holed himself up in a cabin in Maine to try be a writer and instead almost lost his mind.

On some level I still didn’t believe that I could be lonely, even though it was staring me in the face, all day and all night. I genuinely thought that because I wanted to be a writer, that made me different from other people: mysterious, self-contained, a lone wolf, Han Solo.

Narrative, in all its forms and genres, conditions us to expect life to unfold in certain ways: characters capable of development, significant arrivals or departures, experiences that teach us lessons for better or worse, problems that have solutions. As Choire Sicha puts it in a better review than mine over at Slate:

Momentousness, epicness, heroism, so common in young adult and fantasy fiction, are poison. They will make you wistful, falsely pre-nostalgic, soul-sick. Life isn’t that. The desire for the clarity of your own tale is infantile selfishness.

Midway through The Magician’s Land (after an excellent long segment involving a Neuromancer-esque magical heist perpetrated by a bunch of oddballs hired by a mysterious recruiter) Quentin discovers a memoir written by one of the Chatwin boys, the trilogy’s equivalent of Narnia’s Pevensie siblings. Spanning several chapters, the memoir shows what happens as he and his siblings are drawn fully and totally into a fairytale. It’s a nightmarish tragedy, particularly as his older brother becomes gripped with a fear that as he grows older he’s being gradually pushed out of Fillory:

“I know how you feel, I hate it when I’m not asked. But it’s not as bad here as all that, is it? I mean, Fillory isn’t everything.”
“But it is.” He stopped walking and looked me in the eye. “It is everything. What else is there? This? Earth?”

A second reason this approach works is because Grossman is genuinely a big ol’ fantasy nerd who loves this stuff as much as the rest of us. If Brakebills and Fillory and the Neitherlands were a purely academic construct written by a stern university professor, they would be dry and dusty places indeed. But Grossman’s fantasy, while picking apart the genre, also celebrates it:

Here was a great secret: whale were spellcasters. Jesus, the entire ocean was crisscrossed with a whole lattice of submarine magic. Most of the spells took multiple whales to cast, and were designed to bend and herd large clouds of krill, and occasionally to reinforce the integrity of large ice shelves.
And there was something else – something down there in the black abyssal trenches of the ocean. Something that wanted to rise. The whales were keeping it down.

The third and final reason this cynical, realistic approach to the genre works so well is because it doesn’t stay there; it doesn’t wallow in it. It’s easy to think, as The Magician’s Land expands the cast of viewpoint characters (many of whom are nowhere near as messed up as the original ones) and Quentin himself matures into a functioning adult, that the point of the first book has rather been forgotten. But that’s not the case at all. Outgrowing your childhood fantasies is a painful phase, but that’s all it is – a phase. Towards the conclusion of The Magician’s Land is a scene in which Julia shows Quentin a magical garden where “all the thoughts and feelings that had ever been thought and felt existed in the form of plants, blooming and green as they passed through people’s minds and lived in their hearts, and then drying up and turning brown and crisp as they passed out of mind, sometimes to bloom again in another season, sometimes gone forever.”

Here, still, we see the original theme of The Magicians. “Awe and wonder are harder to find than they once were,” Julia comments. Yet they soon encounter a small, strange and beautiful plant which Quentin recognises:

“This is a feeling you had, Quentin,” she said. “Once, a very long time ago. A rare one. This is how you felt when you were eight years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and hope and joy and longing all at once. You felt them very strongly, Quentin. You dreamed of Fillory, then, with a power and an innocence that not many people ever experience. That’s where all this began for you. You wanted the world to be better than it was.”

“Someone must be feeling it now,” Quentin said. “That’s why it’s green.”
Julia nodded. “Someone somewhere.”
Though even now the plant shrank and dried and died again.

This is perhaps the Magicians trilogy neatly encapsulated. It’s a series about the damaging, dangerous power that hope and longing and expectation can have on us, especially in narrative form – but at the same time it exalts that power, that magic, as something which is still worth having. I’m grateful Lev Grossman wrote a fantasy series in which the magic is quashed and the dreams dashed, but I don’t for a second want it to be a new template for the genre, and neither does he. I don’t believe that any of us are the poorer for having gone through these raised and dashed hopes and dreams. It’s part of growing up. Grossman finishes the series not with a sad allegory about the death of starry-eyed excitement, but with a beautiful metaphor for being a writer, and a creative artist in general:

He’d come a long way to get here. He was very far from the bitter, angry teenager that he’d been in Brooklyn, before all this started, and thank God for that. But the funny thing was that after all this time he still didn’t think that that miserable teenager was wrong. He didn’t disagree with him – he still felt solidarity on the major points. The world was fucking awful. It was a wretched, desolate place, a desert of meanginlessness, a heartless wasteland, where horrific things happened all the time for no reason and nothing good lasted for long.

He’d been right about the world, but he was wrong about himself. The world was a desert, but he was a magician, and to be a magician was to be a secret spring – a moving oasis. He wasn’t desolate, and he wasn’t empty. He was full of emotion, full of feelings, bursting with them, and when it came down to it that’s what being a magician was. They weren’t ordinary feelings – they weren’t the tame, domesticated kind. Magic was wild feelings, the kind that escaped out of you and into the world and changed things. There was a lot of skill to it, and a lot of learning, and a lot of work, but that was where the power began: the power to enchant the world.

Read out of context these scenes seem trite, or even arrogant, but I can assure you that as a culmination of everything that’s happened over 1,500 pages, they’re deeply affecting. The Magician’s Land is a brilliant conclusion to one of the best fantasy series and coming-of-age stories of the past decade, and I really can’t recommend it enough. It’s hard to stress how much I enjoyed this trilogy, how invested in it I was, and how glad I am that I read it at the right time in my life. With which I still have no idea what I’m doing – but then, Grossman’s books are among the things that made me realise that’s OK.

Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson (1995) 352p.

I first read this in eleventh grade in high school, after randomly picking it off a list our English teacher presented to us in the hope it would be some kind of desert island tale. The island in question, of course, is actually Great Britain; Notes From A Small Island is a travelogue covering Bryson’s “valedictory tour” around the nation he made his home for nearly twenty years.

Any Australian growing up naturally develops a sort of hazy idea of what the UK is like, in the same way that anybody anywhere grows up with a hazy idea of what the US is like, but Notes From A Small Island probably filled in my mental map a bit more than Harry Potter or Monty Python films. Bryson travels by train across the length and breadth of England, Scotland and Wales, filling the pages with his usual wit.

I had never had a biscuit of such rocklike cheerlessness. It tasted like something you would give a budgie to strengthen its beak.

At the Old Times building on Gray’s Inn road, the canteen had been in a basement room that had the charm and ambience of a submarine and the food had been slopped out by humourless drones who always brought to mind moles in aprons.

Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are early on, when Bryson sprinkles his modern-day trip around Britain with memories of his early life there in the 1970s and 1980s, such as when he was involved in the Wapping dispute:

How odd, I thought, that a total stranger was about to pull me from my car and beat me mushy for the benefit of printworkers he had never met, who would mostly despise him as an unkempt hippie, would certainly never let him into their own union, and who had enjoyed decades of obscenely inflated earnings without once showing collective support for any other union, including, on occasion, provincial branches of their own NGA. Simultaneously it occurred to me that I was about to squander my own small life for the benefit of a man who had, without apparent hesitation, given up his own nationality out of economic self-interest, who didn’t know who I was, would as lightly have discarded me if a machine could be found to do my job, and whose idea of maximum magnanimity was to hand out a six-ounce can of beer and a limp sandwich.

These anecdotes dry up later in the book, and Notes From A Small Island loses some of its lustre as it becomes simply a journey through Britain’s hotels, restaurants and train stations. Bryson’s tirade against modern architecture also becomes tiresome, even for a reader who agrees with him entirely, as I do. Although on the subject of agreement, I was interested to see that apparently even in the 1990s there was popular backing for the bizarre idea that upon the Queen’s death, Prince Charles should bow out and pass the throne directly to the younger, more attractive and more popular Prince William. I agree with Bryson:

It seemed to me to miss the point. If you are going to have a system of hereditary privilege, then surely you have to take what comes your way no matter how ponderous the poor fellow may be or how curious his taste in mistresses.

Bryson’s attitude towards Britain can sometimes be overly sentimental. It’s clear that he loves this country, to the point where he sometimes verges upon British exceptionalism. It is utter nonsense to argue that people in other countries don’t know how to queue, or that they don’t laugh or smile as much the British. I sometimes wonder how much of this perceived difference between nations in the English-speaking first world (Britain, Ireland, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) is due to generational differences – since kids in today’s generation all grew up watching the same American TV and spend plenty of time on the internet speaking to people from all over – and how much of it is due to the fact that people who think there are vast differences between the US and Britain have never been to, say, China or Africa.

Notes From A Small Island is a solid Bryson book. Like many of his other books, it can become repetitive and focus a little too much on the banal experiences of travel, and if his sense of humour is not your cup of tea than you might find him cynical or ill-tempered. But I enjoy him a fair bit – it’s easy, funny reading.

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