If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing – flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it. High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood, he is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy – some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.
These mirrors reflected back the features of the girl slouched on a stool before them. She was pale in the sickly way that was fashionable in the city, slender, and her hair, albeit lank, was long enough to sit on. It swaddled her like a light, blonde cloak. There was naught amiss in any singular component of her appearance, other than the skin being a touch too white, the lips bloodless. These minor, natural flaws did not explain why hers was but the deceptive beauty of the poisoned apple. It was not merely that she was shallow, a creature of simple malice: within her tiny skull a storm raged, hectic, vicious and vengeful. The depths of her character were murky and she herself, had she made the attempt, would struggle to rationalise her behaviour. In morals she was well-versed, for they had been imparted to her through fables as a young child, yet she could find no trace of villainy in her own actions. In her skewed world-view she was set apart.
My debut novel, ‘A Reverie of Brothers’, is now available on the Kindle for digital download*. I started writing this 90,000 word novel at the age of sixteen, after reading Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Novels for the first time and falling in love with the dreamlike setting of the castle. After six years of redrafting and experimenting, I am thrilled to finally present the finished product. Please help an independent self-published author (I don’t have the money to fund an expensive marketing campaign) by sharing the link and leaving a review. Thank you very much for your support, book lovers! 🙂
The film version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz has been cited as an influence by authors as prolific as Salman Rushdie and continues to be celebrated the world over as a cinematic classic. I haven’t watched the film since I was Toto-sized, but its brightness and vivacity have stayed with me over the years. The original children’s book, I was pleased to discover, is equally as colourful as its film counterpart.
Baum’s novel was a bestseller following its release in 1900 and its popularity has never faded. One potential reason for its enduring success is the balance Baum strikes between traditional fairy tale moralism and mad, modern, multicoloured magic. On the one hand, The Wizard of Oz has the tightly cyclical structure of a traditional children’s story: characters are continually faced with tests and through courage, ingenuity and teamwork, their assailants are overpowered. The moral presented through the adventures of Dorothy and her companions is a moving one: only you have the power to change yourself; anyone who claims to be able to wave a magic wand and fix your problems is an instant is a fraud. This moral isn’t force-fed to the reader, and perhaps wields greater power for that very reason. The traditional structure of the story is disguised by Baum’s astounding creativity; images like the stocking-clad feet of the squashed witch and the army of flying monkeys are products of a truly childlike imagination.
Roald Dahl’s writing really has no equal: Matilda remains one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. His observations about the idiosyncrasies of parents are impressively acute, and while I don’t entirely agree with his opposition to TV, which seems like an oddly conservative position for an otherwise progressive writer, Matilda is a terrifically inspiring champion of the power of books.
4. The Worst Witch, Jill Murphy
Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch series was released long before Potter and must have influenced Rowling’s writing: both are set in in ancient castles serving as magical academies. I used to listen to The Worst Witch as an audio tape when I was too young to read it myself, and as a result an appreciation for stories featuring witchcraft has been embedded into my subconscious. Proof: three entries on this Top 5 list involve magic.
3. Witch Week, Dianne Wynne Jones
Witch Week is actually the third of seven Chrestomanci books, but true to form I started in the middle of the series. This installment takes place in a universe where magic is outlawed and punishable by death, yet insists on popping out of people at somewhat inconvenient moments. Witch Week features an intelligent and complex plot, with well-captured, imperfect characters, and while I’d recommend the Chrestomanci series as a whole, Witch Week is definitely worth opening as a stand-alone read.
2. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials is another fantasy series which is more strictly Young Adult than a children’s series, though, like the greatest of animated films for children, it can be enjoyed at any age and appreciated on different levels. Simultaneously an attempt to undermine the questionable certainties of Paradise Lost and a courageous exploration of the nature of sin, Pullman’s novels are among the most accomplished YA series that I’ve encountered.
1. Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling
The #1 spot has to go to Harry Potter: even more than ten years later, it’s still a uniquely immersive experience, at once both familiar and constantly surprising. Without being by any means ‘preachy’, the series conveys a great humanistic message about love and equality through the analogy of disenfranchised magical creatures and the capacity of a pure heart to combat the dark arts.
Luckdragons are among the strangest animals in Fantastica. They bear no resemblance to ordinary dragons, which look like loathsome snakes and live in deep caves, diffusing a noxious stench and guarding some real or imaginary treasure. Such spawn of chaos are usually wicked or ill-tempered, they have batlike wings with which they can rise clumsily and noisily into the air, and they spew fire and smoke. Luckdragons are creatures of air, warmth and pure joy. Despite their great size, they are as light as a summer cloud, and consequently need no wings for flying.
Summer is the best time to embark on a new fantasy series, as heavyweight coursebooks are no longer around to spoil the fun. Nicholson’s The Wind on Fire trilogy was the second of this summer’s discoveries, following Ness’ Chaos Walking (I enjoyed that series, though the second and third books felt vastly inferior to the first). Nicholson’s writing bears a strong similarity to Pullman’s His Dark Materials, demonstrating the same flair for meditating on deep societal issues without sacrificing storytelling. Nicholson presents a world ruled by ruthless social categorisation and exclusion, and details the escape of the rebellious protagonists from this oppressive environment. I’m very much looking forward to enjoying the next two installments, which apparently become increasingly mature in theme.
2. The Color Purple, Alice Walker
The Color Purple is an absolutely heart-breaking but essential read: it’s one of those rare stories that everyone should read and keep in mind when deciding what sort of person you aspire to become. Explicit in its portrayal of suffering and segregation, The Color Purple is also earnest in its evocation of the power of the human will over all. Celie’s story will resonate with me for a long time: ‘I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.’
1. The Italian Boy, Sarah Wise
Exhaustive in its research and expansive in scope, The Italian Boy is an exemplary piece of non-fiction. Centred around a particular case of ‘burking’ (murder for the purpose of selling the remains to medical institutes), Sarah Wise presents a panorama of 1830’s London. In addition to the disreputable histories of many respectable medical practices, The Italian Boy also turns its adept eye towards the conditions of beggars, the origins of the animal rights movement, the eagerness of the public for sensational tales of bloodshed, and the dismal living quarters of the poor. This is truly astounding investigation into the not-too-distant past and one of the most informative (and disturbing) pieces of social history I’ve encountered.