Category Archives: Fantasy

Review – The Mirror and the Mage, by David Frauenfelder

The Mirror and the Mage is a young adult book – not my usual fodder – but is also a historical fantasy, which is more familiar territory. The story is set in the very early days of the Roman Republic, when the Etruscans were the most significant challengers to the growth of Rome. We follow a youth, Lucius, who wants to serve his king but whose real talents are intellectual. In other cultures he would be a scribe, but his society values Mars more than Mercury. It is a familiar situation for many. Basically, he is a geek trying to survive in the middle of the gang war which was early Roman political life.

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Cover image - The Mirror and the MageLucius finds a resolution for his dilemma by becoming an apprentice to an old magician, Publius Litterarius. The basis of magic here is partly verbal – you have to get the words correct in both meaning and grammar – and partly resource-based, requiring particular crystals to become effective. Lucius goes through a sense of progressively more complex and dangerous situations as he learns his art. He also, appropriately for a YA book, grapples with personal responsibility and a growing awareness of the other sex.

The book is not just an entertaining story, but aims to be a tool for learning Latin as well. If you want to be like Lucius, you have to learn your grammar! I have to say that I wish I had been taught Latin like this many years ago – like a lot of other people I was simply exposed to lists of word patterns identified by strange names I did not at that stage know from English – accusative, dative, ablative, pluperfect and so on. Nowadays I have a better sense of what these mean, but at the time they were so much phlogiston (and much less fun). I am fairly sure that if I had had the kind of imaginative presentation used in this book, I would have learned to like languages a whole lot earlier.

So The Mirror and the Mage can be read both as a fun story of magical apprenticeship, and a creative teaching aid. Either way I would recommend it if you like YA books, or are contemplating buying one for somebody else.

Review – Spiral, by Judith Schara

Spiral, by Judith Schara, is a book which slightly defies categorisation – part historical fiction, part timeslip, part fantasy, and illuminated throughout by Judith’s evident enthusiasm for her subject. Regardless of the other facets, however, it is as historical fiction that it stands out most clearly to me.

Spiral - cover image
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Buy Spiral from

Spiral opens in the modern day, following an archaeologist, Germaine, as she becomes involved with a new dig at Iron Age levels at Maiden Castle, in Dorset. Now this is a place I know well, having lived near there some time ago, and finding it in a book brought back happy memories of exploring its steep banks and ditches. I don’t have a handy picture of Maiden Castle, so here is another hill fort in Dorset, Hambledon Hill.
Hambledon Hill, Dorset
In the story, however, modern Maiden Castle is not just a fun place to roam around, but the focal point of competing ambitions – academic, political, religious, reputational, and monetary. Germaine finds herself caught up in this vortex, but is only dimly aware of it. Driven by her own need for recognition, she puts herself in life-threatening danger – and we are plunged into the world of Iron Age Britain, and the life of a girl called Sabrann.

From here on the story follows dual tracks – for the most part we follow Sabrann and an assortment of companions out of Britain, into northern France and finally to Carthage. There is a lot of voyaging, and neither the travellers nor the reader can spend long at any of the fascinating locations visited. Sabrann is under constant threat, both physical and spiritual, and has to learn how to recognise and trust friends amongst a crowd of enemies. Meanwhile from time to time we return to glimpses of Germaine’s modern world.

Spiral is simply the first book in a series (“Book One of the Spiral in Time“), and so it ends with a great many issues unresolved. Sabrann and her friends have survived great peril, but are separated and do not know what the future will bring. Germaine is recovering, but unsure what to do next. As readers, we have been introduced to some of the deep connections between people of the two time periods, but a great deal remains unknown. One assumes that further revelations will follow in later books.

Now, I must admit that I prefer books which are self-contained, and there is a certain frustration in getting to the end and finding major plot themes not tied up. I can, and do, enjoy, a connected series of books, but not so much a multi-volume work of this kind. Other readers will perhaps appreciate this style of presentation more than I, and Judith makes it quite clear that you only have Book One in your hands.

The fantasy elements enter in a couple of ways. First, there are very occasional overt demonstrations of magical or spiritual power. More commonly though, fantasy enters through the constant level of imminent danger, and Judith’s chosen styles of characterisation. The book’s central characters are quite nicely rounded, but some people that they encounter, especially in Carthage, have the slightly larger than life, archetypal quality of fantasy rather than “straight” historical fiction. In Carthage the standard fantasy trope of “organised religion = bad, personal spirituality = good” is very prominent. Again, readers may differ in their response to this.

I mentioned timeslip, but Judith’s handling of this is innovative. Germaine and Sabrann are connected in a profound way, but it is not altogether clear (at the end of Book One) how much they recognise each other’s reality, or whether they will ever be able to. What we have is a pattern of recapitulation and discovery rather than time travel, and it will be interesting to see how the pattern is further developed.

Technically the Kindle edition I read was well produced and edited, and a pleasure to read.

For me, a strong 4* book. I would have enjoyed longer spells of time at the places visited, especially as Judith has a clear knowledge of and delight in her subject. The continual focus on danger and probable death from any of multiple causes distracted me from simply enjoying and immersing myself in ordinary life. I realised that as a reader (and writer) I tend to enjoy everyday life scenarios more than high profile crises! And, as mentioned, I found the lack of closure within the book a little frustrating. However, I very much appreciated the focus on Iron Age culture outside the Roman experience, along with the multicultural issues faced by the characters. Sabrann herself was a memorable character – more so than Germaine, who has been given less narrative space so far.

I will certainly be looking out for other books in the series.

Review – A Champion’s Duty, by Lavinia Collins

A Champion’s Duty, by Lavinia Collins, is the middle section of a trilogy following the Arthurian story cycle, as seen through the eyes of Guinevere. I have not yet read the first book – I downloaded this instalment as a promotional copy from Amazon – and in part was curious as to how far the book made sense on its own.

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Cover image - A Champion`s Duty
On this count I am very happy to say that it made perfect sense – of course there were places where previous events were referenced, but never in a way that left you lost. As befits the middle of a trilogy, the story ends with the central characters stranded in a seemingly desperate situation.

Lavinia has followed the rather ambiguous information in her source materials in order to place the story. Clear late Medieval signals such as plate armour and Saracen champions sit in a much older context in which England – and Europe – was still split into a myriad tiny principalities, and Rome was a powerful force within living memory. Superior kings such as Arthur attract lesser local lords into their retinue, knowing that if their might or reputation slips, their following will vanish again, or turn hostile. Real places and events live alongside Christian and pre-Christian symbolic ones. The story is not quite historical fiction, not quite fantasy, but something in between.

The main focus of this book is the conflicted feelings that Guinevere has for both Arthur and Lancelot. A queen’s life in this martial society was both lonely and dangerous, but Lavinia compellingly portrays Guinevere as driven by overwhelming attraction for both men. She is neither simply looking for a bored-housewife style diversion nor passively exploited by those around her. Guinevere’s perspective, as an independently minded, passionate and determined woman in a world governed by warlike men, provides a refreshing view on the expected world of battles and jousts.

The book was let down by some careless editing and proofreading, including some apparently random nonsense sequences of letters which had slipped through the editorial net. This was particularly surprising given the overall quality of the imagination and characterisation.

The other main difficulty – which Lavinia grapples with throughout the book – is how to retell a story which has so many well known episodes in it. She successfully threads a way between a straight historicised version on the one hand, and magical mysticism on the other, but it is a hard task that she has set herself.

On balance for me this was another 4* book. I am very glad to have taken advantage of the promotion, and am curious to see how Lavinia tackles the story’s end, but will have a pause before purchasing #3 to let this one sink in a little more.

Review – Initiate, by Tara Maya

Initiate, by Tara Maya, is a young adult fantasy book with a difference. It is the first in a series with overall title The Unfinished Song. Unlike some of the standard fantasy settings – such as medieval era swordsmen or contemporary vampires – Tara has placed her story in a Stone Age context. So life is at a tribal subsistence level, and there is no writing, and virtually nothing one would describe as technology. Coming from my own preferred Late Bronze Age setting, this had a refreshing simplicity and directness.

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Buy The Unfinished Song – Book 1: Initiate from

Cover - Initiate by Tara Maya

Tara has deliberately not geographically located the tale, but to me it has a Central American feel, with a mix of arid and fertile land, forest and plain, and transport routes between the tribes often following rivers.

The premise of the magic is not exotic herbs or complex spell-casting, but forms of dance. These are tailored to the situation, and differ between men and women as well as the desired outcome. It is a mixture of sympathetic magic, symbolic power and actual connection with the unseen world. There are distinct echoes of George MacDonald’s flower fairies – not the simple pretty ones of modern poster art, but the darker and more mysterious ones of his fantasy fiction.

As befits a young adult book, the story revolves around a coming of age initiation ceremony. The story follows various groups of initiates as they head towards the traditional holy place, a set of concentric stone circles. Along the way we get insight into back-stories by means of visions or direct recollection.

The story is young adult – intimacy or violence is touched delicately rather than in detail, and characters are clear-cut in motivation and personality. It is also only the first in a series, so ends on something of a cliffhanger. I’m never totally convinced that I like this, and feel better about stories that are closely linked but stand alone. However, this first book in the series is free to download from a number of the usual sites, so you get a chance to see how much you like it before buying in to the series!

Technically the book was well produced. A tiny handful of typos do not in the least detract from the story. The navigation worked well on my Kindle copy.

YA is not really my thing, and on balance I would have preferred the same storyline and setting with more depth and ambiguity in the telling. But so far as I can tell this is a good book of its kind, and I am very happy to give it a solid four stars.

Tara kindly supplied on request a short biography, book blurb, and extract, which now follow:

Tara Maya has lived in Africa, Europe and Asia. She’s pounded sorghum with mortar and pestle in a little clay village where the jungle meets the desert, meditated in a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas and sailed the Volga river to a secret city that was once the heart of the Soviet space program. This first-hand experience, as well as research into the strange and piquant histories of lost civilizations, inspires her writing. Her terrible housekeeping, however, is entirely the fault of pixies.

Dindi can’t do anything right, maybe because she spends more time dancing with pixies than doing her chores. Her clan hopes to marry her off and settle her down, but she dreams of becoming a Tavaedi, one of the powerful warrior-dancers whose secret magics are revealed only to those who pass a mysterious Test during the Initiation ceremony. The problem? No-one in Dindi’s clan has ever passed the Test. Her grandmother died trying. But Dindi has a plan.

Kavio is the most powerful warrior-dancer in Faearth, but when he is exiled from the tribehold for a crime he didn’t commit, he decides to shed his old life. If roving cannibals and hexers don’t kill him first, this is his chance to escape the shadow of his father’s wars and his mother’s curse. But when he rescues a young Initiate girl, he finds himself drawn into as deadly a plot as any he left behind. He must decide whether to walk away or fight for her… assuming she would even accept the help of an exile.


Blue-skinned rusalki grappled Dindi under the churning surface of the river. She could feel their claws dig into her arms. Their riverweed-like hair entangled her legs when she tried to kick back to the surface. She only managed to gulp a few breaths of air before they pulled her under again.

She hadn’t appreciated how fast and deep the river was. On her second gasp for air, she saw that the current was already dragging her out of sight of the screaming girls on the bank. A whirlpool of froth and fae roiled between two large rocks in the middle of the river. The rusalka and her sisters tugged Dindi toward it. Other water fae joined the rusalki. Long snouted pookas, turtle-like kappas and hairy-armed gwyllions all swam around her, leading her to the whirlpool, where even more fae swirled in the whitewater.

“Join our circle, Dindi!” the fae voices gurgled under the water. “Dance with us forever!”

“No!” She kicked and swam and stole another gasp for air before they snagged her again. There were so many of them now, all pulling her down, all singing to the tune of the rushing river. She tried to shout, “Dispel!” but swallowed water instead. Her head hit a rock, disorienting her. She sank, this time sure she wouldn’t be coming up again.

“Dispel!” It was a man’s voice.

Strong arms encircled her and lifted her until her arms and head broke the surface. Her rescuer swam with her toward the shore. He overpowered the current, he shrugged aside the hands of the water faeries stroking his hair and arms. When he reached the shallows, he scooped Dindi into his arms and carried her the rest of the way to the grassy bank. He set her down gently.

She coughed out some water while he supported her back.

“Better?” he asked.

She nodded. He was young–only a few years older than she. The aura of confidence and competence he radiated made him seem older. Without knowing quite why, she was certain he was a Tavaedi.

“Good.” He had a gorgeous smile. A wisp of his dark bangs dangled over one eye. He brushed his dripping hair back over his head.

Dindi’s hand touched skin–he was not wearing any shirt. Both of them were sopping wet. On him, that meant trickles of water coursed over a bedrock of muscle. As for her, the thin white wrap clung transparently to her body like a wet leaf. She blushed.

“It might have been easier to swim if you had let go of that,” he teased. He touched her hand, which was closed around something. “What were you holding onto so tightly that it mattered more than drowning?”

Review – Athame and Wrath by Morgan Alreth

ABNA General Ficton categoryTime for a review amongst all the excitement of Scenes from a Life and the ABNA awards.

So, this review covers the first two books in Morgan Alreth’s The Unfortunate Woods series – Athame and Wrath. The series continues in a third book which at the time of writing has not yet been released.

These are fantasy books, set in a world where humans are the most numerous species, but share the land (and especially the forest) with several other natural and supernatural life forms. Relationships between the species tend to drift from neutral towards hostile, with occasional times of cooperation for specific shared goals.

Magic is, as you might expect, a vital part of the setting. The magic system is based around the four classical elements (fire, water, earth, air), with connections to the four seasons as well as other binary or four-fold natural or human divisions. Each element is linked to a deity with suitable qualities. It seems to me to be fundamentally well thought-out, particularly in Wrath where there is more development of the interconnections. An important plot theme is that pretty much any serious use of magic tends to have unpredictable side-effects, small compared to the original purpose but needing to be taken into account.

Athame opens in a wild and dangerous forest. A woman living here, Jess, chooses to help a man, Pete, who is lost, saving his life from any number of potential threats. He turns out to be a significant player in the royal succession drama unfolding in the country. Unsurprisingly, but credibly, the two eventually become lovers.

The plot continues with Jess and Pete venturing out of the forest and back to the capital city. This turns out to be every bit as dangerous as the wild forest, but with human rather than exotic enemies. There are definite echoes of Crocodile Dundee here, though the gender roles are switched, and the couple here is much more equally matched in talent and ability.

Athame ends with them having resolved a serious external threat, but separating for what appear to be perfectly sensible and necessary reasons. However, this is a source of grief to both.

Wrath – over twice as long according to my kindle – tracks subsequent events. They start separately, in different regions of the world, as they try to resolve their individual destinies; both have to face different but significant threats. Eventually they reunite, but tact and spoiler avoidance forbids me saying how this turns out. Suffice it to say that their quest returns them to their country of origin, which by now has fallen into serious civil unrest.

The hints and clues you get about the third book indicate that the overall problems of succession and disunity will be resolved, perhaps with a level of reconciliation between the various non-human species as well.

So, the books are interesting, and many aspects of the world seem credible to me. What are the down sides? Firstly, there is a theme I have also encountered in some of Morgan’s other writing. Rural settings may well be dangerous, but are basically clean and honourable; rural individuals are poor and bluntly spoken but honest. In contrast, cities and towns – anything bigger than a handful of houses together – are filthy, disease-ridden, and full of cruel and wickedly motivated individuals. Countryside is good: towns are bad. I am not really convinced by this.

In Athame, another rather simple binary opposition is between organised religion (largely in the hands of men and fundamentally corrupt) and personal spirituality (largely in the hands of women and basically uplifting and respectable). Wrath is more nuanced about this, and smooths out the earlier stark contrast into lots of intermediate shades of a spectrum.

Another difficulty is with the opponents. I guess it is par for the course for fantasy heroes to get increasingly more powerful themselves, and have a coterie of increasingly powerful followers. But how do you then find worthy adversaries? Somehow, the filthy, disease-ridden cities and their temples manage to turn out a whole collection of fearsome, top-of-the range fighting men and magician-priests.

The production of the kindle copy is mixed. My copies were downloaded from Smashwords, and the rather patchy navigation may be a consequence of that site’s conversion software. However, there are a surprising number of spelling errors, format problems, and other minor issues which should have been caught during rounds of proof reading.

In summary, these two books still come out as four star books for me. Certainly worth the read if you like fantasy books, and the series develops some interesting ideas. The gradual build-up of the plot is credible. Speaking as a Brit, some of the dialogue rather grates, but US readers might appreciate it more. However, the flaws which I have mentioned diminished my enjoyment of the whole, and made me feel that Morgan could have lavished a little more care on the production of the books as well as the imaginative aspects. I do intend to catch up on the conclusion of the series in time, so these flaws have not deterred me from carrying on.

These books were made available to me without charge but with no expectation of a review.

Reviews – Phantastes and Lilith

I was reminded of George MacDonald’s writing by a friend on Google+, and he has been a great find. I already knew that CS Lewis acknowledged him as a major inspiration, but had not expected to find out just how large an influence he has been on modern fantasy as an entire genre.

I devoured two of his works in rapid succession – Phantastes and Lilith – and found them to have substantial differences as well as similarities. In both cases, MacDonald felt the need to devise a means for his protagonist to make the transition from the world we live in, into the particular fantasy world of the title in question. This is definitely a feature of the era, also seen in some equally inventive traveller’s tales stories of the 19th century which never aspire to magic or the land of Faerie. Many modern authors would probably begin his or her story directly in the other realm, but Lewis used various devices such as the well-known Wardrobe, or the ‘Wood between the Worlds’ to this end. For MacDonald and his contemporaries, the transition, and the relationship between the worlds, was an important ingredient.

Some of MacDonald’s ideas have become so commonplace that some readers may think there is little originality in the books. Tolkien’s ents are here, along with Lewis’s courtly culture and virtues, and just about everyone’s goblins and elves. In common with a great many other writers, the societies are basically medieval in outlook. People ride horses, fight with bladed weapons, and communicate face to face. Limited magical abilities are present, but not as learned talents for just anyone – they are an innate faculty of some beings and inaccessible to others.

Of the two books, Lilith is much more overtly concerned with Christian themes, building on the tradition that the woman of that name was Adam’s first wife. Some familiarity with Christian elaboration of this idea helps, but is not essential, since the tradition MacDonald is using comes from outside the written text of the Bible. His profound commitment to principles of eternal hope and redemption drives the conflicts and resolutions of the book’s characters. Themes of life and death fill the book, together with the Christian duty to lay aside the everyday life in order to put on a new kind of life. It is a duty which comes no more easily to the book’s main character than to any of the rest of us.

Phantastes, subtitled ‘A Faerie Romance for Men and Women‘, is, perhaps, a more conventional fantasy tale. It describes a quest and trial of passage in which the central character has to identify and master his shadow side – just as Ged has to in Ursula LeGuin’s EarthSea books. There are mysterious beings, often women, locked inside wood or stone and waiting to be released by the right individual. There are warnings about particular actions or pathways, most of which are ignored by the protagonist who has a rather exaggerated sense not only of his own safety, but also the ability of the wider world to survive his rash deeds unscathed. The theme reaches back to Greek mythology (if not earlier), and forward to our own ecological travails. And finally there is the necessary noble deed which cannot be accomplished except through the gates of death.

The books, especially Phantastes, will not just appeal to fantasy fans, but are also of interest to students of psychology. Some passages anticipate the later formal development of psychotherapeutic understanding. Students of the life and work of, say, Freud and Jung will already know just how much of their thinking rested on earlier foundations laid by artists, philosophers, and authors. Here in 1858 we already have MacDonald writing about the “forgotten life, which lies behind the consciousness”, and the mutual dependence of external objects with the “hidden things of a man’s soul”.

Having said all that, some people will, no doubt, be impatient with these works. For me they were definitely both five star books, not least because many of my favourite authors have so obviously been influenced by them. They have survived over 150 years of literary development remarkably well, but inevitably use some constructions and habits of thought which will seem dated to the modern reader. If you are keen on exploring one of the foundational authors of modern fantasy, and willing to work with the conventions of the 19th century, these books are for you.

Cover image - Phantastes
Cover image - LIlith