Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Today I am very pleased to recieve a couple of signed books from the delightful Krista D Ball.

Alongside her novels, Krista also researches and compiles authors guides. What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is an entertaining and informative look at how food works (or should work!) in fantasy novels. Drawing on historical sources, as well as some enthusiastic home experimentation, Krista presents a lively guide to all things mead, ale and roast boar related.

signed books from Krista D Ball

signed books from Krista D Ball

A month or so ago I won a competition to supply Krista with an interesting food related fact. Having watched many series of QI, I had no difficulty in recalling that an allergy to Brazil nuts can be triggered by sexual contact with someone who has eaten them; it is the only food allergy which can be triggered in quite this way.

I was not the only entrant to explore the strangeness of Brazil nuts, but was fortunate to be chosen the winner. For this I received not only a signed copy of What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank, but also Krista’s new writers’ guide: Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes, a Regency and Steampunk field guide.

Huzzah! I look forward very much to reading it. Thank you, Krista 😀

You can visit Krista’s blog here.
You can buy What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank here, and Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes here.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

See how lovingly dog-eared my copy is

There’s currently a Diana Wynne Jones celebration going on over on tumblr, fans posting quotes, pictures and personal memories of what she meant to them. She never seemed to make it as big as she deserved, and I don’t really understand why. But those of us who know her, love her.

DWJ has long been one of my favourite authors, and of all her books there is no question but that Howl’s Moving Castle is my favourite. The review I wrote on Amazon (so long ago that I’ve changed email addresses and it’s no longer connected to me) describes it as ‘pitch perfect.’ Every word in the book is exactly the right one.

But what’s so great about it? Firstly there is a not-quite-tongue-in-cheek, but knowing use of the traditional fantasy setting. Consider the opening paragraph:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes. Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success.

You recognise instantly the world the story inhabits and yet, of course, the rules will be turned on their heads as the story progresses.

In my opinion, DWJ’s greatest talent was not in writing magic (though she was excellent at that), but in writing characters. Her best characters are flawed, humane, funny, and so real you want to take them down the tea shop and have a natter over a pot of darjeeling and a nice scone.

Sophie Hatter is shy and undemanding, expecting little from life. But being magically transformed into an old woman unexpectedly frees her to embrace life as she never did before. She becomes outspoken, bossy and very capable. Her own latent magical powers are delightfully unconventional; she talks sternly to inanimate objects and they obey her.

Of course, Howl is the standout character in the book. Did DWJ know when she wrote him that she would break the hearts of schoolgirls (and grown women) around the world? I like to think that she did. Howl is foppish, cowardly, vain, selfish and irresponsible. He throws a mardy tantrum when his best suit is ruined, drenching the house in magical green slime. He virtually invents the concept of man flu. But of course, there is more to him than this. He is also utterly charming, and ultimately shows himself the hero we knew him to be deep down all along.

Howl’s Moving Castle is not a long book, but there is quite a lot of plot in it, some of it fiendishly convoluted. It took me about three re-reads before I finally had it all figured out in my head exactly how all the pieces fit together. But this in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book; it just made the re-reads even more fun*, as there were still things to be surprised about and unsure of (DWJ managed the same trick in the Time of the Ghost. I have only read that three or four times, but I can never remember which of the sisters the ghost actually turns out to be)

Despite all the twisty-turny confusion, DWJ delivers it all with an unexpectedly light touch. She doesn’t waffle on about scenery or weather. She doesn’t allow her protagonists to wallow or mope, no matter how dire their circumstances. She doesn’t even use big words. But her prose is perfect: light and easy to read, and always with a warm undertone of good-natured humour.

This is the scene when Howl arrives home late and drunk from his rugby club reunion:

He tried to go upstairs through the broom cupboard, and then the yard. This seemed to puzzle him a little. But finally he discovered the stairs, all except the bottom one, and fell up them on his face.

This light, easy, fun tone sounds so effortless, and is so hard to do well. I know. I’ve tried. More than any other author Diana Wynne Jones is who I try to emulate in my own writing (I called Darklands‘ protagonist Sophie as a tribute to Sophie Hatter). When I’m sunk in despondancy and lack of motivation, I’ll likely pick up Howl’s Moving Castle for a furtive little read; just to remind myself what I’m aiming for.

I give it a hundred stars (out of five) 🙂

* I’ve probably read it at least ten times.

As discussed in the preceding post, I wanted to see how far I could trim the word count on my prologue whilst retaining the spirit of the piece. I got it from 1700 words down to 1200, and I don’t think it loses much. Which is astonishing, a little worrying, but ultimately encouraging (since I want to do another edit anyway). You can read the original version here.

What do you think? Is this version as good? Is it better? I’d love to hear your opinions.

However, it has taken four or five hours to edit 1700 words, so… (come on, brain, you can do maths…), that means I’m looking at another 275 hours of extreme editing… Ouch <:-o

Prologue

30 years ago…

Catherine ran through tall grasses, the dry stems whispering past her legs. She scrambled over a fallen-down wall, and followed the ridge down towards the trees.

Last game,” warned her sister Ellie from the stone circle behind her. “I want to read my book. And it’s too hot for running around.”

Catherine didn’t answer. At the edge of the trees, she ducked beneath a broken fence, and carried on running, sandalled feet thumping on the dry earth. She plunged through carpets of bluebells, past pale, papery birch trunks. The sunlight grew muted and greenish, filtered through new spring leaves.

She ran until she reached a gnarled and hollow oak. She crawled inside, wriggling round, and pressing her back up against the dry wood. Then she waited.

She watched spiders idling in their thick webs, a millipede questing blindly against her sandal. Her breath seemed loud in the still, musty air.

Ellie would never find her, she was quite certain. Her sister was almost 16, more interested in lipstick and fashion magazines than rummaging around with dirt and creepy crawlies. Smiling to herself, Catherine reached above her head, gathering cobwebs around a stick, like candy floss. The spiders scattered, and showers of dust and dead leaves rained down into her upturned face.

She heard a soft, grass-muffled footfall from beyond the tree, but was too late to hold back a dry cough. Still as stone, she waited, ears straining for a further sound. There was none for a moment, as though outside Ellie also stood still, waiting. Then – another footfall, light and delicate. She was near. Catherine held her breath, ignoring the tickle of a spider web across her arm.

So close it sounded as though it came from the dark interior of the tree above her, “I hear you.” Hoarse and cracked, and soft as wind soughing through dry leaves, it was not Ellie’s voice.

The blood beat heavy behind Catherine’s ears. There was a sound like little bubbles popping. A sudden pressure behind her eyes made her gasp with pain, burying her face in her knees.

As quickly as it came, the pressure lifted. Catherine cautiously raised her head, looking out across the clearing. There was a soft, low sigh, and a dark figure filled the sunlit gap. She had an impression of long, ratty hair, ragged clothes, blunt fingers reaching towards her. She lunged forward, bowling the figure over.

Catherine pelted into the trees. She ran headlong through stands of nettles, stumbled on fallen branches, regained her feet and pushed on – never daring to look back for the ragged stranger.

Reaching the low wall at the edge of the trees, she climbed and jumped, hardly noticing the barbed wire catch at her ankle. She fell awkwardly, twisting round to gaze up at the serene blue sky.

She climbed slowly to her feet, peering back into the quiet, dappled woods. No dark figure pursued her. She backed up the hillside towards the stone circle, sunshine slick and heavy on her skin.

ELLIE!” she yelled.

There was no answer but birdsong and the lazy chirring of insects. Catherine called again. She thought of Ellie alone in the woods, searching for her, unaware of the shadowy stranger. She ought to warn her. But her skin prickled to think of encountering the ragged man again. She called again, and her throat felt raw.

As she hesitated, a gentle breeze whispered past her ears. The sweat cooled on her forehead. She could see their house from there, down on the edge of town. It all looked so normal and safe and reliable. Catherine began to wonder if perhaps she had overreacted. She’d seen a tramp in the woods. He was probably just looking for somewhere to crash out. She probably scared him more than he scared her – bowling past him like that. Ellie must have got bored when she couldn’t find her, and simply gone home.

She tried not to think about the quiet, insistent way the man said, I hear you. It didn’t mean anything. Everyone knew tramps were crazy. Otherwise they’d live in houses and have jobs. Catherine hurried down the hillside towards home, telling herself that when she got there she would find Ellie already sitting on the sofa, eating the cake mum had promised to make.

But when she reached home Ellie was not there, and mum had not seen her. Mum said Ellie would be over at one of her friends’ houses, and she’d turn up in good time. She told Catherine not to be silly, and gave her a thick slice of chocolate cake, still steaming from the oven. She phoned round Ellie’s friends, but none of them had seen her.

I’d better go and find her,” she told Catherine. “Stay here. Listen for the phone. You can guarantee she’ll call as soon as I’m out of the house.”

It was an hour before she returned. “Did she call?” she asked, and Catherine shook her head. Mum’s face seemed to fold in on itself then. She made Catherine tell again everything that had happened, especially about the tramp. Dad got home from work, and he and mum spoke quietly in the kitchen, the door closed behind them.

Dad’s face was stony as he pulled on his boots and went out to the woods to look again. Mum sat quietly for a moment, then she phoned the police.

When dad came back, the police were already there. A female officer listened carefully as Catherine told her about the hollow tree and the tramp. “Sounds like you’ve had a fright,” she told Catherine. To mum, she said, “I’m sure your daughter will turn up. Nine times out of ten, they’re over at a friend’s house, completely oblivious of the worry they’re causing.”

Gran came over and sat with Catherine while mum and dad, Mr and Mrs Next Door and all the police officers went out again to search for Ellie. It was dark when they returned, and Catherine had been asleep on the sofa, snuggled up to gran’s side. Mum hugged her and she and dad both told her how much they loved her. Mum said to go to bed and everything would be alright. But she cried while she said it.

A photo of Ellie was sent to the local papers and made into posters and put up all around town. The tramp was found sleeping in woodland some miles away. He resisted being taken in for questioning, lashing out at anyone who touched him. Things looked bad for him when he was found to be wearing Ellie’s sunglasses – until they were taken from him, revealing a blind and mutilated face.

Horrified by the ragged scars where his eyes should have been, the police asked the man what had happened to him. He told them nothing, and was eventually sent to a psychiatric hospital. But he removed himself the same night, preferring to sleep rough and scavenge for food. It was remarkable how well he was able to move around, all the while muttering to himself, in little pops and whistles.

The opening chapter of young adult fantasy novel, Darklands by Emma Woodcock.

Prologue

30 years ago…

Catherine ran through tall grasses, the dry stems whispering past her bare legs. She scrambled over a low, fallen-down wall, thick with foxgloves, then followed the ridge down towards the trees.

On the hilltop behind her, enclosed in the ring of ancient stones, Ellie cupped plump, pink fingers over her sunglasses and counted. It was too hot, and she was too old for hide and seek. She watched the brilliant sunlight melt around her fingers, and thought of the romance novel she’d borrowed from the adult section of the library. She would far rather be lying in the garden with a cold drink and her book.

One last game, she told herself. And then she’d go home. Her sister would just have to entertain herself.

Lost in the woods

At the edge of the trees, Catherine ducked beneath a broken fence, its single rope of barbed wire slack and unthreatening. On the ground lay a tattered wooden board, its once thick red lettering, PRIVATE – KEEP OUT, barely legible. She pushed through a bank of pungent ferns and carried on running, her sandaled feet thumping hollowly on the dry earth. She left the faint path behind, plunging through carpets of bluebells, past pale, papery birch trunks. The sunlight grew muted and greenish, filtered through new spring leaves.

Catherine ran until she reached a clearing where an ancient oak squatted, bulbous and hollow. She rested against the gnarled tree for a moment. The air was drowsy with the scent of hawthorn blossom. She crouched down and crawled inside the musty trunk, wriggling round til her back pressed up against the rough, dry wood. Her breath was loud in the tight, warm space. She drew up her knees as far as she could, scuffing aside the litter of dead leaves.

Her eyes adjusted to the gloomy interior of the tree. She watched spiders idling in their thick webs, a millipede questing blindly against her tan leather sandal. Ellie would never find her, she was quite certain. Her sister was almost 16, more interested in boys and lipstick and fashion magazines than rummaging around with dirt and creepy crawlies. Catherine smiled to herself, and gently upended a flat stone. She watched as a scurry of woodlice fled to a safer home, spurring them on with an encouraging stick. She idly wondered how long she should wait before quitting her hiding place and claiming victory.

The last of the woodlice disappeared amongst the tree’s lumpen roots, and Catherine cast about for something else to amuse herself with. Taking a broken twig she reached above her head and began to gather cobwebs around it like candy floss. The spiders scattered, and showers of dust and dead leaves rained down into her upturned face.

She heard the soft, grass-muffled footfall from outside the tree, but was too late to hold back the dry cough that tickled her throat. Recovering, she clamped her hands over her mouth, still as stone, ears strained for a further sound. There was none for a moment, as though outside Ellie also stood still, waiting. Then, another footfall, light and delicate. She was near. Catherine held her breath, ignoring the tickle of a spider web across her shoulder.

So close it sounded as though it came from the dark interior of the tree above her, “I hear you.” Hoarse and cracked, and soft as wind soughing through dry leaves, it was not Ellie’s voice.

The blood beat heavy behind Catherine’s ears, seeming to shake the tree above and the ground beneath her. There was a sound like little bubbles popping. A sudden pressure behind her eyes made her wince with pain, doubling over and burying her face in her knees. Go away! I’m not here, she thought as fiercely as she could.

As quickly as it came, the pressure lifted. Catherine cautiously raised her head, looking out through the split tree trunk at the still, empty clearing. Stray drifts of blossom fell gently to earth. A lone cuckoo called further off amongst the trees. She kneaded her forehead, dizzy and disoriented.

There was a soft, low sigh, and a dark figure filled the bright slash of sunlit woods. It crouched, leaning forward, reaching out a hand towards her. Catherine had an impression of long, ratty hair, ragged clothes, large blunt fingers. She lunged forward, bowling the figure over, and ran, her ears still ringing from a scream she didn’t recognise as her own.

Stumbling across the clearing, Catherine pelted into the ranks of ghostly pale birches. She ran headlong through stands of nettles, stumbled on fallen branches, regained her feet and pushed on, never daring to look back for the ragged stranger.

Reaching the low wall at the edge of the trees, Catherine climbed and jumped. She hardly noticed the barbed wire catch at her ankle, but fell awkwardly, twisting round to gaze up at the serene blue sky and bobbing lime green leaves.

Winded, she climbed slowly to her feet, searching through the pale trunks and rich undergrowth. No dark figure pursued her. Not taking her eyes from the shadowed woods, she backed up the hillside towards the stone circle. The sunshine lay slick and heavy on her skin.

ELLIE!” she yelled as loudly as she could.

There was no answer but birdsong and the lazy chirring of insects. Catherine called again, down towards the close-packed houses of Blackbrook, towards the trees, the moors, and away across the fields. She thought of Ellie alone in the woods, searching for her, unaware of the shadowy stranger. Should she go back? Call for help? Her skin prickled to think of stepping back under the gently rustling shade of the birches. She called again, and her throat felt raw and ragged.

A gentle breeze whispered past her ears. The sweat cooled on her forehead. She could see their house from there, down on the edge of town. It all looked so normal and safe and reliable. Catherine began to wonder if perhaps she had overreacted. She’d seen a tramp in the woods. He was probably just looking for somewhere to crash out. She probably scared him more than he scared her – bowling past him like that. Ellie must have got bored when she couldn’t find Catherine, and gone home.

She tried not to think about the quiet, insistent way the man said, I hear you. It didn’t mean anything. Everyone knew tramps were crazy. Otherwise they’d live in houses and have jobs. Catherine hurried down the hillside towards home, telling herself that when she got there she would find Ellie already sitting on the sofa, eating the cake mum had promised to make.

But when she reached home Ellie was not there, and mum had not seen her. Mum said Ellie would be over at one of her friends’ houses, and she’d turn up in good time. She told Catherine not to be silly, and gave her a thick slice of chocolate cake, rich with walnuts and dried fruit, still steaming from the oven. But all Catherine could taste was cobwebs and musty leaves.

Mum phoned round Ellie’s friends. None of them had seen her. “I’d better go and find her,” she told Catherine. “Stay here. Listen for the phone. You can guarantee she’ll call as soon as I’m out of the house.” A boy, she decided. There’s probably a boy we don’t know about. But she paused at the cupboard under the stairs and took up an old walking stick, testing its weight in her hand.

It was an hour before she returned. “Did she call?” she asked, and Catherine shook her head. Mum’s face seemed to fold in on itself then. Her lips grew tight and pale. She made Catherine tell again everything that had happened, especially about the tramp. Dad got home from work, and he and mum spoke quietly in the kitchen, the door closed behind them.

Dad’s face was stony as he pulled on his boots and went out to the hill and the stones and the woods to look again. Mum sat quietly for a moment chewing at her lips. Then she picked up the phone and called the police.

When dad came back, hoarse and red-faced from shouting, the police were already there. A kind lady officer listened carefully as Catherine told her about the hollow tree and the tramp. “Sounds like you’ve had a fright,” she told Catherine. To mum, she said, “I’m sure your daughter will turn up. Nine times out of ten, they’re over at a friend’s house, completely oblivious of the worry they’re causing.”

Catherine wondered about the one time out of ten when that didn’t happen. Gran came over and sat with her while mum and dad and Mr Watson from next door, and Mr and Mrs Brough from other next door and the police officers went out again to search for Ellie.

“I’ll give that girl what for!” promised mum, her face pale and blotchy. “How can she be so thoughtless?”

It was dark when they returned, and Catherine had been asleep on the sofa, snuggled up to gran’s side. Mum hugged Catherine and she and dad both told her how much they loved her. They told her to go to bed and everything would be alright.

“Where’s Ellie?” Catherine asked. “Did you find her?”

A photo of Ellie dad had taken on their holiday to Cornwall the year before was sent to the local papers and the TV station and made into posters and put up all around town.

The police found the tramp asleep in woodland some miles away. He resisted being taken in for questioning, lashing out wildly at anyone who touched him. Things looked bad for him when he was found to be wearing Ellie’s sunglasses – until they were taken from him, revealing a blind and mutilated face. Horrified by the ragged scars where his eyes should have been, the police asked the man what had happened to him. He told them nothing, and was eventually sent to a psychiatric hospital. He removed himself the same night, preferring to sleep rough and scavenge for food. It was remarkable how well he was able to move around, all the while muttering to himself, in little pops and whistles.

Like it? Want to find out what happens next? Buy darklands eBook, and carry on reading!