Category Archives: fantasy

Lord Huw And The Romance Of Stone by Dave Hutchinson

Lord Huw And The Romance Of Stone

by Dave Hutchinson

Published by Dave Hutchinson, 2012

Despite this site’s focus on all things dark and horrific, that’s not all I read. I am and always have been a fan of SF, Fantasy, Crime and Historical fiction but to date I have limited my reviews here to horror and dark Fiction books. That will remain the main focus of this blog but I thought it might be interesting to add some variety to spice things up so I intend to post reviews of things I have read outwith the horror genre.

One of my favourite SF books of recent years was Dave Hutchinson’s Push, it was intelligent, literate and a bloody fine read (I reviewed it for the BFS but can’t find a link to the review at the moment, trust me it was great, the book that is not the review, although that was probably pretty good as well!). So I was intrigued to see this short ebook from Dave on Amazon, intrigued because it seems to mark a new direction in his writing and it’s one that I thoroughly approve of.

This is a short book by anyone’s standard, Amazon lists it as equivalent to 16 pages so it’s more of a chapbook than a novella but those 16 pages held me spellbound so don’t let the diminished size put you off. Lord Huw is  a Knight Defender of the Western Marches in this fantasy story as recounted by Lineas the Scribe. We learn how Lord Huw lived a harsh existence, issuing harsh justice on the people of the Western marches, described as an “awful howling wildernesses of crags, fells, lochs and creeks” far from the King’s home in the South where “orchards and citrus groves scent the warm air”. Lord Huw resides in Castle Aran, a structure “entirely without architectural merit” a place in keeping with the rough landscape and life he leads. Soon, however his neighbour Lord Compaigne builds a castle for himself, Castle Carbury, “the most wondrous castle in the whole kingdom”.

And so we hear of Lord Huw’s increasing obsession with Carbury and the desperate lengths he goes to make it his own. This wonderful and magical story is narrated by the marvellously  sardonic Lineas who has borne “haemorrhoids, a persistent cough and a near unbearable cramp in my writing hand” whilst compiling the folk tales of the people of the land. But this tale is more than a simple fairy tale, the final section of the book reveals that this is a much more important tale and a metaphor for unrequited love.

With an intriguing medieval fantasy settings, spiced with magic, wonderful characters, even some horror, this story really hit the mark. The tone of the narrator was just right and the revelatory ending raises the whole thing to another level. Is it too short? Yes, but not in relation to value for money (it’s only a £1!), only because I want to spend more time in this land. Here’s hoping Dave Hutchinson revisits this world soon but in the meantime spend your pocket money on a fine story by an excellent storyteller.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

1 Comment

Filed under fantasy, fiction, Review

Fallen by Tim Lebbon

Fallen

by Tim Lebbon

Published by Allison and Busby, 2008.

In the unexplored regions of Noreela there are rumours of the Great Divide, a massive cliff which demarcates the end of the known world and something else, something unknown. Ramus and Nomi obtain a parchment from a voyager who claims to have visited the region and it indicates that there are other, even greater, mysteries to be explored. Faced with the dangers of the unknown but also potential fame and fortune they set off on the ultimate challenge and potentially lethal expedition.

Tim Lebbon has created a fantastic adventure novel reminiscent of the classics, think “Journey To The Centre Of The Earth” or “The Lost World” but in a unique and imaginative fantasy setting. The main characters are rich and detailed but many retain an aura of mystery which is never fully explained allowing for interesting tension points to develop. They are motivated by that inexplicable need to explore, at any cost.

The true star of the show in Noreela itself. Tim Lebbon avoids most of the fantasy cliches in his writing (the book doesn’t even have a map) but instead creates a land populated with mysterious beings, creatures and landscapes. Cleverly avoiding exposition the author allows the descriptions of the places and sites to tell their own stories, its a great skill to be able to invoke the feel of a place with a few choice adjectives but it’s a skill that Tim Lebbon shows frequently. This allows the narrative to roll along without the pauses and long winded explanations normally required to fill in the backstory, it also retains mystery and intrigue right to the end.

The plot itself is fairly simplistic but add in the characters and mysteries found along the journey and it evolves into something much greater than the sum of it’s parts. Tim Lebbon has created more mystery, intrigue and downright thrills than most fantasy writers achieve in an entire trilogy but more importantly he creates an emotional attachment to the main characters that many lesser writers never achieve.

Reading fantasy can be something of a guilty pleasure, tortuous world building, generic, bland characters and creatures and frankly, childish plots abound. Of course writers like Joe Abercrombie have shaken the genre up with their adult themes giving it a much needed maturity boost but there has also been a tendency to shock just for the hell of it (not from Joe Abercrombie I hasten to add). This book, I think, achieves the perfect balance, mature in tone (sex, violence and swearing are all present but never gratuitous) but still with that element of escapism which is, after all, why we read and enjoy fantasy in the first place. Above all, however it’s a bloody good read, a fast paced, emotionally charged and skillful masterclass in fantasy writing. It might not go down well with the purists who may miss the dwarves, goblins and Thrustbladder Axecrumpler type characters but for readers who want something different, and are prepared to explore a little, its highly recommended.

Rating 4 out of 5

Leave a comment

Filed under dark, fantasy, fiction, Review, Uncategorized

Merlin’s Wood by Robert Holdstock

Merlin’s Wood

by Robert Holdstock

Published by Gollancz, 2009

Fantasy, when done well, has the power to pull you out of your mundane life and transport you to new places, it’s escapism at it’s purest. What if those other worlds were right here though, all around us, glimpsed in the shadows of the wild places, well that’s how myths and legends have evolved. What we need is an author with the power to invoke those myths and bring them to life, ladies and gentleman meet Robert Holdstock.

There can be very few of us who have not stood in a wild place and felt the power of the place, very few who have run our fingers down the carvings of an ancient rock and not felt a connection with the carver. There is something deep in our psyche, which despite the technological marvels all around us, can still connect to us to our past when, rather than just observers of nature, we were a part of it.

Merlin’s Wood is a collection of five stories which take the ideas of mythology, nature, pagan ceremony and mysticism and fuse them in unique, entertaining and brilliantly imaginative ways. Merlin’s Wood itself is a short novel which borrows from Arthurian legend and in particular Tennyson’s Idyll’s Of The Kings to examine the legend of Merlin and the enchantress Vivien. Martin and Rebecca grew up on the edge of Broceliande forest in Brittany and, along with others in the area, know of its legends and myths. Returning to their childhood home, following the death of their mother, their childhood experiences and encounters with the darker side of the forest are revisited. It’s not long before they find themselves drawn into the ongoing mysteries with tragic results. It’s a marvelous tale, richly written in a lyrical almost poetic prose. The forest is described beautifully and the sense of place is fantastic.

Scarrowell invokes mummers, lych gates, pagan ceremonies and ancient tradition in a Wicker Man like tale set in the eponymous village. It’s once again quite brilliant in its mythic splendour and invocation of the sense of place.

Thorn is the tale of a young stonemason compelled to carve the head of a green man in a new cathedral. His compulsion and obsessions are explained when the face starts talking and it’s true purpose is revealed.

Earth and Stone is an early Holdstock tale which imagines a time traveller visiting the magnificent ancient stone structures of Newgrange as they are built and determining their true purpose. It’s perhaps the weakest of the tales here but it also shows how far Robert Holdstock has developed as a writer.

Finally The Bone Forest is the magnificent prequel to Mythago Wood, set in Ryhope Wood it explains the backstory to that tale and we finally find out how what drove Stephen and Christian’s father to explore the forest.

These are tales of wild places on the edge of reality beautifully woven into engaging narratives, myths for the modern age no less. They draw on ancient tradition but only as foundation material on which to build a whole new mythology for the new age. Its great to see Robert Holdstock’s groundbreaking work being republished and introduced to a new audience, it might not be the generic heroic fantasy which many fans have grown up with, it requires thought and imagination but it offers escapism and emotion of the purest kind. Whilst Mythago Wood is lauded by critics I feel that Merlin’s Wood may be his finest achievement so grab the chance to read it while you can.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

PS – This review was written before the tragic news of Robert Holdstocks death. I feel the stories in this book are a fitting legacy to a great author.

Leave a comment

Filed under dark, fantasy, fiction, Review

Merlin's Wood by Robert Holdstock

Merlin’s Wood

by Robert Holdstock

Published by Gollancz, 2009

Fantasy, when done well, has the power to pull you out of your mundane life and transport you to new places, it’s escapism at it’s purest. What if those other worlds were right here though, all around us, glimpsed in the shadows of the wild places, well that’s how myths and legends have evolved. What we need is an author with the power to invoke those myths and bring them to life, ladies and gentleman meet Robert Holdstock.

There can be very few of us who have not stood in a wild place and felt the power of the place, very few who have run our fingers down the carvings of an ancient rock and not felt a connection with the carver. There is something deep in our psyche, which despite the technological marvels all around us, can still connect to us to our past when, rather than just observers of nature, we were a part of it.

Merlin’s Wood is a collection of five stories which take the ideas of mythology, nature, pagan ceremony and mysticism and fuse them in unique, entertaining and brilliantly imaginative ways. Merlin’s Wood itself is a short novel which borrows from Arthurian legend and in particular Tennyson’s Idyll’s Of The Kings to examine the legend of Merlin and the enchantress Vivien. Martin and Rebecca grew up on the edge of Broceliande forest in Brittany and, along with others in the area, know of its legends and myths. Returning to their childhood home, following the death of their mother, their childhood experiences and encounters with the darker side of the forest are revisited. It’s not long before they find themselves drawn into the ongoing mysteries with tragic results. It’s a marvelous tale, richly written in a lyrical almost poetic prose. The forest is described beautifully and the sense of place is fantastic.

Scarrowell invokes mummers, lych gates, pagan ceremonies and ancient tradition in a Wicker Man like tale set in the eponymous village. It’s once again quite brilliant in its mythic splendour and invocation of the sense of place.

Thorn is the tale of a young stonemason compelled to carve the head of a green man in a new cathedral. His compulsion and obsessions are explained when the face starts talking and it’s true purpose is revealed.

Earth and Stone is an early Holdstock tale which imagines a time traveller visiting the magnificent ancient stone structures of Newgrange as they are built and determining their true purpose. It’s perhaps the weakest of the tales here but it also shows how far Robert Holdstock has developed as a writer.

Finally The Bone Forest is the magnificent prequel to Mythago Wood, set in Ryhope Wood it explains the backstory to that tale and we finally find out how what drove Stephen and Christian’s father to explore the forest.

These are tales of wild places on the edge of reality beautifully woven into engaging narratives, myths for the modern age no less. They draw on ancient tradition but only as foundation material on which to build a whole new mythology for the new age. Its great to see Robert Holdstock’s groundbreaking work being republished and introduced to a new audience, it might not be the generic heroic fantasy which many fans have grown up with, it requires thought and imagination but it offers escapism and emotion of the purest kind. Whilst Mythago Wood is lauded by critics I feel that Merlin’s Wood may be his finest achievement so grab the chance to read it while you can.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

PS – This review was written before the tragic news of Robert Holdstocks death. I feel the stories in this book are a fitting legacy to a great author.

Leave a comment

Filed under dark, fantasy, fiction, Review

The Gates by John Connolly

The Gates

by John Connolly

Published by Hodder & Stoughton, 2009

How do you categorise John Connolly, crime writer – yes certainly. Supernatural writer – well yes most of his crime novels have had a supernatural overtone so supernatural crime writer then. What about his book of horror short stories, Nocturnes – so that makes him a supernatural, crime, horror writer. Then there is his fantasy/fairy tale The Book Of Lost Things – so he is definitely a supernatural, crime, horror, fantasy writer. And then there is The Gates, damn it…..tell you what, lets just describe Connolly as one of the finest genre writers working today and lets hope The Gates is the book that lets everyone see the breadth of that talent.

Samuel Johnson and his dog Boswell (ha,ha) decide to get a head start on Halloween by trick or treating a few days early. Among the surprised neighbours to find a small boy dressed as a ghost on their doorstep are the Abernathys. The only problem is this quiet unassuming couple have invited some friends round and intend to open the Gates of hell. Only Samuel, Boswell a couple of friends and a demon called Nurd can prevent this catastrophe.

Quite unlike anything Connolly has written before, although there were hints with The Book Of Lost Things, The Gates is a laugh out loud fantasy. The problem with most comedy fantasy is that it’s either not very funny (recent Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals excepted) or it’s funny but with a convoluted i.e. not very good plot (are you listening Mr Rankin). Douglas Adams was one of the few writers who could consistently pull off humorous writing. John Connolly is a naturally funny guy, at a recent reading he had the audience in stitches with his observations on the Da Vinci code etc. and thankfully this has come through well in this story.

John Connolly has drawn on recent worries about the Large Hadron Collider and the completely bizarre world of particle physics to create a plot which whilst simple is also clever and well constructed. The footnotes throughout again reminded me of Adams, taking a sideways look at particle physics and explaining concepts in simple and often hilarious ways. The clever nods to horror writers of the past which are scattered throughout are also nice. John Connolly is a man who understands the horror genre.

This is a book aimed largely at the young adult market but one which could be enjoyed by all. At times genuinely emotionally engaging the characters are all interesting and well drawn. The characterisation can be compared with Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and although The Gates has a much lighter tone there are many similarities between the two novels.

My biggest complaint is only that when the book was announced I felt sure we were finally going to get the full blown horror epic that John Connolly is surely destined to write. This isn’t it but hopefully the widespread appeal of this book will raise John Connolly’s profile and maybe, just maybe that great horror novel is still coming.

You can read more about John Connolly here.

Rating 4 out of 5

1 Comment

Filed under fantasy, fiction, horror, Review

Avilion by Robert holdstock

Avilion
by Robert Holdstock
Format: Paperback, 352 pages
Publisher: Gollancz.

Avilion is the long awaited (25 years awaited) sequel to Holdstock’s award winning Mythago Wood. Of course there have been other books in the meantime, many of which share the world of Ryhope Wood and its Myth Images or Mythagos. This, however, is the first time Holdstock has taken the original characters and brought them back to life.

First of all if you have never read Mythago Wood then you should. Not only will it bring a breath of clarity to the events in this story but it’s a bloody good book in it’s own right. Spoiler alert – If you don’t want to know what happened in Mythago Wood look away now. Clearly it’s not possible to describe the plot of this current novel without giving something away.

In Mythago Wood George Huxely and his sons Stephen and Christian live on the edge of Ryhope Wood. This place has special powers and brings to life the myths imagined by the people who enter it. Ultimately George disappears and Stephen and Christian whilst searching for him fall in love with the beautiful Celtic Princess Guiwenneth.

Avilion starts with the children of Steven and Guiwenneth, Jack and Yssobel. Guiwenneth has disappeared and Yssobel sets off to find her whilst Jack is drawn to his fathers world outside Ryhope Wood. Eventually the characters are all drawn together in a dramatic conclusion.

For me Mythago Wood and Avilion are at their strongest when the boundaries between our world and the Mythago world are veiled. That slight interaction that hints of ghosts and memories is truly powerful and was used best in Merlin’s Wood (the short story collection which includes the prequel to Mythago Wood). Once unveiled the myths become less magical and the book becomes a much more standard fantasy story. Much of Avilion takes place in this fully formed Arthurian world and for me is a less powerful book as a result.

That’s not to say its not well written. Holdstock’s beautiful and evocative descriptive prose is fully honed and works well in describing both our own world and that of the mythagos. The plot, whilst simple at heart is interwoven with time jumps and character viewpoints which create quite a complex web of material. This is a book that requires some effort.

So for me Avilion is a good book if not quite a great book. The strongest parts of both books are the interactions between Mythagos and humans, Jack’s ventures into our world are strange mysterious and powerful which makes the rest of the book slightly less powerful.

Rating 4 out of 5

PS – Since this review was first published on Highlanders Book Reviews, Robert Holdstock has sadly passed away. The Mythago books remain as a lasting tribute to a great writer.

Leave a comment

Filed under fantasy, Review