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The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen by Jess Lourey

October 13, 2013 Leave a comment

The Toadhouse Trilogy

Those of you who know me will understand books like The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen by Jess Lourey are not my usual reading fare. This is both a book intended for the young adult market and it’s self-published (available from Amazon). Under normal circumstances, either of these factors would predispose me to ignore the title. But I’m something of a fan of the author’s fiction for adults. She writes rather good murder mysteries. So I thought I would look at how she approaches a different market. Before starting to read, I confess the fact she had not found a conventional publisher for the book is disconcerting. When someone with talent and a track record of now nine published books, fails to place a book through her agent, this suggests either that there’s something wrong with the book or the publishing industry is irrationally turning its back on a good book. With that thought in mind, I begin to read.

The obvious point of comparison for this book are the Thursday Next and associated novels by Jasper Fforde. These are great fun with the older Ms Next able to use a Prose Portal to enter the fictional worlds of both existing great novels and new books still being written. A part of the humour is the self-awareness of the characters in each book and the ability to rewrite the text — for example, the ending of Jane Eyre is changed. Jess Lourey develops this trope by allowing her protagonists to change anything they want in a book they visit but, if they do, this destroys the book and all the characters in it.

Because this book is explicitly YA, it has two children as the protagonists: Ania, aged eleven, and her blind brother, Spenser, aged nine. As a form of homage to To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, we start off in Alabama during the Great Depression where, with the disappearance of their mother, they are being cared for by their supposed grandmother, Gloriana (think Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene). They travel from one book to another with the help of the enigmatic Gilgamesh, who pilots a magical room in the shape of a garden toadhouse (it miniaturises the travellers who then take exactly nine minutes and eleven seconds to resume their usual size, a potentially dangerous delay if you look like food to a passing predatory bird or animal). They acquire a ten-year-old “stowaway” called Tru — it’s a reference to Truman Capote. Ania has the Enigmata on her hands, i.e. she has a Gort imprinted on to the flesh of each hand. The Gort is the twelfth letter of the Ogham alphabet — sometimes called the Celtic Tree Alphabet — and places us firmly in a fantasy story drawing on Irish faerie mythology in general and the Tir Na Nog in particular. To get to this land, heroes needed luck or a helpful guide. Our heroes have to play the book version of the video game, solve clues, and find three “treasures” hidden in plain sight inside classic novels.

Jess Lourey

Jess Lourey

The mandatory evil enemy is Biblos Skulas (or Βίβλο σκουλήκας which translated from the Greek means Bookworm). This appears to the children to be a giant man, i.e. he follows in the footsteps of Piers Anthony’s “adult conspiracy”, first introduced to the world in Crewel Lye, as the adult who devours rather than savours books. He will stop at nothing to capture Ania, killing Gloriana in the first section of the book. Indeed, later on, Ania meets refugees from other books. Many have been tortured by Biblos in the hope they will reveal where our heroes have been hidden. Although it’s not the fault of the children, this does not prevent the survivors from being somewhat bitter.

There’s a great deal of adult sophistication on display in this book. For example we meet Kenning in Ellipses. But instead of descending to the level of punning adopted by Piers Anthony (increasingly excruciating as the Xanth series has progressed), this author is embedding knowledge in the work. If readers are curious, there’s an entire world awaiting exploration both in the language she uses and the books she draws from and propels her protagonists into. For those of you into the technical side of writing, this is a work of intertextuality, extensively revising the work of others to fit into this story.

We first trespass into The Time Machine by H G Wells where we avoid direct interaction with the time traveller. His machine has been pulled inside the sphinx, so all they have to do is get the door open. Except, of course, it’s not that easy and requires a brief diversion into the Indian epic, The Ramayana. Then needing medical attention, we pass through A Tale of Two Cities on to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Lewis Stevenson. You should have the message by now as we jaunt off to the Sinbad books.

The syntax is relatively rich and, in vocabulary terms, is probably ahead of the lower end of the young adult market. This is good. Younger readers should be stretched. Showing them the range of words and their meanings helps them to grow. Choosing to make the book longer also indicates an older age. I’m not sure where this leaves us in terms of market. It flirts with unpleasant truths but sees our small band of heroes making steady progress, although not without some struggles, which makes it suitable for younger readers. It gently explores some potentially significant moral issues and, in conceptual terms, plays with some interesting metaphors that would be relatively incomprehensible to most young people. I’m therefore left with an ambivalence. I think it falls between the two stools. It has elements that certainly fit into the YA niche, but in terms of language, concepts and length, it’s tending to adult fare. Except it lacks the “meat” to be an adult book. It pulls its punches too much as it stands. Given that this is the only book written so far in the trilogy, I class it as an interesting failure. But there’s real potential as a dark fantasy for adult readers in the mechanisms of creating, amending and ending books. Rewritten this could become something powerful. The backstory as to the origin of Biblos points the way.

For reviews of other books by Jess Lourey, see
November Hunt
December Dread
January Thaw.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Devil’s Looking Glass by Mark Chadbourn

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment

The Devil's Looking Glass

The Devil’s Looking Glass by Mark Chadbourn (Bantam Press, 2012) is the final contracted work for the Swords of Albion series. i.e. this is not strictly a trilogy. It’s left in a way that, should the publishers feel there’s sufficient demand, they can cross the palm of our heroic author with silver and await the continuation of the adventure. Since this is the equivalent of James Bond under the earlier Queen Elizabeth, you can see how our horse-powered, sword-wielding hero could fight enemies around Europe and, when tired of local sport, turn his attention to Russia in the east. Given the inherent flexibility of the format, we could be into a multibook series except. . . This is not to deny the presence of some excellent features, but I’m not sure such a series could maintain itself. The problem lies not so much in the human side of the equation. Indeed, I would say the history in this alternate history is quite pleasingly realistic with the European politics bending to accommodate the outside supernatural input. Half the fun is watching just how perfidious this version of Albion has been and continues to be as the series develops. But the problem lies in the nature of the supernatural beasties.

Perhaps I’m just a natural killjoy but I prefer magic systems to be constructed in a way that treats them as real, i.e. there are rules to be obeyed and recognisable limits on outcomes. The sad fact is I’ve now read all three books and it’s still not at all clear what the context is for this entire conflict. The “fairies” are ruled by the Unseelie Court — somewhat amusingly their base of operation is in the New World. Trust a British author with a sense of irony to make America the source of all this terrorism and potential invasion. As a sticking plaster on this wound to national pride, this is not the New World in our reality — American readers should stay calm. To get to this mirror image version of the New World where the sun rises and falls the other way round, all must pass through a portal. Ah ha! Not only is there a gateway to a transportation system, it depends on a form of lighthouse to guide people from one side of reality to the other. So what we have is the development of an earlier version of life on Earth. Or perhaps this Fay lot came through the portal from this mirror world. Either way, they were here before us and watched us grow up as a species. As in the classic fairy stories, there’s a time dilation effect between our world and the alternate reality occupied by the Unseelie Court. It seems to be about one-thousand of their years to fifteen of ours. When on Earth, they live under hills and in forested areas, generally making a nuisance of themselves. But, at some point, there came a breakdown in mutual toleration. They grew contemptuous of our lack of morals, thinking us little better than animals. Although there could have been a reconciliation, outright conflict was provoked when Dr John Dee built a defensive network of spells to keep the Fay out — the first truly effect immigration controls from the British government.

Mark Chadbourn looking like a Renaissance Man

Mark Chadbourn looking like a Renaissance Man

Why is all this a problem? Well this book seems fairly clearly to signal that the Fey did not create the portal. Although they have natural magical abilities, they fit into a broader system of magic and supernatural powers. Dee is drawing on occult powers and seems to be using a different source of power to control both individual members of the Unseelie Court and as general barriers to movement e.g. the defences built along the banks of the River Thames. There also seem to be other beings around. They may be classic demons or incorporeal beings who can take possession of humans. Not only do we have the transdimensional portal, we also have a real-time communication system through mirrors and a different obsidian mirror with slightly different qualities which John Dee has. So although these three books focus on the conflict with the Fay, there’s absolutely no attempt to give any background on the more general context for working magic, nor is there any explanation for any of the effects we see, e.g. the manipulation of the weather or the creation of different types of land or water-based animals. I have the sense Mark Chadbourn is making it up as he goes along. There’s nothing wrong with this but my money says it’s better for the reader to be able to see both the strengths and weaknesses of the different groups in a consistent way.

Anyway, this novel starts us off in 1593 and England’s greatest spy, Will Swyfte, is caught up in the latest crisis as Irish spy, Red Meg O’Shee, kidnaps Dr Dee and sets off to export him to Ireland. With the help of John Carpenter, Tobias Strangewayes, and Robert, the Earl of Launceston, we ride over to Liverpool where there are interesting developments. On their return to London, we get the best bit of the book as the Thames freezes. We then flirt with matters vaguely piratical, i.e. we get on to ships of the period and sail hither and thither avoiding adverse weather conditions, pirate and Fay attacks, and the misplacement of the Sargasso Sea, until we arrive at the “island”. This entertains us with a short version of Shakespeare’s Tempest and then it’s off to the New World through the portal.

Overall, there’s a lot of ingenuity on display to keep the action going. Indeed, some of the plots and conspiracies are quite pleasingly malevolent. At times, the fantasy shades into horror which is again a positive sign, avoiding some of the tweeness that can afflict stories involving fairies. I like some of the ideas discussed on the nature of honour and the prices both sides in a war pay to make progress, but there’s not much philosophical development. The good ideas are repeated with little added save that, as we might predict, no-one comes out of this mess looking good. To that extent, the ending is realistic. So The Devil’s Looking Glass continues the standard of the second outing as a reasonably enjoyable adventure romp around an alternate history sixteenth century with some time spent on ships and in a jungle (yawn) but otherwise blending swords with sorcery in a moderately effective way. If you enjoyed the first two, you will definitely enjoy this.

For reviews of the first two books in the series, see:
The Scar-Crow Men
The Silver Skull

The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn

It’s always pleasing when fiction collides with historical fact because it gives the fiction more heft. When you know many of the details are accurate, it encourages more suspension of disbelief over the fantasy elements. So, in The Silver Skull (Swords of Albion 1), we met Christopher Marlowe, sometime playwright and, by reputation, a spy. The second volume, The Scar-Crow Men (Pyr, 2011), is set in 1593. This means Marlowe has to die and Mark Chadbourn uses this to give us a pleasing mystery story wrapped up in an understanding of Doctor Faustus, one of Marlowe’s best plays. In this, he relies on the art of coding and decoding, using those words both in the literal sense of ciphers and in the more modern sense of semiotics which encourages us to deconstruct text to access the meaning within.

We start with a performances of Doctor Faustus in which a “real” devil appears on stage. This was part of the mythology of the early performances of the play, and interweaving our fictional hero and his team into the middle of an event where a hysterical audience is induced to bolt for the doors to cover an assassination attempt, is pleasingly ingenious. We also have the novelty of a female Molly Maguire emerging from the Irish countryside to rescue our hero and join forces against the Unseelie Court. This ties together factions of the English, the Irish and the French under Henri of Navarre.

Mark Chadbourn looking slightly piratical in an Elizabethan style

So, having been disappointed by The Silver Skull, is this better? The answer is a qualified “yes”. I found two aspects of the first episode annoying. As to the first, we have resolved the problem of scale. In this exciting tale of an Elizabethan James Bond with a sword rather than a Beretta in his hand, we are significantly more realistic in our movements around the countryside and, when we travel abroad, it’s on a more modest and, therefore, more convincing basis. So no more turbo-charged coaches with modern suspension on paved roads. This time we run and walk around with a brief diversions on to horseback, into very slow-moving gypsy caravans, and on to cross-channel ships that sail in real time. We have reached an accommodation between the needs of Will Swyfte to live up to his name, able to react quickly to an enemy that can communicate and travel through mirrors, and the practical limitations of non-magical transport as then available.

However, if anything, the second objection as to the definition of the fantasy elements has become even more annoying. I was prepared to forgive much because of the nature of the magical defence of the realm erected by the perfidious Albion. For once, we were genuinely living up to our international reputation for treachery. Yet this second volume plunges us even more deeply into the supernatural mire without any kind of explanation. I suppose I should not have been surprised when literal devils appeared in the plotting mix. It’s a natural development given Dee’s reputation as an occultist. If we’re going to make the Fay real, why not make black magic real. Except I’m never happy unless there’s some gesture of explanation for the different magic systems and the relationship between them. It seems some elements of the occultists’ activities can represent a defence against the Fay. It’s also interesting to see the gypsies with their own accommodation with the Fay. This gives us several overlapping belief systems, depending on which old gods (or devils) are being worshipped. While there’s still a chance for Chadbourn to pull the fat out of the fire by explaining the origins of the Fay and showing how they relate to the more general supernatural systems, I’m not convinced he can make it all hang together convincingly. Hopefully, he can surprise us all with his ingenuity.

Returning to the quality of this volume, the construction of the plot is far more successful. I’ve always been a sucker for a well-rounded mystery within a mystery and this is particularly clever. Returning to the earlier reference to semiotics, this is central to understanding this book. Marlowe has left all kinds of hints and messages to guide Swyfte. All he has to do is understand them. We start with the text of the play itself. The literal words on the page contain deeper meanings when we know the playwright and understand that what he writes may be informed by his experiences. So this is an exercise is textual analysis and actual decoding when a cypher is discovered physically added to the text. To deal with the first, we must explore Marlowe the man, his history and his motivations. As to the second, we need a keyword to insert into the Vigenère square that Marlowe preferred as his encoding method. Swyfte deduces the keyword and, towards the end of the book, we get the decoded text but, not to put too fine a point on it, this element of the plot is contrived and identifying the keyword is not quite as unambiguous as Swyfte would have his friends believe. Nevertheless, this discovery does give rise to some interesting historical insights and later becomes crucial in identifying who’s doing what to whom and why. When you view the whole plot with the benefit of hindsight, it’s particularly satisfying. Everything clicks into place. I’m also pleased by the meaning of “scar-crow men”. Since we are concerned with finding the meanings within meanings, it’s always good to think about what makes us human.

So, on balance, The Scar-Crow Men is an improvement on The Silver Skull. The plot is far superior and, with Dee playing the part of Q in the James Bond mould, we have not unrealistic gadgets to help our superspy on his way to victory. As a final thought, I am also particularly pleased by the suggestion of why contemporary “experts” might doubt the authorship of works by Shakespeare. It marks a pleasing way to move us on to the third episode when we may see Swyfte crossing to Ireland and finding a woman to fill the hole in his heart.

Good atmospheric artwork from Chris McGrath.

For a review of the final book in the series, see The Devil’s Looking Glass.

The Silver Skull by Mark Chadbourn

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Memories are strange and wonderful things, coming unbidden to the mind as we read, making subconscious connections between descriptions of reality and what we have seen. It’s the fundamental mechanism by which we judge the credibility of any work of fiction. Does what we read match our own experience? Or, for some reason, are we prepared to suspend disbelief? I remember the first car we bought. It was an Austin 7 Ruby and, one memorable day in 1952, we made the journey from our home in the North to London for the Festival of Britain. This was our first long trip and the reason I remember it so well, was the time it took. The engine was prone to fuel starvation due to a wonky carburettor which needed to be primed with petrol to restart. So when overtaken by “disaster”, we had to push the car off the road, dismantle the top of the carburettor, and dribble in petrol from the jerry can we carried for emergencies. I am therefore always highly conscious of time and geography when reading period pieces.

The Silver Skull (Pyr, 2009) by Mark Chadbourn violates my temporal sense. Our London venture was about 250 miles and it took us the best part of a day, stopping at old coaching inns for rest and food. We arrived feeling like death warmed up. The physical shaking and emotional stress of never being certain we could manage another mile, took its toll. Travelling back was just as bad, and we resumed the use of rail for long journeys until we could afford a better car. As I understand it, at their fittest, horses comfortably manage about 6 miles an hour. An exceptional horse could rise to 10 miles an hour, but it would probably kill the beast if maintained for too long. That’s why coaching inns were set about seven miles apart.

So when our heroes travel from London to Edinburgh, this is a journey of about 400 miles allowing for an undeveloped road system. In fact, Chadbourn makes a joke that the quality of the roads drops dramatically between England and Scotland — actually on the east coast run today, the roads become a hindrance just north of Newcastle. Yet, this novel has us in in cinematic territory with thundering hooves carrying everyone hundreds of miles without apparently breaking sweat. Thanks to years of work with Gerard Naprous, I have travelled in a replica stagecoach without the suspension system we take for granted in a motorised vehicle. It’s a singularly uncomfortable and bruising experience. When you add in highwaymen or other horsemen jumping on to and falling off the stage, life gets very interesting for spectators.

So, in the best traditions of romantic fiction, all problems of distance are wished away. We travel to, from and around the Iberian peninsula like it’s our own backyard. That it may actually take days or weeks in the real world cannot be allowed to slow down the action. Except, of course, the big picture action does go slow. We have Spanish agents and the Enemy doing stuff as the Armada is readied in the background. But their timescales are left to hang while our heroes do their daring-do fighting in the foreground. Does this make it a bad book? Not of itself. It’s a fairly standard game played by many authors in writing this kind of fiction, but this is a fairly extreme version of it. Transplanting a James Bond level of mobility on to horses and sail is a big stretch.

Then we come to the Enemy (the Fay). I like to understand the rules of magic systems. This lot seem remarkably temporal for a folk so supernatural. They need horses to travel over land and they have their own galleons. Stick one with a sword and it dies, but they can apparently travel underwater, physically strong doors cannot stand against them, they talk to each other through mirrors, they do good glamour work, and they have a neat line in burglar alarms — every home should have at lest one of these high-tech devices — available from a graveyard near you.

So, in England we have this super magic suppressor system. They can’t do nuttin’ against our magician. Nothing, that is, apart from breaking into the most most secure fortress in London in the first few pages. Their lack of power is then re-established as they are easily intercepted by Pickering’s men when moving the stolen weapon through London. Or, for some reason, does the Enemy hand-off the weapon to Spanish agents? I am easily confused. In Scotland, where the people are denied the suppressor field — it literally stops at the border — the Enemy is still hamstrung, being unable to break through doors protected by “magic” and, worse, apparently not being able to go on to hallowed ground. When rent-a-mob turns up outside their safe house and starts throwing stones, they run off. Hardly the behavior of a credible threat to humanity. I could go on, but there should be some kind of explanation. The English nobility and the Scottish people have had centuries of experience in fighting these creatures. Everyone should know their strengths and weaknesses.

And this idea that the English would attribute all weird events to Spanish agents. . . I know the weather is always bad in Scotland but, every now and then, real people must move across the border and get to see the difference. How come no-one talks about this? More to the point, there must be oral histories and folk traditions passed down through the English generations, bridging the time before the suppressor field kicked in. You can just imagine them pulling up chairs in their local coaching inns, sipping a really good cup of tea, and discussing how best to keep the Enemy from busting down their doors by using salt and herbs.

So although there are some quite good moments in the book, it’s all cut and pasted together without much logic or explanation. And most of the characters are cardboard cut-outs, given nothing to do but stand around expectantly as our heroes do their hero shtik. Perhaps it works for someone who just wants a bit of swordplay in a cod historical context. But for this thinking reader, most of it is really disappointing. The publisher tells us this is the first in a Swords of Albion series. When the next episode is announced, I’ll toss a coin to see whether I can be bothered to buy it. Although, perhaps there’s just enough hope in the ending. The broad themes of betrayal that run through the book hit a rich seam when the nature of the suppressor field is revealed. More of the plot makes sense at that late point. . . I’ll see how the mood takes me.

In the end, I did decide to read the next volume in the series. My review is The Scar-Crow Men.

Good atmospheric artwork from Chris McGrath.

For a review of the final book in the trilogy, see The Devil’s Looking Glass.

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