Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dangerous Worlds - Comments on Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

I have a confession: I rarely read Pratchett. I used to but I felt it all went through a bit of a lull until recently in the adult books. My wife gave me Wee Free Men (and the other two but they will be the subject of later posts) and I sat and devoured it whilst actually laughing.

To my mind a Pratchett book works best when it isn't playing for laughs but getting to the nub of a matter. The heart of the book (and it appears the series from the other jacket blurbs) is the deconstruction of children's fantasy and how it operates. Sort of like Neil Gaiman's Coraline, especially in the use of the mirror eyes (button eyes in Coraline) and the grey edges to the undreamt world. Pratchett makes it very clear that the versions of fantasy dependent on the person - the Wee Free Men's heaven is somewhat different from Tiffany's. We live in the age of the Multiverse after all. This series of Discworld novels appears to be bent on rescuing fairy tales from middle class clutches and releasing it back to readers as a novel which meanings and levels can be read into.

Sometimes you need a sad side to the humour and so it is with the construct of the Witch. The way he uses Tiffany to pull apart the fairy tale image of the evil hag in the forest (made all together too popular by the Brothers Grimm (but more anon) or Andersen's Snow Queen) or at the edge of the village. Women's and folk knowledge are far too underrated really. Pratchett does deliver some laugh out loud lines though to lighten the atmosphere.

The Wee Free Men's war cry takes apart the rationale for having a monarchy (let's face it they tend to be arrogant so and so's) in fantasy. It frees up the world and gives the characters far more room as well as reflecting the real world. The queen very much comes across like Gaiman's Other Mother in her attempt to control everything, leaving Tiffany in her version of creation. It is up to her to find her own way through, like Alice in the forest. Tiffany has to develop her own sense of the world and perhaps this is what children's fiction from the 1990s onwards is really about.

More on the other books as I get around to reading them...


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Rage against the Skin - The Black Tattoo by Sam Enthoven

The Black Tattoo, Sam Enthoven's debut novel, is a book of fits and starts. But more anon.

Jack and Charlie are knocking around London when they are drawn into a dark battle which may involve the Earth. Crispy duck is an odd dish to have. In a mysterious room above a theatre, they are given a test, transforming Charlie and giving him a distinctive black tattoo on his back.

Finding a way to Hell (in an entrance slightly reminiscent of Pratchett), Charlie begins to lose himself and finds himself becming a Prince of Hell. As social climbers climb, those above must be displaced and the guardians of the peace (including some mad French men) call to aid restore the balance of power.

The Black Tattoo is a wonderful study of divorce and how some children deal with it - ultimately this is about the internal world falling apart and the rage that sometimes arises. The locales of London and Hell are well known but Enthoven doesn't come with his own take on them. Yet they reflect the inside. The two find their way around the strange cities but Charlie is completely lost.

Enthoven's major influence is Asian cinema (the real McCoy, I suspect, that rarely makes its way over here unless its in independent labels) and most of the action comes from martial arts. Sometimes this overshadows what is essentially a solid book.

There are great ideas and artefacts in the Black Tattoo but they do get a little lost. It might pay for the author to slow down a little and allow for the words to breathe rather than being frenetically busy. Just a thought. That's just the parts.

The whole is a book that injects itself under your skin, festering away and growing on you. He's certainly somebody to look out for in the future.

Sam Enthoven

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Celestial Arachnids - Thoughts on Philip Reeve's Larklight

Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series marked him as an outstanding author who could get his head around outlandish engineering and fantasy, bringing the two together in a wonderful state.

Larklight carries on the obsession with floating domestic spaces but this time he has a floating house in space.

There's a real feeling of Victoriana, mainly from the use of the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a climax, but also in the science fantasy which is reminiscent of HG Wells and Jules Verne. There is a real disquiet under the surface between the marvellous technology and the lack of the human in the face of encroaching technology. I'd need to think about it more but it comes across with the unease of Souvestre and Robida in the late nineteenth century.

The style is pleasantly varied, moving from third person narration to diaries, representing the different voices of the children who very much lead the story. Out of this comes a wonderful adventure sub-plot which reminds me of Treasure Island and to some extent Peter Pan.

Reeve captures a tension present in fiction - where do we go now with the conflict between science and religion? The gorgeous illustrations enhance the writing (which is mercifully pocket sized) which certainly caps Reeve's crown as one of the most inventive writers of children's fiction.

I'm not going to write too much more on this at the moment as I'm reviewing for an online publication but when I've written my piece, I'll link through to it.



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