Fairy Tale Tuesday No.29 – Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes

Last week I debunked the theory that women in towers are always prisoners and that princes don’t ever need rescuing. But princesses are always the heroines. Yes? After all, they wear the pretty dresses, this is sartorial colour-coding for goodness incarnate! No one evil could possibly wear a fabulous ball gown! Well…you do know I am here to destroy your illusions, right? This week’s story comes from Hamlyn’s 1975 collection Russian Fairy Tales and let’s just say someone didn’t get the Disney memo.

Czar Bel Belanin has ruled his kingdom for thirty years without leaving his palace, without so much as mounting his horse or taking hold of a sword, when suddenly one day, out of the blue, he decides he wants to go forth and Meet People. He rides all day, until near nightfall he comes across a white tent with a horse tethered outside. Inside the tent is the Princess Blue-Eyes. She challenges the Czar to armed combat, and for some reason our agoraphobic monarch agrees. They ride against one another, clashing with swords and clubs, and on the third charge the Czar is unhorsed. Princess Blue-Eyes then leaps down to kneel over him, and wrenches out both his eyes, which she hides like a morbid hamster behind her right cheek. With no more use for the man, she throws him back on his horse and orders the beast to carry him home.

He is greeted gladly by his three sons, Vasilij, Fjodor and Ivan. Their happiness at his return turns to horror when they realise what has been done to him. Straight away the two eldest princes set out to exact vengeance, riding away on the finest horses, armed with the sharpest swords…and they are not seen again.

Three years pass. Ivan, youngest and possibly only surviving son of the Czar, is now old enough to go after his brothers, whether his father wants all this vengeance or not. Unlike his brothers, he sets off on foot. For a long time he walks, before coming across a very strange signpost. None of this such-and-such miles to wherever-you’re-going for this crossroads. If you turn left, you will marry. If you turn right, you will feast and be merry. If you continue straight on, you will lose your head.

Ivan considers this, and being neither hungry nor suicidal, decides to turn left. Outside a little cottage he finds the promised lady, a beautiful maiden who tells him she has been waiting for his arrival all along and intends to pamper him in all ways. He comes in and eats with her, but when she tries to usher him to a bed he flips her over so that she lands there instead. And oh my, what should happen but that the bed he was meant to sleep in turns upside down and catapults her down into a deep dark cellar. Nor is she the only one down there. Ivan hears his brother Fjodor calling out and lower his lance to pull his brother out. Fjodor is filthy and wounded from his long imprisonment, but the beautiful maiden still has the gall to cry out for help. As you can imagine, neither prince is especially inclined to be chivalrous at this point. It’s only when she offers them the second fastest horse in the world if they free her that Ivan grudgingly drags her out.

So off they ride, both brothers mounted on the amazing horse. They return to the crossroads and turn right, coming to a small cottage where an ugly old woman has apparently been waiting for them all along too. She tries to steer Ivan into an armchair so that he can be fed, but this prince is not so easily conned. He throws her into the chair instead and just like the bed before, it is a trap that drops its instigator down into a dark cellar. Down there Ivan finds Vasilij, in no better condition than Fjodor, covered in wounds and grime and moss. The old woman responsible for his imprisonment then tries to bribe her way to freedom. If they let her go, she promises, she will give them two bottles of miraculous water. The first, dead water, will heal any wound but kill those it touches. The second is the water of life, that heals nothing but restores all corpses that are given it. Well, that’s a useful combination. Ivan pulls her out of the cellar. He uses the dead water to heal his brothers, and the water of life to reverse the poison.

Together the three princes go back to the crossroads, where they part ways. The elder two return home to their father and Ivan rides on alone down the middle road. He travels for a long time, until at last he comes to a third cottage. Inside he finds the old woman Jaga, who has no traps but her own self. Her bony body is vast enough to fill the house. Terrifying as she is, though, she can be won over. Touched by the prince’s devotion to his father, she lends him her cloak and her talkative tom cat. When the prince reaches a white-stoned royal palace, home of the Princess Blue-Eyes, he obeys Jaga’s instructions by releasing the cat so that it can distract everyone with its song and slips past the guards, who believe him to be Jaga herself.

Ivan has no difficulty finding the princess, who lies asleep. He retrieves his father’s eyes, but he’s a prince and even quite clever princes have certain fatal flaws. He cannot resist stealing a quick kiss from the sleeping woman, which is a terrible idea for SO many reasons. As he rides away, his horse tells him so. “You should never have kissed the princess on her sugary lips. You will pay for it now.” Because Princess Blue-Eyes is now awake. And you know how Ivan is riding the second fastest horse in the world? Guess who owns the fastest?

Ivan reaches Granny Jaga’s house first and she gives him help once again, this time in the form of a comb, a stone and a red hot cinder. She also delays the princess when Blue-Eyes arrives at the cottage, by offering the one thing no one can resist after a long horse ride – a hot bath. By the time Blue-Eyes returns to the chase, Ivan has a long head-start. But that’s nothing to the fastest horse in the world. When he sees the princess behind him, brandishing her metal club, Ivan throws Jaga’s comb over his shoulder. It turns a field into a forest, and Blue-Eyes is forced to hack a path with her sword, but she’s still hot on his heels. Ivan throws the stone. It turns to a massive mountain of solid rock, too smooth to be climbed. Does the princess give up? Not a bit of it. She swings her metal club and smashes her way through. Ivan is forced to throw Jaga’s final gift, the cinder. It turns into a burning river flowing between himself and the princess. Even a horse as magnificent as her own can’t swim through fire. Blue-Eyes draw a deep breath and blows, a breath so fierce it is a gale, extinguishing a ford across the burning river.

Ivan realises he has no chance. Blue-Eyes has caught up with him and challenges him to the same fight that his father lost. They ride at each other hard, clashing violently with lances and clubs. On the third collision, Ivan is thrown. The princess leaps down and begins removing Ivan’s armour, so as to get at his heart. What’s a prince to do? “Don’t take my armour off, dear princess, don’t pierce my white flesh with your sword!” he pleads. “Kiss me on the lips instead.” Blue-Eyes pauses. She looks at him. She decides maybe there’s other uses for Ivan’s heart, and kisses him.

There is only place left to go after what may be the most bizarre courtship in the history of fairy tales. They’ve stolen things off each other, they’ve duelled, now they get married. After three weeks together in the princess’s white tent on the plain, Blue-Eyes tells Ivan she’ll see him again in three years time, and goes off to do whatever else is more interesting than he is. Ivan, in his turn, goes home. He uses his two healing waters to restore his father’s eyes to their rightful places and the Czar is so delighted that he names Ivan as his heir. Ivan’s brothers are less than impressed by this. Extravagant generosity, they say, and start a smear campaign against the youngest prince that is so successful that the Czar himself begins to rethink. When the rumours reach Ivan, he is understandably distraught. He rescued his brothers from the crossroads women, he fought to get back his father’s eyes (and got married. He may not have been entirely honest with everyone on that score) and he can’t bear to remain in the face of such total ingratitude. For three years he travels alone.

And at the end of the three years, Princess Blue-Eyes returns, as she promised she would. With her come two children, the result of those three crazy weeks in a tent. And being the sons of Blue-Eyes, they are not exactly your normal toddlers. When the panicked Czar sends out Fjodor to meet with her, she introduces him as Wicked Uncle No.1 and the kids hurl him into the sea. They do the same to Vasilij. Both princes almost drown, but don’t quite, just close enough that they repent of their scandal-mongering ways. And at this interesting moment of familial bonding, Ivan comes riding up. He bows to his wife and meets his children. Then, to the collective relief of his relations, he sails away with them to be consort in the kingdom of Princess Blue-Eyes.

What can I say? A princess who is both villain and heroine, who hefts a club with the best of them, rides like a demon and will drop everything at the promise of a good bath – I swear, I do not make these things up! This is a genuine folk tale! Blue-Eyes does some exceptionally mean things, so I don’t want to like her, but I kind of do anyway. What I love is that she wins, then decides to spare the prince after all – not because he has any power over her, but because she just changes her mind.

I admit, I’d love to see what Disney would make of this one. I bet they’d come up with a killer frock.

An Update from the February Optimist

Brace yourselves for author talk. As I may have mentioned before, I have two short stories set for release in April. In ‘The Oblivion Box’ an imprisoned musician from the Third Millenium Sultanate uses stories to escape the inescapable; in ‘Winter’s Heart’ a young mother must seek out a lost treasure before it sees her lose everything else she has. The anthologies each story appears in (Dreaming of Djinn and One Small Step respectively) are now available for preorder. The cover art can also be seen on Ticonderoga and FableCroft’s websites. I myself cannot wait until all that prettiness is in my hands, and more importantly, ON MY BOOKSHELF.

April is looking unnervingly imminent from where I stand. Like 90% of the population on the planet, I had high hopes that I would have Achieved Great Things by this point in the year – I had a list, actually. The only resolutions I can tick off so far are the writing of several blog posts and the reading of a great many books. It’s hard to be as optimistic at the end of February as I was at the beginning of January, but I intend to finish writing a particular book by mid-March. I also hope my computer may have stopped having nervous breakdowns by then, though I’m not counting on it.

With apologies for its lateness, I will now share with you a folk tale treasure. It is Russian, from a book I own but only recently rediscovered, and it might just have claimed top spot on my mental shortlist of favourite fairy tales ever. You won’t have to guess why.

Reviewing Who – The War Games, Episodes 6-10

Episode 6: There is a security coup taking place in Control, but the Security Chief is too busy expounding on his ‘Down with the War Chief’ plan to the head scientist to notice. The Doctor, meanwhile, is rummaging in an industrial sized closet, pushing his way through coats like he’s trying to get to Narnia. He then uses tape and bits of wire to reverse the magnetic field holding the far wall together and eases out one panel to spy on the room on the other side, where prisoners are heaped up in an undignified mass on the floor.

Jamie – stunned, not dead! – has been propped up for the head scientist to scan, and his results are startling. The scientist has him dragged off to the Security Chief for questioning, but is interrupted by the arrival of the War Chief, who scares him into revealing that Jamie is a human being who was never processed, a theoretical impossibility. The War Chief allows Jamie to be taken away and stalks off himself, leaving the scientist to begin reprocessing the other prisoners. A hand neatly inserts itself into his field of vision, gently correcting a minor mistake. The scientist turns around to find the Doctor beaming at him. Hello again!

The Security Chief has begun work on Jamie when the War Chief gatecrashes the interrogation, demanding to know why all this is being conducted behind his back. The Security Chief makes his suspicions clear, but he has no real evidence and the War Chief knows it. “If you accuse me without positive proof, I will crush you,” he growls, punctuating the threat with a fist slam. And as if the Security Chief needed more problems, he just lost his rebels. They are all awake and escaping through the loose panel in the wall. By the time the guards arrive with the two Chiefs, the room is empty. The Security Chief shrilly announces that this can only be the work of a time space machine! The War Chief just takes a look at the wall and coolly points out that there is a hole in it.

Remember the coats? The Doctor has stolen the lot, disguising all the rebels as soldiers from the 1917 zone, complete with gas masks. And yes, he manages to break into the interrogation room to get Jamie, despite everyone knowing there are rebels on the loose, because the War Chief is right: the security in this place sucks. The rebels also reach the landing bay just before the guards do, and the Doctor manages to throw up a force field while he summons up a transport. While the others depart, though, he remains behind with Carstairs and Jamie, sneaking back to steal the processing machine.

But the barn, where the transport reappears, is not so safe as they thought. The general, left under the eye of a nervous and kind of stupid young soldier, managed to talk his way into a retrieval of the evil monocle and has the boy with the gun under his control. When Russel steps out the transport, the general orders young Moore to shoot. It turns into a fist fight, with the general getting hold of a pistol, but before he can fire Moore recovers his senses and shoots first. This is a scene that really doesn’t make much sense (I thought these people couldn’t be hypnotised?) but that doesn’t matter in the fan trivia scheme of things, because the man playing Moore is a young David Troughton – Patrick Troughton’s son. As an older man, he also appeared in the Tennant era story ‘Midnight’.

Back at Control, the War Chief is dissecting all the ways in which the Security Chief is useless. In an almost Dalek-worthy monotone, the Security Chief insists that wherever the rebels go, he will find them. Well, it wouldn’t be too hard just now, the Doctor and co have stuffed the main part of the processing machine into a bag and have collected a few smoke bombs for good measure. They use these to distract the guards on their return to the landing bay, summoning up a transport, but before they can escape the Security Chief locks it down from the outside. He thinks they’ll give up eventually when they realise they’re not going anywhere. The War Chief is a more dynamic thinker. While the Doctor is comfortably insisting that they are totally utterly safe inside the transport, the War Chief is twisting a few crucial keys on the control board (which is essentially a magnet board. It is not easy to take seriously) and suddenly the floor starts to move…

Episode 7: On the point of being crushed by the changing dimensions of the transport, the Doctor has no choice but to open the doors, waving his white hanky as a peace gesture. It is not, however, a very sincere one. Told to surrender, he shouts “I think that’s a perfectly horrid idea!”, throws down another of those extremely useful gas bombs that keep taking the guards by surprise, and dashes forward to snatch a handful of magnets/master circuit rods, before diving back into the restored transport and dematerialising.

It’s the perfect opportunity for the Security Chief to get one up on his rival, but his pleasure is short lived. The War Lord is coming and the War Chief sweeps off to greet him. This evil mastermind turns out to be a brisk man with a neat beard and glasses who doesn’t buy all the talk of ‘temporary difficulties’ for one minute.

The Doctor has set a random course with the transport (confirming his total lack of a sense of direction) and they end up amid some very familiar hills, with a very familiar battalion of Romans bearing down on them. At this point, with their quarry located, the War and Security Chiefs burst out into more bickering over whether or not they should send in guards. The Security Chief shrilly denounces the War Chief, who furiously demands proof – the War Lord, thoroughly fed up with the both of them, commands silence. Hear hear. The Doctor, Carstairs and Jamie end up running back into the 1917 zone, where Zoe leads a rescue party of rebels just a fraction too late. Soldiers surround the glum trio and before you know it they are back in front of General Smythe.

By now they have escaped from pretty much everyone and everywhere, but Smythe took their bamboozlement of him very personally, and he reinstates the Doctor’s date with a firing squad. The execution is interrupted for a second time, however, when the resistance arrives to capture the chateau. Smythe dashes into his office to call on Control for aid, but the War Chief has bigger worries than one incompetent general. He keeps ordering him to deactivate the area control. Smythe is shot before he can obey, and the Doctor discovers a very interesting piece of alien tech…

Well, perhaps everyone else in Control is blundering about wondering what to do next, but the War Lord got that name of his for a reason. While his Chiefs fight over whether it would be better to employ guards or an artillery barrage, he sneers coolly and orders in the regular soldiers to reclaim the chateau. It’s a good plan. The resistance are surrounded, fighting what they know is a losing battle…but the Doctor and Zoe have their hands on the area control now and suddenly all is silent. They have erected a time zone force field around the chateau and none of the processed soldiers can pass through.

The War Lord is not happy. He launches a blistering criticism of both his Chiefs, like an exasperated parent who has discovered the kids have wrecked the house while he was gone. He sends in a transport to the chateau loaded with guards, who seize the processing machine and when the Doctor tries to get it back, take him too. Before anyone can stop them, they return to their transport and disappear.

Episode 8: The Security Chief has been given a golden opportunity to plant his pet theory of the War Chief’s betrayal in the Doctor’s mouth by use of the truth machine he used on Zoe back in Episode 5. The Doctor is foiling him by the amazing technique of keeping his eyes shut. Back at the chateau soldiers have been set up to guard Smythe’s office while Carstairs takes charge, and a good thing too, because another group of guards arrives shortly afterward. They overcome the machine gun fire that greets them, but a bomb hurled into their transport is enough to convince them they’d better leave. Jamie is trying to come up with a way to rescue the Doctor, but Zoe pragmatically insists they stick to the original plan of assembling all resistance groups across the time zones. Little did the Security Chief know when he showed her the faces and names of all the known leaders during her interrogation that she would remember every single one.

In fact, that machine is not doing too well by him at all. With the Doctor refusing point blank to say a word, the Security Chief amps up the power to a dangerous level just in time to be caught by the War Chief, who pulls rank on him to take over the interrogation. He has the Doctor taken to the War Room itself, booting out the controllers so they can talk alone. The atmosphere abruptly changes. They are equals and both know it. Indeed, the War Chief does know the Doctor, despite the different face – he knows that the man wandering around the room poking at things with disapproving curiosity is the Time Lord who stole a TARDIS and ran away from their home planet much like he did himself. Indeed, as the War Chief continues, they are actually alike in so many ways. He brushes off the Doctor’s accusations of mass slaughter, dismissing humanity as the most vicious species of all and therefore the perfect soldiers to use in the construction of an interstellar empire.

The viciousness of humans, or at least their disappointing sexism, is on full display at the chateau. A group of Mexican guerillas have broken in under the cover of darkness but refuse to speak to Zoe, insisting she bring them Russel. The trouble is, Russel is off recruiting. Zoe drags Jamie out of bed to play Grand Male Leader and ends up doing all the talking anyway. She is unqualified awesome at this. “We are free men!” declares the Mexican leader. “You are hunted fugitives!” Zoe tells him. She has a plan.

Meanwhile, the War Chief is still talking. We want the same thing, Doctor! Let’s bring peace to the galaxy…through systematic conquest! This one sided heart-to-heart is interrupted by the War Lord and Security Chief, to whom the War Chief immediately pretends that the Doctor has already agreed to help them.

Zoe’s fast talking and Jamie’s Highland bluster have worked. All resistance fighters are now gathered and, well, fighting, as they try to decide what to do next. With Zoe and Carstairs as the voices of mediation, a plan is agreed upon. The bases in other time zones are attacked in lightning raids to distract Control, drawing out their guards to all different locations, with a background of jolly military music emphasising their success. Unfortunately, the War Chief works it out. The Security Chief, having had a fool made of himself for the umpteenth time, has a solution. Let’s blow up the whole damn place with a neutron bomb! Which puts the Doctor in a very difficult position…

The amalgamated resistance has gathered in the barn of the American Civil War zone when the Doctor contacts them through the hidden communication device. He tells them that he has gained control over the transport system and is sending a machine to collect the leaders. But of course when it arrives and the leaders emerge, Jamie and Zoe among them, guards come pouring out to surround them. The Doctor has turned traitor.

Episode 9: The disillusioned prisoners are shuffled off for processing; the War Chief smugly assures the Doctor that his position in the plan is now secure, but the Doctor is suspicious at all this cosy-making and what starts out as a compliment on the War Chief’s excellent work manufacturing time travel transports turns into an accusation that he’s compromised the lifetime of the time controls. Basically, quite soon these sleek boxes will be just that, useless boxes, and that’s where the Doctor comes in. When the other transports fail, his TARDIS will be the only functioning time machine around. That, the War Chief says, slinging an arm around the Doctor’s shoulders, is when they will rule the galaxy unopposed.

Jamie, Zoe and rather sweetly, Carstairs, are all still trying to protest the Doctor’s innocence. They would find it even harder than it already is if they could see his interview with the War Lord, where he calmly states that he likes to be on the winning side. He offers to fix the processing machines so that they can be used on the captured rebels. The War Lord isn’t entirely buying this change of heart, but he agrees to it. The Security Chief leads him to the processing room where the prisoners are being held, then abandons him there with no guards. And oh dear, the rebels are not very happy with him. Not happy at all.

The War Chief is working on the systematic demolishment of the remaining resistance members in the War Room when the Security Chief returns, and something about the man’s manner makes him suspicious. He stalks out to investigate. Unfortunately for him, the distrust is mutual. The Security Chief has recordings taken in this room played back to him and it isn’t long before he uncovers the War Chief’s rather unwisely grandiose offers of shared galactic conquest.

His other vengeance is interrupted by Jamie, who insists that they listen to what the Doctor has to say. The Doctor tries to explain about the neutron bomb, but the Mexican leader is having none of that (how would he know what a neutron bomb was anyway?) and grabs him by the throat. The War Chief arrives just in time to play rescuer. The Doctor then begins his work ‘processing’ the prisoners, with Jamie as his first trial. Jamie plays along convincingly enough, not needing to fake any bemusement, and the War Chief leaves the Doctor to it. He returns to the War Room, where he intends to punish the Security Chief for his deliberate transgression. That’s when the Security Chief does what he’s been aching to do for eight episodes and orders his rival’s arrest. Ah, righteous triumph! It is so very sweet!

The Doctor does very well with his pretend processing until he comes to the Mexican leader, who – reasonably enough – leaps straight up from the chair to recommence his interrupted strangulation. He’s dragged off the Doctor by Jamie and Russel, who quickly clue him in on the plan. It’s time to take Control. Then Zoe, who is standing lookout, sees the guards and War Chief returning and alerts the others. The guards are easily disarmed. The War Chief grins at the betrayal and explains that he, too, is a prisoner now. They want to go to the War Room? Sure. He’ll lead the way.

The Security Chief begins trying to call the guards back from the time zones, but it’s too late. The resistance breaks into the War Room, guns blazing. During the commotion, the Security Chief tries to slink away across the floor, but before he can escape the War Chief does what he has been aching to do for eight episodes and shoots him dead (with a gun that is promptly confiscated). Russel shows amazing intuition by switching off the alarms on an alien control console. For the time being, at least, they’re in charge. There is, however, one small problem. When the Doctor demands that the War Chief return everyone to their respective times on Earth, he is told that only two transports are left with enough power to make that kind of a journey.

That is when the Doctor makes a fateful decision, and the War Lord freaks out completely. They both know that the only ones who can fix this mess now are the last people in the universe either of them wants to see…While the War Chief screams warnings and threats, the Doctor lays out a series of white squares and, with the force of his concentration, assembles them into a small box. Inside it is a psychic account of what has happened in this place, and a plea for help. While everyone looks on in wonder, though, the War Chief makes a break for it, trying to get to a transport. Unluckily for him, someone else got there first – the War Lord, surrounded by guards. And he’s already heard the Security Chief’s recordings. Even the silver-tongued War Chief can’t talk his way out of this one. He is shot down while trying to escape, and he does not regenerate.

Well, the guards can handle one man. What they can’t handle is an angry gang of rebels, who are frankly better at this sort of thing than they are, and soon the War Lord is being held at gunpoint. The Doctor then sends his message to the Time Lords and tries to get the hell out of there. He even intends to leave Jamie and Zoe behind, to be sent home with everybody else. Jamie and Zoe naturally object to this. They want explanations, and all the Doctor will say is that it’s complicated. He gives in, though, and even agrees to take Carstairs with them back to the 1917 zone so that he can meet up with Lady Jennifer again (ah, wartime romance!), but all this babbling about escape has attracted attention and the other leaders aren’t too happy about Mr Ambush-and-Betrayal running off on them before his theoretical cavalry arrive. The Doctor only escapes alive because Russel intervenes at the last minute, a decent soul to the end. “When the Time Lords get him,” the War Lord says, with bitter satisfaction, “he’ll wish you had killed him.”

The quartet reappear on the same battlefield where they first met and the Doctor, pretty much waving a hand as he goes, runs all out for the TARDIS. Baffled and exasperated, the others say quick goodbyes and follow. Behind them, Carstairs vanishes into thin air. As they run, the Doctor and his companions are suddenly in slow motion, struggling against an invisible barrier. The Time Lords are here. And they don’t intend the Doctor to go anywhere.

Episode 10: Somehow, with Jamie’s strength for support, the Doctor gets them into the TARDIS and quickly dematerialises. There’s no way to avoid his friends’ questions now and finally he explodes with answers. He left his home planet because he was bored, because the Time Lords have all these remarkable powers and never use them, because there was a huge amazing universe on his doorstep all waiting for him to explore it. Jamie wants to know why the Time Lords object to him doing that. “Well,” the Doctor confesses, “it is a fact, Jamie, that I do tend to get involved in things.” Jamie definitely isn’t arguing with that. Case in point: the TARDIS, intended to materialise on the other side of the galaxy, ends up at the bottom of an ocean. As the Doctor insists that they are perfectly safe, water begins to drip onto the console. Panicked, he sends them off into deep space instead. “We may have given them the slip!” he declares. Um…not really. Like the arrival of Marley’s ghost, a disembodied voice echoes inside the TARDIS, ordering him back to the home planet of the Time Lords. When he fails to comply, they take over control completely.

The TARDIS lands. Our first view of the Doctor’s home world is seen on the scanner to a dramatic flourish of music. It is…a corridor. “You have returned to us, Doctor,” states the disembodied voice. “Your travels are over.” Stepping out of the TARDIS, Jamie promptly tries to intimidate a Time Lord, but all the fight has gone out of the Doctor. He follows their guide into a trial room where the War Lord stands under the judgement of three grave-faced men in long robes. They call on the Doctor to give evidence, which he gladly does. The War Lord, seeking to delay the trial, refuses to speak in his own defence – until the psychic pressure of the judges forces him, screaming, to his knees. From a man who has been totally together since his first appearance in the story, this is unnerving, as is the calm of the judges as they continue to observe him. They wanted him to talk; he talks. He rants. He blames the War Chief, he blames the Doctor, he refuses to recognise the authority of this court. Meanwhile, two technicians meddling with the TARDIS emerge to find one of the War Chief’s transports has appeared outside. The guards that spill out shoot them on sight and continue on to the court room. They take the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe as hostages and are allowed to leave by the judges, who remain unruffled throughout.

Ushering his prisoners into the TARDIS, the War Lord commands the Doctor to take them away. The Doctor blathers away sorrowfully about how the directional control doesn’t really work and he can’t promise anything and Jamie, Zoe, close your eyes! A flash of brilliant light blinds the guards and the trio flee the TARDIS. When the War Lord follows with his guards, he comes face to face with the stony-faced judges. Also, a force field. He has been found guilty, and his sentence is to be dematerialised…or in other words, execution by vanishment. It’s all terribly, terribly civilised.

The Doctor is led back to the trial room to defend himself against his own charges, which he does with passion. While the other Time Lords stand calmly by, encased in the ice of their own inaction, he has been out there fighting evil. Quarks! Yeti! Ice Warriors, Cybermen, Daleks! Yes, he has interfered, and he’s furious that his own people never did. It’s passionate and fantastic and the Time Lords just aren’t interested.

Later, one of the judges goes to collect Jamie and Zoe, explaining that he will send them back to their own times and places. He does not intend to allow them a goodbye, but falls to the power of a tearful Zoe and allows them to join the Doctor, who is flopped on the floor of the trial room playing a glum game of cards with himself. They are expected to say their farewells through a force field – no one ever said the Time Lords were good at sensitivity – and it takes a bit more sorrow on Zoe’s part to get rid of that, but once it is taken down he forgets to replace it and Jamie and Zoe talk the Doctor into one more escape attempt, though he knows really that it is hopeless. They are caught in the landing bay. This time, it is a final goodbye, and it is all the more heartbreaking because while his friends promise never to forget him, the Doctor knows they will. The Time Lords will see to that. Jamie and Zoe will get to keep their first adventure with him, and everything else will be as if it never happened.

Back in the trial room, he watches Zoe, puzzled and uncertain, turn to look over her shoulder as she finds herself back on the space station where she first met the Doctor. He watches Jamie wake up on Scottish soil and bounce straight up to go chase a Redcoat, sword brandished high. Then the Doctor turns around to receive his own sentence.

The Time Lords considered what he had to say and have decided that if he wants to fight evil, he can. Since he likes Earth so much, he can stay there and defend it. What he won’t be able to do is leave: the TARDIS will grounded, making him an exile. The Doctor is appalled. “One primitive planet! One century in time!” They then offer him a series of new faces to choose from for his forced regeneration (one of which is startlingly similar to that of David Tennant) and he’s appalled by those too, rejecting every one he sees. Our last sight of this Doctor is of him spinning away into darkness, face twisted into wild contortions, wailing “No! No! NO!”

The Verdict: Everyone still there? No one got lost back around Episode 3? Good, well done! The War Games is a marathon, one of the longest stories in Doctor Who history, but in my opinion it is also one of the best. It is the last story of the Doctor as played by Patrick Troughton. Where Hartnell’s Doctor was a cantankerous loner, Troughton’s is a cheerfully erratic adventurer who uses chatter to hide fierce intelligence. He wants to be underestimated. His relationship with his companions is also completely different – Jamie and Zoe clearly love him, for all his exasperating habits, and he has an avuncular affection for them. This Doctor is fond of company, and specifically, of humans. In fact, he ends his second life by essentially sacrificing himself to the unforgiving law of the Time Lords in order to save hundreds – if not thousands – of human lives.

And, speaking of which, Time Lords! Aren’t they fantastic? By this point in the series we have met another of the Doctor’s people before (i.e. the Meddling Monk, who was on Team Harold in the Battle of Hastings) but the War Chief beats him hollow on the spectrum of historical vandalism. There was a reputed plan during the Pertwee era to reveal the Master as the Doctor’s brother; personally, I would so much rather think that the brotherhood was between the Master and the War Chief. They are both fast-talking manipulators, grandiose schemers, complete with snarky repartee and impressive facial hair. It makes SENSE they’d be related!

But with the end of The War Games comes the end of an era. The new Doctor will be a very different man again – the stylish, the sophisticated, the trapped-on-Earth-and-really-not-happy-about-it Jon Pertwee. Join me next month for his very first story, when strange things fall from the sky and plastic goes feral. You will never look at a shop window dummy the same away again…

Reviewing Who – The War Games, Episodes 1-5

Doctor: Patrick Troughton

Companions: Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury

Script writers: Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke

Producer: Derrick Sherwin

Director: David Maloney

Originally aired: 19th April 1969-21st June 1969

Episode 1: Out into a military wasteland step the new TARDIS crew – the Second Doctor in his ragbag frock coat, Jamie from the 18th century Scottish highlands, and mathematical girl genius Zoe from the future. They trudge off happily through mud and barbed wire, and they don’t try running back even when bombs start to fall. Fortunately for them, a well-dressed nurse with a cut glass British accent appears as unexpectedly as a TARDIS to give them a lift in her ambulance. They are captured by German soldiers, but it isn’t long before the British take it back and drive it to their base in the trenches. This is the point when the Doctor thinks maybe they’d better make a run for it, but when he almost gets shot, he is forced to abandon that idea. Making matters worse, the major in charge interprets this as a run for enemy lines and telephones General Smythe at headquarters. Smythe orders them to be sent over for questioning, then enters his private office, snarling at a subordinate who tries to follow him inside with a nice cup of tea. When the man has been safely evicted, Smythe opens a secret panel behind a portrait to reveal some sort of telecommunications device that most certainly doesn’t belong in his time period and begins to report. “Smythe. 1917, British sector.” Oh, most definitely something fishy going on here…

Back in the trenches, Jamie is throwing a strop, not wanting to be sent anywhere. With all these soldiers around, however, he hasn’t much choice, and shortly afterwards the TARDIS trio find themselves being marched into HQ – a rather battered but still beautiful old chateau. The Doctor optimistically predicts a rapid solution, but when a captain called Ransome goes looking for the general, he finds the office empty. The prisoners are marched off to a cell instead. Meanwhile the nurse, Lady Jennifer, and the soldier who recaptured the ambulance, Lieutenant Carstairs, are sharing a cup of tea and a chat. But something is wrong. She can’t remember the location of her hospital; he can’t remember how long he’s been at war. A telephone call demands their presence at HQ for the trial of the prisoners, who are having their own rather dejected chat in their solid stone cell. The Doctor is still talking of temporary misunderstandings, but his hope that Smythe will turn out to be a “very nice chap” are proven wrong the moment the general steps out of his office, where he’s stopped by the puzzled Ransome. Drawing out a pair of small, scary glasses, Smythe hypnotises the man into forgetting his curious absence.

The TARDIS crew are then brought in and Smythe does the same thing during the court martial, convincing both Ransome and the major from the trenches that Jamie is a deserter, Zoe a spy, and the Doctor their dangerous ringleader. Jamie is dragged off kicking and shouting to a military prison, and the Doctor taken back to his cell to await execution. Zoe is about to be sent to join him when Lady Jennifer intervenes, insisting that the poor girl remain under her eye instead. The major and Ransome seem quite amenable to this, addressing their dangerous spy as ‘my dear’ and letting her nap right outside the general’s office. Well, what do they think was going to happen? The moment Lady Jennifer is asleep, Zoe is up and in Smythe’s office, searching for the keys. She finds them…and also the communications device. She hurries down to free the Doctor, but it’s too late – they don’t even manage to get out of the cell before Ransome arrives to lead them to the firing squad. While Zoe watches on in horror, they open fire.

Episode 2: Only the shots aren’t coming from the firing squad. A sniper takes out one of Ransome’s men and the execution turns into a melee, allowing Zoe to free the Doctor and run away. Ransome then tries to inform Smythe, but when he enters the general’s office he hears a sound that is oddly like the TARDIS, while a door emerges where there should be no door…Smythe angrily whips out his glasses and hypnotises Ransome again, before disappearing through the door. In the military prison, meanwhile, Jamie is given a cell mate in the unexpected form of a Redcoat from his own time. Initially distrustful, they end up working together, faking a fight to lure in the guards and escape. But Jamie’s not the only one with a plot. The Doctor has forced his way into the prison masquerading as an examiner from the war office, Zoe playing his secretary, and throws a magnificent hissy fit. The commandant’s day gets just that bit worse when a telephone call informs him that two prisoners have escaped.

Jamie’s success does not last long. They have not gone far before the Redcoat gets shot in the leg and Jamie is dragged off to see the commandant. Seeing the Doctor, Jamie tries to talk; the Doctor quickly blusters over him, but the commandant has finally had enough and tries to call HQ. Quiet little Zoe puts paid to that with a well judged vase to the head. They turn to go – and Ransome appears in the doorway with a group of soldiers. It’s back to the chateau and a cell.

But Lady Jennifer is putting the pieces together. Present at the military trial as a witness who was not, in fact, allowed to state what she had witnessed, she is putting Ransome’s inexplicable satisfaction with it together with the memory loss both she and Carstairs have experienced. Carstairs suspects a German gas. While Lady Jennifer uses her competent charm to distract Ransome with much sympathetic listening on the subject of paperwork – and then sends him on a wild goose chase as far from the chateau as she can – Carstairs sneaks the prisoners from their cell and goes with them to Smythe’s office to check Zoe’s story about the telecommunications device. Neither he or Lady Jennifer can see anything there. As the Doctor insists they concentrate, though, it fades into view. Unfortunately, the man on the other end can also see them. And that man is General Smythe…

At this point Jamie is all for going back to the TARDIS, but the Doctor and Zoe insist on staying to help, and together with Carstairs and Lady Jennifer escape in the ambulance. Smythe tries to stop them with a barrage, but then they drive into a strange mist, and neither Lady Jennifer or Carstairs can go on. The Doctor blithely elbows his way to the steering wheel. When the mist clears, they have stopped alongside a river, surrounded by hills. The battlefield is nowhere in sight. Only the chariots of some very angry Romans…

Episode 3: The ambulance starts in the nick of time and reverses into 1917, leaving the charging Romans gaping at an empty space on the road. The Doctor realises that what they really need is a map to cover all the time zones, and that means going back to raid Smythe’s office. Again. But it’s not as if the chateau is guarded or anything. Carstairs manages to sneak in quite comfortably, draws a gun on poor old Ransome and the Doctor bounds past to search the empty office, quickly discovering a rather promising safe. Carstairs, who doesn’t know the Doctor very well yet, jokes that the only thing that will open it is dynamite. A few minutes later the lock is stuffed full of explosives and a fuse is lit. Somehow a map is drawn unscathed from the resulting wreckage and when the Doctor and Zoe examine it, they learn that at the centre of all the marked zones is an unlabelled space. That, the Doctor decides, is where they need to go.

Returning to the battlefield in the ambulance, they are promptly captured by Germans and taken down into the trenches for interrogation. The German major comes up with the not entirely original idea that he is dealing with spies, and demands the truth…so that is precisely what the Doctor gives, backing up his story by sonicking the screws out of the major’s revolver (yes, one of the few incidents when he uses the sonic screwdriver ON ACTUAL SCREWS). The major is in a state of baffled belief when a German general joins them and yanks him aside. And oh dear, out comes a monocle. When the major returns to the Doctor and his companions he is convinced, all over again, that they are spies, and is fully prepared to carry out the general’s orders that they be shot. But the Doctor still has his sonic. He repeats his display with the revolver and while the major is marvelling, tosses the gun to Jamie. They’re leaving now, ta.

In Central Control, Smythe respectfully greets the arrival of a man with sideburns almost as impressive as his own, and tells him about the crazy people who have been causing so much trouble. The only thing is, Sideburns Guy doesn’t find the idea of their being time travellers at all implausible. It is at this point that the German general makes contact to inform them that the prisoners have escaped.

Again.

So the quintet are back in their ambulance, trundling across the mist into the time zone of the American Civil War, where they are promptly shot at. Carstairs nobly remains behind to hold off their attackers with his revolver, but it’s a pointless gesture really because not far down the road the ambulance runs out of petrol anyway and the remaining four are forced to flee on foot. Meanwhile, back at Central Control, the German and British generals are planning their next manoeuvres on a glass map. The war must go on, after all. They talk in terms of tests and cheating, as if the lives at stake are pixels in a training program. It is a chilling insight into what these zones are for. They are interrupted by Sideburns, when it is learned that Carstairs was caught. He is being brought in for reprocessing, and even without the sinister music, you just know that’s not good.

The Doctor and his friends take refuge in an abandoned barn for the night, but have to hide when sounds like those of a TARDIS alert them to the materialisation of a sleek black box. American soldiers come marching blankly out, and when they seem to be gone, the Doctor cannot resist taking a look. Only the soldiers are not gone after all. As gunfire breaks out, he and Zoe take cover in the black box. It disappears, whisking them to who knows where…leaving Jamie and Lady Jennifer behind.

Episode 4: The Doctor and Zoe are inside the box, which is suspiciously similar to how the TARDIS would look had it been designed by an interior decorator who really preferred plastic sheeting to walls. Or, conceivably, never finished the paint job. Anyway, it has the Doctor worried. They stumble across a legion of Romans frozen in a hypnotic trance and quickly hide behind more semi-transparent plastic sheeting when the transport stops, awakening the soldiers, who march out into their own war zone. Zoe wants the Doctor to figure out a way to get back to Jamie, but he is determined to continue on to the transport’s ultimate destination. Though, actually, Jamie could use a hand. He and Lady Jennifer have been captured by American soldiers and branded, wouldn’t you just know it, as spies. They are tied up but the soldiers are promptly attacked and leave the prisoners behind in their escape. The Southerners who take the barn are happy to release Jamie and Jennifer, but then their general arrives and it is the same man who commanded the Germans in the 1917 zone, in a new uniform, mangling another accent and wishing he was in a James Bond film instead. He hypnotises a gentlemanly subordinate with the evil power of the monocle and Jamie and Jennifer are tied up all over again.

Meanwhile, in Control, a scientist wearing a deeply impractical white visor over half his face is being berated by Sideburns Guy about recent failures in mental processing. The five percent who resist the treatment are running amok, and a great deal is riding on the development of a more effective processing technique. The German/American general makes contact in the middle of this conversation, reporting Jamie and Jennifer’s capture. He has soldiers searching the surrounding area for the Doctor and Zoe, little realising that they have just arrived at Control and stolen themselves a pair of useless white glasses each, which is apparently all the disguise they need to wander unnoticed around what seems to be some sort of training facility. Fashion trends from across the different time zones have caught on here. For once, the Doctor kind of fits in.

Jamie and Jennifer are trying to explain that they really ARE NOT spies when a man who is an actual spy appears behind them, cutting them free and providing cover fire while they escape. He is captured himself, but when the general tries the old monocle trick, it doesn’t work. Say hello to Mr Five Percent! Outside, Jamie and Jennifer get split up. Pursued by a soldier on horseback, Jamie whacks him one with a branch and nabs the horse.

Back at Control, the Doctor and Zoe have been apprehended by a guard, but their brilliant disguises do not fail them. He is only ushering them into a lecture, where the scientist involved in reprocessing is explaining to a group of students about the difficulties involved in removing people from their proper world and time zone. As an example, he produces Carstairs and demonstrates how the machine works on him while the Doctor and Zoe watch on, horrified. They are even more horrified when the brainwashed Carstairs singles them out as German spies. Anyone else would choose this moment to panic – the Doctor instead bounds up, all bravado, to critique the scientist’s work. This works rather well until Sideburns Guy sweeps in to check on progress and recognises him. The Doctor and Zoe flee.

Are Jamie and Jennifer doing any better? Not really. They are together now, on the plus side, but on the downside they are back in the same barn, tied up (AGAIN) with their failed rescuer. The general has only just begun waving a gun at them when the barn is stormed by resistance fighters. In the ensuing shootout, the tables are turned, and it is the general who is tied up. Only dear old Jamie intervenes to stop the rebels killing him, and…well, what is the pattern of this episode? Can you possibly guess?

The Doctor and Zoe have separated, running in opposite directions while Sideburns Guy – now introduced as the War Chief – barks commands to security. Zoe runs into Carstairs, who has freed himself during the commotion, and her delighted relief turns to shock as she finds a pistol pointed at her chest.

Episode 5: Before Carstairs can shoot, however, the scientist intervenes. Though the lieutenant keeps mumbling “she is a spy…she must die…” like a concussed rapper, he eventually lowers the gun. In the barn, the rebels are getting, well, rebellious, and one Redcoat takes matters into his own hands by trying to shoot the general. This leads to a brawl with Mr Five Percent that is only interrupted when their leader Russel arrives to drag them apart with a firm scolding, like a heavily armed and world weary babysitter. Jamie catches the sneaky general as he opens a concealed communications box and triumphantly calls the others over to see.

Zoe, meanwhile, is being interrogated by a man in a hideous techno hat. She is answering his answers truthfully, if against her will, but the things she says are dismissed as being impossible, most especially the Doctor. Ah, if only they knew! The Doctor has stumbled across the scientist from the lecture, in the middle of correcting Carstairs’ processing, and breezes in confidently to interfere. He claims that it was Zoe the guards were after, and he was only trying to help catch her. Being a very helpful person generally, may he assist in this fascinating scientific work? With a mixture of charming flattery and bullying cheerfulness, he manages to remain present during the complete deprocessing of Carstairs, and together the two of them trap the scientist in the thrall of his own machine.

While all this is going on, the War Chief and Zoe’s interrogater, the Security Chief, are discussing the results of her questioning, and the Security Chief is lying through his teeth, pretending that she belongs in 1917. The War Chief is feeling irritable with him and when an emergency alert comes in from the American Civil War zone, drags him off to deal with it. They leave literally seconds before the Doctor and Carstairs arrive. The Doctor barrels straight in under the bewildered gaze of a totally incompetent guard, haranguing him about ungentlemanly behaviour towards innocent young girls, then Carstairs knocks the poor bloke out and the Doctor revives Zoe with a waft of smelling salts. She explains about the headset, and the pictures she saw of soldiers from the resistance. With those images recorded in her photographic memory, the Doctor is already coming up with a plan for the resistance, but they’ve got plans of their own. When a transport box arrives in the barn in response to the general’s emergency alert, Jamie’s story of time travel machines is proved true, and despite the superior weaponry of the guards that emerge they are overpowered by angry rebels. Leaving Lady Jennifer behind to tend the wounded, Jamie, Russel and a group of the other ‘five percent’ soldiers return to Control in the emptied transport.

The Chiefs are still sniping at each other, oblivious to the complete failure of their guards. The War Chief implies he’s not even of this world, and they should be feeling more grateful that he’s there. “Without the knowledge I have, this complete venture would be impossible!” he declares. He then orders the Security Chief to return to his interrogation before the girl escapes…but oh dear, it’s a little late for that. Finding Zoe gone, the Security Chief then runs into the scientist and frees him from the processing machine. Instead of telling the War Chief, like the scientist suggests, he insists on keeping the matter a secret. These are no ordinary rebels. If the War Chief could betray his own people in bringing his technology to this world, who’s to say he couldn’t turn traitor again?

The distrust goes both ways. With the transport failing to report before its return, the War Chief bypasses security altogether and orders an interception himself. The Doctor, Zoe and Carstairs – hidden in the landing bay as they wait to steal a transport – mistake this for an honour guard, but then the transport opens and the rebels emerge, Jamie among them. It’s an ambush, and the rebels walk straight into it.

Review No.63 – Lament

Lament – Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic, 2008

Dee Monaghan is a sixteen year old musical prodigy who is regularly pushed out of her shell by her perfectionist mother to perform as wedding receptions and musical festivals. But then the boy of her – quite literal – dreams steps into her life, turning her performance into magic by joining her with his flute, and Dee’s quiet introverted life is turned upside down. Her thoughts wrapped up with the beautiful and mysterious Luke Dillon, she barely notices the trail of clover that has begun to follow her around, or the strangers who suddenly appear fascinated by her. It is only when her grandmother meets Luke with steely recognition that Dee starts looking for answers. Who and what is the boy she has begun to fall in love with, and what is it he really wants from her?

After reading Stiefvater’s latest novel The Scorpio Races last year I was eager to try this earlier book about faerie music and assassins. There is a curious incompletion to the story, though, as if it is missing a crucial final chapter, and Stiefvater’s attempt to draw a parallel between the lives of sheltered, comfortable Dee and the tortured Luke only serves to make both characters less believable – their romance just didn’t convince me. The story continues in sequel Ballad.

 

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.28 – The Palace of the Seven Little Hills

It is as bad an idea to make assumptions as it is hard to avoid them. For instance, people assume that the word ‘fairy tale’ is limited to the traditional princess story of childhood picture books and Disney classics. They assume that the princesses are passive, instead of philosophical, and that modern women should be embarrassed by them. They assume that the prince will always be the hero, riding to the rescue, when princes are just as likely to require rescue themselves. They assume that the woman locked in the tower is powerless. Turns out sometimes the people actually in the fairy tale assume that too, but that doesn’t mean they’re right.

 This Irish fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1973 collection A Book of Sorcerers and Spells and begins the way so many do – the happiness of a royal family is shattered by the sudden death of the queen and the intense grief of her two young children, Michael and Rosa. The king decides that the best way to restore equilibrium to their lives is to take another wife. Displaying the usual romantic good sense of a fairy tale royal, he marries a woman both ambitious and evil. So far, so familiar, yes? But then one day the king walks in on his new queen reading a book of spells and muttering curses, and somehow intuits that he has married a wicked sorceress! Not only that, he does something about it. He locks the sorceress up in a tower at the edge of the sea and in a secret place surrounded by seven hills, about as far away from her as it is possible to be, he builds a beautiful little palace for the children.

For some years this plan works. The children grow up peacefully, visited often by their loving father, while the sorceress broods over spells she cannot use. But then one day, when the prince and princess are almost grown up, a raven comes tapping at the window of the tower beside the sea. “Good day and welcome, you bird of ill omen!” cries the wicked queen. “Good day to you, woman of evil thoughts!” replies the raven. And as they are being so honest and open with each other, the sorceress has him help her enact her carefully plotted revenge.

Off the raven flies to the palace between the seven hills, which is not quite so well hidden as the king hoped. He is let in through a window by friendly Princess Rosa, and promptly delivers the sorceress’s long-awaited curse – that Prince Michael shall not eat twice at the same table, nor drink twice from the same cup, nor sleep twice in the same bed, until he has brought home the calf that makes music, the calf of the red-mouthed cow that lives on the Island of Loneliness.

Furious, Rosa throws the raven to the ground, but that doesn’t bother him – he flaps off squawking with evil laughter. Rosa then runs all the way to the palace of the king, to tell him of their trouble. In a complete about turn from normal fairy tale father behaviour, he comes up with an actual workable solution: to provide his son with a new bed and table each day, and new crockery, so that the terms of the curse will be fulfilled while he remains safe in his own home. Michael, though, is determined to leave, or else he will have the curse hanging over him all his days. He makes his way through the world in search of an island that many have heard of but no one knows how to find, exhausted by ceaseless travel and homesickness.

Then one evening he comes to a castle where a beautiful young woman sits combing her hair and waiting for mysterious men to come staggering in. She greets Michael by name, giving him detailed advice and her wand to help him on his way. Duly set up with new hope, he follows her instructions to the letter. He goes down to a beach where the beautiful woman’s wand turns an oak stump into a boat, pushes it out to sea and sails through the night until he comes to the island itself. He finds the red-mouthed cow asleep and her little calf running rings around her in the manner of children everywhere, making enchanting music by its own inexplicable means. Then Michael taps it with the wand and immediately it stops circling its mother, turning to follow him instead.

But the music is gone, led down to the boat, and the cow wakens. She runs after her calf and when Michael turns her back with another tap of the wand, I admit I kind of hated him. He returns to the maiden’s castle with the calf at his heels, to kiss her hand in thanks and return her wand. Then at last he can return home to his overjoyed sister. Curse broken, all over and done with, it’s happy ever after time for all, right? Well, no. The furious sorceress calls to the raven once again and sends him off with another curse. The princess is not opening any windows for it this time, that’s for sure, but he finds a way in all the same and Michael is driven out again by the long-distance malice of his stepmother. This time he will not be allowed to rest until he fetches the golden dulcimer from the Isle of Calamity. Charming locations he gets to visit on these quests.

He doesn’t waste any time asking for directions. He’s been through all this before and heads straight to the one person who might be able to help him, the maiden who is still in that castle combing her hair. She is as unsurprised as before by his troubles, with a plan already prepared. Bestowed again with her wand, Michael sails across the sea to the Isle of Calamity, where in a black house on a mountain top the dulcimer is surrounded by sleeping wolves. The prince manages to take it without their noticing, but as he is running down the mountainside the sun rises and the wolves awake to find their treasure missing. A howling fury of teeth and fur follows Michael to his oak boat, but when it seems he will surely be devoured the maiden’s wand comes to his rescue for the second time, turning back the wolves to their mountain while he sails away with the dulcimer.

Surely by now he can live his life in peace? No again, I’m afraid, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed. The queen gives the raven yet another curse to take to the palace between the seven hills, forcing Michael from home for the third time in search of the Princess Above All Measure Beautiful. He wearily retraces his journey to the castle of the magical woman who has helped him twice before. But this time, it seems, she has no advice to give. She says nothing. Despairing, he turns to go and she runs after him, laughing at how silly he’s been. The Princess Above All Measure Beautiful is standing right before his eyes. Then, like this has been a sort of extreme date, she kisses him and calls out her carriage so he can drive her home. Being that type of princess, her horses have wings. They swoop down to the palace between the seven hills, where Rosa runs out delightedly to greet them.

So the third curse is broken. The raven returns to the sorceress to deliver the news and laugh at her rage. She rattles at the railings of her balcony, screaming out curses to the uncaring air – and in screaming too hard, and leaning too far, falls from the tower altogether, tumbling to her death. Freed forever from her curses, Michael marries his magical princess and Rosa marries a handsome prince of her own whom she meets at the wedding. And the raven who played messenger to the sorceress’s inexhaustible malice? He lives happily ever after too, laughing at the outrage of the world.

‘The Palace of the Seven Little Hills’ is a story of the type I like most. It overturns expectations and thumbs its nose at assumption. In this story, the curses are almost like a duel between the two women in their separate towers, each appearing to be so passive, yet in conflict as much as if they were fighting it out with broadswords. And I quite literally cheered when the king worked out in the third paragraph that the woman he’d married was actually evil. Someone get that man to write a parenting manual for fairy tale royalty!

Review No.62 – The Girl Who Chased the Moon

The Girl Who Chased the Moon – Sarah Addison Allen

Bantam Books, 2010

The small town of Mullaby is slow to change, slower still to reveal its secrets, but when Emily Benedict arrives in town shortly after the death of her mother Dulcie to live with the grandfather she has never met, she finds a place out of some strange Southern fairy tale, where a quiet giant broods in his empty house, a restless baker sends out an unspoken call with each cake she makes, and ghostly lights dance in the woods. Emily’s mother has not been forgotten here, and even in death, she is not forgiven. But what did she do, and why are the people of Mullaby so afraid Emily will do it all over again?

There is a gentle charm to Sarah Addison Allen’s style of writing, which is matter of fact but still with a whimsical softness. I like the way she weaves small magics into the day to day lives of her characters, to be lived with the same way they live with other loves and regrets. The resolution did not quite satisfy me, but the fantasy is fresh and makes for a light, enjoyable read.