Review No.71 – Pegasus and the Flame

Pegasus and the Flame – Kate O’Hearn

Hodder Children’s Books, 2011

Thirteen-year-old Emily Jacobs knows the story of Pegasus, but gets the shock of her life when the flesh and blood legend crashes into her roof during a violent storm. Nor is he the only marvel loose on the streets of New York City. A war has been raging on Olympus, a war the gods are losing, and the battle has followed Pegasus down to the Earth. With monstrous warriors climbing out of the sewers and a secret government organisation demanding answers, it is up to Emily to get Pegasus to safety. Only Pegasus has a plan of his own…

O’Hearn’s ideas are interesting, but her depiction of the Olympians as self-sacrificing, animal-loving people isn’t very compatible with the original myths and her characters just didn’t convince me. The writing was stilted and a bit repetitive, though there was some fun sly humour – the angry secret agents, for instance, who wanted aliens instead of gods. This is a book that feels firmly aimed at early teens or younger. It continues with Pegasus and the Fight for Olympus.

Review No.70 – The Iron King

The Iron King – Julie Kagawa

Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2010

On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, the biggest worries in Meghan Chase’s life are how to convince the school heartthrob to admire her IT skills and soothing her four-year-old half-brother Ethan’s fears of the imaginary man in his closet. But then in one disastrous day, everything falls apart. She comes home to find her mother limp and bleeding on the floor, a snarling monster where her brother should be, and her best friend Robbie uncannily unsurprised…The only way to rescue Ethan is to venture into the Nevernever, hidden world of the faeries, but there are those who will do anything to stop her getting there. And others who will do anything to make sure she never leaves.

This is the first in Kagawa’s ‘The Iron Fey’ series, which continues with The Iron Daughter. Some parts feel formulaic, not because they are done particularly badly, but because they have been done so many times it’s hard to make them exciting any more. Are there any North American high schools left that have not seen the enrolment of a mysterious or magical teenager? The elements of romance also feel forced. That said, there are some fantastic ideas too – the trees that grow lightbulbs for fruit were a highlight, as was a certain elusive wheeler-dealer cat. As a story, it just didn’t knit together as well as it should have.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.33 – The Wilful Emir and his Daughter

This week’s story comes from Paul Hamlyn London’s 1967 collection Legends from Eastern Lands, retold by Jaroslav Tichý, and the ambiguity of the title means I’m not entirely sure which eastern land it actually comes from, only that it is one ruled by emirs. An egotistical sort emir, in fact, who demands admiration from all and sundry for anything and everything that is his. This includes his very beautiful daughter. He has carefully considered what qualities he wants in a son-in-law, and decides that as wisdom is the thing he wants most from any addition to the family, he will set a riddle for her suitors. Not a terrible idea, you could learn a lot about someone by their answer to the right question – only that’s not what the emir has in mind.

He catches a flea, feeds it so full of blood that it grows to the size of a camel, then has it killed and skinned and that skin brought before the suitors who come to court the princess. The man who can guess what creature the skin belonged to is the one who will be given the princess’s hand. Only, of course, no one can. And anyone who can’t guess right is given ten lashes and driven out of the palace.

So the emir sits on his throne sniggering at an ever-changing scene of perplexity and pain. What he doesn’t take into account, though, is how his servants might feel about keeping so juicy a secret. One man who knows the full story (and is therefore automatically barred from competing for the princess) is so frustrated by the fact he can’t tell anyone that he sneaks out of the palace and whispers the truth into an old well. Do you imagine for ONE MOMENT that he goes unheard? A water sprite happens to be visiting the well right at that moment and seizes the opportunity. He gives himself the shape of a beggar and shows up at the palace gates, where the guards turn him away contemptuously. But he returns to the next day, and the day after that, and eventually the guards get so sick of the sight of him that they let him in just to shut him up.

The emir assumes he will guess wrong, like everyone else, but when the beggar gets it right he does not feel at all obliged to hold up his end of the bargain. He orders this undesirable suitor to be driven out of the palace and, outraged, the sprite takes his true form. He commands a terrible darkness fall over the palace that will not be lifted until he is given the princess. The emir quickly capitulates. There is a little accident as the sprite is lifting the darkness; he accidentally summons a plague of rats and spiders instead. Hey, it could happen to anyone! Correcting his mistake, he sends the emir off to arrange the princess’s departure.

The emir hurries off to consult with his wife. Not, you’ll note, with his DAUGHTER, the one whose life is on the line here. She is the last to be told, and is given the least say in the matter. When her bizarre bridegroom decides during the wedding feast that he wants to leave straight away, the only choice she has is what horse to take. Going to the stables, she is about to mount up on an impressive black stallion when a small mare she has often petted suddenly discovers a human voice and pleads to be taken instead. The mare also advises she bring a mirror and comb, some salt, and a red pepper pod.

The princess is past the point of being bothered by things like talking horses. Advice is advice is advice, and she’ll take what she can get. While the emir toddles off for ‘a well-earned rest’, she is riding out with her new husband and a caravan of eighty slaves. No sooner have they reached the outskirts of the city than the sprite turns around and eats them all up, and their mounts as well. But the princess’s horse is made of tougher stuff – she tells her rider to sweep onward, demanding imperially that the sprite show her the way. He does so, leaving the princess a little way behind. This is when she locates the magic whip stuffed into her saddle that allows her mare to fly.

The water sprite might not be that bright, but he does notice when his wife takes to the sky. To slow his pursuit, the mare tells her to drop the pepper pod. This transforms the steppes below into a mass of thorns, and the water sprite is soon caught in the thicket. All the same, he soon gets free and begins to gain on the princess again. This time she sprinkles the salt. This turns the land below into a desert, in which the sprite quickly dries out. He is on the point of death when he stumbles across a fortuitous well and can restore himself. Next falls the comb. It becomes a mountain range, but that doesn’t stop the sprite either. Lastly, the mirror: it becomes a raging river, with a young man on it in a fishing boat.

The water sprite, unexpectedly nervous of his own element, pays for passage on the boat and only realises halfway across that he’s wasted both time and money. I did say he wasn’t too bright. In more evidence of this, he tries to stab the fisherman to death and ends up held up against a boulder by his angry intended victim. He tries to wriggle his way out of it – “I would not hurt a hair upon your head because my heart is as soft as marzipan” – but the princess, on the other side of the river, calls a warning and the fisherman throws the sprite against the boulder after all. The creature explodes into a shower of dirty water.

The fisherman, accidental hero, gives the princess a lift back across her own river and she rides with all possible speed back to her father’s palace to explain what has happened. He lets her get as far as “Send for the fisherman on the bank of the distant river without delay!”, but misinterprets what she wants and assumes that the young man has committed some terrible crime. When the fisherman arrives, he is expected to confess, and of course he can’t. “Come forward, executioner,” the emir roars, “and cut off his head for not knowing of any wrong he has done!”

Fortunately the princess puts her foot down at this point and makes her father listen to the rest of her explanation, which is that the fisherman saved her life, and she intends to marry him. If the emir drives him away like he did to everyone else (except the man-eating water sprite, let’s not forget), she’ll follow the fisherman to the river and take him for her husband anyway. She stamps her foot for emphasis, having discovered a bit of hereditary wilfulness of her own. Her father, cornered, agrees. So she ends up having two wedding feasts on the same day, and choosing her own husband after all.

Fathers generally don’t come off awfully well in fairy tales. They are most often criminally negligent, astoundingly stupid, or dead. It isn’t often that a fairy tale actually acknowledges that though, let alone in the title. This story has a lot in common with the Sicilian fairy tale ‘Cannatella‘, but in this one it isn’t fear of another marriage arranged by her father that drives the princess into her second husband’s arms – she chooses him of her own free will. You know, I have a feeling that this particular emirate is about to see a changing of the guard…

Review No.69 – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Alan Bradley

Orion Books, 2009

When a body is discovered in the cucumber patch at Buckshaw, ancestral home of the de Luces, there is no one better qualified than Flavia de Luce herself to solve the crime. With a keen memory, an ear for eavesdropping, and a passion for poisons, she quickly begins to piece together the events that led to the stranger’s death. There is only one problem: Flavia is eleven years old and no one, from her own family to the inspector responsible for the case, takes her at all seriously. As the evidence mounts, however, the answers she finds begin to strike too close to home. What will she do with a truth she doesn’t want to see?

This is definitely what I would describe as a cosy mystery, set in the idyllic countryside of a 1950s English village where everyone knows everyone else and murder is just another exciting piece of gossip. The incredibly well-educated Flavia is something of a girl genius, rather too cool-headed to be entirely believable but a likeable narrator to a quirky mystery that reads as something that might happen if Miss Marple rewrote Enid Blyton. The adventures of Flavia de Luce continue in The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag.

Reviewing Who – Spearhead from Space

Doctor – Jon Pertwee

Companion – Caroline John

Script writer – Robert Holmes

Producer – Derrick Sherwin

Director – Derek Martinus

Originally aired – 3rd January 1970 – 24th January 1970

Episode 1: It opens with a pan across space that reveals Earth, looking especially vulnerable in the blackness. And sure enough, in a tracking station on the planet itself, something odd has just appeared on the scanner: a shower of meteorites that are falling in formation. Nor are they the strangest thing to come down in the woods today. Sent to that exact same spot by vindictive Time Lords or possibly just magnetically attracted to trouble, the TARDIS appears, and from it emerges the newly regenerated Doctor. He promptly collapses.

While peculiar events take place in the English countryside, in London an elegant young woman with a deeply sceptical expression is being driven through the checkpoints of a secret military base. She is Elizabeth Shaw, a Cambridge scientist and expert in a plethora of useful things. Shown into the office of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, she is politely ushered to a chair and wastes no time making her displeasure known. She has research to be getting back to, and besides, she isn’t even entirely sure what the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce is supposed to do.

BRIGADIER: We deal with the odd. The unexplained. Anything on Earth – or even beyond.

LIZ: Alien invaders? Little blue men with three heads?

So, no, she’s not especially inclined to take the Brigadier seriously. When he brings up the meteorites, she insists there must be a rational explanation. But this is not the first time impossible meteorites have fallen into that wood – there was a smaller shower six months ago. This isn’t the first time Earth has faced alien activity, either. There have been two attempts to invade Earth, the Brigadier tells her, and both were only repelled with the assistance of a scientist with a very unusual skill set. A man they called the Doctor…

On cue, the telephone rings. The Brigadier’s man Munro is calling from the phone booth of a local hospital to update him on the meteorite situation, which just gets weirder all the time. An abandoned police box has been found in the middle of the woods with an unconscious man lying outside it, who has been brought into the hospital for treatment. Though he has not yet actually woken up, he’s already causing havoc. The doctor who sees his X-rays thinks it is a stupid prank. No one could have two hearts! When he rings up to complain about it, though, he finds himself being scolded for sending in a blood sample that was not even human. Unfortunately, this conversation takes place in the same hallway where a porter is cleaning and eavesdropping. The man goes straight to a more private phone in hospital reception and by the time the Brigadier and Liz arrive, a mob of journalists are there waiting. They don’t buy the Brig’s cover story of a training exercise for one minute. The fall of the meteorites has not gone unnoticed, and the journalists are convinced that this mystery man in the hospital found one. And the porter is not the only eavesdropper in this place. A silver-haired man with an odd expression stands slightly apart from the crowd, saying nothing, listening intently.

At last the Brigadier fights his way out of the throng. The doctor (who is not the Doctor) explains that though his patient has woken up several times, they cannot identify what exactly is wrong with him – well, apart from his inhuman blood and the weirdest cardiovascular system ever. “That sounds like the Doctor,” the Brigadier says, pleased, but the moment he sees the face of the man in the bed he is forced to rethink. It is a complete stranger. By the law of ironies, this is when the Doctor chooses to wake up, and the first thing he says is, “Lethbridge-Stewart? My dear fellow, how nice to see you again.” When the Brigadier makes it clear he has no idea what is going on, the Doctor asks for a mirror. Liz, humouring the mad people, lends him hers.

The Doctor has not seen his face since his regeneration. It outrages him. “That’s not me at all!” he cries. The Brigadier wants explanations; the Doctor, ever contrary, decides that what he really needs is a nap, and the doctor (the medical one!) ushers the visitors out of the room.

Meanwhile, in the woods, a poacher has dug up one of the ‘meteorites’ – a roughly geometric pink orb that emits a bleeping pulse until it is stifled inside a sack. The poacher is stopped by soldiers but passes off the contents of his sack as stolen rabbits and the UNIT men indulgently permit him to pass without so much as searching him. It looks like the whole ‘training exercise’ thing isn’t so far off the truth…

The moment the Brigadier is gone, the Doctor returns to his main mission: the location of his shoes. This is not quite as bizarre as it sounds: the TARDIS key is concealed in one of them. Before he can continue with his plans, though, two men with oddly gleaming faces break into his room, knock out the doctor, grab the other Doctor and manhandle him into a wheelchair, which they then attempt to load into a van waiting outside the hospital. The Doctor seizes on a moment of distraction and escapes them, wheeling away like a maniac down the road. While UNIT men chase the van, the total incompetents who forgot to search the poacher finally realise something is up. They hear someone pushing through the bushes, and in a moment of madness, a shot is fired. The Doctor falls.

Episode 2: The Doctor, belatedly identified by a furious Munro, is returned to the hospital, where his doctor pronounces him ‘more unconscious than anyone I’ve ever seen’. They might not be able to get any answers from him, but they do get the key, which is taken by the Brigadier. He then leaves with Munro to examine the fragments of ‘meteorite’ that have been found in the woods. It seems to be made, of all the unlikely things, out of plastic

Cue a creepy doll montage in a local plastics factory. An impassively unfriendly woman who somewhat resembles a doll herself is leading a nervous-looking man through the factory floor up to the office of his erstwhile boss. His name is Ransome and he has until recently been in America, drumming up interest in a new doll he’d invented, only to have the project suddenly and inexplicably axed. He has come to demand an explanation. His boss, Hibbert, alludes vaguely to a ‘new policy’, wavering on uncertainly until a rather familiar silver-haired man enters the room. That’s when Hibbert pulls himself together into a kind of robotic Scrooge, sending Ransome packing. It doesn’t take an expert to diagnose this as HYPNOSIS.

The Brigadier, having returned to London, is pestering Liz in her brand new UNIT laboratory while she does her level best to ignore him. He wants to know what she has learned from the plastic fragments; all she can say for sure is that it’s no meteorite. In fact, she’s not even convinced it comes from space – it’s plastic, for pity’s sake. The Brigadier is a little amused but mostly annoyed by her scepticism. Scientifically minded Liz is, in her turn, astonished by his seeming credulity. “You really believe in a man who’s helped to save the world twice, has the power to transform his physical appearance…an alien who travels through time and space in a police box?”

Well, when you put it like that, Liz…

In the doll factory, it could not be more obvious than Hibbert is not the one in charge. Also, making dolls is no longer a priority – they have evil plans to accomplish instead. The silver-haired man, Mr Channing, is trying to trace two missing energy units (otherwise known as ‘meteorites’) and though he thinks that the Doctor has one, he can’t risk going near him again now that UNIT are on alert. Hibbert is unnerved by the way Channing talks about these things, as if they are alive. Channing’s non-reassuring reply: “All energy is a form of life.”

The Brigadier is no longer the only one irritating Liz. An influential army official, General Scobie, has been shown up to her lab and proceeds to patronise her. “Lucky fellow, Stewart, having a pretty face around the place!” “She’s not just a pretty face, sir,” the Brig reminds him, very obviously trying not to be embarassed. Liz’s acerbic eyebrows do their own talking.

Meanwhile, what is the Doctor doing? This is still his show, right? Well, he’s not only conscious, he’s broken into the hospital’s staff locker room. To avoid being spotted by the real doctors he takes a shower, which allows us to see…um…rather more of the Doctor than we ever have before. He then proceeds to steal the fanciest clothes in the locker room, dressing himself up in a frilly-fronted white shirt, a black cloak and a carefully cocked fedora, before stealing the coolest car in the hospital parking lot and driving off to congratulatory sneaky Doctor music. Before you know it, he’s outside UNIT’s ‘secret’ London headquarters, haranguing the gate guard. “I suppose you want to see my pass. Well, I haven’t got one. And I’m not going to tell you my name either. You just tell Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart that I want to see him. Well don’t just stand there arguing with me, man, get on with it!”

The Brigadier’s first question: how the hell did you find us? The Doctor breezily taps what looks like a watch on his wrist that is in fact a device for locating the TARDIS. It is in a corner of the lab and he goes straight over to greet it fondly. He’s certainly eccentric enough, but the Brig is not yet totally convinced.

BRIGADIER: How do I know you’re not an imposter?

DOCTOR: Ah, but you don’t. You don’t. Only I know that.

Giving up on straight answers, the Brigadier wearily introduces him to Liz, who in turn introduces him to the plastic fragments. The Doctor is apparently the only person to notice that whatever it was, it was hollow. Another ‘meteorite’ was found by UNIT soldiers in the woods, but as it was being driven to London there was a terrible accident and it disappeared…or rather, was taken. The Doctor’s rising interest leads the Brigadier to ask whether he means to help them, to which the Doctor courteously replies, “Go away and let me and Miss Shaw get on with out work!” Not that he intends to call her Miss Shaw. Within minutes of their meeting, it’s Liz.

Ransome has been sacked and humiliated, but he is persistent. Returning to the doll factory, he climbs in over the wall, breaks in at a side door (so many sneaky people in this story!) and goes straight to his former workroom, which is now marked Out of Bounds and lined with life-sized plastic mannequins. He has turned his back on them to bewilderedly examine the new equipment when one jerks into life. It reaches out…

Episode 3: The mannequin’s hand falls open to reveal a weapon. It fires. Ransome flees, plastic assassin in pursuit, and is unexpectedly saved when General Scobie, of all people, comes outside with Hibbert and Channing, forcing the plastic man to retreat. The general is having a model of himself made in plastic and is in an excellent mood, completely unaware that behind his back a man is running for his life. Ransome doesn’t stop until he reaches the woods, where he faints away at a soldier’s feet. The UNIT men treat his state of bug-eyed shock the only way they know how, with the application of hot sweet army tea.

He is far enough away that the plastic mannequins – now officially known as AUTONS! – can no longer detect him, but Channing has more on his mind than a disgruntled ex-employee: one of the energy units is still missing, the one that contains the swarm leader. It is actually in a chest in the garden shed of the poacher, who has just learned of the accident from the gruesome gossip of his wife. He’s maybe not so pleased with his discovery any more.

Liz and the Doctor are getting along well, but she’s infuriated by their lack of success analysing the fragments. Seizing the opportunity, the Doctor cunningly sighs after his own specialised equipment, locked away in the TARDIS. It doesn’t take much to convince Liz to go get the key off the Brig, a job made easier by the fact he is interviewing a more coherent Ransome at the time and has left the key within swiping distance on the corner of his desk. His brisk brush-off means Liz is not too sorry about taking it either. By the time he catches up with them, the Doctor is in the TARDIS and trying to take off. Only, of course, the Time Lords made very sure he couldn’t do that. He emerges in a cloud of smoke to face the united displeasure of the Brigadier and Liz. He mollifies them with his ‘sad Time Lord’ face and when the Brigadier reminds him he promised to help UNIT over this meteorite business, the Doctor insists he needs more evidence.

The poacher has said evidence; what he wants is money. He gets caught by UNIT asking about a reward and the Brigadier is quick to pounce, bringing the Doctor, Liz, and even Ransome with him. But while the poacher is being questioned, his wife goes poking around in the shed. She finds the energy unit and, realising what her husband has got himself mixed up with, slams the lid of the chest shut straight away, but it’s already too late. She hasn’t even got to her feet when the smashing starts. Someone is inside her house. When she goes to investigate (how brave is this woman?) the stranger in her kitchen turns around with a blank plastic face. Terrified, the poacher’s wife keeps her head anyway – she runs back into the yard for her husband’s shotgun and when the plastic man comes towards her, she shoots him.

Of course, it has absolutely no effect at all. When the Brigadier and his people arrive, it is to a house of smashed furniture, an unconscious woman sprawled on the ground and an Auton bent over the open chest. Their weapons are of no more use than the poacher’s shotgun, but they have the advantage of numbers and Channing is forced to recall the Auton, leaving the energy unit behind. He works off his frustration elsewhere; Ransome is waiting in a guarded UNIT tent when an Auton rips through the back and, as Channing puts it, totally destroys him. This looks an awful lot like Disapparition for Evil Masterminds.

Still, with the swarm leader in the hands of UNIT and the Brigadier on the verge of getting clearance from General Scobie to surround the plastics factory, things don’t look good for Channing’s plans. Then there is a knock on Scobie’s door, and he answers it to find himself standing outside…

Episode 4: Reinstalled in Liz’s lab, the Doctor is trying to communicate with what is in the plastic globe, blowing up expensive equipment in the process. His theory is that the globes all contained elements of a collective consciousness and that the pulse it emits is a signal to the other parts of itself. It has no physical form, but there is no reason to suppose it couldn’t build itself one.

And that’s when plastic Scobie picks up the phone to withdraw support for the Brigadier’s plans. The Brigadier fumes aloud, thinking this change of heart is due to a swollen ego; on hearing that Channing’s factory made a facsimile of Scobie, the Doctor thinks it’s definitely a change of something. He takes Liz out to Madame Tussaud’s to see it for himself and they discover that there is a whole roomful there of life-size plastic officials. It isn’t hard to spot Scobie. To Liz’s acute embarassment, the Doctor gets up on the platform to examine him in minute detail. When he eventually gets down, it is to tell her that he doubts this Scobie is plastic at all…

Quite right too. Plastic Scobie is actually up to no good in UNIT headquarters. He forces a very conflicted Munro to hand over the energy unit into his custody and brings it to the plastics factory, where a tank has been set up for the consciousness to create itself ‘the perfect life-form’ for conquering the earth. Right now, it’s just sort of – pink.

With the swarm leader safely out of UNIT hands, Channing continues with the next stage of the plan. That night he and Hibbert go to Madame Tussaud’s to wake up the Auton facsimiles. What they don’t know is that the Doctor and Liz are there as well, hidden behind a curtain, watching everything. They emerge, believing that the last of the Autons have left, only to walk straight into a horrified hypnotised Hibbert. His first ‘thought’ is to call Channing, but the Doctor authoritatively orders him not to do so, reminding him that Channing is the reason he’s in such a mess at all. His words penetrate on some level – when Channing himself returns, Hibbert doesn’t warn him, and the Doctor and Liz escape.

They return to the laboratory at UNIT, where the Doctor press-gangs Liz into holding wires while he works on some shapeless Device. And if ever we needed the Doctor’s scientific wizardry, it is now. Out on the streets of London, shop dummies are waking up, smashing through display windows, shooting anyone who comes across their path. They aim for police stations, army barracks, communications – in short, this is an invasion from the inside out, and UNIT has been hamstrung. The Brig has his staff at headquarters. The Doctor has his bundle of wires. That’s just going to have to do.

As all this is happening, Hibbert has been doing some thinking, and the things Channing has made him do have finally caught up with him. He tries to attack the tank, but before he can do any real damage he is shot in the back by an Auton. The invasion has begun; Channing doesn’t need him any more.

What forces the Brigadier can muster arrive at the plastics factory and are about to enter the building when plastic Scobie arrives with troops of his own, ordering them to stop. The Brigadier tries to tell the confused soldiers that this is not the real Scobie – Scobie, of course, insists that he is. The Doctor settles the question by striding confidently forward holding out a kind of microphone thing that, the moment Liz flicks a switch on the Device, reduces Scobie to a lifeless plastic dummy. The Brigadier brings Scobie’s baffled soldiers under his own command; the Doctor and Liz, with their usual level of military consultation, sneak off to save the world.

Breaking into the Out of Bounds area while UNIT distracts an onslaught of gun-resistant Autons, Liz hides behind the door with the main section of the Device and the Doctor, microphone of doom at the ready, strides straight in to face down the representative of the Nestene consciousness. “We are indestructible!” cries Channing, and this is not something the Brig would be arguing with just at present. The battle is not going well. The Doctor, intending to change all that, aims his microphone at the tank, and spectacularly…nothing actually happens.

While he is trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with his wonderful plan, the tank slides open behind him. Green tentacles explode outward and just like that, all credibility in this episode jumps out the window. Liz takes one look at what’s happening and goes to work on the machine, rearranging the Doctor’s madness of wires, before yelling at him to try again. Half-throttled, mouth full of tentacle, he does. This time, it works. All around the factory, Autons go down – inside, the tentacles flail wildly as the Nestene consciousness dies. Channing collapses, now no more than a plastic dummy.

Afterwards, the Doctor, Liz and Brigadier are all recuperating at UNIT headquarters with cups of tea. The Brigadier, thinking ahead to the next invasion, wants to know if he can count on the Doctor’s assistance in the future. None of this modern high-minded ‘don’t thank me’ nonsense for this incarnation – he has terms. He wants facilities, a laboratory, Liz’s continued assistance, and if the Brigadier will insist on the stolen car being returned to its owner at the hospital, he wants a new one to replace it. The Brigadier, exhibiting the affectionate tolerance that will become the signature of their entire relationship, agrees to it all. “By the way,” he adds, “I’ve just realised. I don’t even know your name.” The Doctor gives him a look of blank wide-eyed innocence. “Oh, Smith,” he says. “Doctor John Smith.”

The Verdict: If you’re expecting some sort of balanced assessment of this story from me, sorry, you came to the wrong girl. The last episode is a bit messy, from tentacles to hypnosis, but the thing is, I don’t care. John Pertwee is my all time favourite Doctor. Liz is my all time favourite companion. This is their first story together, and the dialogue zings – Liz’s sparkling asperity is given full rein throughout and the Doctor is his gloriously eccentric, unreliable self. What’s more, Spearhead from Space is a good old traditional UNIT story, with the Brigadier (who doesn’t love the BRIGADIER?) and plucky soldiers firing at things that repel bullets. It is the beginning of a whole new era, in which the Doctor – however reluctant he may be – takes on the responsibility of defending the Earth. And that is so going to haunt him.

Next month, we move on to the Fourth Doctor, who takes eccentric to a new level when he meets a baffled detective, a violent butler and a literally shattered alien. Paris won’t know what hit it.

Review No.68 – Tales from the Tower, Volume One: The Wilful Eye

Tales from the Tower, Volume One: The Wilful Eye – Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab (editors)

Allen & Unwin, 2011

Fairy tales have always held a strange fascination to the storyteller, lingering long after childhood’s end. In this collection six authors find new meanings in the old tales, retold in their full dark glory. A soldier turns his war on the unsuspecting world. A monster lies in wait inside an empty mansion. A lost girl searches an icy urban wasteland. Love faces despair, magic meets betrayal. The dark forest is never so very far away…

I stumbled across this book in the random treasure chest of a library catalogue and could not believe I hadn’t heard of it before. The contributing authors include Margaret Mahy, Margo Lanagan and Carmody herself, with the stories a rich selection ranging between the wry and the gruesome. It is always enjoyable to see familiar fairy tales through the prism of someone else’s eyes and this collection offers some very interesting interpretations. It is the first half in twelve retellings, continuing in Tales from the Tower, Volume Two: The Wicked Wood.

Review No.67 – Memoirs of a Showgirl

Memoirs of a Showgirl – Shay Stafford and Bryce Corbett

Hachette Australia, 2010

From a six year old in pink tulle at a Queensland church hall to Paris showgirl at the most famous cabaret in the world, Shay Stafford dances her way from one side of the world to the other in pursuit of her greatest dream. But life under the make-up and sequins isn’t everything she expected. She will have to learn how to cope with quirky colleagues and confusing bureaucracy, injury and isolation, all while fixing on a dazzling smile every night and high-kicking with the best of them.

There is something fascinating for me about a memoir and the insight it gives into an alien life. Stafford quickly strips her world of any glamour, detailing the slog and indignity required to produce that nightly illusion, and the hard work that goes into getting on stage in the first place. Added to the unavoidable sleazy element of the cabaret and the constant demand for physical perfection, it does not come across as an appealing lifestyle, but Stafford’s love for performance shines through. Her writing style is unpolished and rather bland, relying too much on summary rather than the more engaging form of anecdotes. The sheer weirdness of backstage antics, though, can be very funny – a choreographer breaking into an spontaneous solo in Cuban heels, for example – making this an interesting glimpse behind the curtain.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.32 – My Candlestick

This Greek story comes from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1973 collection Damian and the Dragon, and begins with a typical plight for a royal family – the prince is refusing to marry and provide the kingdom with heirs, despite constant needling by his parents. His mother thinks he may be suffering from a secret love and when she sees three pretty peasant girls playing ball outside a little house near the palace, she decides the prince is probably infatuated with one of them and too afraid to tell his parents about it. She summons the eldest girl.

“My dear child,” she says, “I believe the prince is in love and dares not tell me. If it should be you whom he loves, I would welcome you as my daughter-in-law.” Which is very, very sweet. The only problem is that the girl has never spoken with the prince in her life. The queen will not be satisfied until she has tested her theory, however, and so leads the girl to the prince’s room to see how he reacts to her.

The answer to that is: not at all. The prince comes in, sits down, writes for a while, then gets up again and walks out without a word to the strange girl sitting on his sofa. She falls asleep there, and in the morning wakes up to find the anxious queen at her side. Granted a ring as recompense for her trouble, the girl is sent home, and the middle sister summoned instead. Exactly the same thing happens with her. With determined hope, the queen sends for the youngest girl, who has had time to think about this arrangement. She insists she is not well dressed enough to meet with the prince, and the queen happily decks her out in a fortune of diamonds. She looks beautiful enough to be a princess. Is she the one?

Well, if she is, the prince doesn’t know it. He doesn’t pay her any more attention than he did to her sisters. But the youngest girl is not inclined to allow herself to be ignored. When coughs and loud sighs fail to attract a reaction, and her bidding him good evening fails to rate even a courtesy response, she starts addressing everything else in the room. Hello, canary! Hello, cage! Hello, candlestick! Perhaps you will have the politeness to speak to me? The prince is finally aggravated into putting down his pen. “My candlestick!” he repeats. “My candlestick! At your orders, my candlestick!” And he walks out without another word.

She curls up on the sofa, like her sisters before her, and sleeps. In the morning, however, when the queen comes to question her, she doesn’t go quietly home with a nice little reward for a wasted evening. Instead, she lies through her teeth, inventing an entire conversation on the spur of the moment. The delighted queen insists she stay another day and be petted over like she is already a beloved daughter-in-law. The girl’s sisters know her better. They suspect a lie and test it by bringing a pedlar’s pearls to her, asking whether her adoring prince will buy them. Well, their little sister is committed now. That night when the prince comes in and sits down to write, the girl appeals to the candlestick. The prince, without looking at her, replies: “My candlestick! My candlestick! The keys are in the cupboard. The gold coins are in the drawer. Open the drawer and take what you will.”

He walks out, as before. The girl goes to the drawer and takes out two handfuls of coins. When the queen hears that the prince ‘gave’ her the money to buy the necklace, she is thrilled; the sisters, even with the hard evidence of the coins the girl gives them, still don’t believe her. They test her again with a pair of bracelets. The same happens as before; the youngest girl asks her favour of the candlestick, and the prince replies the same way, all without so much glancing at her. The queen is over the moon. “Surely my son is deeply in love with you! We have found out his secret at last! You shall not go home. You must stay on at the palace.” All without actually discussing the matter with her son. Apparently he has taken sullen teenage boy behaviour to astronomic levels.

Which makes things very awkward when the girl’s sisters ask when they are going to be invited to dinner. Her quick tongue gets her into trouble again, promising them she will ask that very night. Then she hides in the prince’s room, where she is least likely to be asked questions, and bursts into tears. She is still crying when he comes in. He begins to write, as usual, and she manages to sob out “My candlestick!” The magic words. His reaction is the most personalised it has ever been. “Come over here, my little candlestick. What ails you, that you weep so?” The girl pours out her trouble. She has no authority to order a dinner, and if her sisters come, they will see that she has no real position in the palace at all. She will be utterly humiliated. That’s why she’s crying. The prince keeps writing, but he is listening. He grants his candlestick the orders she needs, then walks out of the room, still without looking at her.

The girl passes on his instructions to the queen. Preparations begin on a great feast, but her real fear is still with her, the knowledge that ‘her’ prince will not say a word to her sisters, and in doing so will prove her entire relationship with him to be a lie. That night she sits in silence, crying tears he never turns to see. But if her imagination got her into this mess, it will get her out again too. She charms a page into helping her arrange for the prince to be ‘called away’ at the last minute before the feast is to begin, by sounding horse hooves in the courtyard and running in with a fake message. Then she joins the three other women at the table – the queen, who is pretty much planning the wedding by now, and the two deeply suspicious sisters. When the page comes running in with their prearranged story that the prince is outside, wanting a word alone with his love, the girl walks out, going as far down through the palace as she can and wandering the vaults in a state of panic.

Her pacing foot lands on a stone that moves. On the verge of hysteria she may be, but she’s still got her sense of curiosity, and when she lifts the slab to find a staircase leading down into darkness, she follows it. At the bottom of the stairs is a passage, and through there a barn full of thistles. There, lying on the thistles, is the prince, and beside him is a Nereid from the sea. Between them sleeps a small child.

Compromising? Little bit. Devastating, even, if your life plan was to get the world’s least talkative prince to marry you and you find out he’s got a girlfriend already. The girl looks at the sleeping family for a while. Then she goes straight back upstairs and tells the queen that her son has been called away to stand as godfather for a friend’s child. He wants presents to take with him – specifically, two white scarves and a rose-coloured one, all three embroidered with gold, a silver comb and a gold-embroidered silk coverlet. The sisters sense a cover story, but the queen believes the girl implicitly and gets her everything she asked for.

In the room of thistles hidden beneath the palace, the girl carefully lifts the sleeping little boy and lays him on the coverlet, tucking him in with the rose-coloured scarf and combing the thistles from his hair. She does the same for the prince, and for the Nereid, combing their hair and covering them with the remaining scarves. Then she leaves them sleeping and returns to the feast to pretend everything is Just Fine.

Amongst the thistles, though, the Nereid wakes up. She sees the silver comb glittering in the dark, feels her own smooth hair, and rouses the prince violently from his unnatural sleep. “Wake, deceiver, wake!” she shouts at him. “Who is she that loves you? Who is she whom you love? Who is she that has come and done all this?” The prince wearily denies it all. He is under an enchantment; he can see no other woman other than the Nereid, has no life outside her existence. How could he have betrayed her? But that’s obviously not a good enough answer, silver combs don’t just grow out of the ground. Finally the prince tells her of the girl who talks to a candlestick – the girl he has never seen. The Nereid responds by whacking him across the face. In doing so, she frees him from her magic: he sees clearly once more. Stars, too, maybe. He must marry that girl, the Nereid tells him furiously, the girl who loves him enough to show such kindness, and with a whirlwind that hurls him against the wall, both she and the child are gone from his life forever. Talk about messy break-ups.

The prince climbs out of the vaults to wander the palace grounds, grieving yet unable to say exactly why, dazed in the aftermath of enchantment. In the evening he goes to his room and finds the youngest peasant girl already there, sobbing on his sofa. This time, he goes to her. He tells her never to speak of what she saw, any more than he will allow himself to speak of what he remembers. She has freed him from the hands of the Nereid. From this day on he belongs to her.

I will first say I do not approve of dishonesty. The brazen ingenuity of this girl, however, in the face of truly royal rudeness, is difficult not to admire. The prince is a more tragic character. He had a life with the Nereid, and there is at least the implication that he had a child with her as well, even if that isn’t stated outright. It is so rare in a fairy tale for there to be genuine consequences that his grief, however short-lived he tries to make it, is a powerful thing. Even at the end, when he is deciding to move on (rebound! Watch out, youngest sister!) it’s clear he is not over what happened to him. Which is as it should be. As long as there is the candlestick to play mediator, though, I think they’ll be okay.

Vignette No.20 – Lock and Lacquer

Lock and Lacquer

We do not open our doors to just anyone. Even the letterbox is kept locked at all times.

Mother has never been quite clear on exactly why all these layers of defence are necessary, but she has been nothing if not thorough. Thorns enmesh the gates. Spikes top the high brick wall. At the front of the house is a thick stand of trees and there is no path; I have never been lost, but guests at dinner parties have been known to disappear on their way back to the gate and now Mother always sends us to check whether their cars are still outside come morning, just in case. There is no front door. At the side of the house is a second gate, padlocked of course, then you go down a dim alley roofed with tight iron lattice and a thick growth of Mother’s favourite spiny roses, which are in my opinion close relations to barbed wire. The alley is walled on both sides and lined by tiered plant stands Mother uses for herb beds. It has always smelt of rosemary and peppermint.

You turn a corner and there is the door. It is solid wood and has two identical knobs; only we know which is the right one, and it is never the one that people choose. I had to rescue a friend once after she turned the wrong side. Doors like ours are paranoid. They see burglars everywhere.

Inside it’s pretty normal. Mother is mad for interior decoration and the colour scheme never stays the same for two years running, but most of our furniture is oak and antique and a different problem altogether. The carpets are currently dark green, the walls freshly papered in panels of wild rose and cream. I definitely prefer it to last year’s black and white, which made me feel like I was living inside a chess game.

Mother looked at me very oddly when I told her that.

Once you are at the threshold of the house itself there is one last precaution in the form of Quibble, our family pet. She likes to sleep on the doormat. People unfamiliar with the house often mistake her for part of the doormat, and tread on her. Quibble doesn’t like that at all. She will only unfasten her teeth from her prey when Mother tells her to, and Mother is very unsympathetic when people tread on her pets, so family friends make a point of stepping very carefully over the mat whether they think Quibble is there or not.

Tonight we are celebrating my oldest sister’s birthday. Gold and silver streamers are trailing from the trees in the front grove and the thorns are bright with glitter. It is cold here in the night shadows, but I wait beside the gate while cars draw up in the street outside because my sister is having a sartorial crisis in her bedroom and Mother is dusting off champagne in the cellar. Someone must be here to remind the gates who is guest and who is intruder, who can be devoured and who cannot. We don’t want anyone to get hurt.

I think.

© Faith Mudge 2013

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.31 – Farmer Weathersky

If you want to make a hero, the first thing you do is call him Jack. The Jacks of the fairy tale world are the sort of people who climb beanstalks, kill giants, and make off with other people’s gold. So when in this Norse fairy tale (taken from the 1982 reprint of Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Wizards) a couple call their only son Jack, you know this is a boy destined for Adventure. His mother clearly knows it too. One day she sends him off with his father to find a master of something to be apprenticed with. She is not particular as to what this something may be, but as she puts it, “Jack must be apprenticed to someone who will teach him to be a master above all masters.”

Well, they find a great many skilled tradesmen who could teach Jack everything they know, but none of them can promise to teach him to be better than everybody else in the world. So father and son keep looking. Eventually, walking on through the biting cold to a plain covered in ice, they come across a man in a sledge who calls out to ask where they are going. Jack’s father explains his predicament. His wife wants their boy to be a master above all masters at whatever it is he learns – but who can teach him that?

I can,” says the total stranger, “and I’m in need of an apprentice. So up, with you, Jack!” The next moment Jack is in the sledge, and the sledge is rising into the sky. Frantically Jack’s father shouts at them to stop, asking the man his name, where his home is – any personal details to identify him as an employer rather than a kidnapper. The man’s reply: “Oh, I’m at home north, east, south and west, and my name is Farmer Weathersky. Come here again in a year and a day, and you shall hear whether Jack suits me or not.” HOW VERY REASSURING. Not.

Jack’s father goes home and tries to explain what happened to his wife, who naturally enough does not believe a word of it. She packs him off again straight away. “And don’t you come back until you’ve found out where our Jack is!” Well, that’s easier said than done. Jack’s father walks on and on, until he comes to a great forest and in it a little cottage. Outside the cottage is an old woman, who is drawing water from her well by the unconventional means of a very long nose. No explanation is given as to how exactly this is achieved, but it certainly doesn’t sound fun. Jack’s father stops, asking for a night’s lodging, and when she says no he offers her a little tobacco and snuff from his bag. “You are a man after my own heart!” she declares. “You can stay the night.”

In the morning, Jack’s father asks about Farmer Weathersky. His hostess has never heard of the man, and even when she summons together all the beasts of the wood to answer the question, none can help. But she is only one of three sisters, and she advises Jack’s father to ask the others. Lending him her sledge (what was in that snuff?), she sends him off, and by nightfall he comes to a little house on the sea shore. Its resident old woman is using her long nose to rake up seaweed. She is no more inclined to give Jack’s father a room for the night than her sister before her, but he wins her over with more snuff and come morning she is still in such a good mood that she calls all her fishes to her to ask after Farmer Weathersky. His name has not been heard of by anything that lives in the sea either. There is, however, a third sister left to ask; so, borrowing this old woman’s boat and her best dolphin, Jack’s father sails off to find her.

And find her he does, standing at her hearth poking the fire with her extraordinary nose. The snuff does its magic all over again and the next day the old woman calls down all the birds of the air to answer his question. Where is Farmer Weathersky? Not one of the birds can tell that, but then last of all comes an enormous eagle, who has flown straight from the house of Weathersky himself. After a meal and a night’s rest, he agrees to go back and take Jack’s father with him.

It is a long journey, midnight by the time they arrive, and they don’t need to guess whether Weathersky is asleep – his thunderous snoring answers that – so Jack’s father sneaks in straight away. Following the instructions of the eagle, who has after all been here before and escaped in one piece, he goes first to the kitchen to take three crumbs from the table drawer, and then to Weathersky’s bed to pull three feathers from his head. Risky? Little bit. But though the wizard’s shout is enough to bring down part of the ceiling, he somehow sleeps on. Next Jack’s father steals three wooden chips and the large black rock they were under. He then uses the breadcrumbs to entice a hare out of the stables, which he seizes, pulls three feathers from the eagle’s tail, then mounts up again with all his stolen oddments to make their escape.

But Farmer Weathersky is awake now. When the eagle stops to rest, Jack’s father sees a flock of crows behind them, and the eagle orders him to drop the first three feathers, the ones taken from Weathersky’s own head. These turn into a flock of ravens that chase the crows away. That buys them a little time, but soon enough they see Farmer Weathersky pursuing them himself. Jack’s father drops the chips of wood, which ignite into a ferocious conflagration. Weathersky is forced to turn back to fetch water to put it out, and the eagle flies on. When the wizard catches up with them again, Jack’s father drops the stone, which becomes a terrible black fog. Weathersky persists, trying to find a way through, but he breaks his leg in the dark and is forced to go back the way he came.

Arriving home, Jack’s father puts down the hare and it turns, unexpectedly, into his son. Jack’s mother is delighted to see them, but her priorities have not entirely deserted her and she wants to know if her boy is really now a master above all masters. Jack believes he is. That isn’t good enough for her, though, she wants evidence, and so the next day Jack gets up early to turn himself into a horse. This is not the end of the demonstration, either. He tells his father to take him to market and sell him, but whatever he does, he is not to sell Jack’s halter. That agreed upon, they set off.

At the market, Farmer Weathersky appears as a merchant and buys the horse that is Jack. He wants the halter, of course, but Jack’s father won’t sell it, and when he gets home with the money his son is already there toasting his feet by the fire. The second day’s con is equally successful. Jack’s father get the money, Farmer Weathersky gets the horse, the horse gets the hell out of there. By the third day, Jack’s father has grown a little cocksure of his son’s abilities. When Weathersky continues to up his price for the bridle, Jack’s father sells it, confident that his clever boy will find a way to get loose.

But Jack can’t. That isn’t how magic works. Farmer Weathersky leads him into the stables of an inn, where he ties him up with a barrel of red-hot nails before him and a barrel of oats behind, then goes off into the inn to eat a good meal himself. And there is absolutely nothing Jack can do about it.

Forunately for him, however, the inn’s serving maid is an animal lover. Hearing the horse’s cries, she comes out to see what is the matter and is horrified at the cruelty of such a master. She unties the halter, and Jack can finally slip loose. He’s no sooner out of the stable than Weathersky is out of the inn, hot in pursuit. The horse leaps into the pond and becomes a fish; the man follows him as a fish-eating pike. The fish becomes a dove. The pike becomes a dove-destroying hawk.

But there are more weapons in a dove’s arsenal than you might think. Flying through the open window of a palace, Jack throws himself on the mercy of a princess who happens to be sitting there, and she turns out to be the sort of girl who takes stories of shape-shifting birds and murderous ex-employers in her stride. She tells Jack to turn into a golden ring on her finger, which she will pretend was a precious gift from her mother. While Jack is charming the princess, though, Weathersky has gone to work on the king – in that he has made him terribly sick and come to the palace as the only doctor in the world who knows how to cure him. Also, he wants his fee first. It’s a little thing, no trouble, nothing excessive…all he wants is the golden ring on the princess’s finger.

She tries to refuse, offering richer rings for the ‘doctor’ to choose from, but he will have no other and the enraged king, horrified at his daughter’s heartlessness, orders that she bring that ring right now. The princess tells him tough, she can’t get it off her finger. “If you’ll let me try,” says Weathersky, “I’ll soon get it off.” “Don’t you dare touch me!” the princess snaps. “If anyone must try, I’ll try myself.” And she goes to the grate to put ashes on her finger, slipping the ring off in the process. Straight away Weathersky turns himself into a rooster that can peck through the ashes; with equal speed, Jack turns into a fox, and bites off his head.

Well, that’s that, then. With Weathersky’s death his spell on the king is lifted, who is so pleased with his instantaneous recovery that when the princess tells him she wants to marry the dodgy looking fox boy he’s like, yes darling, whatever darling, life glorious life! Thus Jack becomes husband to the world’s most unflappable princess, and finally satisfies his mother that he is indeed a master above all masters.

I have talked about fairy tale employment before with two other Ruth Manning Sanders stories, ‘The Old Witch’ and ‘The Good Ogre’, but ‘Farmer Weathersky’ is a bit different. For one thing, the witch and the ogre weren’t bad people to work for, despite some peculiarities over cleaning and the preparation of porridge. Weathersky turned his apprentice into a hare, and not in a friendly ‘let’s broaden your horizons, my boy’ kind of a way either, I suspect. (Believe it or not, that has been done. I’ll tell about it sometime.) Then again, what story of wizards would be complete with rivalry and a shapechanging chase scene?