Review No.86 – God Save the Queen

God Save the Queen – Kate Locke

Orbit, 2012

The year is 2012 and Queen Victoria is celebrating her 175th year as head of the British Empire. In a world where the aristocracy is made up of vampires and werewolves, living in a state of wary truce with the human population, half-blood Xandra Vardan’s role as a member of the Royal Guard has given her instinct for scenting trouble. When her sister disappears, she knows there’s something wrong with the answers she’s being given – but if she wants to know what really happened to Dede, she will have to question everything she has ever been told about the Empire, and about herself. Xandra is scared, and she’s angry, and whoever gets in her way had better be ready to run for their life…

God Save the Queen is a snarky, punchy adventure with an interesting take on the usual vampires-and-werewolves set up and a heroine who packs one hell of a personality. The world of the Immortal Empire is nicely complicated and a good backdrop for a story that kept producing surprises. Locke’s writing style was a bit jolting, but the pace of the story brought it over the rough patches. The Immortal Empire series continues with The Queen is Dead.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.42 – The Princess in the Mountain

As we all know, kings in fairy tales have an unfortunate predilection for locking up their daughters, so much so that it’s rather like they’ve confused young women with the silverware. This Hungarian story, from Ruth Manning Sanders’ collection A Book of Enchantments and Curses, contains one such set up. It also includes one of the more unusual ways of escaping a paternal prison.

It begins with Ambrose, a travelling musician, and Janko, his sort of apprentice, who are wandering the world trying to make a living by playing the fiddle and not doing terribly well, really. One day while caught on the road in a fierce storm, Ambrose finds a tiny green cap and a panicked little man to match it. The foul weather, it turns out, was conjured up by a jealous north-west wind that has long been attempting to steal said hat for its magical properties. Its plan was foiled this time, but the little man lives in fear of the day the wind succeeds.

Ambrose, random doer of good and amateur milliner, solves the problem by pulling out his bootlace and tying that over the hat to keep it in place. The little man is so thrilled that he teaches Ambrose a pair of magic words to turn himself into a bear and back into a man again, and promptly disappears in a flurry of somersaults.

With Janko playing the fiddle and Ambrose as a dancing bear, the friends have a distinct improvement in their fortunes. So famous does their show become that they are eventually called to perform at the palace. Now, this king is pretty famous himself. He not only locked his only daughter inside a mountain, he has set up a sadistic little game for her prospective suitors. Any man who can find the princess may have her for his wife; any man who comes looking for her and can’t find her will be decapitated.

The princess does not much like this arrangement. Hoping to appease her, her father sends Janko out into the city with a generous tip and has the tame ‘bear’ taken through a series of secret doors into the mountain so that it can perform for the princess. This Ambrose definitely does. He plays the zither, he does acrobatics, he takes the princess’s hand in his paw and dances with her. She is enchanted and the king, pleased not to part with her on the usual bad terms, is more than willing to leave her alone with the bear for a couple of hours. As soon as he leaves, though, Ambrose takes on his real shape and starts chatting up the princess with rescue plans.

The next day, the dancing bear returns to the palace as a human. He announces himself as Lord Ambrose of Outland, come to seek the princess. The king looks him over and is more or less ‘meh’ about another suicidally self-assured young man playing his stupid game. Ambrose doesn’t immediately make use of his knowledge; he has a bit of fun with the king first, leading him all over the palace and the city, through haystacks and swamps and mud. Then, when the king is a mess but certain of more axe fodder, Ambrose strikes out for the mountain. He strolls up to the first hidden door and kicks stones around until he finds its correspondingly hidden key. The king blusters desperately that this must be a robber’s den, but Ambrose keeps finding doors and opening them until they come to the princess’s own chamber. He has won the impossible game.

Does that guarantee them a wedding and a happy ever after? Not a bit of it. The king brainstorms with a rather unpleasant courtier named Ritter Rok for ways to wreck his daughter’s life a bit more. The perfect excuse comes in the form of war. A king in the south is raising an army. You really can’t blame him – his son lost his head failing to find the princess, that sort of thing does tend to damage diplomatic relations – but the princess’s father jumps on it like this is the best news he’s had in ages. He tells Ambrose that he must go fetch a flail of mass destruction from Hell itself, and can only get married when he comes back. If he comes back.

The princess is sure she will lose her fiance, but as she sits alone in tears the little man in the green hat makes a reappearance. He produces a jar of magical ointment, with which Ambrose is to cover his skin and clothes. Protected by its enchantment, Ambrose walks straight through the gates of Hell and up to the throne of Satan without any difficulty. He politely asks if he can maybe borrow the killer flail. Surprisingly, Satan agrees. He’s expecting the flail to burn off Ambrose’s hands the moment he touches it. When the ointment continues to protect him the devils descend to take him down, but maybe they should have thought of that before they gave him the all powerful weapon…Ambrose ends up getting kicked out of hell by a very embarrassed Satan, and goes calmly home.

The king is furious. He tells Ritter Rok to find a better way of getting rid of the man and Ritter Rok tries to snatch up the flail in order to do just that. He burns, all right. Ambrose, being a genuinely nice person, catches the screaming courtier’s hands between his own to rub on some magic ointment and heal the burns. With his favourite toady no longer available for evil scheming and his daughter arranging her wedding with single-minded determination, the king is out of ideas. Ambrose and the princess marry, with Janko playing at the reception. So beautiful is his music that the princess decides he has to stay and teach her the fiddle too, and the king decides that maybe, what with a master musician adopted into the family and the king of the south changing his mind about the whole going to war thing, that he might be able to put up with his daughter being free after all.

When Ambrose goes to move the flail, however, it’s burned its way right through the ground and disappeared for good. Hell isn’t into sharing.

With men like the regicidal soldier from Andersen’s ‘The Tinder-Box’ and King Thrushbeard from the Grimm tale of the same name portrayed as good marriage material, it’s not that wise to trust a fairy tale’s definition of ‘hero’, but Ambrose is an easy man to like. He returns stolen property without thinking twice, wins the princess with a dance routine and a rescue plan, and even defends his attempted murderer from the man’s own stupidity. If any suitor deserves to inherit a kingdom, it would be him. What’s more, his long imprisoned wife has barely stepped off the altar before she’s arranging music lessons. She is finally getting a life, and Ambrose is the one backing her up. Now THAT is what I call charming.

Vignette No.23 – Revels of the Owl

Revels of the Owl

When night came, she drew on her hood and boots and went out to play.

She opened the door to a vague sense of dissolution; she was getting too old for these games. In two weeks she would be twenty and the number loomed large in her mind, like a capitalised ‘the End’ marking a final chapter, with only blank pages beyond.

But youth is temporary. Tedium is forever. So she fitted the harlequin mask to her face and kicked the door shut behind her.

Her boots clattered on the metal slat stairs that sliced a diagonal down the brick wall at the back of her block of units, until she vaulted the final three and landed in a cat’s crouch on the street-side pavement. Somewhere, a dog exploded into panicked barks. The harlequin girl smiled.

The night was thick and sultry, a dissatisfactory start to autumn. The sky grinned with stars, winking a lecherous moon. Thrusting her hands deep into her coat pockets, the girl turned her back on the highway and its merry-go-round of cars that strobed the night with their headlights. She walked until the traffic was just a distant rumble and towering trees cast the cracked path under her feet into impenetrable shade. The authorities had fenced off the park with iron arrowheads and a prison of bars, but the girl just rolled her black diamond eyes at that and grabbed the fence with both hands, swinging herself over into forbidden territory.

Carnival music beckoned her through the dark.

She found the dancers in a circle of swinging lanterns, the erratic red light flashing across the faces of cats and foxes, wolves and witches. A gathering of night owls. The harlequin girl was drawn into the circle by bright ringed fingers, was spun by hands gloved in black and gold. Arms entwined. Legs tangled. Languorous, serpentine, they danced.

Then the music changed.

Their pace quickened into a fury of clapping hands and stamping feet. Long hair whipped around masked faces in improbable shades of blue and violet. Gossamer wings trailed ribbons from one girl’s back, fluttering faster each time she twirled, until it looked like her feet might leave the ground. The harlequin girl’s veins were infected with drumming. Her blood beat a strange tattoo inside her head and she danced to its rhythm, with smiling cats and glittering gargoyles. A boy with lion’s paws tossed her into the arms of a dancer with red roses tumbling down her shoulders instead of hair. The gossamer girl took flight, arched into a bow of ecstasy as her wings whirred frenziedly to keep her aloft.

The night people had come.

When dawn came it broke on tattered grass stained by bleeding feet. They had all come through alive, somehow, if bruised and a little broken. The harlequin girl opened her eyes to the fractured lanterns swinging over her head and the dazed aftermath of a revel. This would be her last, the harlequin girl promised herself. She would find a way to live without the mask, and the dance.

Unlike the night people, she could lie.

© Faith Mudge 2013

Reviewing Who – The Caves of Androzani

Doctor: Peter Davison

Companion: Nicola Bryant

Script writer: Robert Holmes

Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Director: Graeme Harper

Originally aired: March 8th 1984 – March 16th 1984

Episode 1: The TARDIS lands in a wasteland of sand and the fifth Doctor – young, blonde, resplendent in his impractical cricket whites – steps out, accompanied by brand new companion Peri, who was expecting the beach when he said ‘sand’ and dressed accordingly. This is not, however, the beach. This is Androzani Minor, one of the most unappealing places you can imagine, so when the Doctor finds traces of recent activity, he can’t resist following them to see who else is stupid enough to hang out here. “Is this wise, I ask myself,” mutters Peri, but the Doctor chooses not to listen, and she runs reluctantly after him into a nearby cavern that is really a blowhole. The centre of Androzani Minor is superheated mud and when the gravitational alignment with its twin planet Androzani Major is right, there is a high tide of the stuff. As Peri puts it, “mud baths for everyone.”

For all that, the caves are not unoccupied. A group of armed men are being attacked by a lumbering green lizard that repels bullets, in a fine tradition of Whovian monsters. The Doctor and Peri are too far away to hear; they are wandering in blissful ignorance in a different tunnel, admiring the natural phosphorescence, when Peri slips and falls from a rock ledge. She lands in a large cobwebby pod. The Doctor absent-mindedly pulls her out, not especially sympathetic to her bruised pride and stinging legs. He dismisses the thing that has coated both her and his hands as ‘probably harmless’.

Not very far away, a gang of gun-runners are waiting for someone to collect their delivery and getting pretty antsy about it. They quickly scatter when they hear movement. It turns out to be the Doctor and Peri, who find enough hand weapons to equip a small army and a pair of dice on the floor that are still warm from their last throw. They don’t have time for more exploration, because just then they are discovered by a patrol of soldiers and misidentified as gun-runners themselves.

Hustled off to a military base in the caves, they meet General Chellak, who is in charge of operations here. He thinks they are in league with someone called Sharaz Jek and supplying weapons to the android rebels, and isn’t interested when Peri tries to explain that he’s wrong. The Doctor’s sarcasm isn’t helping. Nor does the general care that both his new prisoners are beginning to feel unwell. He has the two shoved into a cell while he contacts his superiors with some badly needed good news. Peri slumps miserably on the bunk provided; the Doctor gives her a look of mixed guilt and concern, the first time there has been a real emotional connection between them. This is Peri’s first solo adventure with him and they don’t know each other very well yet, but he’s at least aware that he’s already landed her in a particularly nasty sort of trouble.

And he doesn’t even know how nasty yet. On Androzani Major, the general’s hologram has appeared in the office of Morgus, who despite being a civilian is the one giving out orders. He has only criticism for Chellak’s campaign so far, but changes his tune when he sees the ‘gun-runners’ they’ve just captured. The Doctor and Peri are given a few minutes under his contemptuous gaze, barely allowed to speak, certainly not allowed to plead their case, before being hauled off out of his sight. Morgus then showers Chellak with praise that actually couches his snap decision to have the prisoners executed. Chellak is against that plan, hoping to extract information on the rebellion, but Morgus is not a democratic sort of man. He is not, however, the only one to get a look at the prisoners. The hologram broadcast has been hacked by a man in a black and white mask who seems particularly fascinated by Peri.

Chellak begins to believe that he has the wrong people, which may say something about his belief in his superior’s judgement, but he can’t be bothered referring the execution order to a higher authority. News of a gas attack from the real gun-runners arrives via his extremely competent assistant Salateen and he leaves to deal with it. The Doctor, returned to the cell with Peri, puzzles over the inconsistencies of his gaolers. Peri is rather more preoccupied with thoughts of her impending death. He has no plan of escape to share with her – he doesn’t even have a sonic screwdriver any more – all he can offer is an apology. And the firing squad setting up outside isn’t their only problem. The rash on her legs and his hands is beginning to form blisters. Whatever the pod was, it wasn’t harmless.

Morgus, meanwhile, is entertaining the president of Androzani Major in his office. He offers a small vial of a substance called spectrox as a gift. It is harvested on Androzani Minor, distilled into a restorative to prolong life and health, and is in crucially short supply at present due to the war – thus perfect for sucking up to elderly politicians. But Morgus’s control over the political situation is not as strong as he thought. He’s all hardline patriotism, determined to crush Sharaz Jek at whatever cost; the president just wants the war over and a proper supply of spectrox restored.

They find temporary common ground in the impending execution, watching as the hologram forms of the Doctor and Peri are led from their cell and draped in military red. “This is a mockery of justice,” are the Doctor’s last words. “Just get on with it,” are Peri’s. Their hoods are pulled down and the soldiers open fire.

Episode 2: The red draped figures fall under a flurry of bullets. But all is not as it seems. The Doctor and Peri are alive, if not exactly well, in the hidden headquarters of the masked man who intercepted their mugshots. He is no other than Sharaz Jek, leader of the android rebellion. Chellak only works out what has happened when he discovers the ‘bodies’ of his prisoners are actually androids. The switch was done right under his nose. Embarassing much?

Whether Team TARDIS are really in a better situation now, however, is yet to be seen. Jek has rescued them, yes, but he has plans of his own for them, particularly Peri. He follows her around the room, trying to corner her, crooning about how important beauty is to him, being so unutterably creepy that she runs across the room and hurls herself into the Doctor’s arms to get away from him. The Doctor, whose sarcastic tongue is getting him into trouble here as well, gets Jek talking about his Evil Plot instead. With the general’s slow progress and Androzani Major’s rabid demand for spectrox, Jek is sure they’ll soon cave to his demands. That being, the head of Morgus at his feet. I can see why Morgus is so against the idea of an armistice…

Jek has another advantage. His third prisoner is none other than Chellak’s right hand man Salateen, who has been locked up for months, his position filled by a flawlessly convincing android. He has been held as company for the psychotic yet lonely Jek and is terrified at the arrival of two replacements. Then Salateen realises both the Doctor and Peri are both suffering cramps, and his fear dissolves into maniacal laughter. “You’re dying,” he tells them bluntly. The pod they stumbled into was a spectrox nest left behind by bats, and they have contracted spectrox toximia. The only antidote is the milk of a queen bat, but they have all gone down into the deep caves, out of reach. Left untreated, the Doctor and Peri will die within two days.

Jek does not know this. His plan is to keep Peri’s aesthetic appeal forever with his hoard of spectrox. Not that that means he’s going to be 100% nice to her. He overhears Peri wondering aloud why he wears that mask all the time and his response is so savage that she throws herself into the Doctor’s arms again to hide while Jek moans after his lost beauty like a psychotic medieval poet. Morgus was the one who did this to him. Jek built an android workforce to collect spectrox in return for split profits, but Morgus decided sharing was not his thing and abandoned his erstwhile business partner during a mudburst. Jek survived, but was left badly deformed and, well, kind of obsessive.

Meanwhile, his gun-runners are antsier than ever. They had to dump their delivery of weapons to stop the military getting hold of them, but they still want paying. Jek goes to deal with them and the Doctor launches into his hastily formulated plan. The android that is guarding Jek’s headquarters has been programmed to kill any human on sight, unless ordered otherwise or deflected by one of Jek’s protective belt plates. But the Doctor is not human. He just has to hope the android will know that. It does; taking advantage of its bafflement, he quickly deactivates it and the three prisoners escape.

Jek and his lead gun-runner Stotz are negotiating a payment deal. Eventually, Jek leaves to collect the agreed amount of spectrox and Stotz realises the supply must be close to their meeting site. He and his men are protected by belt plates in order to work with Jek’s androids, and they’re well armed. They like their chances.

The prisoners are not in such a good position. An android fires on them in the tunnels and the Doctor is left stunned while Salateen drags Peri off with a stolen belt plate. When the Doctor comes to and goes looking for them, what he finds is a battle. The gun-runners have met with one of the reasons Jek’s stronghold is so secure: the lizard of the caves.

Episode 3: The lizard tears its way through several gun-runners, repelling the bullets of the fleeing survivors. It is distracted (and distracting) enough that the Doctor manages to get past without being seen by either threat. Salateen, meanwhile, has returned to Chellak’s base with Peri in tow. The general is due a few humiliating revelations. Salateen, however, has a use for his doppelganger. He wants to feed the android misinformation, concealing the true attack until it’s too late for Jek to escape.

For the Doctor, it’s just one of those days. He ends up circling around in the labyrinthine tunnels and bumping straight into a rather tense meeting between Jek and the gun-runners. Jek, by now aware that he’s lost Peri, is in a foul mood. He brings the whole lot of them back to his HQ and threatens to rip the Doctor’s arms off if he doesn’t reveal where Peri’s gone. All the Doctor knows is that she’s probably with Salateen. Realising where his first prisoner would gravitate, Jek relaxes a little, or at least changes his mind about tearing the Doctor into pieces. He hands him over to the gun-runners instead.

Chellak has started on the misinformation plan. Unfortunately, his android right hand man has X-ray vision and can see through the wall to where Salateen is hiding with Peri in the general’s quarters. He departs, presumably to inform his real boss, and Chellak is left with the uneasy feeling his plan isn’t going very well. But deceiving the android is only one aspect of it. Salateen has given Peri some medication to help with the symptoms of her sickness, intending to keep her alive as a tactical advantage over Jek, and has provided the stolen belt plate for replication and mass distribution. That Peri is miserable, manhandled and mutinous is not being factored in to anybody’s plans.

The only person who actually cares about her is currently tied up and blindfolded on the bridge of the gun-runners’ spaceship, listening in as Stotz contacts his employer. Who is, wouldn’t you just know it, Morgus. Stotz is trying to sell his negotiations with Jek as something other than crushingly unequal when Morgus catches sight of the Doctor and recognises him. Alarmed, Morgus turns around to discuss this turn of events with the camera. He’s assuming Chellak deliberately double-crossed him, and that he was doing so on orders. Morgus turns back to the hologram in his office, demanding that the Doctor reveal who he is working for, promising wealth in return for truth.

“I am telling the truth. I keep telling the truth,” the Doctor snaps. “Why is it that no one believes me?” Morgus confides his suspicions to the audience – he thinks the Doctor is the president’s spy, which changes his game plan a bit. He tells Stotz to stay in orbit for a while instead of returning at once. The only real spy, if he only knew it, is android Salateen, who has been sent on a wild goose chase investigating a fake target with a group of soldiers that Chellak probably doesn’t like all that much. He doubles back to meet with Jek anyway, who has not been fooled. Guessing that human Salateen will be free to move about now his android double is out of the way, he slips into Chellak’s base and re-kidnaps poor Peri.

Left alone while Stotz goes to catch some sleep, the Doctor yanks his cuffs free of the wall and cuts them off his wrists using an exposed energy rod, then goes for the controls. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, figuring how the ship works as he goes along. His own sickness isn’t doing wonders for his concentration.

Meanwhile, the president has returned to Morgus’s office, where he is informed there are rumours of an assassination plot against him. Morgus shows him to a ‘private exit’, then shoves him down the lift shaft and summons his own devoted secretary to share news of the tragic accident.

On Androzani Minor, Jek is spying on the distribution of the protective belt plates when Peri, whom he drugged in this latest kidnapping, comes to. He tells her that the Doctor has been taken away by gun-runners and that she’s going to live here with Jek himself forever instead. Peri, reasonably enough, does not take this well. She points out that Jek could have stopped the gun-runners taking the Doctor and Jek rages at her about the injustice of his social downfall that forces him to associate with people like that. Then he turns creepily coaxing again. He tells her he will “feast his eyes on her delicacy”, fingering her face while she looks like she wants to throw up.

On Stotz’s ship, the Doctor is preparing to land while the furious gun-runners cut through the door. Kicking it in, Stotz leans through to level a gun at the Doctor, threatening to shoot him if he doesn’t return the controls.

“Not a very persuasive argument, Stotz,” the Doctor replies, “because I’m going to die soon anyway, unless of course I can find the antidote. I owe it to my friend to try because I got her into this. So you see I’m not going to let you stop me now!

Episode 4: The ship crashes. The Doctor staggers from the bridge, the gun-runners in hot pursuit across the sandy wasteland of Androzani Minor. A point in his favour is that they are all incompetent marksmen, but he’s sick and exhausted and it’s only a matter of time before they catch up. Then plumes of mud begin to erupt from under the surface, signalling the beginning of a mudburst. The gun-runners baulk; the Doctor does not.

In the caves, Chellak and the human Salateen are leading an attack on Jek’s base. They realise too late that Jek has made the belt plates ineffective, when Salateen is gunned down in the tunnels, but Chellak persists and Jek realises the general may actually have a chance. Just to complicate matters, Morgus has arrived on Androzani Minor in person. Believing his double dealing is on the verge of being discovered, his plan is to bunk off to some other planet before things get nasty, but he intends to take Jek’s hoard of spectrox with him before he goes, using Chellak’s attack as a distraction. But Chellak has finally reached Jek’s lair. They grapple violently, Jek’s mask torn off during the struggle. Jek is so enraged that he hurls Chellak from the door into the path of the mudburst. Ah, irony can be an ugly thing. He then struggles towards the terrified Peri, but when she sees his face she screams, terrified. He screams too, like a frightened child, crawling away to hide his misshapen face.

Morgus, not aware of any of this, contacts his office and discovers his devoted secretary sitting at his desk. “Timmins,” he says warningly, “I don’t like your tone.” “I wish that was all I didn’t like about you,” is her excellent retort. Turns out she was not so much devoted as observant. She has given such damning evidence against him that interplanetary warrants have been issued for his arrest. The gun-runners find this hilarious; Morgus, less so. His business is in the hands of his former dogsbody, his secret slush funds exposed and confiscated – he needs this spectrox now. The only one of his former employees willing to join the venture is Stotz, who guns down the others and follows Morgus for a 50/50 share in the profits.

The Doctor returns for Peri. Jek has finally realised what is wrong with her and gives the Doctor what help he can, showing him the route into the deepest caves and lending him an oxygen cylinder to survive the airless depths. He stays behind to tend unconscious Peri in the most stalkerish way possible; the Doctor descends through the tunnels, milks a nesting bat (who knew it was that easy?) and struggles back the way he came. But by now Morgus and Stotz have made their way through the carnage of the battle and broken in. The crazed man waiting for them is rather more than they were expecting, as is the force of his rage. Stotz shoots Jek; the android Salateen shoots Stotz; Jek, though dying of his own wounds, forces Morgus’s head into a rotating section of equipment and only reels back when his enemy’s lifeless body falls to the floor. Without even rage to hold him up, Jek then collapses into the arms of his loyal android.

The Doctor returns to a room strewn with bodies. He barely registers that, just swings Peri into his arms and staggers out into the tunnels. Somehow he reaches the TARDIS with her, dematerialises, and doses her with the milk. There was only enough for one. It is a very potent antidote – within seconds of drinking, Peri sits up and finds the Doctor dying on the floor beside her. “I might regenerate,” he muses. “I don’t know. It feels different this time.” Images of his former companions encircle him, urging his survival. The face of the Master overwhelms them, gleefully commanding his death. And so a mild young philanthropist turns into a frizzy mopped maniac.

“Doctor?” Peri says, uncertainly.

“You were expecting someone else?” The new Doctor is already scanning the room around him, as though he’s the one expecting something, and it is trouble. “What’s happened?” Peri asks, bewilderedly. “Change, my dear,” he replies. “And it seems not a moment too soon.”

The Verdict: This isn’t the superhero Doctor of later regenerations, the one can sonic his way out of anything. This is a man who makes mistakes, who doesn’t have a plan, who is vulnerable and flawed and isn’t actually sure how to manually land someone else’s spaceship. I never liked Davison’s Doctor much as a child, but even then I couldn’t not appreciate him in this story, and I love him in it now. He’s dying of spectrox poisoning, there’s a violent criminal pointing a gun at his head and he’s about to crash into one of the most inhospitable planets imaginable, but none of that will stop him saving his friend.

This is Peri’s second story and her first as an official companion. Pushed about by the egos of different men throughout all four episodes, shot at, leered at, objectified, poisoned and forced to depend upon a man she barely knows for her personal safety, it’s a rocky beginning to say the least, and things aren’t about to get much better. We’ll catch up with her again next month when she is strapped down by a mad scientist and covered in feathers on the demented prison planet Varos. Oh, Doctor, you take your friends to the nicest places…

An Update from Autumn Australis

In my particular corner of Queensland, autumn isn’t so much a season as a mythical beast. People insist it exists, but the only trace that can be found of its passing is a scatter of dead leaves from easily impressed maples. Today it’s a definitively wintry 18°C (this is Queensland! That is freezing!) and I have ventured out from my fortress of doorstopper books to do a quick catch up. I think I mentioned a while back that my short story ‘Oracle’s Tower’ was nominated for a Ditmar award. I didn’t win, but Kathleen Jennings – the Brisbane artist who illustrated To Spin a Darker Stair – won two, Best Cover Art (for a different anthology) and Best Fan Artist. Congratulations Kathleen! If you haven’t seen her fan art project ‘The Dalek Game’ yet, look here right now.

In other writerly news, my author copies of Dreaming of Djinn arrived on Monday. One is now ensconced on my shelf, where it’s making friends with One Small Step. I’m actually not sure what Shaya from ‘The Oblivion Box’ would make of Meriel from ‘Winter’s Heart’ – I suspect there would be a personality clash – but the books look so pretty together that I couldn’t resist a glamour shot.

100_3305  100_3311

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.41 – The Twelve Dancing Princesses

This week’s fairy tale is one from the Grimm canon, but I’m taking this version from Su Blackwell’s 2012 collection The Fairytale Princess because the paper art illustrations inside it are what fairy godmothers probably do in their spare time. 

The story begins with a king who, despite presumably living in a moderately roomy palace, crams all twelve of his fully-grown daughters into the same bedroom every night and expects there will be no rebellion. He bolts their door every night from the outside (no trust issues there at all) but somehow by morning, every morning, the girls have worn their shoes to shreds.

Reasonably enough, they won’t tell him what they’re doing. Being a very typical fairy tale king, he doesn’t try family counselling or invest in a better shoemaker – no, he sends out a proclamation to the entire male population of his land, announcing that any man who can discover where his daughters dance every night will be able to choose their bride from the twelve and one day rule the kingdom. He doesn’t have to wait long for applicants. Prince after prince comes to try his luck, but mysteriously none can stay awake through the night. All, at the end of their allotted three days, are banished for their failure.

Eleven princes have tried and failed to solve the mystery by the time an injured soldier passes through on his way home from the battlefield. When stopped by an old woman and asked where he is going, he jokes that he’ll be the next to try his luck with the princesses. The old woman, though, takes him seriously, and is of course not all she seems. She knows All The Secrets. “You must not drink the wine the princesses bring you, but pretend to be asleep,” she tells him, and gives him a cloak that will turn him invisible. The soldier doesn’t look a gift horse in the mouth; he runs straight to the palace and is soon seated outside the princesses’ room. Like all the others before him, he is offered wine, but remembers the old lady’s advice and only pretends to drink.

But the youngest princess is uneasy. She senses instinctively that something is about to go wrong. The eldest overrules her, insisting that the soldier must be asleep. She knocks on her bed, which sinks away to reveal a secret tunnel. As the girls descend, the cloaked soldier follows, accidentally treading on the youngest sister’s gown – alarmed, she cries out, but everybody ignores her again and they all continue down. At the end of the tunnel is a forest of silver and gold trees. The soldier breaks off a few branches to take to the king as tokens of his tale’s veracity; the youngest princess is the only one who notices the sound of snapping wood, and I think we’ve already established that no one in the family pays the least attention to anything she says.

The princesses and their unseen observer come to the shore of a lake on which twelve princes wait in rowing boats to take them across. The soldier hitches a lift with, wouldn’t you just know it, the youngest princess. At least her prince notices there’s something wrong too, but neither suspect the extra weight belongs to a man in an invisibility cloak.

On the other side of the lake is a castle. There the twelve princesses dance the night away until their shoes are in tatters, and when at last they return to their chamber to sleep they see the soldier apparently asleep outside the door, just as they left him. For two more days, the soldier ‘sleeps’ and they dance. On the morning of the fourth day, however, the soldier takes his tokens to the king and tells him the whole story. The princesses’ secret is exchanged for his choice of bride and the promise of the crown.

In a turnaround from the usual fairy tale practice, he chooses the eldest. “Because she is clever and beautiful,” he says, very gallantly. They are married happily enough and the soldier does indeed inherit the throne when the old king dies. As for what happens to the tunnel, and to the other sisters, that is not revealed. At the very least, I hope they got rooms of their own.

I have read four retellings of this fairy tale which paint the hidden kingdom and the night-time dancing as sinister, but I have never seen it that way. To me it is a bid for freedom from a controlling father who, in some less sanitary versions, is quite happy to chop off the heads of unsuccessful suitors. It’s nice that the man who uncovers their secret means them no actual malice and chooses a bride with whom he’s at least pretty compatible, but I’m desperately sad for those girls who lost their secret escape – particularly the youngest, who saw the end coming and was ignored. I’d like to think that one day she found another way in.

Review No.85 – Above

Above – Leah Bobet

Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012

When Matthew finds a girl hiding in the tunnels under the city, alone and terrified with wings fading on her back, he knows exactly what to do. There is a place for people like them, the people who can never belong in the world Above, and for Matthew it is the only home he has ever known. He takes the damaged Ariel there, sure she will be protected. Then comes the unimaginable – Safe is invaded, its people scattered, fleeing Above where just existing is enough to put them in terrible danger. Matthew knows they have to reclaim their sanctuary if they are going to survive. But when their exile has come at the hands of one of their own, how will they ever feel Safe again?

Bobet’s debut novel is a YA urban fantasy that is reminiscent of both Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and the X-Men, and if you think that sounds like an ambitious combination, you’d be right. It doesn’t always quite work – the explanations for where these strange and gifted people come from is in particular very haphazard – but where it does work, it’s excellent. Matthew is a wonderful narrator, flawed but deeply sincere, and the story itself has both a gripping pace and a real strength of heart.

Review No.84 – The Book of Blood and Shadow

The Book of Blood and Shadow – Robin Wasserman

Atom, 2012

It begins with a book – a indecipherable manuscript in the hands of an obsessive professor – and a research assignment Nora never wanted in the first place, translating the letters of a famous alchemist’s long-dead daughter. When she stumbles on the book’s solution hidden there, she thinks it is a passport to academic success. Instead, her best friend is brutally murdered and her boyfriend goes missing, leaving behind a trail of bloody secrets and devastating lies that will lead her into ever deeper into a dead woman’s myth.

This book drew me in with an intriguing title and an excellent front cover, but didn’t quite match up to my expectations. The plot was too uneven and not always convincing, and though some sharp twists kept it moving at a reasonable pace, the writing wasn’t tight enough to make it really grip me. I did like the complexity of the characters and their relationships, with Nora as a strong narrative voice. The Book of Blood and Shadow isn’t a pulse-racing thriller, but it was an intriguing read that managed to keep surprising me.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.40 – The Twins and the Snarling Witch

This week’s story is a Russian fairy tale from Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Witches and begins when one day a single father of twins looks at all his mending and thinks, blow this, I’m getting married again. So he does. That turns out about as well as you might expect – his new wife doesn’t much like the children and takes the extreme approach to family planning by plotting their murder. She isn’t the dramatic ravens and swans kind of a stepmother, though; her approach is crafty.

“I don’t feel very well,” she tells her husband. “I need a rest from so much work. Couldn’t we send the twins to stay with my grandmother for a time? She is a woman of refinement, and can teach them many things. When I feel well again, they can come back to us.” That mending must be hell, because he agrees. The twins, in their turn, get it sold to them as a holiday with an apple-cheeked old lady in a ducky little cottage. The sister, however, is a Gretel kind of a girl. She thinks it’s a tad odd that they’ve been told not to pack anything. Almost like they won’t be needing a change of clothes in the forseeable future…

So before they follow their stepmother’s directions, the twins take a detour to their own grandmother, the mother of their father. “Your stepmother hasn’t got a granny!” she reveals. “The house she is sending you to is the house of the snarling witch. She doesn’t mean you to come back alive. But be civil and obedient to the witch, and perhaps some help may come.” So, basically, off you go to the witch, kiddies, good luck with that! She does at least provide the twins with supplies – bread, milk, a bag of nuts and a ham. Then she sends them on their way.

The children walk through the woods until they come to a cottage in the middle of a sloe thicket. The sight that meets them there definitively quashes any chance the stepmother intended them to ever come home: the witch is a giantess. She is so enormous that she has to lie on her side to fit into the cottage, with her knees jutting against the ceiling and her head poking through the doorway. And she really does snarl. The children are terrified, but the little girl remembers what her grandmother said about civility, and manages to speak up.”Good evening, granny. Our stepmother has sent us to stay with you.” “And we will do everything we can to serve you,” chimes in her brother. The witch is not averse to this idea, but makes it clear that if their service is not up to scratch she will cut her losses and make them into supper, and the same fate applies to any escape attempts. With those cheerful thoughts she dismisses the twins, who make a bed as best they can under some sloe bushes and cry themselves to sleep.

In the morning the witch somehow emerges from her house without knocking the whole thing down and sends the girl inside to get to work spinning. To the boy she gives a basket and orders him to pick sloes. Then she strides off into the woods, leaving them to get on with it. Only they can’t get on with it – the girl has never been taught how to spin. She’s sitting there staring at the witch’s menacingly huge frying pan when mice begin to pour out of every crack around her, squeaking soulfully. “Little girl, little girl, why cry your eyes red? If you want any help, then give us some bread.” The girl quickly crumbles up the bread from her grandmother’s supplies and scatters it for the mice.

If you have seen Disney’s Cinderella, you will know that mice have secret sartorial skills and a soft spot for harassed stepdaughters. I’m here to tell you that it is ALL TRUE. These mice spin the yarn neatly with their tails and clue her in on another potential ally, the witch’s cat. “If you give the cat your ham,” the leader of the mice explains, “she will tell you how to escape from the witch.” The girl promptly leaps up to go cat-hunting. Outside the cottage she finds her brother instead, standing under the sloe bushes. His job sounded pretty easy, but the branches have a maliciously contrary temperament – they belong to a witch after all – and keep whipping out of his reach, giving him nothing but scratches. The mice aren’t the only ones taking full advantage of the witch’s new employees, though. The children look up to find themselves surrounded by singing squirrels. “What a sad little boy! But surely he knows, if he gives us some nuts we’ll pick him the sloes.” Which begs the question, why does the witch not employ her local wildlife? Is this a payment dispute?

The children exchange the nuts for a basketful of sloes. When they return to the cottage the witch’s cat is there, curled up by the fire. The twins butter it up with petting and attention and all the ham they’ve got; the cat, in return, provides them with a comb and a handkerchief. And no, that isn’t a snide remark on what a night asleep in the woods can do to your hair. When the witch comes after them, the cat explains, they must drop each token behind them and they will be protected.

They have no chance at escape that night. The witch comes storming home, knocking off half the roof on her way inside and spooking the cat. Seeing the sloes and the spun yarn waiting for her, she keeps to her word and doesn’t make a fry up out of the children, but she’s not satisfied either. In the morning she orders the girl to weave two lengths of linen, and the boy to chop up a pile of logs. Instead of leaving them to it, though, she comes creeping back not long afterwards – insofar as a giantess is capable of creeping. “Are you weaving, my pretty little dear?” she snarls. “Yes, granny, I’m weaving,” answers a voice from inside. The witch is walking away when suddenly it clicks. That wasn’t the little girl’s voice! Flinging open the cottage door, she discovers her cat sitting at the loom, having a ball with the tangled mess of linen. The witch demands to know why she didn’t stop the twins escaping. The cat disgustedly spells it out. The witch didn’t give her so much as a fish scale; the children gave her all their ham. You do the math.

Livid, the witch snatches up her broom. Due to her most recent mistreatment of it, it cannot fly too far off the ground, but she bullies it along as fast as it can go. As it eats into the children’s headstart, they throw the comb behind them and it transforms into an enormous forest, forcing the witch to turn back for an axe. This only makes her mood more vicious. She takes it out on the broom, which perhaps is not wise…But still they gain on the children. The boy throws the handkerchief over his shoulder and it becomes a broad river. The broom does not want to fly across; it is exhausted. The witch keeps beating and abusing it as they fly over the water, until at last the broom has enough. “I won’t stand any more of this!” it announces, and tips her off into the river. The children return home to their father, who promptly kicks out his murderous wife; the broom, in turn, returns home to the cat, and they all live happily ever after.

There is not much that differentiates this story from numerous others. The evil stepmother, the witch in the woods, the items of personal hygiene that turn out to have magical properties, it’s all been done before. That ending, though, I love. It’s nice about the kids and everything, but knowing that the cat and the broom did just fine on their own without any witches or orphans at all is tremendously empowering. Watch out, sorcerer’s apprentice – magical brooms are getting their act together, and they have rights.

Review No.83 – The Magicians and Mrs Quent

The Magicians and Mrs Quent – Galen Beckett

Bantam Spectra, 2008

In the city of Invarel, amongst the society of the wealthy and well-connected, the study of magick has recently returned to fashion, but there are many who disbelieve it still exists, if ever it did. Ivy Lockwood, however, knows better. It was the study of magick that robbed her father of his wits and left him like a bewildered child, dependant on his wife and daughters to care for and protect him. When tragedy strikes the Lockwoods and the safety of her family is threatened, Ivy sets out alone to seek out help from the mysterious Mr Quent – but the stakes are even higher than she imagines. Magick is very real, and disbelief is no protection from its power…

The Magicians and Mrs Quent is a fantasy that feels intended as a homage to Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, though that frequently goes over the top and veers into caricature. Ivy is easy enough to like, even if her world view is firmly and occasionally irritatingly shaped by her era and class; her co-protagonists Rafferdy and Eldyn are reasonably well rounded characters who grow over the course of the book, but the rest of the characters, particularly the women, are consigned to the background and suppressed by disappointing stereotypes. As a story it is a light (at almost 500 pages, I don’t mean short) read that continues with The House on Durrow Street.