Review – Thornwood House

Thornwood House – Anne Romer

Simon&Schuster, 2013

When the famous artist Tony Jarman drops everything for no apparent reason to travel to a small Queensland town and shoot himself there, he leaves behind an ugly mystery and an unexpected legacy. Audrey, the woman he once loved, and Bronwyn, the daughter they had together, inherit a property called Thornwood in the sleepy backwater Magpie Creek – the town where Tony grew up, and where he committed suicide. In two minds about whether to stay or leave, Audrey finds herself drawn into the history of the house. It belonged to Tony’s grandfather, a man who was long ago accused of a brutal murder. The more Audrey learns about the tangle of blood and lies that have brought her here, the more she realises that their danger is not safely buried in the past.

Thornwood House is written in the Gothic tradition of imposing houses and dark family secrets, set in a lovingly described rural Queensland landscape. The premise is an interesting one, but I found Audrey’s obsessive fascination with her ex-lover’s grandfather rather confusing – it felt at times like there was going to be a supernatural element to the story, and when that did not eventuate it made Audrey’s motivations seem unconvincing to me. I also found her romantic subplot a bit forced, though I did like the character of her love interest and would have enjoyed seeing more of him in the story. There were a few elements of the book that just didn’t appeal to me, but it kept me engaged with some genuinely creepy twists and well-drawn imagery. Romer’s other works include Lyrebird Hill and Beyond the Orchard.

Review – Discount Armageddon

Discount Armageddon (InCryptid No.1) – Seanan McGuire

Corsair, 2012

Valerie Pryor is on track for a career in the glittering, gruelling world of ballroom dancing. A well-known face on the competitive circuit and a runner-up in the nation’s most popular dance show, she’s making all the right moves. Unfortunately for Valerie, she doesn’t exist. Inventing an alternate identity is a necessary compromise for Verity Price if she’s to have a hope of chasing her dream. As a daughter of the notorious monster-studying, dimension-hopping, knife-wielding Price family, not only does her daily life contain more shapeshifters, telepaths and bogeymen than your average twenty-something, but there’s also a risk that the far more ruthless and better resourced Covenant of St. George will sweep into town to purge all things paranormal. When cryptid girls start going missing in New York, it is Verity’s responsibility to investigate. Mysterious disappearances, rooftop ambushes and making her debut in the local tango scene – it’s all in a night’s work for a Price girl.

This is fun, fast-paced urban fantasy led by a protagonist who is equally interested in daggers as the Argentine tango. Verity is refreshingly sure of her strength (which does not come and go as suits the presence of her love interest) and her world contains a wide variety of cryptid species that goes much further that the usual werewolves and vampires. I was particularly delighted by the dragon princesses, it’s such an inventive take on a classic fairy tale trope. The series continues with Midnight Blue Light Special.

Review – Summer Days, Summer Nights

Summer Days, Summer Nights – ed. Stephanie Perkins

Macmillan, 2016

In the long hot stretch of summer, rules start melting in the sun. You might spot a lake monster when you go swimming, reconnect with the secret crush you’re almost (but not quite) over, resort to matchmaking for your oblivious friends, or maybe make plans to save a crumbling carnival. It’s possible time may stop altogether. Love is in the air and so is trouble.

This is the second in a pair of YA short fiction romance anthologies, the first being the winter-themed My True Love Gave To Me. It’s a pretty hardcover, with yellow edging on the pages contrasting against a blue cover, and I’m definitely the kind of reader who appreciates that kind of thing. Summer Days, Summer Nights is split fairly evenly between mainstream fiction and SF/fantasy stories, and while I didn’t find all of the stories very romantic, there’s a good mix of different types of couples, including QUILTBAG protagonists and a story with an autistic boy as one of the lead characters. My favourites include ‘Head, Scales, Tongue, Tail’ by Leigh Bardugo, ‘The End of Love’ by Nina LaCour, ‘A Thousand Ways This Could All Go Wrong’ by Jennifer E. Smith and ‘The Map of Tiny Perfect Things’ by Lev Grossman.

Ladies of Legend: Cerridwen

Resources: The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, The Fairy Bible (Godsfield Press, 2008) by Teresa Moorey, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creirwy

Welcome back to Ladies of Legend, a blog series exploring the identities of mythic women. Kicking off 2017 is Cerridwen (also spelled Caridwen or Keridwen), a Welsh goddess of the Underworld turned Arthurian-era witch.

She’s described as dark-haired and stocky with pale skin and black eyes. Legend has it that she lived in a mansion in the middle of Lake Tegid in Penllyn, Wales, with her husband Tegid Voel and their three children. The eldest son, Morvran, went on to be an advisor at King Arthur’s court; the middle child, Creirwy, grew into a reknown beauty; but the third child, Avagddu, worried Cerridwen immensely. He was apparently ‘the ugliest man in the world’, which is a subjective title if ever I heard one and also a really bad basis for judging a person’s future prospects. Some versions of the legend have the brothers as one and the same person, just to add to the general confusion in the family.

Anyway, Cerridwen was afraid that her son’s looks would preclude him from success at court, so she decided to gift him with such overwhelming intelligence that he would leave everyone who met him in awe. To this end she searched through her spellbooks and began work on a potion called Greal, to bestow inspiration and knowledge on its drinker.

It was a fiendishly difficult concoction to make. For one thing, it would have to be kept boiling for a year and a day exactly. Cerridwen’s time was much too valuable to slave over a potion for that long so she brought in a blind man called Morda to tend the fire and kidnapped a child called Gwion Bach to stir the cauldron. That left Cerridwen with the task of collecting all the (many) necessary herbs. These were not ingredients that you could stock up on in advance, oh no, this was the recipe from your worst nightmare. Everything had to be harvested under the correct astrological influence. No wonder there were not magically-imbued geniuses wandering all over the place.

One day while Cerridwen was out and Gwion was stirring the potion, three scalding drops spat out and landed on his hand. He instinctively sucked his burned finger and therefore accidentally imbibed the inspiration and knowledge intended for Avagddu. Spell complete, the cauldron cracked in half and the now-poisonous potion spilled into the nearby river, ending the lives of a lot of innocent horses.

Gwion was gifted with a flash of blinding insight, but it really shouldn’t have taken a magic potion to realise that Cerridwen would be really, really pissed off at him. Sensibly, he fled. Cerridwen took her rage out on poor Morda first, whacking him hard enough to pop out one of his eyes, but she quickly accepted that it was all Gwion’s fault and went after him instead. Having been granted a brand new skill set of sorcerous powers by his taste of the potion, Gwion tried to escape by changing his shape. First he became a hare, then a trout, then a bird – but Cerridwen was quick to follow as a bigger, fiercer predator. In desperation, Gwion became a grain of wheat amidst many other grains of wheat, clearly hoping for a ‘needle in a haystack’ situation. No such luck. Cerridwen turned herself into a hen and ate him up.

That was not the end of it. Cerridwen fell pregnant and in time Gwion was reborn as the beautiful, golden-haired Taliesin. Her original intention was to kill him, thereby reclaiming the potion, but once the baby was born Cerridwen could not bring herself to go through with it. She just…wrapped him in leather and threw him into the sea instead. Which is totally not the same thing as trying to kill him! Being a hero of legend, he of course survived, was taken in at the court of King Gwyddno Garanhir, and became a very famous bard.

I cannot, in any of the sources I have read, find out what happened to Cerridwen after Taliesin’s birth; the legend switches allegiances to him and leaves her in shadow. Cerridwen is associated with the sow (there being a longstanding Celtic tradition of pigs symbolising the Otherworld) and is said to travel on the back of a giant crow. Some sources parallel her to the Irish fire goddess Brighid (later Christianised as Saint Brigit) who is the patroness of poets, but she’s also compared to the Roman harvest goddess Ceres, which casts Creirwy as ‘the British Proserpine’. For all that, though, Cerridwen is still a woman – a witch, sorceress, goddess – of the Underworld. Her daughter must come by a little darkness naturally.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!