Archive for November, 2008

November 21, 2008

A History of the Kingdom of Mo

I spent the afternoon in a friend’s room studying and discussing embalmed bodies, lost civilisations and other things relevant to a term paper I’m supposed to be working on. In the course of events, William Le Queux’sThe Great White Queen: A Tale of Treasure and Treason (1896) came to our attention and caused us unimaginable joy. Which is why I had to extract this for you – Indian readers especially, you should enjoy this.

There is a strange story connected with this place known to us as Zomara’s Wrath,” Omar said, when together we turned away and mounted our horses to ride back to the camp.

“Relate it to me,” I urged eagerly.

“To-night. After we have eaten at sundown I will tell you about it,” he answered, and spurring our horses we galloped quickly forward.

When we had eaten that evening and were seated aside together, I reminded him of his promise.

“It is a story of my ancestors, and it occurred more than a thousand years ago,” he said. “Ruler of the great kingdom of Mo, King Lobenba had no children. The three queens observed fasts, kept vows, made offerings to the fetish, all to no effect. By a lucky chance a great hermit made his appearance in our capital. The King and queens received the visitor at the palace, and treated him with the most generous and sincere hospitality. The guest was very pleased; by a prompting of the fetish he knew what they wanted, and gave them three peppercorns, one for each queen. In due time three sons were born, Karmos, Matrugna, and Fausalya, who when they reached a suitable age married by the ceremony of ‘choice,’ daughters of a branch of the royal family. When the brides arrived at their husbands’ family and were disciplined in their wifely duties, King Lobenba, who was growing old, thought the time had arrived for him to make over the royal burden to younger shoulders, and to adopt a hermit’s life preliminary to death. So in consultation with the royal fetish-man, a day was appointed for the coronation of Prince Karmos, who had married a beautiful girl named Naya. But the fates had willed it otherwise. Long before the children were born, when King Lobenba, in his younger days, was subduing a revolt in this region where we now are he once fell from his chariot while aiming an arrow, and got his arm crushed under the wheel. The three queens had accompanied their royal husband to the battlefield to soften for him the hardships of his camp life, and during the long illness that followed the wound, Queen Zulnam, who afterwards became mother of Fausalya, nursed him with all the devotion of a wife’s first young love. ‘Ask me anything and thou shalt have it,’ said the monarch during his convalescence. ‘I have to ask only two favours, my lord,’ she answered. ‘I grant them beforehand. Name them,’ he cried. But she said she wished for nothing at that time, but would make her request in due course. She waited twenty years. Then she repaired to her husband on the morning of Karmos’ coronation and boldly requested that the prince should absent himself for fourteen years, and that her son Fausalya should be crowned instead.”

“She was artful,” I observed, laughing.

“Yes,” he went on. “The words fell like a thunder-bolt upon the king, the light faded from his eyes and he fainted. Nevertheless, Zulnam’s wish was granted, and Karmos’ departure was heartrending. To soften the austerities of forest life, Prince Matrugna tore himself from his newly-married bride to accompany Karmos. But the hardest was to be the latter’s wrench from his devoted Naya. The change from a most exuberant girlish gaiety to quivering grief, and the offer of the delicately-nurtured wife to share with her lord the severities of an exile’s life are often told by every wise man in Mo. Fourteen long years Karmos spent in exile with his beautiful wife as companion, until at last they were free to return. The home-coming was one long triumph. The people were mad with delight to welcome their hero Karmos and their beloved Naya. Karmos was crowned, and then began that government whose morality and justice and love and purity have passed into the proverbs of my race. There was, however, one blemish upon it. Poor Naya’s evil genius had not yet exhausted his malevolence. A rumour was spread by evil tongues that she was plotting to possess the crown, and Karmos, sacrificing the husband’s love, the father’s joy, to his kingly duty, while standing on that spot we have visited to-day—then his summer palace surrounded by lovely gardens—pronounced sentence of exile upon her. But in an instant, swift as the lightning from above, the terrible curse of Zomara fell upon him, striking him dead, his magnificent palace was swept away and swallowed up by a mighty earthquake, and from the barren hole, once the fairest spot in the land, there have ever since belched forth fumes that poison every living thing. It is Zomara’s Wrath.”

“And what became of Naya, the queen?” I asked, struck with the remarkable story that seemed more than a mere legend.

“She reigned in his stead,” he answered. “Whenever we speak of the Nayas we sum up all that is noble and mighty and queenly in government, its tact, its talent, its love and its beneficence, for every queen who has since sat on the Great Emerald Throne of Mo has been named after her, and I am her lineal descendant, the last of her line.”

November 12, 2008

Here, have a dead unicorn

Some of you will remember my joy earlier this year when I finally found myself a copy of The Owl Service, a book I’d fallen in love with in school. Thursbitch, A Bag of Moonshine and some of his essays were the only other things by Garner* I’d read at the time.
A couple of weeks after I arrived in Dublin I found secondhand copies of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, and this week managed to get Elidor out of the library. And then I met a writer who said, in the middle of a conversation about writers he thinks are underrated, “no one seems to read Alan Garner”. Apparently I looked like I wanted to hug him. (This would have been awkward)

Elidor starts in a way very similar to Prince Caspian – children waiting for a train, being transported to a magic land and encountering a ruined castle. The train thing is interesting – so much of children’s lit begins with a train journey away from familiar territory into a place away from home where odd things can take place. Garner and Lewis both use it too – Garner in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Lewis in The Last Battle, where the train transports the characters from life into death. But here, in both cases, the action takes place before the journey, and when the characters finally get on board it’s to pretty banal destinations – a house in the suburbs in Garner’s case, school in Lewis’.
As you can see I was thinking about Lewis quite a lot as I read Garner. Which is odd, because two writers are so different. In Elidor, children from this world don’t get to waltz in and save the day (the function they perform is important, but they’re mostly outside the real action); they’re certainly not going to rule here, and their dead unicorn friend is unlikely to return in a happy, shared afterlife.
Garner’s hard to read sometimes – his supernatural is wild and harsh and bloody (the flowers are made of claws) and hardly anyone seems to have a happy ending. He also has a habit of giving his women all the supernatural functions – they’re the ones who get possessed by mythical Welsh women, inherit powerful jewels, pledge their futures to a band of huntresses/riders who are somehow connected to the moon goddess, and talk to unicorns (what’s common to those last two?) and so on – in either Weirdstone or Moon we’re told that Old Magic is associated with women.
But he’s an incredible writer. Now that I have access to most of his work (The Voice That Thunders is, inexplicably, not in the library) I’m being most greedy about it, and I’m thrilled that he exists.

*Here’s an interview. Reading Garner talking about his work always makes me feel like I know nothing/will never know enough.

November 8, 2008

More on Nation because you obviously haven’t heard enough

(Includes spoilers)

As I said before, I had a lot of shipwreck/island books to compare Nation to when I was reading it. But the other piece of literature I kept bouncing it off was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The parallels are pretty obvious – boy and girl from different worlds come together, have comic misunderstandings, join forces to do good things; there is anger at gods, there is lots of science, and though true love is found they choose to part for the Greater Good. Pratchett is far nicer to his gods (I’m not sure they deserve it) than Pullman is to his, certainly.

But it’s those two endings that interest me. Pullman gives us teenagers falling in love and having sex – something which horrified a number of people I discussed the book with, who then decided to interpret it as them not having sex. No, I don’t know how either. Pratchett does not give us sex (though it might have happened), but he does give us sexual desire – at one point Daphne is just looking at Mau’s body and the way the muscles shift under his skin and so on, and in some way this is an even bigger deal than that bit in The Amber Spyglass – because it’s not written as being all about love, and it’s such a relief to have a teenaged girl character want someone.

And yet both books, having suggested that sex (or the desire for it) is a normal part of growing up, then end by parting their characters by sending them to different continents/universes and effectively ensuring that they cannot have any more sex. Which is, I suppose, preferable as an ending to the Deathly Hallows sort where everyone ends up living happily ever after for the rest of their lives with their first partner. But still, I wonder.

November 6, 2008

While on the subject of shipwreck/island books

Here’s a charming little section from the Ballantyne one. Incidentally, this was published in 1857.

In a second the boat was lowered and manned by a part of the crew, who were all armed with cutlasses and pistols. As the captain passed me to get into it he said, “Jump into the stern-sheets, Ralph; I may want you.” I obeyed, and in ten minutes more we were standing on the stranger’s deck. We were all much surprised at the sight that met our eyes. Instead of a crew of such sailors as we were accustomed to see, there were only fifteen blacks, standing on the quarter-deck, and regarding us with looks of undisguised alarm. They were totally unarmed, and most of them unclothed. One or two, however, wore portions of European attire. One had on a pair of duck trousers, which were much too large for him, and stuck out in a most ungainly manner; another wore nothing but the common, scanty, native garment round the loins and a black beaver hat; but the most ludicrous personage of all, and one who seemed to be chief, was a tall, middle-aged man, of a mild, simple expression of countenance, who wore a white cotton shirt, a swallow-tailed coat, and a straw hat, while his black, brawny legs were totally uncovered below the knees.

“Where’s the commander of this ship?” inquired our captain, stepping up to this individual.

“I is cap’in,” he answered, taking off his straw hat and making a low bow.

“You!” said our captain in surprise. “Where do you come from, and where are you bound? What cargo have you aboard?”

“We is come,” answered the man with the swallow-tail, “from Aitutaki; we was go for Rarotonga. We is native miss’nary ship; our name is de Olive Branch; an’ our cargo is two tons cocoa-nuts, seventy pigs, twenty cats, and de Gosp’l.”

This announcement was received by the crew of our vessel with a shout of laughter, which, however, was peremptorily checked by the captain, whose expression instantly changed from one of severity to that of frank urbanity as he advanced towards the missionary and shook him warmly by the hand.

“I am very glad to have fallen in with you,” said he, “and I wish you much success in your missionary labours. Pray take me to your cabin, as I wish to converse with you privately.”

The missionary immediately took him by the hand, and as he led him away I heard him saying, “me most glad to find you trader; we t’ought you be pirate. You very like one ’bout the masts.”

In a book about civilising savage people of colour by making Christians out of them, it’s heartening to learn that, once converted, they’re merely hilarious.

November 4, 2008

Islands, cannibals and some thoughts on Nation

In a week during which I read R.M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island and Stevenson’s Treasure Island for class (I love this course) and seriously considered rereading Willard Price’s Cannibal Adventure after the first for more hilarious island-cannibal goodness, I also received a copy of Terry Pratchett’s new YA novel, Nation, in the post. (Thanks Shreyas!). Nation is also set on an island. It also has cannibals. It is one of the best things I’ve read in a while.

An edited version of the review below appeared in the Business Standard a few days ago:


It’s been a few years since Terry Pratchett last stepped out of his hugely successful Discworld universe. Nation, his wonderful new novel for young adults, is set in a world very similar to our own.
The Nation is an island in the South Pelagic (not, the author insists in his “multiple universes get-out-of-jail-free card” afterword, the South Pacific); an island so small that it doesn’t show up on European maps. Mau, a resident of the Nation, is returning from the Boys’ Island to complete the rituals that will make him officially a man. By the time he reaches, a tidal wave has swept away the village, killed everyone he knows, and deposited a British ship in the middle of the forest.

When she first boarded the Sweet Judy, Ermintrude (she prefers to be known as Daphne) was 139th in line to the throne of an England that rules most of the world, and that is afraid of nothing but the human leg. Now the direct heir, she must face the challenges afforded by a lewd ship’s parrot, a regrettable shortage of napkins, and a boy who refuses to wear trousers.

Any number of shipwreck stories for children have been written over the centuries. Mau and Daphne’s adventures are not merely concerned with survival or buried treasure (though they face both of these too). They must re-forge a nation from the survivors of the wave (who turn up in ones and twos) and from what they learn of the island’s past. Leadership for Pratchett involves doing all the dirty work and isn’t much fun. While Daphne must amputate limbs, deliver babies, and chew food for a toothless old woman, Mau is forced to commit unmentionable acts to obtain milk for a small child. Moreover, both must constantly battle the voices of their ancestors. The Grandfathers (whose two main concerns are religion and beer) shout constantly and irascibly in Mau’s head. Daphne has to overcome the teachings of a grandmother (“a mixture of Boadicea without the chariot, Catherine de’Medici without the poisoned rings and Attila the Hun without his wonderful sense of fun.”) with strong views on ladylike behaviour and the dangers of Going Native.

Set during the strongest days of the British Empire, Nation has a lot to say about colonialism, most of it scathing.

‘I can prove that no European has been in this cave before me.’ Daphne looked around, chest heaving with passion. ‘See the gold on the gods and the globe and the big door?’
‘Yes. Of course, dear. I could hardly fail to notice.’
‘There you are, then,’ said Daphne, picking up the lamp. It’s still here!’

Then there’s the budding romance between Daphne and Mau, watched closely by the rest of the Nation (“It was like being in a Jane Austen novel, but one with far less clothing.”) and punctuated with adorable cannibal-centred compliments.

‘No, they would never eat a woman,’ said Mau.
‘That’s very gentlemanly of them!’
‘No, they would feed you to their wives, so that they become beautiful.’ *

But the children have gone through trauma to get this far. Worn out from performing the last rites of his entire tribe, Mau is constantly questioning his gods, looking for an answer that will make his world make sense. Daphne has been doing the same since the death of her mother. In a book that tells us that “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is a good song for a child because ‘it began with a question’, this questioning of everything becomes, for Pratchett, something of a moral imperative. Nation begins and ends with pictures of the stars, and on the last page of the book is printed a map of the world with South at the top. Pratchett will not condemn characters who shrink from, literally in this case, having their world turned upside down, but they’re never the ones he chooses as his heroes.

*There’s also a lovely moment when an elderly cannibal, having quizzed Daphne about her status as a wise woman, is finally convinced that she is incredibly clever and shyly informs her that he’d like to eat her brains. Aww.

November 2, 2008


A couple of weeks ago I found myself at the launch of Conor Kostick’s new book, Move. I had no right to be there, since I’d never actually read him before. But I was with a friend who had read Epic and Saga, and it was YA and therefore theoretically my sort of thing. (The free wine had nothing to do with it).
So this week I picked up a copy of Epic from the college library and finished it over a couple of days’ bus rides. Epic is about a computer game. Games (and maths, but that’s a mere inability) are where my geekishness fails; I simply have no interest in them. I honestly did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did.
Anyway. Violence is forbidden on New Earth, and everyone spends most of their time playing the game Epic, in order to advance socially or financially. Erik Haraldson keeps dying, much to the consternation of his parents, but has used his various deaths to figure out a weakness within the game. When his father is exiled, he uses this knowledge, and suddenly he’s and his friends are heroes. This leads to a treasure hunt, betrayal, fighting the authorities, fighting the game itself, and much excitement in general.
I have nothing particularly intelligent to say about this book, except that it’s very good and a number of people who read this thing would probably really enjoy it. The library’s sole copy of the sequel, Saga, is out at the moment, but I’m looking forward to reading it.