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My Month in Books: January 2021

Here are two of the books I've enjoyed reading this month. They're both fantasies, but are very different from one another.

Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner (HandheldPress)

This collection of short stories describes the Elfin kingdoms which exist side by side with our own world in the forests of Brittany, the Welsh mountains, the Netherlands and elsewhere. Warner’s fairy creatures are wonderful creations. They are untroubled by many of the things that humans obsess over: the fleetingness of life (they are long-lived though not immortal); morals (they have none); conscience (they don’t have any); the state of their souls (they don’t have souls and so have no concept of an after life). They are carelessly cruel, though they aren’t without feelings; mercurial and changeable though they cling to tradition; and though we see them through the prism of human concerns (love, vanity, ambition, hatred etc etc), they are simply, deliciously un-human.

The structure of the stories often reflects this. They don’t always follow the narrative arc you’d expect. Characters fade away, significant events are dealt with in a few lines, deaths recorded as an afterthought. The narrative is as unsentimental and careless as the fairies themselves.

The stories are a dazzling flight of the imagination, rooted in a scholarly outlook. They are bracing, original, refreshing and totally, brilliantly true in that way the best stories (myths, fantasies?) are. I really loved Kingdoms of Elfin. Handheld Books have produced a lovely edition with an introduction and notes.   


Two books I've enjoyed in January

 The Final Empire, Brandon Sanderson (Gollancz)

This is the first book in the Mistborn series and it’s unputdownable, gripping, page-turning – all of that and more. It’s got good v evil, a nasty dark lord just asking to be overthrown, morally ambiguous good guys ready to attempt the overthrowing (they’re thieves, forgers, conmen), wicked and not so wicked oppressing aristos, and a plucky street urchin par excellence in Vin, who in true fantasy style has Powers She Didn’t Know She Has That She Has To Learn to Wield.

I’ll admit that at times the prose seemed a bit odd and clunky to me (people don’t ‘jump off’, they ‘jump off of’ walls) but I think that may be because of the ‘two countries divided by a common language’ thing. And, yes, I know that explaining the magic and its limitations are very important but I didn’t really care all that much how Allomancy worked once I’d got the basic idea. And there were one or two teeny weeny little cheats disguised as plot twists, in particular one at the end which was a bit like someone carrying a device around and telling people it enabled them to communicate with friends at a distance, and suddenly announcing in a sticky spot that actually it’s also a transporter as well. (And no, that doesn’t happen.) And I was just a little disappointed when a strong female heroine fell into a man’s arms sighing that was all she’d ever really wanted. I’m hoping she’ll have moved on by Book 2.

But I kept on reading! And that is because the characters are great, the plot twists twisty, and the suspense very suspenseful. So I am going on to Book 2, The Well of Ascension.

Incidentally, I almost changed my mind about this when, just before finishing The Final Empire, I looked on Amazon to check what the next book in the series is – and the blurb for that book told me what happened in Book 1! Blurb writer, that was seriously disappointing.   

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to the next in the series – and I’m carefully avoiding the blurbs from now on.




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