The Medium and The Message

Moby-Dick was the first assigned book I never finished. It was part of our American Literature focus in my last year of high school, back in the day when Canadian high schools were still ignoring Canadian literature. I was, and am, a voracious reader. But I just couldn’t read Moby-Dick. The prose was dense, meandering, sometimes unclear. And yet I kept thinking about it.

Fast-forward about thirty years, and a long-haul flight to New Zealand. Seventeen hours plus. I’d started listening to a lot of books: family circumstances meant I was driving eight hours every second or third weekend, and my job also entailed a lot of driving. Audiobooks helped pass the time. So, I decided to listen to Moby-Dick on that trip to New Zealand and Australia.

And fell in love with a magnificent book, a symphony of language and philosophy, of style and story. Whether it was my tendency to skim-read, or a symptom of my ADHD, or just maturity, I don’t know – but this book I couldn’t read is now one of my favourites: one I needed to hear to appreciate it.

Since then, I have learned that I appreciate almost all 18th and 19th century writers better when I listen rather than read. I wonder sometimes if it was that these books were expected to be read aloud, an on-going evening’s entertainment, or if a slower pace of life (for the privileged few, anyhow) meant reading was perhaps more leisurely. Regardless, when I want George Eliot or Tolstoy or Cervantes, I reach for my phone and earbuds, not a physical book.

Which brings me to the actual subject of this ramble: a reconsideration of a recent review. A book I had difficulty reading: P.L. Stuart’s A Drowned Kingdom. It has, actually, a few things in common with Moby-Dick: a dislikable central character driven by hubris, and long expositions on the reasons for actions, to name a couple.  I read it, wrote a neutral and unstarred review (some of you reading this will know I rarely star reviews, for reasons given here), and moved on. And yet I kept thinking about it.

Then one day I was listening to Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, which is slow, and definitely not cheery (well, it’s Hardy, what do I expect?) and something clicked. I should listen to A Drowned Kingdom (which coincidentally had just come out in audiobook format.) So I did.

And, as with Moby-Dick, I liked it a whole lot more. Listening doesn’t change the arrogant hubris of the MC, Othrun, but that was never an issue for me. I still believe Stuart is brave, both for creating a dislikable main character and for writing in a style somewhat at odds with much modern fantasy writing. But the lack of enjoyment in my first reading of the book wasn’t due to a fault in the writing, but my own limitations in interacting with the prose.

Story is at the heart of what we as writers do, and stories can be told – and absorbed – in many ways: through poetry, through prose, through oral storytelling, through plays, through visual media. Sometimes, as the audience, we need to find the form that is right for us. I’m glad I could for A Drowned Kingdom.

And yes, I’ll be revising the review.

Hag of the Hills, by J.T.T. Ryder: A Review

Complex and detailed. Hag of the Hills is a hero’s journey with a difference. In the second century BCE, Brennus of Skye is a warrior’s son who isn’t allowed to be a warrior, until invasion changes that fate. But his journey to heroic status spirals around the geology and mythology of his island. His forward momentum is inexorable, driven by the words of a local deity and his own conviction that he must honour both his oaths and the visions granted to him – but with many mistakes, fears, denials and reversals.

Hag of the Hills is not a conventional Celtic-based fantasy book. I’d hesitate to call it fantasy, rather than a form of magic realism. The Sidhe are a real part of Brennus’s world, whether is it is the Cailleach or giants or the shape-shifter who speaks in words later attributed to the bard Taliesin. But they are not earthly beings, as often in fantasy, but remain other-worldly, real but inhabiting a different realm to which Brennus is given occasional access.  

Ethnobotanist Wade Davis has written:

 “The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist in interpreting what they experience through the lens of a single cultural paradigm, their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel, it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.” 

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in The Modern World

And this is what J.T.T. Ryder, an archaeologist specializing in Iron Age northern European cultures, has attempted to show us: that rich and complex topography experienced through a different cultural paradigm. Is it successful?  In my opinion, yes, for the most part.

Brennus’s world is one in which Cuchulainn walks in memory and stories are told of war-elephants crossing the Alps; where men leave Skye to fight in Thrace, where the stone tools found in caves are left by the Sidhe and the bronze sword in a barrow belongs to an ancestor: a world both intensely rooted in its geography and conscious of a wider world beyond, known through trade and commerce in soldiers and slaves. This duality is echoed in others: as well as the Sidhe and the everyday world, there are few shades of grey in Brennus’s world: he is either an oath-keeper or an oath-breaker, a free man or a slave, a warrior or a coward.

Whether purposely or not, this sense of duality is echoed in Ryder’s prose, which frequently changes tenses within a paragraph, creating for this reader a feeling of dislocation. Jarring at first, as the novel progressed I found it added to the veracity of Brennus’s experiences. Unconventional to 21st century prose, perhaps, but echoing the blending of past and present that Brennus’s cultural paradigms encompass. Time is a construct not experienced by all cultures in the same way.

(What was less effective for me was the use of modern words and terms, which took me out of the immersive and different world I was experiencing and returned me to ours. ‘Fetal position’ is one example.)

We are used to epic hero’s journeys, from Odysseus onward. Brennus’s is not epic; it is extremely local, both in geography and psychologically. Much of what he works towards may make readers uncomfortable: honour, revenge, a glorious death – and while there is near-constant action, the real journey is in Brennus’s mind – not a comfortable or familiar place to be, but one I found worth experiencing.

Spotlight on Aaron Hodges and Untamed Isles: The Path Awakens

I’m pleased to be shining a spotlight on Aaron Hodges today, with an exciting new book – but not just a book! Aaron’s new release, Untamed Isles: The Path Awakens, is linked to an MMO game, also called Untamed Isles, releasing soon.

On a still and peaceful night, the world shook, and light split the sky asunder.

The seas parted, an island rose.

And beneath the earth, an ancient power stirred.

Zachary Sicario thought he’d finally turned his back on the underworld. For ten years he was content with his cottage in the highlands of Riogachd. But a master thief never truly retires. When Zach is struck down by a wasting illness, he is left with two options: accept his fate, or return to his criminal past in search of a cure.

It isn’t a difficult decision.

With rumours of a mysterious island circulating the kingdom, Zach goes in search of old contacts. They speak of strange lights and disappearing ships, of treasure and riches promised for the first to reach its distant shores. Zach has little interest in trinkets—but there’s another tale, one that whispers of the power to change a man’s fate.

With a secret expedition departing in the coming days, Zach decides to roll the dice. But he’s not the only one interested in magic. His competition are warriors and thieves, noblemen and assassins, all in their prime. And Zach is far from the man he once was.

Can a master thief beat the odds one more time?

Here’s an excerpt from Untamed Isle: The Path Awakens

The deck rocked beneath Garret’s feet as the ship rose on a swell, then plunged back down. Water crashed over the stern as men screamed, helpless before the storm’s wrath. Garret clung to the tiller as lightning flashed, darkness giving way momentarily to a brilliant light. Sailors stumbled in its glow, grasping at ropes and loose cargo, anything that might save them from an icy plunge.
Another surge broke across the hull and swept the deck, collecting broken rigging and men alike in its wake. Garret watched, helpless, as his people were dragged through the broken gunwales and disappeared into the dark waters of the Northern Sea.
Silhouettes of their desperate faces danced before Garret’s eyes as the lightning faded, returning the ship to darkness. And still the ocean roared, still the thunder boomed, still the men screamed.
The storm had come upon them suddenly, appearing on the distant horizon and surging across the Northern Sea, turning calm waters to whitecapped waves before they could flee. The rains had struck first, drenching every soul aboard the Blackbird. It hadn’t been long before the winds followed, carrying such power that their sails had lasted only heartbeats before they had torn loose. The waves had arrived last, crashing upon the hull of the Blackbird, smashing oars from sailors’ hands and hurling men from their feet.
Now, caught in the grips of the storm, there was nothing the crew of the Blackbird could do but cling to their ropes and pray to the Old Gods of Riogachd for salvation.
And yet Garret struggled on, hands locked to the tiller, desperate to see his crew to safety. Above, the remnants of the sails still flapped from the mast, gifting the Blackbird just enough momentum for him to steer. Miles from shore, there would be no escaping to a shallow cove, no safe birth in which to shelter. Instead, Garret watched the darkness, seeking the next rolling behemoth.
And again and again, he directed their ship into the maw of those beasts, sending the Blackbird climbing over the great mountains of water. His arms ached and the icy air burned his lungs, but still he fought, struggling to save those he could—even as he washed yet another loyal sailor washed to their doom.
He stumbled as the ship crashed down from the crest of another wave. Spray whipped across his face, stinging like a thousand tiny lead bullets. Garret gritted his teeth as the boom of lightning illuminated the next wave. It rolled towards them, white waters breaking at the peak, threatening to come crashing down upon the fragile vessel.
The Blackbird rocked as Garret through himself against the tiller, and slowly, ponderously, they turned towards the mass of water. Holding them steady, Garret closed his eyes, sucking in fresh lungfuls of air. This was it, the end of his strength. The icy power of the storm had drained his energies, leaving him empty, listless, all but spent. How much longer must be hold on, pitting wit alone against the endless fury of the ocean?


You can download the first six chapters of Untamed Isles: The Path Awakens here, or purchase from Amazon.

Aaron Hodges was born in 1989 in the small town of Whakatane, New Zealand. He studied for five years at the University of Auckland, completing a Bachelors of Science in Biology and Geography, and a Masters of Environmental Engineering. After working as an environmental consultant for two years, he grew tired of office work and decided to quit his job in 2014 and see the world. One year later, he published his first novel – Stormwielder – while in Guatemala. Since then, he has honed his skills while travelling through parts of SE Asia, India, North and South America, Turkey and Europe, and now has over a dozen works to his name. Today, his adventures continue…

The Place Below: The Maer Cycle Book III, by Dan Fitzerald

In The Place Below, Dan Fitzgerald brings his Maer Cycle to a satisfying conclusion. A generation after the first two books of the series, Sasha, daughter of human and Maer, is now an adult. Empathic, sensitive to touch, her natural skill with languages and communication enhanced as needed by magic, Sasha is searching out the tombs of the Ka-lar, the ‘forever kings’ laid to rest in a form of stasis hundreds of years earlier.  Then one day, her empathetic connection to the minds of the dead encounters an awakened, living Ka-lar among a branch of the Maer who themselves are legendary: the underground-dwelling Skin Maer.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of Sasha and Kuun, the awakened Ka-lar, and they serve as counterbalances to each other: Kuun, who at first presents as confident and powerful, slowly reveals motives and doubts; Sasha, who presents as unsure and solitary by nature, grows into her own competence and agency. Familiar characters—Sinnie, Finn, Tcheen—are reintroduced, but as characters to support Sasha in her quest, not to direct and overshadow her.

Kuun, the scholar-scientist Forever King, choosing stasis in the face of unfinished research in a time of plague, is a nuanced and ambiguous character, his motives slowly revealed over the course of his narrative. Again, Fitzgerald’s themes of communication and understanding play into the development of his character and his actions.

Like Fitzgerald’s first two books, this is fantasy with few battles and heroics of a martial sort, but with questions asked and answered about the power of language; about acceptance of differences that are superficial; about what we might sacrifice for the good of the whole. Commonalities that connect, not contrasts that divide. Sasha, neither human nor Maer, embodies both the possibility and the questions that arise about differences between Maer and human, a question that will be, finally, answered through Kuun’s determination. Recommended (as is the whole series) for readers wanting character-centred fantasy that makes them think.

Find The Maer Cycle, including an omnibus edition with bonus features here.

Dan Fitzgerald

Dan Fitzgerald is the fantasy author of the Maer Cycle trilogy (character-driven low-magic fantasy) and the upcoming Weirdwater Confluence duology (sword-free fantasy with unusual love stories). The Living Waters comes out October 15, 2021 and The Isle of a Thousand Worlds arrives January 15, 2022, both from Shadow Spark Publishing.

He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When not writing he might be found doing yoga, gardening, cooking, or listening to French music.

He can be found on Twitter or Instagram as danfitzwrites, or on his website, www.danfitzwrites.com



Fantasy and Me: From Puck to Aslan

In the previous installment of this occasional series, I wrote about Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and mentioned the influence I perceived it had on later works. Today, I’m going to focus on its influence on one series: C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books.

‘Ah, but you’re a fairy,’ said Dan.

‘Have you ever heard me use that word yet?’ said Puck, quickly.

‘No. You talk about “the People of the Hills,” but you never say “fairies,”’ said Una. ‘I was wondering at that. Don’t you like it?’

‘How would you like to be called “mortal” or “human being” all the time?’ said Puck; ‘or “son of Adam” or “daughter of Eve”?’

‘I shouldn’t like it at all,’ said Dan.

Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rudyard Kipling

“Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve”, of course, is how Aslan, the Christ-figure lion in the Narnia series, refers to the children Peter and Edmund,  Susan and Lucy. 

“Down at Cair Paravel there are four thrones, and it’s a saying in Narnia time out of mind that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit in those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life.”

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Yes, but, you may be saying – it’s coincidence. It could be, except for something else:  the Narnia’s children’s last name is Pevensie.  In Puck of Pook’s Hill, Pevensey – the Pevensey Levels (which is a real place, and Pevensey a real town), the Manor of Pevensey, and the Lord of Pevensey – are an important part of the story.

Antique Prints of Pevensey Sussex
Pevensey Castle, Sussex. Engraver & Publisher:
G. Rowe, & G. Wooll, High Street, Hastings

Why?  Pevensey is referred to as ‘England’s gate’ in Kipling’s story (it’s where William the Conqueror landed in 1066), and perhaps it was nothing more than the idea of the wardrobe in Narnia also being a gate between countries (or worlds.) You could perhaps argue that Lewis was attempting to replace Kipling’s ‘People of the Hills’ as the oldest, lost mythology of England with Christianity. Or maybe it was completely unconscious. Writers borrow, often without knowing they are.

I was – full disclosure here – never a fan of the Narnia books. I was not fond of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, or the child’s version of A Pilgrim’s Progress I had, either. I didn’t like being preached at as a child (or adult), even subtly. What I did – and do – like is the continuity, the fantasy stories of one generation influencing the next, and the next.

Next time, a look at Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, which I still re-read every few years.

Fantasy and Me: Back to the Beginnings

“Weland gave the Sword, The Sword gave the Treasure, and the Treasure gave the Law. It’s as natural as an oak growing.”

Puck of Pook’s Hill, by Rudyard Kipling.

H. R. Millar’s frontispiece to the original edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Public Domain

I’m going to try to give some coherence and structure to these posts on my favourite fantasy books, so let’s go back to my childhood to start it all. Here, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, is the very beginnings of my on-going love for fantasy.

For those of you not familiar, Puck of Pook’s Hill is a 1906 children’s book by Rudyard Kipling. Yes, I know Kipling is politically incorrect. I didn’t know that when I was eight, and my memory of a child’s delight with this book remains.  

Puck, an elf (perhaps), (the same Puck as in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I’ll also be writing about, at some point) and “the oldest Old thing in England”, appears to two children, Dan and Una, from Midsummer’s Eve to early November. Either he, or characters from history he brings with him, tell the children a series of stories, which illustrate a version of a history of England from before the Conquest to the signing of the Magna Carta.

The stories begin with Puck appearing to the children and explaining who and what he is (which is not a fairy):

‘Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors? Butterfly wings, indeed! I’ve seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou’-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they’d go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they’d be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again. Butterfly-wings! It was Magic—Magic as black as Merlin could make it, and the whole sea was green fire and white foam with singing mermaids in it. And the Horses of the Hills picked their way from one wave to another by the lightning flashes! That was how it was in the old days!’

So many of the elements of the Eurocentric fantasy I grew up were introduced to me first in this book of interrelated short stories and poems: Weyland Smith, the Wild Hunt, the ‘Little People’, and the mythologized Roman Empire (which became the idea behind my own books.)  The power of trees: Oak, Ash, and Thorn; the magic of hollow hills and circles, and, too, the interconnectedness, the interweaving, of magic and history.

Kipling’s stories would influence a generation (or more) of writers; I believe they can be seen strongly in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series (more on those another time), but also on another writer, if only in one small way. Because when Puck is described, one thing that is mentioned – along with his small stature – is his ‘bare, hairy feet.’ Just like Bilbo’s.

Featured Image: H. R. Millar’s 2nd illustration to the original edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, from the chapter Weyland’s Sword, entitled, “Then he made a sword”.