No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Roma Eterna -- Robert Silverberg

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in January 2004.

In the Prologue of Robert Silverberg's latest novel, Roma Eterna, Celer - the Roman Empire's leading scholar of Eastern religions - speculates about alternate histories. He wonders what would have happened if the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt had succeeded, and imagines "a new religion under an invincible new prophet." "Well," (says his friend Aufidius, yawning) "all that is sheer fantasy. It never could have happened …"

If you haven't already spotted that the world (or at least the history) that Celer is speaking of is our own, then this novel may not be for you. Roma Eterna presents a world in which the exodus from Egypt failed, and Christianity never happened; and the Roman Empire did not fall.

The novel consists of ten chapters, most of which have previously appeared (in some form) as standalone stories. The chapters are dated AUC - ab urbe condita, 'from the founding of the city' (Rome, of course) in 753BC - and a little mental arithmetic will prove most useful, as will a working knowledge of the major events of our own world history.

Each chapter is a vignette, a slice of everyday life from a past which differs from our own so subtly that the distinctions are never explicitly stated. Silverberg's protagonists are the little people, the ordinary folk who are never mentioned in history books. They don't know about the latest technology, or the political machinations of the Senate, or the fate of the expedition to Mexico. Leontius Corbulo (AUC 1365) is far more concerned with the peccadillo for which he was exiled to Mecca than he is interested in the religious beliefs of the local tribes. Lady Eudoxia (AUC 2206) is bored by her lover's talk of Roma's 'divine right' and the burden of ruling the world, and cannot understand why he has to leave her to become Procurator of Constantinople.

Silverberg teases out the strands of history in a strange but recognisable world, and he packs his narrative with teasing allusions to (and reflections of) our own history. An unwilling heir becomes Emperor, and casts aside Faustus, the ageing buffoon who's been his companion in mischief; two children accidentally discover the last survivor of a murdered royal house, who fled the massacre as a child; a great adventurer's record is tarnished by rumours of cannibalism. Meanwhile, the greater issues - such as whether or not the Empire can expand indefinitely, and whether democracy is inevitable - are played out in the background, between the chapters, and between the lines.

It's like a massive game of Civilisation - except that Silverberg sketches in those little lives with loving attention, dwelling on detail and choosing a different voice and style for each protagonist so that these voices from an imaginary past ring true.

The final chapter of the novel, 'To The Promised Land' (AUC 2723) brings the novel firmly into the category of science fiction. I wondered, when I read it, how long ago it was written: was it a response to actual events in the real world, or did it spring entirely from Silverberg's fertile imagination? In either case, I found it a moving finale to this understated and thoughtful alternate history.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Memory -- K J Parker

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in September 2003.

Memory, the concluding volume in K J Parker's 'Scavenger' trilogy, opens with Poldarn lost in a wood. This may well be the best place for him. Since waking with amnesia on a battlefield at the beginning of Shadow, he has reconstructed enough of his past - from dreams, from chance-met strangers, from the people of his homeland - to realise that he may have been happier with no memories at all. Whoever Poldarn was before he lost his identity and assumed the name of an apocalyptic deity, he wasn't a nice person. Even the people close to him have been reluctant to tell him everything they know about his past career.

But ignorance is not bliss: far from it, in Parker's world. Post-amnesia Poldarn has always tried to do good; he's acted in self-defence, or to protect others, with the best possible motives. At worst, he's taken the only sensible course of action. In Shadow and Pattern, he rescued a cavalry officer from scavengers, saved his people from a volcano, and married a nice girl from a neighbouring settlement. Regrettably, this is a world where every action seems to have the worst of possible consequences. Poldarn's personal affairs make most of Greek tragedy look like Pollyanna. (Indeed, there are parallels between Poldarn's experiences and that of tragic heroes such as Oedipus).

It's obvious to Poldarn, by the beginning of Memory, that he's better off not knowing who he used to be, and so he buries himself (metaphorically speaking) in the middle of nowhere, using his smithing skills to get work at a bell foundry. Fate, however, has other plans for him. There's a reunion of his schoolmates, which might be a cheerful affair if this were a different novel. Memories and dreams are forced into context as catastrophes. Names and identities are shuffled, cast aside, revealed and obscured again as the mythic tragedy of Poldarn's life draws towards its conclusion.

After all that, it may come as a surprise to learn that this is also a very enjoyable novel. Parker's worlds - compare the magic-less setting of his 'Fencer' trilogy - have no room for the quaint, the archaic or the beautiful. Tolkien's characters wouldn't last a day here, with the possible exception of some of the orcs. If there is anything supernatural - gods, magic, fate - at work in the complex knottings of the narrative, it's kept offstage. Everything can be explained by common sense, a commodity that Parker's characters have in abundance (though it's seldom enough to save them). Their speech is resolutely mundane and their actions selfish, pragmatic and often unsullied by morality.

Parker's novels are firmly rooted in technology, and some will find the long descriptions of medieval smithing techniques unnecessary. They're key to Poldarn's character, though, and keys to the plot as well. The titles of the novels in this trilogy - Shadow, Pattern and Memory - allude to metal-working terms; they're metaphors for the processes by which Poldarn recreates himself, and they encapsulate some of the questions implicit in his situation. How much of his identity is a reaction to the world? Can he free himself from the person he was before he lost his memory? Can he make the decisions that determine his future, or is he being manipulated by others?

The plot is quietly and breathtakingly complex, with dreams and memories echoed throughout the story arc. Parker's attention to detail repays meticulous reading. A couple of casual asides in Memory led me to reread the whole trilogy, an immensely rewarding (if not always cheerful) experience. Perhaps surprisingly, Poldarn is a likeable and sympathetic character, and it's appallingly easy to overlook the swathe of carnage and moral disaster that he leaves behind him. He has more than enough good intentions to pave the road he's walking.

One criticism: the book could have done with more meticulous proofing. There's at least one place where a single incorrect substitution could indicate a whole new sub-plot.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Wolfskin -- Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier's earlier fantasy novels - the Sevenwaters trilogy - have earned her a cult following in the US, but a rather lower profile here in Britain. It's something of a surprise, then, that Tor have chosen her new novel, Wolfskin, as their lead title for the launch of Tor UK.

Wolfskin tells the story of the Viking colonisation of the Orkneys, which is generally believed to have taken place some time before 1000 AD. There are two protagonists: Eyvind, a Viking berserker, and Nessa, a Pictish priestess. Nessa doesn't appear until Eyvind's character is well established, but after that the two viewpoints alternate and intertwine. A man, a woman, a dramatically wild setting: the ingredients for the colonial romance of your choice. But the story isn't that simple, and Juliet Marillier's blend of speculative history and fantastical elements is more effective than many attempts to portray a magical past.

Eyvind grows up in a close-knit Viking community, his sole ambition to be a Wolfskin like his brother. He befriends an outsider - Somerled, awkward younger brother of the nobleman Ulf - and ends up swearing blood-brotherhood to him. Ulf's ambition is to found a new colony on the 'Light Isles': a colony which can then be used as a stepping-stone to the riches (whether traded or raided) of the British mainland. When he sails for the islands, both Somerled and Eyvind accompany him.

Nessa, meanwhile, has been leading a blameless life as a priestess, learning the rituals and becoming more in tune with the natural forces that shape life on the islands. She observes the initial meetings between the Folk and the incomers, and shares her observations with the Christian priest Tadhg.

For a while it seems that the colony might be established peacefully. But then a terrible, apparently ritual, murder sparks violent retribution and threatens a way of life that has existed for time out of mind.
The historical element of the story is credible enough, and this would be an accomplished historical romance if there were nothing else to the story. But this is fantasy, though the magic that underpins the story is subtle rather than spectacular. Eyvind's initiation as a Wolfskin, and Nessa's rituals as priestess, are magical experiences: whether they are objectively real is a different matter. Magic isn't a tool for making things easy, or for breaking natural laws. In part, it's a belief system that is embedded in both Pictish and Viking ways of life: a significance attached to events, actions, places.

This is a novel about ties and bonds: about the natural loyalty that exists, or should exist, between kin, and the loyalty that is manufactured between a Wolfskin and his Jarl, or between blood-brothers. (There's a strong theme of brotherhood: Eyvind's love for his true brother Eirik and his blood-brother Somerled, Somerled's difficult relationship with his own brother). It explores the ways in which women gain power in a male-dominated society, and the choices each individual must make in order to live well.

Eyvind and Somerled, Tadhg and Nessa and Ulf, are all utterly credible characters, embedded in their time and their culture. Somerled is especially fascinating, a man too clever for the culture into which he's born. The meeting of Pict and Viking cultures, a dry historical event, is given a human dimension in Wolfskin's exploration of that encounter's life-changing consequences for all involved.

Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille -- Steven Brust

Thirteen years after its first publication, Steven Brust's most science-fictional novel - Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille - has been reissued by Tor US.

With hindsight it's easy to detect Brust's debt to Roger Zelazny: there's a particularly metaphysical twist to some of his metaphors, and a cavalier disregard for modern English that's reminiscent of Zelazny at his most lavish. But the admiration went both ways: Zelazny's praise of Brust ("He's good. He moves fast. He surprises you.") appears on the cover of this and more recent Brust novels.

And he does surprise you. Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille is a murder mystery, a time-travel whodunit and a love story, with plenty of other ingredients to taste - including a memorable elegy to Laphroiag, and an ingenious use for goats.

The novel's credited to 'Steven Brust, PJF', and Tor would have done well to include Brust's own explanation of the acronym. 'PJF' stands for 'Pre-Joycean Fellowship', a tongue-in-cheek agglomeration of (mainly Minnesotan) writers who, in Brust's words, "exist to poke fun at the excesses of modern literature, while simultaneously mining it for everything of value."

Brust (unsurprisingly) is disingenuous. Billy, who sounds from the photofit as though he bears a marked resemblance to Brust himself, is as unreliable a narrator as you could wish to encounter. The 'Intermezzos' between each chapter, which at first appear to be telling separate, disjointed tales, have an unexpected connection to the primary narrative. And I remain mistrustful of any novel in which a major threat to humanity is described solely in terms of current jokes and references to taboo menu items. (Pancakes and flounders, if you must know).

The science-fictional trappings of the novel are more backdrop than setting: the eponymous restaurant executes a time/space leap whenever atomic war occurs in its vicinity, depositing itself and its inhabitants in a safer place. When the novel opens, the restaurant and its 'crew' - cook, handyman etc, plus an Irish folk band who happened to be playing when the first jump occurred - find themselves on New Quebec, their first trip outside the solar system. Working out why they're there, how they're there and what they're meant to be doing there, is next on the agenda: the process drives a fast-moving, emotional rollercoaster of a plot. The action is punctuated by jam sessions as the band submerge their sorrows in music, in a way that will be familiar to any devotee of early-Nineties North American urban fantasy. (Think de Lint, Emma Bull, Pamela Dean et al). If the music leaves you cold, the cooking might get to you: this is not a novel to be read on an empty stomach!

Brust's light, witty prose sits oddly, at times, with the salvation of humanity and the weighty ethical issues underlying the narrative. Yet - in part due to the emotional honesty of the characters - it carries off Brust's narrative sleight-of-hand with considerable flair. A welcome reissue! (Oh, and Deverra's there: page 94).

Sunday, June 01, 2003

Coraline -- Neil Gaiman

Coraline is the personification of the adage that good little children are seen and not heard. "It's Coraline," she explains to one adult after another; "Coraline, not Caroline." And each of the adults – her parents, the residents of the other flats in the house where she lives – nods and smiles and doesn't hear Coraline at all.

Coraline is not deprived in the traditional sense of the word. She isn't a modern-day Cinderella, banished to the kitchen to skivvy for the rest of the family; she isn't starved or beaten, and she has no evil stepmother or ambitious sibling to fear. Instead, she suffers the benign neglect of the modern age. She is the only child of parents who love her but who are emotionally absent. They don't have time for her, and they don't make time to listen, to play, to let her be a child.

She's not starved in the sense of not having enough to eat, but she refuses to touch her father's gourmet cooking. "Daddy, you've made a recipe again," she complains as she prepares her microwave pizza and chips. She's not dressed in rags, but her mother ignores her tastes – and her playful pretences – when they're shopping for clothes. She obediently explores the family's new home as instructed by her parents, but even while exploring Coraline maintains an air of self-sufficient composure rather than a sense of adventure.

The adults around Coraline all inhabit their own worlds. Her parents, both working from home, are caught up in adult concerns, whatever they might be; Coraline doesn’t care, or perhaps doesn't know, so we never find out what it is that they do. Elsewhere in the house live the Misses Spink and Forcible, former actresses who share a flat and a collection of Highland terriers, and reminisce about the time when they 'trod the boards'. Upstairs lives the crazy old man with the mouse circus, which Coraline decides is probably imaginary; she has never been allowed to see the mice. She does not comment on the message they send her via the old man: 'Don't go through the door'. And she doesn't reply when the old man tells her that the mice have got her name wrong: "Coraline. Not Caroline at all."

It's Coraline, of course, who finds the door. It's a door that leads nowhere – it opens onto a brick wall – and Coraline's mother unlocks it to demonstrate this. Because no one listens to Coraline, the door remains unlocked. And because Coraline doesn't believe in the mice and their message, she gives in to the lure of the mysterious; she opens the door again.

There she discovers a strangely distorted world where her 'other mother' smiles at her, and prepares a tasty roast dinner. She meets her other father, the other crazy old man with his fiery-eyed rats, the other Misses Spink and Forcible with their unsavoury stage show. She does not care for their eyes. She meets a cat. She chooses to go back to her own world, back through the door.

And there, if the author was more conservative or the target audience younger, the story would end. Coraline would lock the door behind her and restore safety and harmony to her world. The old order would be re-established. All would be well.

"She waited for her parents to come back."

But all is not well.

Coraline's parents are nowhere to be found, and while at first this heralds a grand adventure – watching TV after the watershed, eating chocolate cake for dinner – the novelty soon wears off. Coraline tells Miss Spink that her parents are missing, but Miss Spink either doesn't hear or doesn't care. Fighting to remain calm and sensible and self-sufficient, Coraline acts according to the rules of the real, adult world. She calls the police to report her parents' disappearance; but the police officer, who is very firmly rooted in the real world, chuckles indulgently and ... doesn't listen.

Once common sense has been exhausted, Coraline has no alternative but to apply the rules of magic. To rescue her parents, she has to go back through the door. She's already seeing her situation with a kind of bifocal vision, allowing her to perceive the magical as well as the real: "she had the feeling that the door was looking back at her, which she knew was silly, and knew on a deeper level was somehow true."

The world on the other side of the door is a mirror world, full of reflections and distortions, but it's an altogether colder place than the colourful, eccentric toy-chest of Lewis Carroll's looking-glass adventures. This is a tiny pocket universe that, though not quite Elfland or the Hollow Hills, is constructed according to the folklore of Northern Europe.

It is only Coraline who does not have an 'other' in that other world. She has her uniqueness to protect her; that and her name, since she is entering a realm where names are rare and valuable. (Nothing on the wrong side of the door seems to have a name of its own; not even the cat, which, like most animal guides, moves easily between the two worlds). She is entering what looks very much like a trap, and she is doing it of her own free will to fetch back her parents. It's an act that demonstrates rare courage; simply going into the unknown is nothing compared to facing mortal peril for a second time.

The world through the door is a glittering web, and it's baited especially for Coraline. How else would everyone there already know her name when she stepped through the black door for the first time? There's that delicious roast dinner (with its echoes of Persephone's pomegranate, and the addictive or binding food of the Fair Folk); the garments in Coraline's other wardrobe are dressing-up clothes of sumptuous fabrics, and the toys in the cupboard really fly, fight, and dance.

Best of all, Coraline's other mother wants to make her life interesting. She plays on Coraline's only-child loneliness and her sense of being special and misunderstood. She even tells Coraline that her real parents have abandoned her because they had become bored with her: "I will never become bored with you," she promises.

Coraline may be ripe prey for this sort of focussed attention, but she is far too sensible to fall for that trick. The cat has already told her a little about the other mother – 'her kind of thing loves games and challenges' – and Coraline has obviously read enough of the right books to understand the rules that apply on this side of the door. Her innate common sense may balk at the whole set-up, but she is clever enough to understand that she can only win by playing the game. She challenges the other mother to a treasure hunt; the 'treasures' are the souls of earlier victims, and the prize is the release of her parents and herself.

"What if you succeed?" jibes the other mother. "You'll go home. You'll be bored. You'll be ignored. No one will listen to you, not really listen to you. You're too clever and too quiet for them."

Coraline, who undoubtedly sees the germ of truth in that judgment, stands up to the Evil Stepmother – or the Faerie Queen, or the Witch – and says, ""What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that and it didn't mean anything … I don't want what I want. Nobody does. Not really."

It's a choice Gaiman has described elsewhere; in Good Omens, for example, when Adam Young rejects his Satanic heritage in favour of normal life. This is the triumph of the mundane over the magical, of good sense over cheap, untrustworthy glamour that promises everything but delivers dead leaves and tawdry fakes. For all her magical powers and her mirror-world, the other mother is a lonely, inhuman creature who can't get what she wants except by trickery. She can't create anything. She doesn't understand love, or loyalty, or contentment. She can't even distinguish between boredom and interest. Coraline is immeasurably wealthier than she will ever be, and knows it.

By following the rules that apply in all magical realms – be polite, befriend those in need, help where you can, think before you speak – Coraline unravels the web, springs the traps, finds the treasure, and discovers what has been hidden in plain sight. She goes back through the door a heroine – and this matters to her, not because she has overcome the forces of evil, but because she has won her real mother's approval.

"She wants something to love. She might want something to eat as well."

And still it isn't over. There are no easy victories. The other mother has been beaten, and she's furious.

One of the rescued souls advised Coraline to 'be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.' She's already shown her wisdom in following the rules of the magical kingdom. Her bravery lies in going back, in returning, in following through. And her trickery is of the same school as the other mother's; protective coloration, games, pretence and flimsy illusion. In a finale that pays visual homage to the most self-indulgent horror movies, Coraline closes the portal to the small, featureless world. Her reward is to see anew all the fascinating detail of the mundane, the sheer 'interestingness' of the real world, beside which the tricks and lures of the other mother pale into insignificance.

Things will never be quite the same between Coraline and her parents. They don't speak of their imprisonment, but it's not as though much time has passed in the outside world. Perhaps they have forgotten; perhaps it was all a dream. Gaiman never confronts the question of objective reality, just as he never discusses the true nature of the other mother or the reasons why Coraline has no friends of her own age.

Coraline has changed too; the real-world anxieties that once plagued her seem unimportant now. "There was nothing left about school that could scare her any more." This echoes the quotation from G. K. Chesterton that prefaces the book: "Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." Coraline has faced her fears and overcome them. She's learnt to value play and pretence, qualities that count in the magical realm, as well as the courage and composure that she needs in the real world. Perhaps, in defeating the other mother, she has also begun to think about loneliness, and the ways in which people build their own imaginary worlds.

written for Foundation, the critical journal of the Science Fiction Foundation, 2003

Saturday, March 15, 2003

Interview: Juliet Marillier, March 2003

This interview took place in March 2003, and appeared in Vector (issue #230, July 2003) the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: Your novel Wolfskin is the superlead launch title for Tor UK, but it's not your first novel - you've written a fantasy trilogy, haven't you?
JM: Yes, the Sevenwaters trilogy - the first one's called Daughter of the Forest. They're set in Celtic Ireland in approximately the ninth century. They were published by HarperCollins under the Voyager imprint. The third in the series just came out in paperback in January this year. They've done very well, particularly in America and in Australia.
The trilogy started with my wish to retell a favourite fairytale from childhood, 'The Six Swans'. It's the story about a girl whose brothers are turned into swans by their stepmother, and she has to maintain her silence while she weaves shirts for them out of a very prickly plant. She undergoes all sorts of trials while doing that. I've always liked that particular story because it has a strong female character at the centre of it, and that was the story I really wanted to do as my first novel. I wanted to put a real family in the heart of it, and a real historical and geographical setting, and to see how they responded as individuals to the terrible tests that befell them. Each of the six brothers has his own character and develops in his own way.
While writing that first volume, Daughter of the Forest, I became interested in the setting and the family, and the fact that catastrophic events don't only affect one generation, but can affect the family for years and years. That theme developed into a trilogy that followed three generations of the same family. Each one of those stories is told in the first person, narrated by a young woman. They're particularly popular amongst women readers because even now there are relatively few fantasy books that are so female-focussed and based on women's psychology and women's personal journeys.
TB: The cover of Wolfskin, with its longship on a sunset sea, makes it look like a typical Viking novel, and for the first hundred and fifty pages it is a typical Viking novel. Then you introduce Nessa, who's a Pictish priestess.
JM: Yes, Wolfskin starts with Eyvind's upbringing as a Viking warrior. This is obviously a big contrast with my first series, because I've moved away from the female narrator. I'm telling the story in the third person and sharing the narrative between Eyvind, who's a berserker - a Viking warrior par excellence - and Nessa, who is a Pictish priestess from Orkney. I'm exploring the way that the two cultures of those protagonists clash violently, and what the fall-out is from that.
TB: Why Orkney, and why the Vikings?
JM: My imagination tends to be sparked by little bits of history or little bits of story that I hear. My daughter and her husband travelled to Orkney while they were working in the UK. They were tremendously struck by the layer upon layer of history that exists there, starting with Neolithic times and going through the Pictish settlement and then the arrival of the Vikings. The islands changed hands between Norway and Scotland: they were sold off, and given away as a dowry. My daughter instantly knew that the place would attract me. She said, "You've got to go there, there's got to be a book there," and this was true: I went and was absolutely captivated by the history and the folklore.
I was particularly interested in a part of Orcadian history that we don't really know much about, which was what happened to the Pictish settlement that was there prior to the first Norse arrival. It just disappears. Suddenly, we have Norse Orkney, with the jarls in charge and settlers coming across from Norway. The written record - the Orkneyinga Saga - was written in about 1200, which is quite a few hundred years after those events happened. It doesn't say anything about the inhabitants who were there before the Norse. It simply says that the Norse arrived in the islands. It's as if those Picts that we know about from Roman histories and so forth had just vanished.
There's a lot of debate amongst historians and archaeologists about what actually happened to them: whether they were overrun and annihilated, or whether Norse settlers came in dribs and drabs and settled down thinking, "This is a good place for an anchorage, a good place for farming", and intermarried, and became the dominant culture. Being more of a fantasy writer than a historian, I immediately thought, "That's a story that's just waiting to be told." I had a go at portraying a version of what happened in this book.
That's half of it. The other half is the Viking culture, and particularly the berserk warrior. I guess when you think about berserkers, you think of someone like Conan the Barbarian - the insane warrior who fought with no thought for his own safety, who slashed and murdered and maimed. And yet in the old Icelandic sagas the berserkers are not really described like that. They're certainly very much to be feared, but in between their viking episodes, they go back home and put in a crop and father a child and keep an eye on the farm. The berserker was part of an elite guard to a nobleman, who could also turn on this amazing trance-like courage when required. I discovered strange things like the fact that there were whole bands of berserker brothers who would be hired: you'd hire six brothers all at once to go and fight together. I was quite fascinated by that, and I decided to have a berserker as the central character of the novel. I tried to think through his psychology so that in one aspect he could be a mad killing machine, but he could also be an ordinary, pleasant family man. I went out of my way to make Eyvind someone who'd had a very happy, stable childhood, and who was a very pleasant and well-liked person; not particularly forthright except when he was doing what he did best, which was fighting and killing. So there's that dichotomy within him, which eventually becomes quite difficult for him.
TB: I've always associated the berserkers with Odin, but you've made an association with Thor...
JM: I've added a historical note at the end of the book that explains why I did that. They were followers of Odin, and I made one of those arbitrary creative decisions that my Wolfskins would be followers of Thor, because I see Thor as a straightforward god who doesn't play nasty tricks the way Odin does. More wholesome, even though somewhat warlike! The particular band in this book are straightforward men who have great friendship and loyalty to one another. They see things in fairly simple black-and-white terms and I decided Thor suited them. I knew I was going to have to put that in the notes: I guess the reasoning is, it's a fantasy history!
TB: Eyvind starts off by seeing things very much in black and white terms. It's when he begins to see things in shades of grey that it all starts to go wrong for him. He may have bravely slain the enemy, but he's also killed the kinsmen of the woman he wants to marry. It's as though his conscience wakes up, and he begins to realise that his blood brother is not what he seems.
JM: That's right. Up till then, because he has this bond of blood brotherhood with Somerled who is his childhood friend, he has tried very hard to see Somerled in black and white. Eyvind has a tendency to try to see the best in everyone and everything, and that's because he himself is such a good, courageous and honourable person. Once he starts to see beyond the obvious, that bond of blood brotherhood, that loyalty, becomes very difficult for him.
Of course, in those days, you were expected to adhere to these bonds, and they would be more important than your own conscience or your own personal inclination. A Wolfskin was expected to adhere to his oath to Thor, which meant that he would be a warrior until his death and that he would have a life expectation of only three to five years. And that was fine, because if you died in Thor's service you went straight to the table of the gods. An oath of blood brotherhood was also binding for ever, regardless of everything else. One of the themes of the story is that while Eyvind still holds to his oath, even at the end, it's not quite the thing that it at first seemed to be, where you stick up for your blood brother against all enemies. It's more a case of being responsible for his behaviour.
TB: Somerled is a really interesting character: I kept reading him as someone who was born before his time. He's too complex for the rest of them. He belongs in the Renaissance, really!
JM: Where he could have plotted, schemed and moved upwards! Yes, he is too clever for his time. A lot of the speeches and pronouncements he makes are absolutely spot-on in terms of where his people will go. He's quite right about the fact that the Norse are a stronger people who will eventually take over the islands. They are the dominant culture. He's the kind of man who was very much admired in his time, because he's decisive: he doesn't really care who he tramples on in order to make what he sees are the right decisions. Being cruel and inhumane wasn't so important in those times. He's the kind of man who was more likely to succeed than a man like Eyvind who probably has far too many scruples.
TB: Another interesting aspect of Wolfskin is the prophecies. Although there's no definite magic in the novel, there is something that works. At least, the characters are experiencing something that works! It's never explained or questioned, it's simply there.
JM: I think that the way I use magic, not just in this book but to a certain extent in my previous books, is different from the way that quite a lot of fantasy writers use it. That's why I see my books as veering slightly more towards history, slightly further away from fantasy. I will always include a mystical and magical element to my fiction, because real life has a mystical and magical element. And in Wolfskin that element is shown as part of what those people would have believed.
So you've got prophesy, certainly: once you've got a dire curse like that over you, you know that some day it's going to catch up with you. Ulf knows that's how he's going to die some day, but, being the man he is, has just decided he's going to cram in as much as possible of the stuff that he wants to do before it overtakes him. Another scene that would be read as mystical or magical, is the initiation ceremony where Eyvind becomes a Wolfskin, and again I've tried very hard not to spell out what happens in that scene. While there is something that is supremely mystical and life changing, I don't spell out how much of it is physically real and how much of it is in his head. Even towards the end, where the magical harp plays its music, I've tried not to say how it sounds, just that it's different for each person. It's not overtly magical, but that magical thread is there throughout.
I have to say that in the Sevenwaters books, there is more overt magic. There are characters in those books that are otherworld characters, based on Irish mythology, who interact with human characters. The human characters firmly believe in the mythological characters that share the forest with them. Therefore, if they happen to meet someone who is not human, it's somewhat wondrous but it's not a shock.
TB: In Wolfskin you have the Hidden Folk, who I thought of in terms of the Neolithic tribes who came before the Picts…
JM: I'll have to tell my folkloric advisor from Orkney that you thought that. Originally the Hidden Tribe were much more obviously magical than they are in the final book, and his advice was to make them something that's halfway between a magical portrayal and something that could be an ancient ancestor.
TB: There are three women in the book - Nessa, Margaret and Rona - who can be seen as typifying the three faces of the Goddess: maiden, wife and crone.
JM: Initially Margaret was a fairly minor character, but I was very interested in her and her relationship with Somerled, and what happens to both of those people. I tried to make her the typical young wife of a Norse chieftain who, like the other Norse characters, is very much bound by duty and by her sense of what she feels is right. But she's a character who is able to step across the boundaries of cultural expectations. Somebody said to me that there's a natural bond and understanding between women that's shown in this book, which surmounts culture and custom.
TB: It's a gradual understanding: Margaret and Nessa don't get along at all to start with.
JM: No, they don't even want to speak to each other at first. There comes a point where they have to extend a hand to help one another. All of the women in the book have the sense of 'the right thing to do', and they all eventually take that step in the right direction.
The other interesting thing with Nessa and Rona is their religious faith and their beliefs, which I more or less had to create. We don't know very much at all about the Picts, except that they were a Celtic-type race. They disappeared not only from Orkney but also from the Scottish mainland. They've left behind artefacts, and they've left behind the standing stones that have all sorts of wonderful carvings of what might be family symbols. In order to show that clash of cultures, I had to create their religious faith, and I decided the most likely thing was that it would be a Goddess faith. I've made it a fairly peaceful nature-based religion, in contrast with the warlike gods of the Norse invaders. There is a theory, hotly debated, that the royal line of the Picts came down through the women rather than through the men. I liked that idea, so I've kept that for them. I felt that the fact that there were influential priestesses was tied in fairly closely with the women's line being the bloodline.
TB: The harp of bone is a fascinating myth: I'd never encountered it except in British ballads.
JM: I mention a couple of Norse stories where it comes up, but I have to say that they were completely invented. It's historical fantasy! I can't prove to you that it comes up in Norse mythology, but it does pop up in a lot of different cultures, so I think that leap is probably not too unlikely. In terms of what happens in the story, without wishing to give too much away to the people who haven't read it, it's essential that the characters are familiar with that particular piece of folklore. It is a pretty universal idea, that the bones of the dead will speak … it's the idea behind casting the bones, or burning them and using the ash as a tool of divination. I do love that story about the harp made of bone, and hair. You hear these ballads that sound so wonderful, and then you think about actually making such a harp, and what the difficulties would be, and how such an instrument couldn't possibly make a musical sound.
TB: Wolfskin is the first in a new sequence, isn't it?
JM: That's right. It's a two-book sequence. The second one's called Foxmask, and that's already written: it actually comes out in Australia in August of this year. It skips a generation between book one and book two. At the moment it's a two-book sequence, but I have a strong feeling that some of my readers are going to want a third one!
TB: You were born in New Zealand, yet you're writing historical fantasy set in Scotland. Why Scotland?
JM: My ancestors come from the north of Scotland. I grew up in a part of New Zealand that was settled by Scottish people, and all the street names are named after Edinburgh streets. I grew up surrounded by Scottish culture and music and stories, so I couldn't escape it, and I'm sure that's why now, even though my first series was set in Ireland with the Celts, I've now gone back to Scottish history. Those old stories are deep in my blood. The book I'm working on now is also based on Scottish history.
TB: Can you tell us more about that work in progress?
JM: I'm writing a trilogy based on Bridei, who lived in the sixth century. He had some confrontations with Saint Columba, to do with whether his Pictish territories were going to be allowed to become Christian, or whether he was going to adhere to the faith of his upbringing, which was more of a pagan druidic culture. It's a very interesting period of history.