A bookish ramble

Magic and Mystery

cover of Magic and MysteryA friend passed this very old, battered copy of Magic and Mystery in Tibet my way amongst others she was discarding recently. I found it fascinating as an historical artifact and impressive in an intrepid-traveller kind of way.

The author, Alexandra David-Neel, was part of the early Western engagement with Asian religion, along with the theosophists (whom she knew well).

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Key classics of fantasy and science fiction

Once upon a time, no-one was considered truly educated unless they knew Shakespeare’s plays. More recently, but still not recently, an influential critic published a really big list of books which he thought were necessary for an understanding of western culture – sorry: Western Culture.

My ambitions are much smaller. All I claim is that anyone who doesn’t know the books on my list has missed key works of fantasy and science fiction, so they have missed some great books and will miss innumerable cultural references.

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Favourite Fantasy

In the last few weeks I’ve been asked by a couple of lovely people for recommended reading in fantasy and science fiction. My only qualification is that I have read so much in these genres over the last [redacted] decades that I have opinions based on vast experience, but here goes.

A few general points first …

I’m not going to mention a book or series by name unless it’s one I recommend. That saves me from saying “this is a good book” every time and it saves you from even hearing about bad books.

Inline links are (unless otherwise noted) to my own reviews, most of them very short, on this blog or on Green Path.

There’s nothing wrong with escapism but I do prefer fiction which provides insights into ourselves or the way we live. I’ve said elsewhere that SF is brilliant for thought-experiments, but so is fantasy.

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Introducing Discworld

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is old enough that it should hardly need an introduction but some people have been unfortunate enough not to encounter his magical (in both senses) world. It’s their loss, not mine, but I am always sorry to see people missing out on such a feast of freewheeling humour, ingenious invention, sharp satire and humane wisdom.

For their benefit, then, I have put together a quick introduction to the series, short reviews of two of the books, and advice about making the sprawling series more approachable. All of that makes this blog post long enough to need its own index but I’m also going to put the Reading Guide here at the top for convenience.

IntroductionMaking MoneyI Shall Wear MidnightNavigating the Series

discworld-reading-order-guide-2.0
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Erin Morgenstern – The Night Circus

Night Circus - cover shot The Night Circus

Erin Morgenstern

Harvill Secker, $32.95, October 2011

The Night Circus is an astonishingly rich and detailed work of the imagination, bringing to life a world firmly grounded in late nineteenth century England and, within it, a small group of people with magical powers.

Two shadowy master magicians pit their prize students, Marco and Celia, against one another in a duel which neither of them wanted nor fully understands. Their arena is a travelling circus, the Circus of Dreams, which is a mix of illusions and real magic, circus artists and magicians – acrobats, a tarot reader who can indeed see into the future, an ice garden, jugglers and an illusionist whose feats are not tricks. Only after Marco and Celia find themselves in love do they discover that their duel can end only in death. Or can they escape the trap their teachers have so callously constructed?

Twilight has driven a surge of interest in paranormal romance but The Night Circus rises far above that level, beautifully written and seamlessly integrating a wealth of esoteric knowledge. It merits comparison with Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which won nearly every fantasy award in its year of publication. That was a debut novel, as is this. History may be about to repeat.

• Review written and first published in 2011, added to this site in December 2020.