Fantasy, fairytale and fate

25th March 2005 at 00:00
Nicholas Tucker on stories of magic and chivalry

Conrad's Fate

By Diana Wynne Jones

Harper Collins pound;12.99

The Witch's Boy

By MA Gruber

Simon Schuster pound;12.99

The Cry of the Icemark

By Stuart Hill

Chicken House pound;12.99

Squire Terence and the Maiden's Knight

By Gerald Morris

Kingfisher pound;5.99

Now in her 70th year, Diana Wynne Jones continues to write with the inventive sparkle she has always brought to her fantasy novels. This one takes place below stairs in a big house set in the remote "English Alps".

Teenage Conrad is recruited as an unwilling footman alongside his new friend Christopher, son of Chrestomanci, a magician familiar from previous titles. Good humour is maintained throughout, whatever the occasional dangers the boys face. The writing is a delight: ingenious in plot construction and funny often at the most unexpected moments. Parallel worlds loom and fade, and the selfishness of the traditional ruling classes is offset by the egotism of an impoverished feminist mother too busy writing campaigning literature to care for her vulnerable son.

Inspired by a dream, this story is the work of a true master of her own particular and very individual craft. Now branching out into film, with an animated version of Howl's Moving Castle appearing shortly, Diana Wynne Jones remains one of the most remarkable writers of her era. Readers of any age who have yet to sample her could well start here.

The Witch's Boy is MA Gruber's first children's story, but surely not his last. Intelligent, understated and wryly amusing, it tells the story of Lump, the unappealing adopted goblin son of a kindly but permanently pre-occupied witch. Written in the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen, it shows how Lump is slowly corrupted by envy and hatred after discovering how ugly he appears once he has entered the human world.

Desperately and despairingly in love with the beautiful miller's daughter, Lump uses his magical powers to tempt her with the precious stones he is able to draw from the earth. But he is ultimately spurned when the daughter, now a princess, discovers his true name, so enabling her to escape from their previous bargain. For Lump is also known as Rumpelstiltskin. This is not the only rewritten fairy story to appear in this clever and moving book: we also meet Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and other famous characters. As in Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods, they are all shown from a very different perspective once past the happy-ever-after stage. But salvation is finally at hand for poor Lump, after he is released from deep inside the earth where he has been imprisoned until truly repenting of his cruelty and folly.

His beautifully written story, though occasionally sombre, continually delights with its literary skill and sensitivity. All the fairytales it includes take on new meanings, well worth thinking about long after this haunting novel has reached its end.

Stuart Hill's The Cry of the Icemark is the latest first children's novel to make the news for its own fairytale progress from obscurity to final publication following a fat publisher's advance. It features 14-year-old Thirrin Freer Strong-in-the-Arm Lindenshield, a tough young woman who prematurely becomes Queen of the Kingdom of Icemark after the death in battle of her hearty father King Redrought. Aided by a scratch army of vampires, wolf-folk and snow leopards, Thirrin wins a number of battles against the combined forces of wicked King Polypontos and his all-engulfing imperial army.

Lurching from Dungeons and Dragons rhetoric to casual asides as if from today's teenage world, the writing never quite convinces. Repeated sequences of fighting, victory, further preparation and then more fighting also become wearisome. But at 494 pages there is plenty here for readers who want lots of action. There is also the heroine's long-signalled romance with 15-year-old Oskan, another witch's son, but this time one with much better career prospects. Thirrin comes increasingly to rely upon his good sense as well as his useful ability to understand wolf speech.

More famous tales are re-visited by Gerald Morris in Squire Terence and the Maiden's Knight, an updated version of Arthurian legend told from the position of a young servant. Breezily written, it lacks the pathos of the original, but does better in set pieces involving sorcery, spells and swordfights. King Arthur himself, all twinkling eyes and grizzled charm, owes something both to Thomas Malory's stories and to the late Richard Harris of Camelot fame. Never at a loss for a stirring adjective, this armour-rattling tale gallops along at a good rate.

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