The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Láinez

thewanderingunicornEl Unicorno or The Wandering Unicorn is one of the most bizarre books I have ever read. It was written by the Argentinean author Manuel Mujica Láinez in 1964 and translated by Mary Sitton into English. The only copy I could get was a battered Berkley edition from 1984 so I don’t think it has recently been reprinted.

The story begins with the infamous medieval romance about Melusine the fairy, who marries Raimondin of Lusignan until their marriage disintegrates when he sees her half serpent body in the bath and she is compelled to go screaming around one of the many castles she has built. The tale then follows Melusine watching her family branching out across Medieval France and across to Palestine during the crusades.

I haven’t seen mythology this rich and archaic since I studied Arthurian literature at university. Fairies, unicorn horns, heraldic banners, knight’s templar, Jerusalem and angels living like monks in castle towers.

“From my retreat in the church tower I could see across to his cell and watch him pacing up and down, reading his devotions by the feeble light of a taper; but though we were neighbours, and the only non-human inhabitants of  Lusignan, we never exchanged a word.”

The main thread of this story is Melusine falling in love with her very distant descendant, Aoil, who has no personality to speak of. Melusine’s endless resentment and jealousy of other women bored me to tears and I found her stalking of a fifteen year old boy and lusting after him deeply disturbing especially when he was in the bath or sleeping. The only character I could have liked was Aoil’s half sister (who has some peculiar issues herself) but I strangely found her the only one I could feel empathy with

This is not a story to read in big sections; it takes concentration. Mainez goes off into tangents about the history of everything. The dry humour and lushness of imagination saved this from being tedious but authors like Susanne Clarke in Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell managed to do this with more success. The story definitely picks up halfway through and I didn’t have to force myself to read anymore especially when there is an utterly briliant twist I did not see coming.

Since this story follows the medieval tradition of the crusades there is a lot of Orientalism, Islamaphobia, anti-blackness and general western superiority. There are some people who would excuse this with being “a thing of its time” but it is never fun to read about. Nevertheless this is a very odd yet beautiful book and like Jorge Luis Borges said in his introduction: “a glowing dream of the past

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

200px-ConfessionsUglyStepsisterTitleConfessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire 1999, Harper

“In the lives of children, pumpkins can turn into coaches, mice and rats into human beings. When we grow up, we learn that it’s far more common for human beings to turn into rats.”

I used to be an addict for fairytale retellings and read as many as I could find. I tend to just go through phases now and picked this up a while ago. It is a retelling of Cinderella set in Holland and the setting is dirty, realistic and grim as are the appearance of many of the characters. Underneath, Maguire hints of imps and changelings and magic.

Margarethe and her two daughters arrive in Holland from England penniless and are taken in by a bad-tempered painter who has a locked room full of monstrous paintings. He paints Iris, the ugly stepsister who is the protagonist of the story and through her eyes we see the powerful Van de Meer family and their beautiful sheltered daughter, Clara. Many of the original fairy tale incidents happen in the book but many times I forgot this was Cinderella which is a credit to Maguire’s world building. The climax of the story takes place at a prince’s ball but nothing goes the way you expect.

Beauty is a theme that plays heavily in the story as it does in the original fairytale of Cinderella but here Maguire shows us that Clara’s loveliness in a world where women are treated like objects is not a blessing. He shows us again and again that Iris’s plain face and her cleverness and passion for painting give her freedom that Clara can only dream of and so it is the beautiful Clara who envies Iris and Iris who feels pity and anger.

None of any of the characters are particularly likeable. Margarethe is conniving and hard and manipulative, Clara is selfish and petty, Iris is not very sympathetic but the world they are in is harsh to women and illustrates partly how they got this way.

It is a good read. I especially like the full-page illustrations in this edition which are whimsical and gothic and go well with the story. This is a very interesting and unusual retelling of Cinderella that criticises the obsession many fairy tales have with Beauty and I enjoyed reading it. I just wished I had liked the characters more.

Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

‘Can a magician kill a man by magic?’ Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. ‘I suppose a magician might,’ he admitted, ‘but a gentleman never would.’

This is one of the best books I have ever read. It is like an eccentric collaboration between Alexander Dumas and Jane Austen if they wrote about magicians, class, racial identity, politics and English magic.

Magic is returning to England and Mr Norrell the only practicing magician left in England is determined he shall decide what kind of magic that shall be. Conservative, civilised and straight out of one of his many books. And then a younger, wilder magician makes himself known and the two men engage in an intense friendship and bitter power struggle.

Susanna Clarke has invited us into an alternative history of England. Mad King George is on the throne and the Napoleonic War rages on but magic has left its footprints all over history. The most striking example of this is the Raven King, a man one magician fears and despises and the other longs to behold. The book is filled with wonderful characters. Ladies, servants, magicians (theoretical and practical), crooks, soldiers, dukes, politicians, poets, gentlemen, kings and fairies and so many more and each stood out with their own peculiarities and vibrancy. Each has their own story and Clarke winds them all together into a gripping and expertly plotted book.

The writing is witty and romantic and eerie. The civilised (more or less) English society is juxtaposed against the wilderness and ancient ways of the other places that hide just out of sight. And the polite society similarly clashes against the darkness and cruelty that can lie in men’s hearts. All the characters are flawed, little cruelties and greed and jealousy but Clarke gives each at least one redeeming quality so that nobody is just a villain in this book. One character I felt a vague dislike for at the start of the book enthralled me more and more throughout as Clarke revealed layers of humour and complexity in him.

The author has liberally used footnotes in the novel to add references to books that have never been written, side stories, notes and biographies. I was unsure of this before I read the book but they are fantastic! They add to the richness and complexity of the story and compliment the illustrations in the book. Both make the novel seem more authentically of the Napoleonic era.

There are also excerpts from academic essays the characters have written, newspaper articles and histories of people who only exist in Clarke’s version of England. All is crucial to the battle of wits throughout the plot and how a review published on magical theory or a book can rival the brutality of war.

I couldn’t put this book down or stop thinking about it. It is over 1000 pages long and I hauled it around everyday (even though my job required I had to carry my bag constantly) just so I could read one more chapter. Susanna Clarke has written a book of short stories that accompany this book. I can’t wait to read them. Or read the sequel…

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon.
I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me”.

Patrick Rothfuss’s debut novel explores the life of Kvothe, the greatest wizard of his age, who vanished mysteriously at the height of his notoriety. At first glance The Name of the Wind seems unremarkable; another fantasy novel featuring a cloaked protagonist with striking…hair and Strange Powers. It’s bad form to judge it so, but even the cover of the paperback smacks of the by-the-numbers design that seems to have saturated the modern fantasy market; vines encircle the covers edge leading to an embossed title which in turn looms above a forest framing a cloaked figure. The cover is by no means terrible, but it does give completely the wrong impression as to the sort of story lying within; because Rothfuss’s novel is anything but conventional; it deftly subverts tradition and tells a story that is not only complex, but deliriously entertaining to read.

It’s not just that The Name of the Wind boasts a plot that is utterly compelling; fully rounded, fascinating characters; or writing which completely outclasses its contemporaries, no, for me, The Name of the Wind’sbrilliance lies in the way in which the sophistication and eloquence of its prose entices the reader into a beautifully composed fantasy world. The Four Corners is an inventive, dangerous land where everything feels essential, by which I mean nothing feels superfluous to the plot. However, conversely, this integration of story, world and character is completely seamless; for all my love of Rothfuss’s intelligent use of language, poetry and song I barely noticed these things when I first read The Name of The Wind; I was simply too absorbed by the story. The reader never feels bogged down by the subtext.

At its heart The Name of the Wind is a book about storytelling, in every sense of the word; within the bookends of the narrative a character of legend tells the story of his life to a chronicler, and within this framework countless other tales are told. The very nature of linguistics and the art of storytelling informs the style of Rothfuss’s work, creating a book which lends itself to multiple readings; that even inspires multiple perspectives of its own narrative. Talking to others who have read The Name of the Wind I quickly found that, while there were many similarities in what we took from the book, there were many more things which I simply didn’t pick up from my first read. Anyone who loves the fantasy genre, or just appreciate an engaging, intricate narrative, should read The Name of the Wind. And hell, at least the German version of the novel has a decent cover.

guest review by Tom Graves