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Beyond the Lone Islands

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Currently Reading - The Magician's House

Deb's Booking-Through-Thursday question this week is:

What are you reading right now? What made you choose it? Are you enjoying it? Would you recommend it? (And, by all means, discuss everything, if you’re reading more than one thing!)  (I’ve asked this one before, but, well, it’s not like the answers stay the same, and darn it, it’s an interesting question!)

Well, if there is one question not likely to produce the same answer every time, I guess it's this one!

As usual, I have at least one audio book and one paper book going. The audio book is a Swedish crime novel from 2009, set on our west coast. Not much point in giving a review of it here since it's not available in English.

I'm also reading - in Swedish translation, borrowed from the library - a quartet of children's fantasy books by William Corlett, The Magician's House. The individual titles in English are
  1. The Steps up the Chimney
  2. The Door in the Tree
  3. The Tunnel behind the Waterfall
  4. The Bridge in the Clouds
I have finished the first two, am about to start on the third, and also have the fourth one at home. Reading the first book, I had no real sense of having read it before. The second book brought to mind vague memories of a TV series. Looking things up on the internet now I find that I'm right. The books were published in the early 1990s and two mini series based on them were produced in 1999. I think I might have seen only the second. Maybe I'll remember more when I get on to the two last books.

Anyway, the reason I picked up these was just browsing through a fantasy shelf at my local library, feeling in the mood for something like that. The jacket blurb of the Swedish edition says the series will appeal to Harry Potter fans (which I am one). This made me look for similarities vs differences while reading...

One reason why I would not really compare The Magician's House series to Harry Potter is that even if there are some common topics involving magic and alchemy and parallell worlds, there is a vast difference in complexity. The Magician's House like most children's books has a very limited set of characters. One of the things that makes Harry Potter stand out for me is the amount of characters involved. Most children's adventure books choose the easy way out and send a handful of children away on a holiday. Corlett follows this traditional pattern; while J.K. Rowling does the opposite and makes a big school the "magic place", the centre of action, and a mirror of the surrounding grown-up world (involving more and more people with every book, and revealing more and more of the complex relationships that bind people together, or drive them apart).

It might be fairer in some ways to compare The Magician's House to C.S. Lewis's Narnia series. Here too we have siblings (William, Mary and Alice) going to stay at a relative's country house, discovering secret passages, and meeting talking animals. But unlike Narnia, they do not really enter into a different world, but remain in this one; although making contact with one magician and alchemist who seems to be able to travel in time. (If my vague memories of the TV series serve me right, I think in the later books there is also a magician's assistant involved.)

During the reading, my thoughts also wandered off into comparing the ideas of shape-shifting used by Corlett vs some other fantasy authors.

As far as I recall, shape-shifting is an idea that C.S. Lewis does not use a lot. At least not as a positive idea. The only example that comes to mind of someone willfully turning back and forth between human and animal shape is the witch in The Silver Chair. (Her animal shape is a snake.) There are plenty of talking animals in Narnia, but there is usually no confusion who is animal vs human - except for when Eustace is turned into a dragon for a while (in The Voyage of the DawnTreader), which is caused by enchantment and greed.

In J.K. Rowling's wizarding world only a few magicians called animagi are able transform into animal shape. You meet them in either the human shape or the animal shape. You never see the human and the animal together at the same time. There is also the idea of "patronuses", but a patronus is more like just an animal-shaped reflection of the soul (all white, like a cloud or ghost). A patronus can be produced to defend you from certain kinds of evil, or be sent to give a message to someone else; but the human sender remains him/herself.

In Corlett's books, animals are their own characters; but by magic (or by using their senses the right way) humans are able not only to talk and listen to certain animals, but also to sometimes "become one" with the animal. At other times, however, you see the same human and animal side by side. One person can enter different animals at different times; and more than one person can be inside the same animal at the same time. It is unclear to me in these books what is supposed to happen to the human body in the meantime, since they also seem to be able to travel "with" the animal from one place to another.

Terry Pratchett uses a slightly different version of it in the Witches subseries within his Discworld series - if memory serves me right, he calls it borrowing. In his story the human body remains apparently lifeless in one place, while only the soul or mind enters into a bird etc and goes flying with it.

Yet another version of the idea is found in Pullman's His Dark Materials series, where -in Lyra's world- each human has a visible daimon in animal shape, beside the human body. While someone is still a child, the daimon keeps shifting shape into different kinds of animals (in grown-ups, the daimon has settled into one shape). At the same time a point is made about keeping the human body and daimon together; they should not be split up.

I read a couple of books about shape-shifting myths a few years ago and realized there are a lot more varieties of them than I was aware of. The ideas go very far back into mythology and story-telling.

I'm only half way through Corlett's story yet, and don't really remember how it ends, so I shall wait with my final "judgement" of it. I borrowed it because I was in the mood for some "easy reading", and so far that is what I have been getting out of it - plus some trigging of comparisons with other books in the genre.

Picture from the TV-series The Magician's House


Ginny said...

So you have not seen the series on T.V.? Are you planning to after you have finished the books? I used to have a huge paperback book filled with colorful pictures and it recommended all the best fantasy and science fiction, not just current, but classics as well. It was wonderful, and almost fell apart because I used it so much. I read a lot of the books it mentioned. There was a real interesting short story about a woman who kept noticing subtle changes in her wallpaper, and you don't know if something is really going on, ir if she is losing her mind. I never did get to that one, but still remember the high praises. Then there was another short story about a little boy who listened for the mailman walking up the sidewalk every day. But his steps got more and more muffled in snow. Turned out it was not snow, but the boy was retreating further and further from reality. One of my favorites remains the Perelandra series. Out Of The Dark Planet

Lori said...

I hope your enjoying it. Here's my Booking Through Thursday.


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