Sioned Davies: The Mabinogion
Published by OUP World's Classics 26th April 2018
Then they took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they conjured up the fairest and most beautiful maiden that anyone had ever seen. Celtic mythology, Arthurian romance, and an intriguing interpretation of British history ― these are just some of the themes embraced by the anonymous authors of the eleven tales that make up the Welsh medieval masterpiece known as the Mabinogion. They tell of Gwydion the shape-shifter, who can create a woman out of flowers; of Math the magician whose feet must lie in the lap of a virgin; of hanging a pregnant mouse and hunting a magical boar. Dragons, witches, and giants live alongside kings and heroes, and quests of honour, revenge, and love are set against the backdrop of a country struggling to retain its independence. Sioned Davies' lively translation recreates the storytelling world of medieval Wales and re-invests the tales with the power of performance.
The Mabinogion is a legend of which I've heard, particularly with reference to Arthurian legend, but I've not had the opportunity to read it until now, with this OUP World's Classics hardback edition (two other titles in this brilliant series on thi page, see below and column right for Frankenstein). The Mabinogion has everything that Mallory's Morte D'Arthur has in spades, and is a worthy companion to the legend of King Arthur. A handsome edition of a true classic of romantic fiction.
Arthur Machen: The Great God Pan and Other Stories
Published by OUP World's Classics 25th January 2018
Perhaps no figure better embodies the transition from the Gothic tradition to modern horror than Arthur Machen. In the final decade of the nineteenth century, the Welsh writer produced a seminal body of tales of occult horror, spiritual and physical corruption, and malignant survivals from the primeval past which horrified and scandalised-late-Victorian readers. Machen's 'weird fiction' has influenced generations of storytellers, from H. P. Lovecraft to Guillermo Del Toro-and it remains no less unsettling today.
This new collection, which includes the complete novel The Three Impostors as well as such celebrated tales as The Great God Pan and The White People, constitutes the most comprehensive critical edition of Machen yet to appear. In addition to the core late-Victorian horror classics, a selection of lesser-known prose poems and later tales helps to present a fuller picture of the development of Machen's weird vision. The edition's introduction and notes contextualise the life and work of this foundational figure in the history of horror.
You may by now have already read what I have to say about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Gothic Tales (main column, above); and the same comments apply to Arthur Machen's chilling and very scary tales. These were written at a time when the vast majority of people still believed in the supernatural, ghosts and spirits, and this is reflected in the stories. Alost as scary as Stephen King, and a really handsome edition, too!
Arthur Conan Doyle: Gothic Tales
Published by Oxford World's Classics 22nd March 2018
'There was a rumour, too, that he was a devil-worshipper, or something of that sort, and also that he had the evil eye...'
Arthur Conan Doyle was the greatest genre writer Britain has ever produced. Throughout a long writing career, he drew on his own medical background, his travels, and his increasing interest in spiritualism and the occult to produce a spectacular array of Gothic Tales. Many of Doyle's writings are recognised as the very greatest tales of terror. They range from hauntings in the polar wasteland to evil surgeons and malevolent jungle landscapes.
This collection brings together over thirty of Conan Doyle's best Gothic Tales. Darryl Jones's introduction discusses the contradictions in Conan Doyle's very public life - as a medical doctor who became obsessed with the spirit world, or a British imperialist drawn to support Irish Home Rule - and shows the ways in which these found articulation in that most anxious of all literary forms, the Gothic.
This is proof that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was every bit as good as M R James and H P Lovecraft at making the flesh creep with fear of the printed word. I remember shivering with fright after reading bedtime ghost stories from the Pan Books of Horror Stories in the mid-late fifties, and I know I would have done the same had I had access to Doyle's stories too. A handsome addition to the Oxford World's Classics series.
Lara Starr: The Star Wars Cookbook
Published by Chronicle Books 12th February 2018
Awaken your inner Force with 29 intergalactic breakfast recipes. Fuel up with Hans Soloatmeal, battle hunger with Admiral Ackbars, and so much more! These easy-to-make, mouthwatering recipes feature characters and scenes from Star Wars: The Force Awakens as well as from the upcoming film Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And photographs featuring Star Wars figurines re-creating epic moments from the films provide an extra helping of humour. Recipes include: C-3POat Pancakes; Parfait de Resistance; Maz Kanata Frittata; Luggabeast of a Quiche; Reysin Bread; Breakfast Poe’Boy; Kanjiklub Sandwiches; Breakfast Tako-danas
Just the names of the recipes are sufficiently entertaining to justify publication of this entertaining little book - I was going to stick it on the nonfiction page but decided at the last minute to include it on the SF page as it's a celebration of the most successful and entertaining science fiction franchise ever. The recipes are superb, the names are hilarious - there's something for everyone in this delicious, delightful little book!
Robin Hobb: Assassin's Fate
Published by Harper Voyager 22nd March 2018
Prince FitzChivalry Farseer’s daughter Bee was violently abducted from Withywoods by Servants of the Four in their search for the Unexpected Son, foretold to wield great power. With Fitz in pursuit, the Servants fled through a Skill-pillar, leaving no trace. It seems certain that they and their young hostage have perished in the Skill-river. Clerres, where White Prophets were trained by the Servants to set the world on a better path, has been corrupted by greed. Fitz is determined to reach the city and take vengeance on the Four, not only for the loss of Bee but also for their torture of the Fool. Accompanied by FitzVigilant, son of the assassin Chade, Chade’s protégé Spark and the stableboy Perseverance, Bee's only friend, their journey will take them from the Elderling city of Kelsingra, down the perilous Rain Wild River, and on to the Pirate Isles. Their mission for revenge will become a voyage of discovery, as well as of reunions, transformations and heartrending shocks. Startling answers to old mysteries are revealed. What became of the liveships Paragon and Vivacia and their crews? What is the origin of the Others and their eerie beach? How are liveships and dragons connected? But Fitz and his followers are not the only ones with a deadly grudge against the Four. An ancient wrong will bring them unlikely and dangerous allies in their quest. And if the corrupt society of Clerres is to be brought down, Fitz and the Fool will have to make a series of profound and fateful sacrifices. ASSASSIN’S FATE is a magnificent tour de force and with it Robin Hobb demonstrates yet again that she is the reigning queen of epic fantasy.
My favourite female fantasy writer turns in a brilliant new tale featuring Fitz Farseer. The fantasy is muted, assumed, and the story could really be of a genuine historical nature, but you know that at any moment Robin can turn on the fantasy, and it's this element of reality, of real people, that makes it what it is - superb fantasy from an inspired and inspiring writer!
Nnedi Okorafor: Who Fears Death
Published by Harper Voyager 22nd March 2018
Now optioned as a TV series for HBO, with executive producer George R.R. Martin! In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways; yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. A woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert, hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the colour of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different – special – she names her Onyesonwu, which means ‘Who fears death?’ in an ancient language. It doesn't take long for Onye to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her conception. She is Ewu – a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by her community. But Onye is not the average Ewu. Even as a child, she manifests the beginnings of a remarkable and unique magic. As she grows, so do her abilities, and during an inadvertent visit to the spirit realm, she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her. Desperate to elude her would-be murderer and to understand her own nature, she embarks on a journey in which she grapples with nature, tradition, history, true love, and the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately learns why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death.
Nnedi's post-apocalyptic Africa seems to me to be a metaphor for what's actually happening on the continent right now before our very eyes.
S A Chakraborty: The City of Brass
Published by Harper Voyager 8th March 2018
Among the bustling markets of eighteenth century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles and foreign invaders alike. But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits. Of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert, full of enchantment, desire and riches. Where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust. Many wish their lives could be filled with such wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes… Be careful what you wish for.
This is almost a modern variation of the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights - a magical mixture of fact and fiction - absolutely superb!
Anna Smith Spark: The Court of Broken Knives
Published by Harper Voyager 5th February 2018
Perfect for fans of Mark Lawrence and R Scott Bakker, The Court of Broken Knives is the explosive debut by one of grimdark fantasy’s most exciting new voices. They’ve finally looked at the graveyard of our Empire with open eyes. They’re fools and madmen and like the art of war. And their children go hungry while we piss gold and jewels into the dust. In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it. Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built. The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.
Grimdark fantasy is not a term I've heard used before in relation to the genre, and in terms of classifying this novel, it doesn't actually mean anything to me. This is straightforward fantasy with a nod to what's happening today in the middle east, but it's clearly fantasy and a welcome addition to the genre.
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein - the 1818 Text
Published by OUP World's Classics 25th January 2018
By the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window-shutters, I beheld the wretch-the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened...'
Frankenstein is the most celebrated horror story ever written. It tells the dreadful tale of Victor Frankenstein, a visionary young student of natural philosophy, who discovers the secret of life. In the grip of his obsession he constructs a being from dead body parts, and animates this creature. The results, for Victor and for his family, are catastrophic.
Written when Mary Shelley was just eighteen, Frankenstein was inspired by the ghost stories and vogue for Gothic literature that fascinated the Romantic writers of her time. She transformed these supernatural elements an epic parable that warned against the threats to humanity posed by accelerating technological progress.
Published for the 200th anniversary, this edition, based on the original 1818 text, explains in detail the turbulent intellectual context in which Shelley was writing, and also investigates how her novel has since become a byword for controversial practices in science and medicine, from manipulating ecosystems to vivisection and genetic modification. As an iconic study of power, creativity, and, ultimately, what it is to be human, Frankenstein continues to shape our thinking in profound ways to this day.
I have never read (until now) Frankenstein, and my knowledge of the story was confined to the various Hammer Films versions with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. This was a groundbreaking piece of fiction when first published, and remains so now, especially for newer generations of readers, who have the added advantage of this handsome addition to the new set of Oxford World's Classics.
Game of Thrones Tarot Set
Published by Chronicle Books 20th March 2018
Explore Game of Thrones with this beautifully rendered and wholly original tarot card deck with 78 cards and a hardcover guidebook. This deluxe box melds the tradition of the tarot with the deep archetypes of Game of Thrones. Each card, from the Major Arcana to the Cups, Coins, Spears, and Swords of the Minor Arcana, offers a rich and meaningful experience. Game of Thrones fans will pore over a treasure trove of much-loved characters, scenes, and stories depicted in a style both surprising and true to the world of Westeros. An accompanying hardcover booklet explains the symbolism of each card and how to use them in a tarot reading.
I have no doubt this set of Tarot cards will be a massive hit with Game of Thrones fans... a handsome box, a handsome gift!
The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its twentieth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.