Tag Archives: classic fantasy

Review of The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart

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This classic Fantasy tale – knocking around long before Harry Potter was a twinkle in Rowling’s eye – was always a firm favourite with all my classes when I taught. I dug out my copy and read it to my granddaughter this week. Despite the unfashionably long descriptive passages, the narrative was sufficiently engrossing that it held her rapt right through to the end.

littlebroomstickQuite right, too. I’d forgotten what a little gem it is, with beautifully flowing and evocative prose the whips the story along at a fair clip. Mary Smith is ten years old and due to an unfortunate illness and bad timing, finds herself parked with Great-Aunt Charlotte in her large house, Red Manor, in the heart of Shropshire right at the end of the summer holidays. There is nothing much to do. Until she encounters a beautiful black cat called Tib with glowing green eyes, who leads her to a rare flower in the middle of the woods…
And from that beginning, the adventure whisks up its young readers and doesn’t let up until the final page. Plain Mary Smith is an enjoyable, appealing protagonist who is just the right mix of innocence and quick wittedness. But there are also a strong cast of supporting characters – particularly the wonderfully creepy Madam Mumblechook and her sidekick, Doctor Dee.

Endor College, educational establishment of witches and black magic, is vividly described and until I read this again to Frankie, I’d forgotten just how disturbing it is. Under the cosy touches – ‘Badness me’ as an exclamation, for instance – there is real menace. Stewart’s wonderful description of Tib does more than mark her out as a cat lover – it also highlights the contrast between the lithe, independent creature who befriends Mary and the twisted toadlike thing he becomes thanks to Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. And the reason why they expend all this magical energy and effort to transform Tib and a host of other creatures? Because they can…

Stewart gives youngsters a powerful insight into the nature of evil – all too often it isn’t about world domination with overblown, pantomime-type characters that slide into the ridiculous. It is about people in everyday situations who abuse the power they have to twist and torment those powerless to prevent them.

I’d also forgotten the poignant and fitting ending – which is (perhaps intentionally) diffused by the description of the top range of broomsticks available from Harrods… All in all, this slim volume is – like the best of children’s literature – a really good read for fantasy fans of all ages and I particularly recommend it to those who enjoyed Harry Potter or anything written by Diana Wynne Jones. The bad news is that it is currently out of print. So keep your eyes peeled – and anytime you come across a copy on a secondhand book stall, get it. Even if the children in your life are long gone, I guarantee that you’ll thank me…
10/10

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Review of Spellwright by Blake Charlton

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During a panel at the recent Fantasycon 2011, the wonderful and intelligent Juliet McKenna commented that it is a sign of a genre’s maturity when authors increasingly start playing with the recognised rules and mash conventions up in interesting ways. Enter Blake Charlton, who has certainly taken the word spell far more literally than most Fantasy writers – but then he suffers from dyslexia.  Nicodemus Weal has trained at the stronghold of Starhaven since he was a boy. His mentor, the famous wizard Magister Shannon, taught him how to cast spells made from luminescent magical runes, how to peel written words off a page and make them physically real. Initially, Nicodemus showed great promise. Able to forge runes with great speed, he was once thought to be the Halcyon – a powerful spellwright prophesied to prevent the apocalypse known as the Disjunction.

There was only one problem. Nicodemus couldn’t spell. Every time he touched a magical text, he unintentionally corrupted it, spellwrightcreating a dangerous, potentially deadly misspell. Now aged twenty-five, while his peers advance as wizards, he is still an apprentice, dealing with the devastating knowledge that he has failed to live up to the expectations of his teachers and classmates.  But not everyone interprets prophecy in the same way. There are factions who believe someone like Nicodemus could hold great power – power than might be used as easily for evil as for good.

Despite the cool cover and intriguing blurb, this isn’t a book that will necessarily grab you by the throat and whisk you along from page one. Charlton silts up the initial action with a lot of exposition and scene setting – and while I’ll concede that the world and concept is a complex, multi-layered one, I do feel he slightly overdoes it. However, my advice is to stick with it. This is a book that goes on delivering, steadily gaining pace and readability throughout until at the end, I wondered why I ever considered giving up halfway through the second chapter.

Nicodemus is a well written, enjoyable character – it makes a refreshing change to meet a protagonist who has miserably failed to fulfil his golden destiny. I enjoyed his chippy, suspicious view of the world. His ability to whip out a spell in no time flat worked well with his inability to necessarily see things that were plainly under his nose – having worked with dyslexic students for a chunk of my teaching career, this unevenness in ability and talent seemed entirely convincing. All the main characters are reasonably complex, although Shannon is outstanding, with hidden depths and a very interesting history that isn’t revealed till far later into the book when we really care about him.

While the initial idea of spelling spells is a cool one, Charlston doesn’t lean too heavily on it throughout the book. His eerie stone stronghold built by a lost race high in the mountains makes a compelling backdrop to the action and as the book builds to the climactic ending, I was thoroughly engrossed and wanting to read the next instalment in this intriguing Fantasy debut.
8/10