The Magician

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Book: The Magician

Author: W. Somerset Maugham

Publisher: Vintage

Pages: 233

Format Read: Paperback

Now this was interesting.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, in Paris, the cynical and self-proclaimed rational doctor, Arthur Burdon, meets a corpulent and vicious magician called Oliver Haddo. In the beginning, Arthur finds Haddo comical and worthy of contempt, in spite of his friend Dr. Porhoet’s observations that there is more to the man than it seems. Haddo manages to impose his sinister presence on Arthur’s acquaintances, and then his fiancée Margaret. And Margaret, though repulsed by Haddo, finds him fascinating at the same time…

…and so begins the story of “The Magician.”

There is a lot of occult terminology in here, and black magic. And of course, Haddo himself is based on the magician Aleister Crowley (who, after having read the book was annoyed at the depiction of himself and reviewed it). The introduction to the Vintage edition, titled ‘A Fragment of Autobiography’ gives some insights into the book by the author himself.

What made “The Magician” intriguing for me was the black magic and its hold over the innocent. Haddo’s power is absolute, it cannot be resisted, it cannot be brushed aside or pushed away. Or it seems like that anyway to those caught in his web of nightmares. At first, the magnetic nature of the man draws people to him – but it’s a peculiar attraction that fascinates and disgusts them. Arthur dislikes Haddo on sight, and apparently so does Margaret. But the magician’s power is such that he can bend wills and no rational man can stand in his way. Or so he thinks.

The evil nature of Haddo certainly overshadows everything else in this book – the man is very well portrayed. Arthur, having lost his fiancée in a bizarre series of events to Haddo tries to win her back. As for Margaret, she is innocent, and suddenly, mysteriously seductive, loyal, then disloyal, sweet natured, sharp tongued, and unpredictable. You know, exactly as a thrall of a black magician would behave.

It was fascinating, this book, and very readable.

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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Book: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Author: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Publisher: taken from Selected Poetry, published by Penguin

Format Read: Paperback

“And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he

Was tyrannous and strong:

He struck with his o’ertaking wings,

And chased us south along.”

– The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

 A bit of poetry for this post.

The “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was part of my school syllabus, and I was eleven or twelve years old when I read it first. “The Rime…” is a haunting, eerie poem with ghostly undercurrents.

In the beginning, a hapless wedding guest is accosted by a mysterious mariner – the ancient mariner – and thereupon begins a tale of damnation. The wedding guest is flustered, because he is getting late for the ceremony, and yet he holds no power over the hypnotic story of the ancient mariner and ends up listening to him.

There are memorable lines in “The Rime…” and an allegory woven into the poem, all to do with an albatross. Sailors die and are resurrected, the ship sails on, and the ancient mariner recalls all of it with a strange, trance like clarity. Much to the wedding guest’s chagrin, he’s entranced by the mariner’s tale that is reminiscent of a waking nightmare. The ancient mariner, in a moment of madness, shoots the innocent albatross – and spells doom for his fellow mariners and their ship. It is unclear how old he is, but it is clear that is he condemned to the un-life, and hopeless wandering.

The poem touches on the human experience with the supernatural, and the use of rhyme is particularly evocative. The forces of nature, as the ancient mariner discovers, are not benevolent, and the albatross, such a mundane bird, eventually has ties to greater unseen mysteries.

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is one of my favourite poems. It has it all – ghostly whispers and allegory, the human experience, and a flowing cadence to its lines. Lines read many years ago in that old school textbook remain in my mind today. Perhaps that is what made the poem so appealing – it is beautifully narrated, a compelling work that drew me to it over and over again.

Jamaica Inn

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Book: Jamaica Inn

Author: Daphne du Maurier

Publisher: Virago

Pages: 302

Format Read: Paperback

“Jamaica Inn” was originally published in 1936, a couple of years before Daphne du Maurier’s iconic novel “Rebecca.” I read this one the first time a few years ago, and found it a fascinating tale of dark suspense. Since then I’ve reread it a few times and enjoyed each reread.

Twenty three year old Mary Yellan finds herself alone after the death of her mother, and, having no other family left, decides to move in with her Aunt Patience at the mysterious Jamaica Inn. And the Inn stands alone in a hauntingly desolate moor. It’s a place most people avoid. At least, most honest folk steer clear of the inn.

“Jamaica Inn” is a gothic tale of romance and mystery. It is also very atmospheric, with an undercurrent of shadowy deeds. du Maurier’s descriptions are masterfully done, and while “Rebecca” takes these a little further, “Jamaica Inn” does really well on its own.

The moor, in all its lonely glory, comes to life as Mary tries to adjust to her new life at Jamaica Inn. Her Aunt Patience, married to the innkeeper of Jamaica Inn, is jittery and nervous and really very odd. She’s not the woman Mary remembers from her youth – and she’s trying to keep secrets that are obviously driving her over the edge. Her uncle Mary learns to avoid – but he’s up to something and curiosity gets the better of her, leading her to truths she would rather avoid. And of course, there’s the romance, with the innkeeper’s younger brother Jem taking an interest in Mary. He is also a dubious character, and a horse thief in the bargain.

It’s a complicated plot in “Jamaica Inn” that leaves you guessing until the end. The innkeeper of Jamaica Inn has his reasons for staying so far away from civilization. Mary is a little too curious for her own good. Patience likes to block out thoughts of everything around her and behaves like a child. Jem is peculiar, rough and strangely attractive to Mary. Never mind that he has some of his brother’s traits. That was a little disturbing.

“Jamaica Inn” is dark and eminently readable, a novel I really like going back to every now and then.

The Loom of Time

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Book: The Loom of Time

Author: Kalidasa, translated by Chandra Rajan

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 343

Format Read: Paperback

There are many legends surrounding the great Sanskrit poet and dramatist Kalidasa – from his being a court official of the Emperor Chandra Gupta II, to his being divinely blessed by the Goddess Kali, turning him into a literary genius. Whatever the case may be, there is little doubt that the surviving works of this incredible writer from antiquity are rendered in exquisite and expressive Sanskrit.

“The Loom of Time” presents three of Kalidasa’s works, and Chandra Rajan has done a commendable job translating these pieces. The English versions are poetic and beautiful, capturing a lot of the lilting cadence of the original Sanskrit. And the three pieces in “The Loom of Time” are, in order, Rtusamharam (The Gathering of the Seasons), Meghadutam (The Cloud Messenger), and Abhijnanasakuntalam (the Recognition of Sakuntala).

Rtusamharam, as the title suggests, is an ode to the seasons in six cantos, beginning with summer, and ending with spring. Each season is also linked to romance and separation, reunions and longing. Woven in to the poetry is also an astute understanding of nature and the flora and fauna of the time, as well as the subtle interplay of human emotions.

Meghadutam has a celestial being, a Yaksha, punished and separated from his wife. In his desperation to get a message across to her, he spots a cloud – and imagines the cloud to be a messenger that can carry his words over the eternal skies.

Both works of poetry I found fascinating and rich in imagery (of jasmine flowers and jewels and incense, among others) – and strikingly lyrical.

Abhijnanasakuntalam is a play combining elements of mythology, and romance, song, poetry, and a sprinkling of magic. Sakuntala, brought up by the sage, or rishi, Kanva, in a forest hermitage, meets King Duhsanta. Soon they are married, and the King returns to his capital, with Sakuntala to follow later.  But tragedy strikes when Sakuntala, daydreaming about her husband, ignores the sage Durvasa when he comes calling. And earns his curse in the bargain, meaning that Duhsanta will forget her (and their son, when it comes down to it) when he sees them. Sakuntala’s story has its roots in the Mahabharata.

Also accompanying the translated pieces are notes, a lengthy and very useful introduction, and a glossary. I found all of these very informative, especially the introduction, with its references to the Natya Shastra by Bharata Muni, which discusses stagecraft and the performing arts among other things.

I’m happy this translation exists, because I, for one, have been looking forward to reading Kalidasa’s works for a long time. “The Loom of Time” was exactly what I was looking for, and I hope to read more.

The Legend of Kuldhara

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Book: The Legend of Kuldhara

Author: Malathi Ramachandran

Publisher: Niyogi

Pages: 279

Format Read: Paperback

I had heard of Kuldhara before…it is that ghost town in Rajasthan, a forsaken place that is a tourist attraction, and a source of tales. Theories of why the place was abandoned range from gradual migration due to earthquakes, to the more romanticised tale of an overnight desertion to escape a certain Divan’s lascivious gaze on a maiden.

It is from the second that author Malathi Ramachandran draws her inspiration in “The Legend of Kuldhara.” The novel recreates a Rajasthan of two hundred years ago as the story follows the villagers of Kuldhara and their disappearance.

Saalim Singh, the ambitious, vengeful, and cruel Divan of the Maharawal Gaj Singh, already married some six times, suddenly finds in Kuldhara a beautiful girl by the name of Pari. A man accustomed to getting what, or who, he wants, the Divan makes the mistake of attempting to force Pari’s father into give her in marriage to him…and Saalim Singh finds himself outwitted when entire village vanishes by the next morning.

The characters in “The Legend of Kuldhara” are memorable, with depth and nuance, especially Pari, who is young, and has that air of child-like glee and mature wisdom. There is also Saalim Singh, self-centred and wrathful, and one of his wives, Parvati, a tragic character who was once radiant, and now prone to peculiar dreams. She wishes her husband would return to her and waits with desperate hope. There is Colonel Tod, the British Political Agent for Rajputana, for whom Saalim Singh has plans.

And threading the lives of these characters together, and foreseeing the fate of Kuldhara itself, is the strange old man with the stringed ravanhatha instrument. On the face of it, he appears to be a folk singer of unusual skill, but coupled with his music is an almost mystical understanding of fate, and an oddity that defines his persona – he never speaks, but he does always sing.

“The Legend of Kuldhara” is a beautifully crafted novel that evocatively portrays the romance of the desert. The colourful sunrises and the ringing of temple bells, the old man’s haunting melodies, and the sprinkling of surreal enigma over the course of the story make this book an unusual and absorbing read.

The Snow Spider

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Book: The Snow Spider

Author: Jenny Nimmo

Publisher: Egmont UK

Pages: 167

Format Read: Paperback

“The Snow Spider” is a children’s book, and a fascinating one at that, weaving elements of Welsh folklore and myth into a fantasy story with a boy and a little silvery spider.

For his birthday, Gwyn’s grandmother gifts him five odd objects – a brooch, dried seaweed, a whistle, a scarf, a broken toy horse – and tells him they are magical. These mysterious items, she tells him, will turn him into a magician. Gwyn doesn’t know what to believe, especially since his grandmother, for all her affection, is a bit eccentric. Perhaps he could use these gifts to bring his missing sister back home.

Without giving too much away, using one of the objects causes a glittery little spider called Arianwen to appear, a magical creature that weaves dreams and visions in her sparkly web. Gwyn is a lonely, but affectionate boy, and the spider quickly becomes a strange and wonderful friend. His friend Alun is a sceptic, a character who does not believe in magic. As for Gwyn’s father…well. He is distant and cold to the boy, especially since his daughter, and Gwyn’s sister, went missing years ago.

For a slim book, “The Snow Spider” handles its cast of characters quite well. I found myself liking Gwyn’s eccentric grandmother, especially because she is the only character who sees Gwyn for who he is. And of course, the tiny spider Arianwen. She is, by far, my favourite character in the book.

Many of the names in “The Snow Spider” are taken from Welsh legend, and notes at the back of the book, including an author interview, are really helpful if you aren’t familiar with it. There’s the magician Gwydion, for example, in Welsh lore. While these elements are very well woven into the story, you may want to refer to a translation of the Mabinogion for a better idea.

The story ends rather quickly, in my opinion (probably to be picked up in the next book of the series) but “The Snow Spider” did keep my interest until the end. It has that dash of magic and mystery I enjoy very much, and besides, the writing style is lucid.

I’m really glad to have “The Snow Spider” on my shelves.

Dreams of Distant Shores

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Book: Dreams of Distant Shores 

Author: Patricia A. McKillip

Publisher: Tachyon

Pages: 274

Format Read: Paperback

I have read Patricia A. McKillip’s novels before, but “Dreams of the Distant Shores” is the first of her short story collections I’ve read. There are seven stories in this collection, some exclusive to the anthology and others reprints. Also included is a note from the author on writing high fantasy, and an afterword by Peter S. Beagle (who wrote “The Last Unicorn.”)

The stories are of varying length and deal with different themes, but all of them have a thread of fantasy, and mystery, and memorable characters running through them.  I liked all of these tales; I found each of them different, enchanting in their own way, and whimsical. Some of them are arguably more subtle than the others. And of course, the cover is lovely.

‘Weird’ is the first story, where a couple seem to be hiding from something, or someone, in a bathroom. Not that either of them is concerned, despite the unholy noises the creature outside seems to be making. I am a little less sure of this story, not that I didn’t like it, but I am less certain of its ending. Part of its charm, I suppose?

‘Mer’ has at its core a witch. A witch with a goddess inside her head and shapeshifting powers, a witch who climbs a tree and falls asleep – for centuries. And of course there’s a waitress who just happens to resemble a missing wooden mermaid in a sleepy port called Port Dido.

Harry, the young painter of “The Gorgon in the Cupboard,” finds that he has company in the form of an entity. A snarky, loudmouthed, magical entity trapped in his own painting. Harry’s not even sure if the entity is really there, or whether he’s imagining the whole thing. This story was particularly fun to read, and the ‘Gorgon’ with her insights and lack of subtlety manages to turn Harry’s world upside down.

“Which Witch” features a rock band and the rather aptly named ‘Witch Hazel,’ a rather entertaining crow-familiar, and unsurprisingly, witches. This story was different from the rest with its rock music and quirky characters.

“Edith and Harry Go Motoring” follow a lonely pair of friends and a shadowy mystery. “Alien” was probably the most surprising story in this selection for me, with a grandmother who may or may not have seen extraterrestrials. The hint of what lies beyond is strong in both “Edith and Harry Go Motoring” and “Alien” and personally, I found the hints and whispers of what may lie beyond the realm of ordinary existence quite fascinating.

“Something Rich and Strange” is more of a novelette. There are ancient beings from the sea, odd, magical jewelry, and a couple who form the centre of the tale. Themes of conservation and protection of the environment follow this story, and those are woven into the threads of the tale well enough.

“Writing High Fantasy,” a nonfiction piece following the novelette, was an interesting take on the author’s writing process, and of course, the afterword was an interesting tribute.

Overall? I really enjoyed “Dreams of Distant Shores.”