Monthly Archives: June 2012

Review: The Dreamguard ‘Trilogy’

I put ‘trilogy’ in inverted commas because the Dreamguard series was never finished. As best I can tell, the first two books were published either simultaneously or almost simultaneously in early 2000; according to the advert in the back of my editions, the third book was due later the same year, but by the time I was given them to read, maybe 2006, that third book still had not appeared. At present, the series stands are two volumes, out of print and a little hard to get hold of – they’re available via Amazon.co.uk for an excessively high price or failing that from rare-and-out-of-print booksellers. My understanding is that the ‘death’ of the Dreamguard trilogy was down to a severe lack of sales.

It’s strange, because the publishers clearly had a lot of faith in these books – you don’t release two volumes of a series simultaneously unless you feel secure, after all – but I understand exactly why these books were a failure. I understand now and I understood when I was a teenager. It was awkward, because the author, John Dutton (which is a pen-name, but I probably shouldn’t post his real name), was a friend of my grandfather, so I was actually asked to give an opinion to be passed on to him when I was finished. That’s not an opportunity one gets very often and to be honest I think I wasted it.

When I describe Dreamguard as a ‘failure’, I mean it primarily in the commercial sense. As for their quality… they are definitely not bad books. I’m just not sure they’re good books either. These are books which defy classification. Are they for adults? Well, not really – best I can tell, they were marketed as YA and the basic plot is that of a children’s book. Are they for children, then? No – they’re too full of in-depth philosophy to appeal to children (I say that from my own experience – at fifteen I was too young for these books first time around). Is it a trilogy? Not exactly – even aside from the lack of third volume, they’re number consecutively, with the first book being pages 1-300 and the second being pages 200-500. So are they one book intended to be published in three volumes? Regrettably no. The plots of the two published volumes are too distinct. Are they fantasy? Science-fiction? Philosophy? Magical realism? Mythology? It’s probably best to class them as ‘speculative fiction’ and move on but even that doesn’t feel quite right.

Hopefully I have so far managed to convey that these books are strange, and also that I have some pretty strong opinions on them. I actually started this blog partly to have somewhere to post a Dreamguard review. These books deserve a review.

So, to begin, an attempt to summarise the surreal, cerebral and nightmarish journey that is Dreamguard.

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Our two heroes, John and Charles, live in Oxford with their highly educated, intellectual parents (I don’t remember if it’s directly stated but I think at least one is connected to the university). They also live with Bear and Tiger, two animal sleeping-bags (no, really) that are their most beloved toys – so beloved that the bond they share is almost spiritual – and with their other stuffed animals, including Seal and Hippo. All four animals later prove very important.

The story opens at a dinner party held by John and Charles’ parents. One guest, Dr Homely-Sage, demonstrates a disturbing hypnotic party-trick on Emer, the boys’ mother. Later the same night, they witness Homely-Sage ensnaring their mother in a spider’s web made of words and spiriting her away in his car. Naturally, they are not believed, and it is assumed by all the adults in their lives that their story is the result of the trauma of abruptly losing their mother.

Over the next few months, John and Charles grow increasingly withdrawn, bringing them onto the radar of Megan, a witch who traps children in her magical television set and feeds on their emotions. John and Charles, being both highly creative and intelligent and highly vulnerable, seem like ideal candidates, so Megan sends her cat, Murgatroyd, to seduce the boys with his charm and his magic and lead them into her trap.

Murgatroyd, however, finds himself befriending John and Charles for real, and comes clean, revealing the whole plan and turning his magic against Megan to protect them. It turns out that Murgatroyd was a demon in a previous life and living out his ‘ninth life’ as a witch’s cat was a punishment for his soft-heartedness. It also turns out that he knows the true identity of Homely-Sage: he is Grayach, the Word-Spider, who lives to destroy beauty and creativity.

In order to protect the boys, Murgatroyd uses his magic to ‘upgrade’ Bear into an Official Dreamguard to keep John safe in his dreams, and sure enough that night Megan launches an attack in the dream world. However, Bear is powerful enough to not only protect John from harm but to break Megan’s power so thoroughly that it’s over a year before she can make another move.

This time, Megan targets Murgatroyd, who is now firmly a member of the family. After being threatened with unimaginable tortures, he reluctantly helps her devise a plan to capture John and Charles at the upcoming St Giles’s Fair. Murgatroyd finds his loyalties so divided that at the fair he uses his magic both to help Megan and to help John and Charles escape. After a chase in the Hall of Mirrors, John, Charles and Murgatroyd are each split in two: Murgatroyd into a good cat and an evil cat and John and Charles in child and adult selves. The child John and Charles are captured by Megan and the evil Murgatroyd; the adult John and Charles escape with the good Murgatroyd onto a time travel ride which Charles, through his own latent magic, transforms into a real time machine.

After an excursion to the time of the dinosaurs and two trips to the future, John, Charles and Murgatroyd decide they must rescue the child John and Charles. They use their new time machine to force their way into Megan’s magical television, only to find that the captured John and Charles have been seduced by the apparent utopia within and are reluctant to leave; not only that, but once Megan notices what has happened, she switches off the television. Only Charles is strong enough to remain conscious and active while the set is switched off, and he enters into a battle of wills with Megan, aided by Hippo, oldest and wisest of his animal companions. Megan, the evil Murgatroyd and the television set are all destroyed, releasing all the children within and fusing John and Charles back into their whole selves. Adventure over, they return home.

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In the second volume, Tiger’s Island, the boys meet Egger, a stuffed rabbit who was once their father’s dreamguard and who is now the Administrator of Dreams, ruler of all Dreamguards everywhere.

Shortly thereafter, whilst in the dreamworld together with Bear and Seal (also known as Ickles), John and Charles save a mermaid from some sharks. It turns out the mermaid is actually a girl called Susan, who was just dreaming that she was a mermaid; she tells them that she was investigating a sunken ship when she was attacked. They accompany her back to the ship, only for it to suddenly restore itself. The friendly captain explains that he and his crew are temporarily brought back to life whenever they have visitors; he serves the five of them lunch, then offers each of them a gift.

Susan is given a handkerchief that can heal any injury or illness (even, it later transpires, bring a person back from the dead); John, a keen musician, is given a harp than can warp reality; Charles is given a model horse that can transform into a real horse on his command and which will be eternally loyal; Bear is given a bubble blower (the bizarreness of this is pointed out in the text) which can create almost perfect copies of its bearer, and which he uses to create a Dream Patrol to keep everyone in the Dreamworld safe. Only Seal has the sense to turn down his gift; as the ship returns to the water, John recognises the captain as Grayach.

Unfortunately, it’s too late; the hold of the gifts is too strong. In the real world, John, Charles and Susan sleep solidly for three days, unable to leave the Dreamworld, while Murgatroyd struggles to wake them with his magic. When they finally wake, they explain that they began involved in peaceful, almost utopian, country called Hereza, which was under attack by warlike outsiders. John and Charles, after filling Murgatroyd in, insist that they must return to Hereza as their business their is not yet over.

Deeply concerned, Murgatroyd travels into the Dreamworld himself, to Tiger’s Island. Charles’s Tiger, now a dreamguard himself, controls ever aspect of the island, where he runs a nightclub together with Hippo and a bear named Joey; Seal has also come to the island. Together, they realise that John, Charls and Susan are at risk of being trapped in the Dreamworld forever and so never able to wake up. It’s decided that Hippo and Seal must confront Grayach and find a way to break his hold on the children.

Hippo and Seal journey down to the Land Below Dreams, where Hippo challenges Grayach to a chess match for the fate of the children. If Hippo loses, he will be imprisoned in one of Grayach’s soul-cages. Unfortunately, Hippo doesn’t realise that Grayach is able to read his mind until it’s almost too late: he’s only able to play to a draw, effectively a loss. Thinking fast and desperate for a distraction, Seal demands that Grayach put him in a soul-cage instead. It turns out that according to Grayach’s own rules, he cannot place someone in a soul-cage voluntarily without giving them something in return; Seal takes the opportunity to demand the means to release John, Charles, Bear and Susan, then goes calmly to his fate. Grayach gives Hippo a flask containing the water of ‘hard reality’.

Back in the Dreamworld, Murgatroyd is able, with some difficulty, to convince John, Charles and Susan to drink the water of reality and destroy their gifts, but Bear is another matter. Splitting himself into an army has weakened him so badly that he was at the point of death before being summoned back to Tiger’s Island; even once he has drunk the water and destroyed his gift, he cannot be the bear he once was. Once recovered, he must instead take his place as Administrator of Dreams and Egger’s replacement.

John goes to mourn over the loss of two friends in one day, only for Seal to suddenly return, having been released from his soul-cage. Seal and Hippo request that John and Charles get each of them a wife (i.e. buy another toy seal and hippo) and the book ends with their double wedding.

*           *           *

And that’s Dreamguard. As for the third book, The Word Spider, I’ve been able to infer that it was to have John, Charles and Susan journey deep into Grayach’s lair, ‘the city of fog and machinery’, and that Susan, who is supposed to be good at solving puzzles, would be the one to ultimately solve the ‘riddle of the word-spider’, presumably freeing Emer. It also would have involved ‘the gift of Itilgi’, characters called Keml, Ngraa and Paari, and something called ‘the hungry images’ which sounds most intriguing.

Except that doesn’t sum up Dreamguard at all. Those summaries, detailed as they may appear, cover maybe half the material here. These books are absolutely stuffed with padding. There’s Herodotean tangents, the obligatory dream sequences, characters ‘filling in’ other characters in great detail on what they’ve been doing since they last met, and on no less than five occasions in Tiger’s Island a character sits down and tells a completely unrelated story to the other characters. Dreamguard is bursting at the seams with padding.

Not to say that’s necessarily a bad thing; it’s beautifully written padding and all of it is presumably at least thematically relevant – I’m not a modern literature person; give me something written in the years B.C. and I’ll be right at home, but I wouldn’t know how to go about puzzling out the purpose behind some some of the material in Dreamguard. It makes both books read like a series of loosely connected vignettes, which is exactly what a dream is like, and Dreamguard is all about dreaming.

However, it’s also very much not a good thing. I gave up on Tiger’s Island on my first attempt, frustrated at its apparent lack of plot and convinced that Mr. Dutton should just have written a short story anthology, since that was clearly what he was actually interested in writing.

That said, as irritating as the ‘sit down and let me tell you a story’ parts are, the ‘filler’ is gorgeous. I’ll try and give you an idea of what sort of thing is in these books: a philosophical penguin. Butterflies made of metal that feed on oil-producing flowers. A future society where everything is obsessively labelled from the people to the trees to the clouds. The tree that grows in the valley of the sun. A giant lying eternally near death after the tree that grew from his chest was uprooted. Almost every character has an extensive backstory that is inevitable related in detail. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Dreamguard is full of vivid, bizarre, beautiful and disturbing images. Up until re-reading them, I couldn’t summarise the plot beyond a vague ‘something about… a witch? With a magic television? And their mother gets kidnapped?’, but hell if I couldn’t describe a lot of scenes in detail, right down to the exact words used. I’m not sure I fully understand the impact reading these books had on my development but I suspect it was significant.

I also feel I should mention that since re-reading them, Dreamguard has cropped up in my own dreams. I think that was inevitable. (It was the part with the lovers whose passion for each other drives them to bite, claw and burn themselves to death. I did say these books were disturbing at times.)

So, then: I like these books. I like them a lot. I didn’t particularly like them at fifteen, but at twenty-one something about them just works. And even if I didn’t like them, I couldn’t help but respect the achievement; these are intricate, vivid books, and it’s obvious from, well, everything about them that they were a labour of love. According to the copyright information John and Charles are based on real people; I’m not sure who they are/were but it’s clear this was a very personal project.

Why, then, am I so unsurprised that they failed? Well, firstly, any book that defies classification as thoroughly as these do is going to be walking a very fine line by default. Then there’s this problem: at fifteen and therefore technically about the right age for YA fiction I was too young to understand the philosophical material but old enough to feel that a book about talking stuffed animals was talking down to me. Anyone young enough to be willing to read a book about living toys is going to be utterly mystified by Dreamguard.

The style is… well. It’s extremely vivid, and it’s certainly not bad, but there’s a big problem with it. I’m going to quote a short passage of dialogue from St. Giles’s Fair and I want anyone to happens to read this to try and guess the respective ages of John and Charles at this point in the narrative (which is long before they get split into child and adult selves). Charles speaks first.

“I could be a grown-up,” he said. “I think. But I have a feeling there’s something more. Some secret I don’t know yet.”

“What sort of secret?”

“Not sure. Their laughter, maybe. Specially when it’s on the other side of a door. Urges working in them when I don’t feel them in me.”

“You’re keen on money,” said John. “And that’s a grown-up thing. True, you’re too young for a love affair.”

“Who’d want one of those! The’re too many round this house as it is. No. Nothing like that.”

“You tell me, then.”

“I have the suspicion,” (Charles) said, “that they want the world to make sense.”

“Doesn’t it?”

“Give me one good reason why it should.”

Ready? John is eleven. Charles is nine. Nine. Very intelligent for nine, true. Frequently described as old beyond his years, yes. But still nine. I have yet to meet a nine-year-old who talks like Charles does here. This gets very disconcerting later on; when they’re split into child and adult, there’s no perceptible difference until adult John and Charles encounter child John and Charles… and child John and Charles act nothing like John and Charles did pre-split. Thankfully this gets less aggravating by the second book, as their ages start to catch up with the way they talk, but still.

Pretty much every character talks like that. The result is that the human characters – John, Charles and Susan – are next to indistinguishable from each other in their blandness. The ‘unreal’ animal characters are the ones that really carry the books. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not.

The dialogue issue brings me to by far my biggest problem with Dreamguard. These are some of the most pretentious fantasy books I have ever read. At one point there’s a footnote that directs the reader (and this is a YA book, remember) to look up the tune of a specific Scottish folk song, then provides a full academic-style reference. The third book was to have an appendix containing, amongst other things, fuller details of Grayach and Hippo’s chess match. There’s a whole chapter about the nature of humour. There’s original poetry in Latin embedded into the text (and while I’m not a Latinist, it strikes me as pretty decent poetry). There’s eastern philosophy. There’s pseudo-communist political theory. Every other chapter is an allegory for something or another.

These are books that take themselves very, very seriously, and taking yourself too seriously almost always backfires. I like these books; I think they’re good books. But they’re not good enough to carry that much weight. There’s just too much here; you end up with the intellectual equivalent of sensory overload.

On top of that – I mentioned that John and Charles’s parents are intellectuals. John and Charles are both highly intelligent. Of the animal characters, Tiger and Hippo are both geniuses of almost supernatural skill. The resulting intellectual elitism is… uncomfortable. At one point Murgatroyd tells John and Charles that once released from Megan’s television they’ll be ‘only fit for some office job‘, and both are horrified at the prospect. And yes, being stripped of their creative potential is nasty, but… what’s wrong with office jobs? Not everyone can be a creative genius, after all. I’m not sure ‘intellectual elitism’ is even the right term for this, but whatever it is I don’t like it.

Ultimately, I think the problem with Dreamguard is that it’s too complicated and pretentious to be appreciated by it’s apparent intended audience of children and young adults, but also not really good enough to be appreciated by an adult audience. Plenty of YA books have won nigh-universal acclaim despite confounding younger readers; I just finished re-reading The Owl Service by Alan Garner, which also left me in a state of confusion when I first read it, but which is probably one of the most beloved and most heavily analysed works of fantasy of the last fifty years. The Owl Service succeeds because it’s extremely tightly written and above all because it’s subtle and unpretentious in its fusion of Welsh mythology and the relationship between modern England and Wales. Dreamguard is rarely subtle and never unpretentious.

It’s unfortunate, because I do think that Dreamguard could have succeeded with a better editor. At fifteen I felt that it should have been edited into a fairly straightforward adventure story; now, with a better understanding of the stranger material, I think it could perhaps have been something similar to Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which also blurs the line between children’s and adult fiction and fuses fantasy with intense philosophy with much greater success. Above all, I think it should have taken itself less seriously. I concur fully with my fifteen-year-old self: no book with talking sleeping bags as central characters has any right to be this pretentious.

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Books-to-Read

The above is the stack of unread books that currently resides in my room. (Naturally the cats are an essential part of the whole affair. They function as book-guardians. Also they’re cute.) This has been pretty much a permanent feature for a while now, at least four years.  Some of the books up there have been on the stack for at least six months. One has been there for almost four years. Ah.

To go through them one at a time:

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett: This was a Christmas present. It’s historical fiction set in Scotland and I can’t say I know much about it other than that. The copy I have is also old enough that the price is listed as 40p. Those were the days.

The Owl Service by Alan Garner: I’ve actually already read this one, but it was a long time ago and I didn’t really understand it. Few people fully understand The Owl Service who aren’t already familiar with the Mabinogion, the Welsh prose epic that forms the basis for the story. I read the Mabinogion for Celtic Studies a while back, then decided that I should really give The Owl Service another shot. Elidor was on the stack as well until a few days ago – I re-read that one in one sitting. It’s fantastic and I should probably review it.

Ben Hur by Lew Wallace: Hopefully this one goes without saying. I found it for 50p at a car boot sale and I liked the film so I thought I would buy it. I forsee it staying on the stack for a long time, though.

The Ropemaker by Peter Dickinson: Another book to be re-read. I read this for the first time when I was in secondary school and I enjoyed it so much I’m actually a little apprehensive about re-reading it in case it’s not as good as I remember. My memory of the plot is a bit garbled but I know that it involved a ropermaker (naturally), unicorns, and magic spoons.

The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko: This is the one that’s been there for three years! I won it in a pub quiz in fresher’s week of first year. It’s been sitting around for so long that it’s basically a permanent fixture now. I’m planning to read it next and get it over with.

Claudius the God by Robert Graves: Having read I, Claudius I feel like I should read this one as well for the sake of completion but everything I’ve heard says that it’s not as good. Hence I have put it off thus far.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman: This one sat in my ‘to buy’ on Amazon for a while. I figured now was a good time since I’m on the brink of actually finishing a novel (exciting, I know) so there’ll be editing to be done.

Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire: Really not looking forward to sitting through this monster, but having dragged my way with increasing reluctance through the other three books, I really can’t stop now. You can’t read three books out of a quartet and then stop. It’s the final book in the Wicked Years quartet. The other three are WickedSon of a Witch, and A Lion Amongst Men.

I am very much hoping to make a decent dent in this by the end of the summer, and so far so good, though it’s taken me until the last couple of days to start on any that have been there for longer than a month or so – naturally the ones I want to read (The Owl ServiceThe Ropemaker) are all recent additions.

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Noveling: The Ever-Present Trilogy

While typing up a previous post, I referred to the novel trilogy I’ve been working on for going on ten years now as ‘my Ever-Present novel’, and it immediately occurred to me that that would actually make for a pretty good working title for the trilogy. It’s been lacking a working title ever since I ditched the previous one – The Shining Darkness – for having nothing to do with the story at all. (In my defence, it does sound pretty cool.)

This novel has existed in a lot of different forms (and I mean a lot) even only including the ones since I started attempting to put it to paper. The tone, themes and overall focus have swung all over the place. However, I’m fairly sure the most recent draft is a winner. Aside from anything else, it’s currently very nearly at 150,000 words (it might hit 150k tonight, actually), making it by far the longest thing I’ve written to date. It’ll be 170,000 by the time it’s done… and that’s just part one.

What turned out to be the key to success in sustaining a draft for more than a couple of pages (I’ve had one substantial draft before which made it to 50,000 words – again, I got to the end of part one out of three) was doing it completely by accident. A previous draft had started with a short prologue with around a thousand words about each character to provide some backstory, and I found one of them intriguing enough that, just for fun, I thought I’d write an expanded version. Forty thousand words later I had the beginning of a new draft on my hands.

But before I get to that, let’s talk about those other drafts.

The Pre-Written Version

I’m not going to talk about this too much, partly because for various reasons much of it is silly and embarrassing (and involves a lot of borderline-plagiarism) and partly because tracing the development of a story before I attempted to write it down is virtually impossible.

Mostly I bring this up in order to explain that this novel existed for a lonnnng time before I tried to write it down. It may date back to before I started school, though I’m not sure as it’s difficult to date memories before that. Reason being: this one is very closely attached to what’s best referred to as my ‘headspace’, a sort of on-going fantasy kitchen sink story that developed out of the imaginary friends I had when I was very little. (Sometimes I wonder how other people get by without having one of these to turn to when they get bored, to be honest.) Every draft of the Ever-Present novel has been a slimmed-down version of my headspace with the sillier aspects taken out.

The very first little slice of it to exist in written form is a play about some of the characters being abducted by aliens that I wrote (possibly co-wrote with my sister, not sure) to perform in primary school. It never got performed because I neglected to inform any of the teachers that I intended to perform a play. No, I don’t know either.

Handwritten Drafts

I have three of these, one of which is virtually identical to the first typed draft, so I’ll leave that for now. There was definitely at least one more. I have a vague idea there was another but I could be wrong for reasons I shall get to in a moment.

The very first draft, and the only one that’s really substantial, is naturally to date the one that’s closes to my headspace version, so I won’t say much because it’s a bit personal and a lot silly. To summarise: a recently-orphaned boy named Leo is mysteriously delivered to a very strange children’s home where all the residents are both a) magical and b) a little bit mad. The most interesting element of it, besides the fact that it’s actually quite long considering how young I was when I wrote it (maybe thirteen?) is the fact that at this stage Leo is for some reason under the impression that magic does not exist. I remember feeling strange about that when I wrote it and I seem to have dropped it very quickly in subsequent drafts.

I dropped that draft because I decided (correctly) that it was too silly and started another draft, which I decided was too serious. This is where things get shaky: I do indeed have a much more serious draft that may be the second one, except it’s written on plain paper, not lined paper, and I have a very strong feeling that the second draft was written on lined, from what I remember of actually writing it. Also, it occurs to me now, looking at the two side by side, that the difference in handwriting is quite pronounced which suggests there was quite a while between the two, and I have a plan that goes with the plain paper draft which has elements in it that I am pretty sure came considerably later. I deduce from this that there was indeed a second draft which I have lost.

The one on plain paper is what I call the ‘Version Version’, because for some reason I decided that each section should be called ‘Version’ something. The first part is called ‘Version Entrance’. Of all the early drafts this one is probably the strongest by a long way, but unfortunately it’s only a page long and Leo doesn’t even get to the children’s home.

There was one final handwritten draft that was so distinctive that I know absolutely for certain that I lost it. I call it the ‘Mrs Robinson draft’ and as I don’t have it I remember it very much through rose-tinted glasses. I suspect it was terrible. I had decided that the story should start with the death of Leo’s parents and tried writing that from the point of view of their next-door neighbour, which was a silly idea; the second part was from the point of view of the wizard who ran the children’s home and gave some background on why he spirited Leo away, which was considerably less silly.

Typed Drafts

The first typed draft was a major landmark not just for the Ever-Present novel but for my writing generally. At some point I grew sick of telling people I was ‘writing a novel’ and then sheepishly admitting that I only have twelve pages or so and decided to get the damn thing written. For the first time ever I started making myself write a thousand words a day, every day, until it was done, and keeping a proper record of my progress.

As a brief side note, this is the notebook I recorded that progress in:

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The records don’t tend to take up much space, so it’s mostly empty. I’m still using it to record my progress. It’s a good feeling. (Also it has Micky Mouse on the front, so.)

At this point I had yet to deviate significantly from the same story: Leo’s parents die (the circumstances of their deaths changefrom draft to draft), he is identified as having magical potential and taken to a specialised children’s home run by a wizard, and hijinks ensue. However, this draft progressed far enough to actually have a plot: increasingly extreme anti-magic feelings are developing in the wider world of the story, until eventually the atmosphere becomes to unsafe that the whole house full of children have to go on the run. The trauma and excitement of this triggers Leo’s latent magic, which turns out to be mindreading and at this stage seeing the future. They start living in a cave system by the sea, run by a fish-man named Archie (no, really) who is a old friend of their housekeeper, but are eventually spotted and ratted out to the authorities (who by this point are quite firmly on the anti-magic side). Things take a swerve for the dark and almost all the characters are killed before they can escape. End part one!

Parts two and three were going to be set at the same time, with events interweaving, but neither ever got off the ground, sadly. The surviving characters got split into two groups at the end of part one, both believing the others to be dead. One gets involved with the formal resistance, the other is more concerned with simply surviving and eventually forms a sort of resistance group of its own.

This is where the big break happened. The next draft I wrote was for NaNoWriMo 2007, and it is completely different. The anti-magic sentiments/oppressive government regime aspects remained, but the setting and characters got moved around.

The children’s home remained part of Leo’s backstory, but for the most part the plot was concerned with him leaving the home to go to a boarding school attached to a magical Temple (the Ellanei Temple – it gets more important later), where he meets the other main characters. I think at this stage I had settled on Annabel, a shape-shifter, Bridget, a healer and novice priestess at the temple, and Samuel, who is very skilled at divination, as the four leads, though I struggled to get Bridget involved with the plot.

This draft is… not good. Not at all. It was my first time doing NaNoWriMo so it’s mostly chaos. The overarching plot was handled very clumsily, though the character stuff isn’t that bad. The general shape of it is going to form book two of the trilogy, when I get there (hopefully soon).

I attempted two more typed drafts before getting to the current one. One mostly consists of the aforementioned prologue with character backstories, then would have progressed to the same sort of material as the NaNoWriMo draft, but it trailed off before then. It largely forms the basis for book one.

The final one got to just shy of ten thousand words and starts with a very introspective homage to the lost ‘Mrs Robinson’ draft; it opens with a prologue concerning an otherwise unrelated character named Julia Robinson being arrested for using magic. At this stage I had decided that the issues I was having were down to not starting when the action did, so this one began much later, with the anti-magic regime already in place, with flashbacks to the important prior events. What I have of it is going to form the basis for book three.

Current Draft

The current draft, therefore, is kind of a synthesis of all the previous drafts. I wrote one sequence – Leo’s discovery of his mindreading – with all the other drafts open in tabs so I could integrate my favourite parts of all of them. So that was fun.

So let’s talk about the current structure of the trilogy.

Part One: Phases of Being

Phases of Being is a very, very expanded version of what was originally just the prologue. It consists of four novellas (each around forty thousand words), one for each of the main characters, detailing their personal histories, setting up their characters, and generally getting them to the place(s) they need to be for part two. It takes them from age ten/eleven/twelve (depending on the character) to sixteen/seventeen. It’s also concerned with setting up the political situation and the declining position of magic. As this one is mostly complete and also quite complicated I’ll make another post just for it.

Part Two: Preliminary Castings

Will open with Samuel, Leo and Annabel arriving at the Temple School and Bridget juggling her new responsibility as school nurse with training to be a proper healer. It will be, in effect, a better executed version of the NaNoWriMo draft, with teenager-antics against a background of increasing social and political turmoil. The primary focus will be on Annabel dealing with her own various social issues and getting to a place where she can form proper relationships.

Personally, I think the title of this one is fairly self-explanatory – it’s setting things up for the third part, getting the characters into their places, etc., plus it’s a reference to Samuel’s rune-casting and the general foreshadowing of events to come.

Part Three: Candlelight

Fun fact: ‘Candlelight’ is the title of part three of the very first typed draft. In the chaos following the military coup that ends the second part, Bridget and Samuel are holed up in the Temple, where a resistance group begins to form, while Annabel and Leo are on the run in the Temple Town trying to survive and help others get to safety.

Of course, none of that is really an adequate summary of this completely ridiculous project. I shall make another post with more detail about Phases of Being, the most concrete part, and hopefully another one at some point about the world-building.

But before then, I’m going to go and hit 150k.

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Review: Tesco Jubilee Cupcakes

I have a confession: I am an monarchy apathist. I honestly could not care less. I’m not by any stretch pro-monarchy, but neither am I really a republican; I have ever so slightly too much of a sentimental attachment to the royal family to really fall into the anti-camp. So when it comes to occasions such as this, I can neither get into the spirit of things nor can I work up the energy to do what as my more staunchly republican friends do and use it as an opportunity to protest. I spent the entire royal wedding day in the university library studying for my exams – not as an anti-monarchist gesture, just because I’d honestly forgotten.

My interest in the Diamond Jubilee therefore extends to one thing and one thing only: the myriad array of different food products (not to mention ordinary food products in special wrapping – I bought a large bar of Dairy Milk today just because it came in a Union Jack) that supermarkets have been trotting out. More specifically, Tesco’s Jubilee Cupcakes.

As best I can tell, they did four varieties of these, but I never did get around to trying the Jam Splatter cupcakes. But going by the other three flavours, I doubt I missed all that much. So here are the three I did try, ranked from ‘worstest’ to ‘bestest’.

3. Ice Cream Sundae Cupcake

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These? Thoroughly disappointing. To start with, the packaging claimed they were decorated with chocolate flakes (as an ice cream sundae should be), but as you can see, that is clearly a chocolate button. For shame, Tesco. Then again, going by the product page on their website, they were supposed to be topped with actual flakes, so I suppose I must blame the staff at my local Tesco who did the finishing. For shame, local Tesco. It wasn’t even a very nice chocolate button.

Other than that, these were mostly just basic vanilla cupcakes. The coloured balls on top were a nice touch, I guess, but Tesco’s basic vanilla cupcake just isn’t particularly nice. It’s kind of bland and something about the texture is ever so slightly off – a bit too chewy, maybe? The frosting is also nothing special, and there was way too much of it, but that goes for all of these.

I’m not really sure what I was expecting an ice cream sundae cupcake to be, given that actual ice cream cupcakes need to be stored in the freezer, but if you can make birthday cake icecream I am sure you can make an ice cream sundae cupcake. All in all, good presentation, disappointing cake.

2. Custard Cream Cupcakes

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The other two varieties were the really fun ones, and far more interesting than their ice cream-y brethren. For one thing, they actually do taste like what they’re supposed to! Unfortunately, I neglected to photograph mine, so have Tesco’s photo instead.

These ones have a really gaudy presentation, which I’m not sure what to make of – they don’t exactly look like custard creams, but there’s still something weirdly fitting about them. The frosting most definitely does taste like the filling in a custard cream, though I think the flavour could be more pronounced. However, the cupcake has all the usual problems – this is why I doubt I missed anything with the Jam Splatter cupcakes, I suspect the jam would not have been very nice and the base would have been slightly-off vanilla – and the biscuit crumbs on top don’t really add much.

Still, though, points for actually tasting like what it’s supposed to taste like, and it’s certainly exceedingly British.

1. Bourbon Cream Cupcake

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I am completely in love with these cupcakes and most put out that they have to go away. They should make these all year round. I’d buy them! It’s nice to finally see a British equivalent to a Cookies and Cream cupcake.

My only real complaint here is that the biscuit crumbs on top are generic chocolate biscuit rather than actually tasting like a Bourbon Cream, but then again Bourbon Creams are not the most exciting-tasting chocolate biscuit in the world, so perhaps that was for the best. The frosting is fantastic – everything the Custard Cream frosting should have been but wasn’t. It really does taste just like a Bourbon Cream filling. And on top of that – or inside that, rather – they have a chocolate syrupy filling!

Thankfully, Tesco’s basic chocolate sponge is far more palatable than it’s vanilla. It tastes remarkably like the Co-operative chocolate sponge, actually – I suspect foul play at work. But aside from the possible nefarious inter-supermarket recipe swapping, this is a really good cupcake and I am sad to see it go.

So, that has been a completely inane review! Hopefully someone will enjoy my thoughts on supermarket own-brand baked goods. Until then, though, I have a novel to write, and hopefully much blogging to do.

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Review: The True State of Affairs

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I am still not sure how I came to be locked up here, but things are coming clearer. I shall find out in the end.’

I finished reading Diana Wynne Jones’ actual books a while back – I forget exactly when – and since then I’ve been working my way through the other things she wrote, off and on. That’s how I came across The True State of Affairs, the last really substantial work of fiction by her that I hadn’t read, and probably one of her most obscure works. Just to be awkward, it’s currently only available in Minor Arcana, an anthology containing six other shorts collected in either Mixed Magics or Unexpected Magic, both of which I already own, so I put off buying it until I realised it was actually a novella, not a short story, and well over a hundred pages long.

It’s much bleaker than her other work and much more adult (I will probably never get over the weirdness of hearing a Diana Wynne Jones character talk about orgasms). It falls, for the most part, into the high fantasy genre, which is unusual, and is very nearly a prequel to the Dalemark quartet – no-one seems to know whether to count it as a Dalemark story or not. Some of the geography and politics is there, but there’s all sorts of vital pieces of Dalemark missing. And I really do like it. I think it’s probably the best bit of adult fiction she wrote, and definitely her only work that is self-consciously adult to actually hang together (the other being A Sudden Wild Magic, which… no). I like the characters, I like the arc of it and I like the pervading claustrophobia of it. There’s also, unfortunately, three aspects of it I really don’t like.

Firstly, though, the plot. The True State of Affairs is about a young woman named Emily from modern Kent (exactly when she comes from isn’t clear – I initially assumed nineteenth century-ish but there’s references later on that disprove that) who finds herself in what is best termed proto-Dalemark. She is somehow tricked into switching clothes with a woman named Hilda, who turns out to be associated with a rebel party. Emily is captured in her place, and even when her captors realise she is not Hilda they still take her for a rebel spy or messenger and imprison her in a castle.

From there on, there are two interconnected plots: one in which Emily tries to ascertain the state of affairs in the country she has found herself trapped in so as to come up with a convincing lie as to her origins (presumably the truth would not go down well), and one in which she encounters and is romanced by the other prisoner in the castle, Asgrim. Asgrim is, as it happens, the leader of the rebels, who is being held until the remaining rebels have been ‘mopped up’. Early on, she manages to convice her jailer, Edwin, to give her paper and ink, and begins writing out an account of her confinement.

There’s politics, lots of politics, filtered through multiple unreliable narrators – Emily herself, who is naturally confused and takes a long time to really get her bearings, Edwin, who suffers from a combination of ignorance and a sort of naivete, and Wolfram, Edwin’s superior and half-brother of the leader of their faction. There’s also a lot of cultural confusion, as despite the many familiar aspects proto-Dalemark is profoundly alien to Emily, and her innocent mistakes lead her to seriously misunderstand her relationship with Asgrim.

Then there’s the aforementioned three problems. The first is the ending, which I won’t go into detail about, but it is rushed. This is a problem that a lot of Diana Wynne Jones’ books tend to share, and it’s not the worst offender – not even closer – but it’s still irksome when the rest of the novella had been so slow-paced.

The second is the irritatingly unanswered question throughout: how exactly did Emily end up in proto-Dalemark in the first place? This is never explained. We’re never given any reason to think that her England is not the real England, and yet she seems remarkably unsurprised to find herself in another world. She never makes any attempt to describe the process that brought her to Dalemark, nor does she ever seem to consider going home as a serious aim. This really should be pure ‘stranger in a strange land’ plot device, which would usually drive me up the wall, but I think the realism with which Emily gets to grips with her situation saves it… just about.

The third, and my biggest problem with the novella, is more subjective and also far more complicated. This is one of only two of Diana Wynne Jones’ works (that I know of – I’ve seen another reviewer refer to Hexwood as a third but I re-read that lately and didn’t pick up on anything) to deal with homosexuality, and the only one to include more than passing references. Wolfram, Emily’s captor and initially the primary antagonist, is gay, explicitly described as such, and his struggles with his own sexuality in a culture that Emily surmises to be deeply homophobic proves to be a major humanising factor for him. Wolfram is the most fully developed character in the work short of Emily herself, and the most interesting outright. He appears initially as a slimy jailer and obvious villain; by the end Emily is forced to acknowledge him as a friend.

The problem lies partly in how Wolfram expresses his sexuality and partly in who he is attracted to. Wolfram’s overall sliminess I could put up with – it’s pretty clear from Emily’s narration that he is a gay map who happens to express his sexuality in a creepy way rather than some kind of archetypical gay man – were he not the only major gay character in all of Diana Wynne Jones’ published works. In isolation, I can definitely put up with it.

By far the biggest issue is then the character who Wolfram is attracted to. Emily’s initial suspicion regarding his sexuality is confirmed when he develops a clear attraction to Kjarten, Asgrim’s fourteen-year-old son who comes to visit his father. Unlike his general sliminess, the way this is presented reads to me as if attraction to teenage boys is perfectly normal for gay men, which is… an uncomfortable message, to say the least.

The whole affair is treated with a remarkable degree of dignity, and to give credit where credit is due, Wolfram clearly has no intention of doing anything more than holding Kjarten’s hand without clear permission, despite the fact that Kjarten is a prisoner and probably could be forced if Wolfram so wished. The conclusion Emily eventually comes to is that as much as she disapproves of Wolfram’s attraction and how he expresses it, his feelings are genuinely heartfelt and she can’t but sympathise when Kjarten makes a point of most definitely not letting Wolfram down gently. But despite all the careful treatment, it’s an uncomfortable read.

Overall, though, the realism and level of detail of The True State of Affairs is fantastic. It feels like a small piece of a much larger story – Asgrim’s story – which according to the introduction of the anthology is exactly what it was intended to be. For the first time I think it’s a pity Diana Wynne Jones wrote so little adult fiction, because I would love to be able to read more like this.

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