strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
(Still working through my 2015 reading, here...)

This is the first ever self-declared Gothic novel, in that from at least the second edition onwards it bore the subtitle 'a Gothic story'. But we are at the birth of a genre here, and the meaning of the word 'Gothic' has changed a great deal since. By it, Walpole meant primarily 'medieval' and 'Romantic' - not dark, anguished or (obviously, as they were yet in the future) Victorian. The castle of the title is not remote, storm-battered or half-ruined, but the living seat of a southern-Italian nobleman and his family, inhabited by princesses and visited by knights trailing pennants behind them. And while there are supernatural goings-on, they are more in the vein of the fantastical elements in medieval stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight than the lurking, horrible Things from the Other Side which the word 'Gothic' tends to evoke now. Indeed, Walpole presented it on first publication as a translation of exactly such a newly-discovered medieval Romance - not as his own work at all. (Wikipedia has reasonable background details.)

All of this means there are quite a few assumptions to unpick for the 21st-century reader who approaches this book through the filter of later Gothic literature. Is it worth it? I think yes, but more for the sake of understanding the history of the novel and the Romance generally than the genre of Gothic specifically. There are Generational Feuds, Terrible Tyrants, Lost Heirs, Mistaken Identities, Tragic Misunderstandings, Unrequited Loves, Forbidden Loves, Crossed Loves, Wronged Women and Pious Heroes. Probably most 18th-century novels are much the same, but I think this may actually the earliest English novel I have ever read right through, so I am mostly familiar with these tropes and devices through later works, where they are usually being subverted, given new twists or knowingly satirised. Indeed, even here Walpole is doing something quite new by introducing fantastical and supernatural elements into the mix. And it would be unfair to suggest that the work is stuffily self-important - there are touches of humour, too, particularly (à la Shakespeare) revolving around the lower-class characters. But the melodrama setting is definitely higher, and more in earnest, than I am used to. As such, I found it a fascinating insight into the world of the 18th-century novel - and particularly the reasons why young ladies were so often forbidden to read them!

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strange_complex: (Cities condor in flight)
This was my first film watched of 2016, so naturally I made sure it was one with Christopher Lee in it! I missed these films in the cinema, so have had them on my Lovefilm list for a while in order to catch up, and having now seen this one on DVD I regret not making the effort to see it on the big screen at the time. It was very definitely made with that scale in mind, so that some of the fight scenes in particular were difficult to follow even on my quite substantial TV. This applied especially to the scenes of escape from the goblin mountain, during which our main party were frequently little more than pin-pricks on my screen, while the generally brownish-grey colour-scheme did nothing at all to help me tell who was whom. I might also add that the bumps and falls which our merry band sustain in this scene and indeed throughout the film with no significant ill effect make what Bruce Willis manages to survive in Die Hard look positively realistic.

That aside, though, I enjoyed the film very much. It is a long time since I read the book (at least 24 years, I reckon), so I wasn't in the least bit bothered by any departures from (or more usually additions to) the original narrative - rather, just generally glad that Tolkien bequeathed us with these extraordinary soaring legends in the first place, and that I live in an era when they have been brought to life so magnificently on screen. OK, so there's a slight feeling of 'I Can't Believe It's Not Lord of the Rings' about this trilogy, but that's inevitable really. And besides, there's actually quite a case for saying that The Hobbit gains something for having been told on screen after The Lord of the Rings, and experienced in its wake. I was struck for example by the sense that Gandalf was both written and played as distinctly less wise and experienced than I remembered him being in the LoTR trilogy; while meeting Gollum for the first time and seeing the pivotal moment when he first loses his Precious was just so much more powerful and captivating seen in the light of what will happen later than it could possibly be the other way round.

Christopher Lee's scenes are minimal, of course, partly to allow for his age and partly because Saruman's character is one of Jackson's additions to the original story, so is only inserted as a cameo really. He filmed them against green-screens in the UK, separately from the other actors in the same scene (this YouTube video shows how). Nonetheless, they are well worth watching if you are a fan, mainly for the same reasons as I've given in re Gandalf and Gollum above of getting to see a different take on his character in the light of what you know will come later. Lee puts exactly the right irascibility and dismissiveness of his fellow White Council members into his delivery, without ever tipping the character over the top into anything actively obstructive or power-hungry, to show us how and why Saruman will eventually change his allegiance, but also why Gandalf and the Elves still trust his advice and seek his input at this stage in the story. Just what we might have expected of him, in other words, but I'm glad it's there on screen and that he lived to do it.

I shall definitely be lining up the next two instalments on my Lovefilm list, in spite of the small-screen issue, but also looking out for opportunities to see all three as they were meant to be viewed in the cinema.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is one of my little stock of Christopher-Lee-films-taped-off-the-telly, which I watched on Sunday night as a treat after a weekend spent delivering leaflets. It is in fact also one of the 22 films in which he co-starred with Peter Cushing, although Cushing is criminally under-used, appearing for all of about three minutes of screen time, and never on screen at the same time at Christopher Lee. It seems strange in retrospect, now that they are so widely recognised as an iconic pairing, that anyone producing a film after about 1965 could cast the two of them and not put them in lots of scenes where they could bounce off each other to their hearts' content, but this isn't the only film which does this - Scream and Scream Again (1969) is just the same, for example. I guess the truth is that it takes a while for any creative formula to move through being viewed as old hat and acquire iconic status, and by the time that really happened for the formula of Cushing + Lee, Cushing was nearing the end of his working career. As far as I can see, the only films which really self-consciously treat them as an iconic pairing (rather than simply the box-office draws of the moment) are One More Time (1970), Horror Express (1973) and House of the Long Shadows (1983). Then again, though, maybe too much knowing, self-referential usage of them would have become tiresome in itself, casting a pallor over their earlier and more serious encounters which merely failing to make good use of them doesn't do.

Anyway, while we don't get much of Peter Cushing in this film, we certainly get lots of Christopher Lee, who plays an evil Caliph with magical powers ruling over a fantastical Arabian kingdom. The main plot involves a dashing young prince from Baghdad who hopes to marry the Caliph's step-daughter, but is sent to prove himself worthy first by bringing back a Magic MacGuffin known as the Rose of Elil. This is supposed to be a Hopeless Quest At Which Countless Others Have Failed, but TBH I have seen a lot of fantasy films, and the barriers between prince and rose in this film are no great shakes. In fact, I'm pretty sure Dorothy works her way through worse in order to bring the Wizard of Oz the Wicked Witch of the West's broom. In any case, obviously the prince succeeds, with help from two sidekicks - one a simple boy with a magical gem and a cute monkey on a lead, and the other one of the Caliph's more incompetent guards who is sent to undermine the mission, but of course ends up helping in spite of himself. And although the Caliph was planning to use the Rose to make himself invincibly powerful while reneging on his promise to the prince, they naturally manage to defeat him, while freeing the city and the people into the bargain. In other words, it could not be more tropish if it tried.

This is great news for Christopher Lee, who gets to ham it up to the nines in a fantasy villain role complete with a floor-length black robed costume with red accents (but obviously he'd moved well beyond Dracula by this time, you understand). Perhaps not such great news for the film as a whole, though, which looks more or less indistinguishable from a load of other fantasy films of the late '70s and early '80s as a result. It reminded me in particular of a number of Ray Harryhausen films, to the extent that it almost seems like a missing link between his two mid-'70s Sinbad films and 1981's Clash of the Titans. Certainly, I'd be astonished if Arabian Adventure wasn't designed as a conscious attempt to capitalise on the popularity of the Sinbad films. Apart from the obvious matter of the setting, it shares with them motifs such as quests for magical items, princes seeking the hands of princesses, cities under curfews, evil magicians, people being turned into animals, battles with giant creatures, genies in bottles and so forth. Of course all of these are standard tropes in a story-telling tradition ultimately rooted in the One Thousand and One Nights, and here encompassing especially The Thief of Bagdad (1940), but it was very definitely Harryhausen's Sinbad films that were bearing the popular torch for them when this film was made. The cycle of influence seemed to me to travel in two directions rather than just one, though, as there are motifs from this film which appear in turn in Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans - for example, in the resemblance between the dank and terrible swamp where the Rose of Elil grows and Calibos' very similar lair in Clash.

Speaking of the One Thousand and One Nights, I am never quite sure where I stand when faced with a film like this on the issue of whether westerners re-telling and re-working its stories are inevitably engaging in Orientalising cultural appropriation, or simply drawing on a rich and interesting story tradition in the same way as we have (for example) drawn on those of the ancient world. Those examples obviously aren't equivalent, since western European culture views itself as the inheritor of ancient stories, and tends to express both a right to use them and an admiration for them in its retellings, whereas the relation between western and Islamic culture has centuries of hostility, othering and aggressive imperialism behind it. But the difficulty is that we can't separate out our engagement with its stories from that context - i.e. we can't tell what sort of reception the One Thousand and One Nights would have had in the west if the culture they came from was viewed differently in relation to ours. Would people in Britain still have lapped them up anyway, in the same way as we have the Germanic stories collected by the Brothers Grimm or the Danish ones of Hans Christian Andersen? Or has their appeal traditionally stemmed from their perceived status as the product of an exoticised Other? We can't tell (and it's a false dichotomy anyway).

What we can do, though, is look at culture dynamics of individual takes on the stories. This one scores pretty badly in its casting, which fills most of its the main roles with western people made to look a bit swarthy, while putting actual middle eastern actors (of whom there are a few) in minor secondary roles. In fairness, the innocent boy with the monkey, who is the film's main point-of-view character, is played by an actor of Indian descent (though even he was actually born in London), but I don't think that actually helps. It pretty much seems to amount to saying "Oh, brown people - they're all the same, aren't they?" All of this is of course still a problem in 2014, but that doesn't make it any less of one in 1979. On the other hand, where the story could have stuck at portraying middle eastern society as inherently characterised by autocratic tyrannies (as personified in Christopher Lee's character), there is actually a sub-plot in which a heroic band of local freedom fighters are working to overthrow him and reinstate Peter Cushing's character, a political prisoner of the Caliph who was once the enlightened and democratically-elected leader of their city. That said, even that may well just be an attempt to reproduce the role of the rebel alliance seeking to overthrow the Empire in Star Wars (released two years earlier), rather than to than reflect the political complexities of the Islamic world.

In short, tropish, unoriginal and politically unreconstructed, but it does have a minor role to play in the history of cinematic fantasy stories, and Christopher Lee is definitely good value in it.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I saw this almost three weeks ago now, and have been wanting to write about it ever since, but life is busy, and this was never going to be a short review. I thought it was great, though. It hasn't been getting the best reviews, apparently, but I haven't been reading them anyway, because I was always going to watch this with a different eye from most critics, so I don't really care what they think. Rather, it was obvious to me from the first trailers I saw that this film was going to do something I have long yearned for in a Dracula movie - make a proper attempt to explain how the historical Vlad III Dracula might have become a vampire, and do it by using something very much like the Scholomance mythos (in brief, an underground Devil's school which is part of Romanian folk-legend, is exactly where Bram Stoker says Dracula got his dark powers from, and may ultimately derive from genuine ancient pagan religious practices).

I am fundamentally positively disposed towards the idea that the Dracula of vampire legend should have begun his life as the historical Voievod. It really enriches almost any Dracula story for me to have that wealth of back-story sitting behind the character (whether or not Stoker himself used the historical figure as anything much more than a bit of vague window-dressing). I also like the idea of vampirism having its roots in ancient paganism, which the Scholomance legend can evoke without needing to be explicit about it, and which is toyed with in Hammer's Brides of Dracula. So I went into this film already loving it for even having attempted to bring all that to life on screen. And I came out feeling that even if it hadn't been the perfect movie, or told the story in quite the way I have sketched out in my own head during idle moments, it is still probably the best shot the modern-day film industry will ever take at stitching together the two.

Of course, because I'm a historian, my perfect Dracula-the-vampire origin story would respect what we actually know of the historical Dracula to the letter - but no-one else would want to go and see that film, because it would be dry, dull and dramatically unsatisfying. Meanwhile, the word is that Universal were basically using the film to fly the kite for a reboot of their 'monsters' back-catalogue in the form of a superhero-style multi-verse. So what they needed to do was to turn the historical Dracula into a classic 'troubled hero' type figure. Their take is that he was so determined to protect both his country and his family against impossible odds that he accepted the power of vampirism in full knowledge of its potential dangers, and as a result achieved what he wanted for others, but paid a terrible personal price. This adds up to a fine dramatic arc, and leaves them at the end of the film with a sympathetic superhero figure with a dark past - just what they needed! But history does get pretty distorted in the process.

As it happens, I've just finished reading a Proper Academic Book about the historical Dracula (to be reviewed in its own right shortly), so I am in a very good position indeed to spot the historical inaccuracies in this film. Here are some of them - and the reasons why Universal apparently introduced them )

Not super-accurate, then, in short. But my list is not meant as a stick to beat the film with. As I've shown, all of its deviations from the historical record (as we know it) have an obvious dramatic justification in terms of the story it wanted to tell. And in any case, this isn't a historical drama. It is a superhero / vampire movie. Having gone into the cinema to watch a film about the historical Vlad III Dracula turning into a vampire, it would be pretty churlish to then insist that everything else about the film should be entirely historically accurate (much as I, personally, would pay big money to see that film nevertheless). Meanwhile, for all that individual events are obviously distorted, embellished or entirely invented, I actually think that overall, the feel of Dracula's reign was captured pretty effectively. My guess is that someone did some pretty careful historical research during the early stages of this film's development, and that although quite a lot of what they found out was later laid aside for dramatic reasons, much of it survived to inform the outlines and atmosphere of the story.

Certainly, the basic situation of Dracula as a warlord in a small, geographically-remote country, vastly out-resourced by a neighbouring imperial power, is pretty effectively conveyed. The outlines of his conflict with the Ottomans are roughly right, too, even if the outcome of the final confrontation with Mehmed II is bobbins. And the landscape through which the action unfolds feels plausible too - the castles, the forests, the monasteries - even if the details aren't precise. OK, so it's all a bit Game of Thrones-ified (directly in the casting of Art Parkinson as Dracula's son and the location filming in Northern Ireland, and indirectly in the feasts, drapery and Dracula's improbably-blonde wife), but again, this is a fantasy film, and as such jolly well should be in dialogue with other productions in the same genre. Also, the special effects employed when Dracula used his vampire powers to control the weather and lay the smack down on the Ottoman army with his cloud of bats almost made me wonder if they'd been developed on the basis of some of the descriptions of those very same battles from the Ottoman primary sources. This is the sort of passage I'm thinking of:
Being told about the defeat of his army which he had sent to prevent the Moldavians' attack, [Vlad] Țepeș found nothing better to do than to attack the mighty Sultan. On a dark night, his heart full of wickedness and accompanied by his Infidel army, he flew like a black cloud towards the army of the wise Sultan, attacking him... At midnight the army of Wallachia started like a torrent towards the Imperial camp and made their way on horse into the middle of the triumphant army. The Turkish soldiers thrust their fiery swords deep into their black hearts. The heaps of corpses which poisoned the earth were so high that the victims of the slaughter could be easily seen even on such a dark night. [Source: Appendix II.E, Treptow 2000]
OK, so in the film the heaps of corpses are Ottoman, rather than Wallachian, but if you've seen it I think you'll recognise the sorts of scenes which are being described here.

There is an obvious political problem with telling the story of Dracula's historical conflicts with the Ottoman empire in a 21st-century context, though. It is essentially an east vs. west narrative, and if your superhero origin story requires you to cast Dracula as the hero, that means the Ottomans - i.e. a bunch of Muslims - are going to appear in the role of the enemy. Some of the problems with the way the Ottomans are portrayed in the film are outlined in this New Statesman article, although I'm afraid the article as a whole really annoyed me, because it perpetrates massive historical inaccuracies about Dracula even while complaining about the film's inaccuracies regarding the Ottomans. (For the record, the Ottomans did not attack Wallachia to 'quell' Dracula's 'blood-thirst', but because he had stopped paying tribute to them, and nor did the Hungarians arrest him because they had 'had enough of his grizzly antics' either, but for their own reasons of political expediency.) The issue is definitely there, though. I don't think it's quite as bad as the similar set-up in 300, where the Persians were literally portrayed as inhuman monsters, but it's true that the Ottoman characters in Dracula Untold are portrayed as aggressive, arrogant, amoral, authoritarian and materialistic, in contrast to the brave, honourable, individually-developed and impoverished Wallachians (or Transylvanians, as the film has it). Some of the dialogue also reflects very contemporary-sounding prejudices. In one scene, two Wallachians / Transylvanians approach the Ottoman camp, and say something along the lines of "Have you ever seen anything like it?" "Soon everyone will be Turks". I could really have done without that - and, rather sadly, I don't think I can really conceive of a world in which an American-made east vs. west film would ever be made without at least some of it.

But so far I've talked about this largely as though it were a historical drama, and it is not. On the supernatural side of things, I've already said how thrilled I was to see that the film-makers had decided to have Dracula become a vampire thanks to an encounter with a devilish creature in a cave - i.e. something very much in line with the Scholomance mythos. Apparently, in earlier drafts of the script, this character, who is played by Charles Dance, was explicitly presented as the Roman emperor Caligula, which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense. Certainly, as filmed, the character is portrayed as power-hungry, eaten away with corruption, and keen to become master of his own deadly set of supernatural games. (His last line, "Let the games begin", seems to suggest that he has only just got started on an elaborate master-plan, presumably to be unveiled across a series of further films.) All of that matches up well enough with Caligula, but seems to have been ironed out during production into a more generic back-story, in which Dance's character is simply an ancient magician, rather than any specific individual. And honestly, although the prospect of a film about Dracula which also had a Roman emperor in it would have been Really Quite Exciting, I think that was the right choice. The original conception would have distracted from and complicated the main story, while the more generic version allows room for him to be whomsoever the viewer might choose - including Zalmoxis if you like it that way (which I do!).

Anyway, Dance is absolutely fantastic in that role, bringing to it every ounce of the great British villain tradition in a manner which Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes or indeed Christopher Lee could be proud of. Indeed, most of the cast were pretty impressive, although some of the characters which they were playing could have done with being developed better by the script. After Bram Stoker's Dracula, I think there is a whole generation of film-goers who react viscerally against the idea of any story-line involving Dracula's love for his wife surviving over the centuries and being rekindled by her reincarnation, which unfortunately does happen at the end of this film, but if you can bring yourself to give that a pass I think it was quite effective to include his wife in the story, so that we could see the impact of the changes which he undergoes on that very personal relationship. She is the first one to realise that something very bizarre has happened to her husband, to try to help him cover it up, and eventually (of course!) to suffer for it, while he has to grapple with and try to resist the intense urge to drink her blood. And although she obviously has to act within the framework of an essentially medieval society, she is clearly delineated as strong and capable character - again in quite a Game of Thrones-ish sort of way.

Meanwhile, the overall look of the film, and especially the clouds of killer bats, was just great, and I particularly loved the spectacle of hordes of properly ghoulish-looking vampires stalking through the battle-fields towards the end of the film, helping Vlad to wreak hideous vengeance on his enemies. If you think you might like it, those visuals alone make it worth catching in the cinema, rather than waiting for the DVD. And thankfully, I've just about managed to get this review up while you still have time for that.

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strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Very neatly, [livejournal.com profile] wig tagged me for this meme on LJ, and TAFKAK tagged me for it on Facebook on the same day last week. So I shall answer it in both places, but obviously LJ lends itself better to nice formatting and having space to make some actual comments about the books. I have taken the concept of the books 'staying with me' seriously, and thus listed ones which both meant a lot to me at the time of original discovery and to which I have returned regularly since. They are listed (as best as I could remember) in the order in which I first encountered them.

L. Frank Baum (1900), The Wizard of Oz
This stands for the whole series, of course. I was certainly quite obsessed with them by the age of six, and indeed a picture of me reading one of them to my friends on that birthday can be seen here. The 1939 film was important too, of course, and I'm pretty sure I had seen it by that age, but there were more of the books, with far more wonderful characters and adventures than the film could deliver. Dad used to read the books to me as bedtime stories, I used to read and re-read them myself, and of course there was a great deal of dressing up, playing at being characters from the books and so on with the very friends shown in the picture, and especially [livejournal.com profile] hollyione. A lifetime love of fantastical stories was to follow...

Alison Uttley (1939), A Traveller in Time
Did loads of other people read this as children? I don't hear it mentioned very often as a children's classic, but it was another big favourite of my childhood, and has literally stayed with me in the sense that I still have my copy of it. I haven't done that for many of my childhood books - though the Oz series are another exception. Doubtless one of the attractions all along was the fact that the main character, a young girl from the 20th century, is called Penelope. But also, time travel! While staying in a Tudor manor house, she repeatedly finds herself slipping back to its early days, and interacting with characters from the reign of Elizabeth I. Clearly at the roots of my love of both fantastical time travel stories, and the real-life dialogue between present and past.

Bram Stoker (1897), Dracula
Ha, I hardly need to explain this one right now, do I? See my dracula tag, passim, for details. First read, as far as I can tell, in early 1986, when I was nine years old, on the back of having seen the Hammer film the previous autumn. Left me with a love of all things Gothic, which has waxed and waned but never really left me ever since. As the wise [livejournal.com profile] inbetween_girl once said, you never really stop being a Goth. At best, you're in recovery. Or perhaps lapsed, would be another way of putting it.

Diana Wynne Jones (1977), Charmed Life
Initially read via a copy from the school library aged 9 or 10, this came back and 'haunted' me with memories of a book of matches, a castle and a strange magical man in my early 20s. By then, the internet was advanced enough to have forums where I could ask what the title of the book I was remembering might be, and to deliver an answer within a few hours. So I bought a copy, swiftly followed by copies of the other Chrestomanci books, and then copies of multiple other DWJ books (see my diana wynne jones tag for details). As an adult, I can see that the real appeal of DWJ's writing lies in the combination of her light yet original prose style, imaginative vision and sharp understanding of human interactions, but as a child I'm pretty sure it was all about the unrecognised magical powers and multiple interconnected magical worlds. As per the Oz books, I really love that stuff.

Gene Wright (1986), Horrorshows: the A-Z of Horror in Film, TV, Radio and Theatre
In 2010, Mark Gatiss presented a documentary series called A History of Horror, during which he held up a book about horror films which he had owned since childhood, and explained how it was his personal Horror Bible, which had opened up to him the wonderful world of the genre. From the reaction on Twitter, it instantly became clear that everyone who had grown up loving horror films before the emergence of the internet had also owned such a book, and this is mine. I bought it at a book fair in about 1987 or 1988, devoured it greedily, and have been faithfully ticking off every film in it which I have seen ever since. Of course, the internet has long rendered such books obsolete, and insofar as this one was ever comprehensive at the time of original purchase, it certainly isn't now. So it is utterly meaningless to tick off all the films in it, as though somehow the end goal is to tick off every single film in the book - at which time, I don't know, a fanfare will sound and a man in a rhinestone suit will pop out to tell me I've won a prize, or something? But I still add a tick each time I see a new film from within its pages anyway, because heck I have been doing so for 25 years, and I'm not going to stop now. Besides, it's not like I care about horror films made after 1986 anyway (I struggle to care about those made after 1976, TBH), so it doesn't matter to me that it is enormously out of date.

Douglas Adams (1979), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
First read c. age 11, and read at least another 8 times since. I know this because I have kept a tally of how many times I read it in the front of the book - classic geekish behaviour, of course. Once again, it's basically all about travel to wondrous other worlds, but this time instead of being magical (Oz, Chrestomanci), historical (A Traveller in Time), or supernatural (Dracula, everything else in Horrorshows), they are in space! It's not actually like I discovered adventures in space for the first time from Hitchhiker's, because of course I was also watching Doctor Who on a regular basis in parallel with all of this reading material, with which of course Hitchhiker's is intimately linked. But yeah - given everything else which has already appeared on this list, it is no big surprise that I loved Hitchhiker's.

C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. AD 120), The Twelve Caesars
And now my list radically changes tack, because having established that I love stories about the fantastical, the rest of it is made up of books which mark key stages in the emergence of my academic interest in the ancient world. I am not, of course, unaware that this in itself also basically boils down to yet another interest in a wondrous other world, albeit one which actually existed in this case. Really, the mode of engagement is very similar - we have little snippets of information about the Roman world (texts, objects, places), just as we have little snippets of information about fictional fantasy worlds (texts, screen portrayals, merchandise), but there is also so much we don't know, and are at liberty to extrapolate from what we do. Plus the similar-yet-different qualities and the opportunity to compare and contrast can let us think about our own world in ways that just don't open up if we only think about it directly. And so I found a way to apply the thought-patterns and approaches I'd been developing from early childhood to something which grown-ups thought was admirable and serious, and which it was possible to acquire prestige and eventually even money through studying. As for Suetonius himself, he is here because he was one of the earliest ancient authors I really came to feel familiar with and fond of, mainly during A-level Ancient History. Tacitus may well be clever and sharp, but there is always a judgemental, sanctimonious undertone with him that I don't very much like. The things which interest Suetonius, by contrast, make him seem so utterly human - but there are also all sorts of clever structures and allusions to discover in his text on close reading, which together make him incredibly rewarding. I once literally hugged my Penguin copy of Suetonius to my chest as a sort of talisman when feeling alone, upset and in need of comfort. I can't really imagine anyone doing that with Tacitus.

J.B. Ward-Perkins (1991), Roman Imperial Architecture
One of the first books I bought about ancient material culture (as opposed to texts), in the context of a module on Roman architecture which I did in (I think) my second year as an undergraduate at Bristol. While strictly about buildings rather than cities, it nonetheless includes a lot of material about how those buildings fitted into the urban landscapes where they were located - unsurprisingly, since Ward-Perkins himself was really interested in cities first and architecture second, and wrote one of the earliest English-language books on the subject. So it is to this book which my interest in Roman urbanism can really be traced, and I still turn to it occasionally when I need to get to grips with a new (to me) city.

Christopher Hibbert (1987), Rome: the biography of a city
This one is from my third year at Bristol, and the best undergraduate module I ever did - Responses to Rome with Catharine Edwards and Duncan Kennedy, which was all about post-Classical responses to ancient Rome from the medieval period to the present day. I sat in those classes falling in love with Rome, and then went home to pore through this book and the wonders within. I still return to it in order to refresh my memory of medieval myths about the city's ancient past, Grand Tourism or fascist appropriations, all of which I have needed to do in the past few years.

Greg Woolf (1998), Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul
And finally, the book which I consulted most frequently while writing my PhD thesis. It had utterly redefined thinking about the relationship between Rome the state and its provincial populations, killing off tired old paradigms of 'beneficial imperialism' (think: What have the Romans ever done for us?) for good, so would have been important no matter what province I had used to look at the relationship between Roman ideas about the urban periphery and the reality on the ground in a provincial setting. But since I had chosen Gaul as my own main case-study anyway, it was gold-dust. Fifteen years later, it remains at the forefront of scholarly thinking on the topic, and thus still features regularly on my module reading lists, amongst my recommendations to research students, and indeed in the bibliographies of my own published works.

I'm not tagging anyone, because pretty much everyone in the world has done this meme already by now - but feel free to take this post as a prompt to do it yourself if you haven't and want to.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I saw this last weekend with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan at one of (I think) two showings put on by the Hyde Park Picture House, and as part of an audience of about thirty people. This of course reflects the fact that the film sadly hasn't done terribly well at the box office. Although Leeds' big city-centre multiplex did show it, already by the second week after its release it was only showing there once a day in late evening slots, which is why we decided to hold out for an independent showing at a more civilised hour instead.

We were lucky, and the setting was perfect. The Hyde Park Picture House celebrates its centenary as a working cinema this year, and is all but unchanged, both inside and out, so that during the scenes within the film when Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) stand in the dilapidated remains of the Michigan Theatre in Detroit, our own surroundings felt like a (less dilapidated!) extension of the same setting. But still, the place wasn't exactly packed.

I can understand why this is. Only Lovers doesn't really have a narrative in the conventional style. Rather, it offers a slow portrait of its two main characters, Adam and Eve, moving them through a series of situations and building character through their reactions, but without any very strong sense of a focused overall trajectory. Indeed, that is rather the point - as vampires, freed from the constraints of mortal life-spans, they have no driving sense of purpose, and part of what the film does is to explore how they respond to that, and how it changes their perspective on the world around them.

For the more melancholy Adam, the answer has been largely to retreat into his music, while becoming increasingly disillusioned with humanity. For Eve, it seems rather to have involved learning everything she possibly can about the world she inhabits. She speaks with wonder of far-distant planets; greets every plant and animal she sees with its scientific name; and packs nothing but the most precious volumes from her extensive book collection when she travels. And through the eyes of both we see how different humanity looks from a longue durée perspective - the rises and falls of civilisations, the importance of cultural and technological achievements, and the relationship with the environment all painfully clear from the vampires' perspective, but tragically under-valued by humans unable to see beyond their own life-times.

There is a lot to say for this sort of material if you know what you're getting, and if you like that sort of thing. I had read reviews and synopses in advance, was pretty sure it would be up my street, and wasn't disappointed. But it is neither a conventional vampire film, nor indeed a conventional film of any kind, so I can see why mainstream audiences may have been put off.

As well as being slow to build, the portrait of vampire life which the film offers is also impressionistic, with endless details referred to in passing without ever being fully explained. How long exactly have Eve and Adam been alive? We know that she is older than him, as she speaks of him having 'missed all the fun' of the middle ages, but the details are never spelt out. We know that from their perspective, most human blood has now become contaminated, to the extent that it seems to kill off Christopher Marlowe (who, we learn, became a vampire rather than dying in 1593, and went on to ghost-write most of William Shakespeare's plays) towards the end of the film. But what is the contaminant - medication, food additives, disease? Again, we never know.

Nor do we know how Eve and her 'sister' Ava are actually connected; whether 'Adam' and 'Eve' are the main characters' real names (which seems very unlikely); when they first married, if they did so for the third time in 1868; what exactly happened in Paris in 1928; how it is that vampires seem to be able to 'feel' how old things are by touching them with their hands; and so on, and so forth. Personally, I love this approach to story-telling - assuming, of course, that the story and its characters are captivating enough themselves in the first place. It provides so much scope for further input from the viewer / reader, holding out the threads for us to weave into our own interpretations. It is utterly characteristic of genre fiction of all kinds, and is why it generates so much fanwork in response. But again, it's not for everyone.

The film is rich, too, with intertextual references and details of props and settings which viewers are invited to make more of, but with no particular direction as to what exactly we should do with them. Adam's approach to technology is one. He's clearly au fait with YouTube, wifi and digital recording technology, yet he still also uses cathode-ray monitors, reel-to-reel tape recorders and vintage guitars. It tells an implicit story of his long-term, out-of-time perspective, mashing together his preferred technology from all of the different eras he has lived through - but the point is never made explicit. The same goes for the portraits of cultural icons visible on his wall (Bach, Thelonious Monk, Buster Keaton, Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Christopher Marlowe); the many identity documents spread out in front of Eve whenever she makes a travel booking; the pseudonyms which Adam and his contact uses when he goes to collect blood from a local hospital doctor (Dr. Caligari, Dr. Watson, Dr. Faust); the titles of Eve's favourite books; and the settings of decaying Detroit and liminal, multi-cultural Tangier where they have each chosen to live.

There is much, much that can be got out of digesting all this and thinking through its implications for the characters and their stories - but if you don't already have the knowledge-base to do so, you're left with a directionless story featuring remarkably little in the way of action or horror shocks. Maybe it is pretentious to make a film like this, or to enjoy the sense of self-satisfaction that comes with 'getting' the references. But it would be depressing to think that richly intertextual films which demand something of their audience could not be made just because not everyone will 'get' them, when there are plenty of people out here who will, and will take pleasure in doing so. It is just a case of marketing them in the right way to the right audiences. This one may not have set the mainstream cinema circuit on fire, but I can see it enjoying a solid career at film festivals and on DVD for many years to come.

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strange_complex: (Gatto di Roma)
For the first time in a good couple of months, this coming weekend is completely blank for me. Nothing booked up whatsoever. And while having fun things to do most weekends is great and I wouldn't want to change that, every now and again a weekend which I can just spend pottering at home is very welcome. Apart from anything else, it gives me a chance to get caught up on some unwritten LJ posts - and that still includes the final day of the Bradford Fantastic Films Weekend. Previous posts cover the Friday and Saturday, both of which were very enjoyable. But in fact the Sunday was the real highlight for me - mainly thanks to my first ever experience of proper full-blown Cinerama!

22. The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), dir. Henry Levin and George Pal

See, every year at the Fantastic Films Weekend, there is one event which really stays with me. Last year, it was Jonathan Miller, the year before it was The Sorcerers, and this year it was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. I can't be sure how much I'd have liked this film if it had been shot in traditional fashion. It certainly takes sugary and sentimental to their logical extreme, in a way that only American technicolor films of the early '60s really know how. But then again, it's a charming period piece with some great character actors, fundamentally concerned with the magic of story-telling and making good use of music, settings and special effects to achieve that. So, yeah, I guess I'd have kinda liked it even if it weren't for the Cinerama - but it was the experience of that obsolete technology which really made me fall in love with it.

The wonderful world of Cinerama )

Innovative-obsolete technology and the Brothers Grimm )

A fairytale biopic )

Genre bleeding )

23. The Shadow of the Cat (1961), dir. John Gilling

Finally, rounding off my weekend of not-actually-horror-films was The Shadow of the Cat. This is a Hammer film, although it doesn't feature the studio's name anywhere in the credits, and so tends to get overlooked as part of their output. Like Saturday afternoon's film, The Man in Black, it's another murder mystery, this time revolving around a family pet cat )

In the end, though, the best thing about this film was marvelling at how much time and effort must have gone into setting up all the necessary shots of the cat running up to certain characters for a stroke, jumping out at others, going up or down the stairs at the right moment, padding purposefully towards the place where the old lady's body had been buried etc. On a very small number of occasions a model cat with glowing eyes was used to peer sinisterly through people's bedroom windows, but for most of the film the cat was clearly played by a perfectly ordinary real animal. In a plot which revolved so much around the particular behaviour of the cat, I imagine there must have been a great deal of just sitting around filming it until it did the right thing, as well as large teams of people just out of shot tempting it in particular directions with tasty tit-bits. And to be fair the results were pretty impressive, creating a genuine impression of a cat which had a real agenda behind its actions. But I'm betting a lot of people finished this film with a firm resolution never, ever to work with animals ever again!

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strange_complex: (Metropolis False Maria)
I saw this yesterday with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, [livejournal.com profile] nigelmouse and [livejournal.com profile] maviscruet in a big jolly Northern Goth Contingent family outing at the Light. I've seen the fullest version of Metropolis previously available before - in fact, that was the first film I wrote up when I began systematically blogging all the films I had seen on LJ back in January 2007. But this is an all-new version, complete with an extra 25 minutes of footage taken from a recently-rediscovered Argentinian print of the film, and a newly-recorded soundtrack based on the original orchestral score.

The Argentinian footage is badly damaged, so that it stands out very distinctly from the rest of the film (itself in any case compiled from multiple sources at varying levels of quality). It is scratched, covered in dancing vertical lines and cropped along three edges, and even now there are still a couple of scenes missing. But it really does turn the film into a whole different ball-game. Whole themes, sub-plots and secondary characters now make sense in a way that they just didn't before. And in any case, seeing it on the big screen - a VERY big screen, actually - is an entirely different experience from watching it at home on a DVD. There is a lot of fine detail in the models of the overground city, the machine-rooms, the catacombs and the actors' costumes which I'm pretty sure escaped me last time I watched it, and which really adds to the magic.

I enthused over the film's scale and scope last time I wrote it up, apparently particularly liking its ambitious special effects and imaginative vision, so there's no need for me to repeat all that - though I have certainly been forcefully reminded of it by this repeat viewing. This time, though, I was also struck by how balletic the whole film seemed. The score is very much in the tradition of 19th-century Romantic symphonies. It reuses some of their motifs, and is even explicitly divided into three movements labelled 'Prelude', 'Intermezzo' and 'Furioso' on the intertitles. The effect is heightened in this new release by the fact that you can actually hear the sounds of an orchestra coughing and turning over their sheet music between the movements - just as you would have done if you'd been to see the film at a large cinema on its original release. Meanwhile up on the screen, the exaggerated gestures and body language of the actors draw heavily on the balletic tradition - partly because of course that is the natural parent genre for a relatively new medium trying to tell stories without words, but I suspect also partly as a conscious stylistic decision to suit the fantastical, allegorical story of this specific film.

Perhaps not so very surprisingly, given the balletic aesthetic, I was also struck this time by how very, very homoerotic some of the scenes were. This is actually a bit annoying on one level, because it springs all-too-obviously from the film's almost total side-lining of female characters. Apart from Maria, who is hardly a real person anyway, as she is too busy being quite literally a Madonna or (in her evil doppelgänger capacity) a Whore, the only women in the film are there to be passive sexual objects and / or mothers. Though you can't literally distinguish between 'speaking' and 'non-speaking' roles in a silent film, it is certain that none of them (except for Maria) have character names, or get to have any input at all into any of the action or drama of the film. Instead, they just hang around looking pretty in gardens, sexy at night-clubs or despairing when they think that their children have been drowned.

Still, subversive feminism would be a bit much to expect from a film made in 1927 - even a fantastical one. In fact, since the vision of the future which Metropolis presents is clearly meant to be dystopian, you could even argue that its marginalisation of women is slightly feminist, in that it is presenting this as a characteristic of a profoundly unhappy society. But that's probably stretching things a little... Meanwhile, as original Star Trek fans know, a fictional environment without any meaningful female characters in it is a fertile breeding-ground for slash. And we have here a film which is deeply concerned with the male body - from the athletic figures of the youthful elite exercising in the 'Sons' Garden' to the struggling bodies of the male workers in the grip of the Machine. Central to both the plot and the imagery of the film is tender love of Freder, the Capitalist Overlord's son, for said workers - especially Josaphat, a clerk fired by his father, and Georgy 11811, an ordinary worker on one of the machines. And given that this love was conveyed via anguished looks, impassioned embraces and romantic music, while the actors concerned wore theatrical-style make-up complete with eye-liner, it seemed incredible at times that they didn't just go the whole hog and kiss madly.

Anyway, I'll certainly be looking out for a DVD release of this version of the film - not least for its amazing score, which is still going round my head today. Here's hoping I end up having to buy yet another one some time in the future, when those final eight minutes of lost footage are rediscovered...

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
Whew! It's taken me a couple of days to type this lot up, as I saw a lot of films on the final day of the festival, and I think we all know I am a bit prone to tl;dr reviews, even when I think the thing I'm writing about was rubbish. But I've managed it now! It's up to you to decide if you are brave enough to read it all. ;-)

15a-f. Short Films )

TV Heaven: Children of the Stones (HTV, 1976) )

16a. Intrusion (1961), dir. Michael Reeves )

16b. The Sorcerers (1967), dir. Michael Reeves )

17. Robocop (1987), dir. Paul Verhoeven )

18. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974), dir. Jorge Grau )

So that was a pretty intensive weekend of film viewing all told - in fact, coming out of the other end of it I find that I am now well ahead of 2009's total of 14 films seen over the entire year, even though it is still only June. I absolutely loved it, though, and have found myself haunting Amazon and eBay ever since it ended, swooping up copies of films I saw, or other works by the same actors and directors to add to my collection. Debate is currently raging on miss_s_b's journal about what form next year's festival should take. But whatever the final line-up, unless life conspires to stop me I'm pretty sure I'm going to be there.

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strange_complex: (TARDIS)
I'm personally of the opinion that 'traveller' should have two Ls in it, but maybe people in North America feel differently about the matter. Anyway, only one L is included on the cover (in the title at least), so there it is.

Spelling aside, I enjoyed this novel very much. It suppose you could call it 'fantastical realism', or something of the sort - it isn't magical realism per se, as the time travel in it is explicitly presented as a genetic disorder rather than the result of magic, but it has the same sort of quality of depicting an entirely realistic world except for the one small detail of involuntary time travel. As such, the extent of its emphasis on the feelings and development of its characters is greater than you tend to find in a typical fantasy novel - and this, presumably, is why it's found such acclaim outside of SF circles.

I'm rather late to the party in reading it myself, as [livejournal.com profile] nearly_everyone seems to have done so several years ago, but I suppose that gives me a slightly different perspective, since I had heard a lot about it before I read it. My chief surprise was to find that the time traveller (Henry) was featured in the novel as much as he was. What I'd picked up was that the novel focuses primarily on the effects of his time travelling on his wife (Clare), but although this is more true than with most novels featuring time travel, in fact the experiences and traumas of the two get more or less equal billing.

What I didn't anticipate based on what I'd heard begins to be a bit spoilery )

Anyway, I'm glad I read this, and indeed enjoyed it so much that I may well return to it sometime. If you enjoy fantasy novels, you'll definitely like this, but even if you usually don't, it's worth making an exception for this one.

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strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
Bought with the book token I won for participating in the Flash Fiction challenge at Mecon.

This is another sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, and for me a better one than Castle in the Air. Not to say the latter is bad, of course - it's just that this one has more of Howl, Sophie and Calcifer in it, returns to the gingerbread fairy kingdom setting of the first novel which I liked so much (though we're in High Norland now, not Ingary), and has a heroine I can relate to more easily. Actually, there's room to get cynical about just how relatable that heroine is: she's a sheltered daughter of Respectable Parents, who thinks she likes nothing better than escaping from the world into a good book, but actually turns out to be rather more competent and capable than she thinks when circumstances require. In other words, she is DWJ's primary readership with all their fantasies fulfilled. But for all that, she's so likeable and three-dimensional that you can't help but forgive the manipulation and fall for her all the same.

As the title implies, the book centres around a magical house (specifically, the cottage of High Norland's Royal Wizard) where space folds over itself in surprising ways, and from which you can get almost anywhere in the kingdom if you know exactly the right way to turn. It made me realise, actually, how particularly good DWJ is at architecture. There's hardly a single one of her books in which a castle, a mansion, a cottage or a hotel doesn't play a central role in the plot - and as a reader, I can see all of them in rich detail. I would recognise Chrestomanci Castle, Stallery Mansion, Hunsdon House, Derkholm or the Hotel Babylon, Wantchester. And the same goes for the landscapes around them, too. It isn't overblown, but the details of them seep into your mental picture bit by bit as you read - and I love that.

I was slightly distressed in this book to find that four characters ended up being turned into animals and then killed by dogs. OK, so they were evil, and lubbockins, and planning to take over the kingdom - but I'd rather hoped they might at least be imprisoned or exiled or turned into stone or something, rather than actually murdered. It wasn't quite what I expected from the Howlverse. Other than that, though, it's a delightful read, with all sorts of brilliant characters. And it seems I've read enough DWJ books now that I even nearly managed to guess the ending. I can't really say what I guessed or what was actually correct without creating spoilers - but suffice it to say that I was right to think that the little dog, Waif, would turn out to be More Than She Seemed.

In short, highly recommended. If you liked Howl's Moving Castle, you'll like this, but even if you haven't read it, this still stands alone very effectively.

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strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
One of the things that happened when I moved into my lovely proper new house here in Leeds is that I finally took possession of all the accumulated gubbins which I had left behind with my parents when I first moved out at the age of 18. Mainly, this meant the books of my childhood and my teens - with which I am now at leisure to get nostalgically re-acquainted.

The Oz books were, in no uncertain terms, the central axis of my childhood. In fact, see this picture of me reading to my little friends on my sixth birthday? )
Well, that's an Oz book I'm reading to them - The Land of Oz, I think, judging from the colour of the spine. I had all fourteen of the original L. Frank Baum series, in lovely bright paperback covers as published by Del Rey, and read them religiously and repeatedly from the ages of approximately four to seven years old. (I had a random hardback copy of Lucky Bucky in Oz, too, but even as a child, I sneered at it and looked down upon it for not being a 'proper' Oz book). Dorothy, the Wizard, Ozma and all their little friends were fiercely real to me, and I was quite, quite convinced that the magical Land of Oz existed, if only one knew how to get there.

This all got a bit longer than is really polite to leave uncut )

strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Having previously read Deep Secret and been rather underwhelmed by it, I bought this book on the simple grounds that I had a Waterstone's voucher, and it was the only book by DWJ in the shop that I didn't already have.

On the whole, I think my reaction to it was much the same as to Deep Secret. There are lots of individual elements in it that are good, like the fearsome-yet-avuncular Gwyn ap Nudd / Grandfather Gwyn; the depiction of the society in Loggia city; the personifications of Salisbury, Old Sarum and London; Romanov's island; the midnight salamander rescue; and the string of terrified children jumping between worlds in the wake of a goat. The narrative structure of swapping between the voices of Roddy and Nick worked very nicely, too, and I loved the way Collins (the publishers) had supported this by presenting growing patterns at the beginning of each new section of their stories - Celtic for Nick and floral for Roddy - which you eventually realise will merge into the dragon-figure shown on the front cover of the book.

But somehow, despite all this, I never quite managed to care about the central characters in the same way that I usually do when I read Chrestomanci books or Howl books. Perhaps it was the shared narration, dissipating any close identification with either Roddy or Nick? Or maybe it was the very use of the first person narrative? Paradoxically, I think it may actually be harder for DWJ to portray her trademark self-realisations and personal growth convincingly on behalf of her main characters when they're actually speaking for themselves. Somehow, pointing out the moments when the characters suddenly realise how they come across to others (e.g. Cat Chant) or how they really feel about another person (e.g. Sophie) actually works more convincingly in an authorial voice, I think.

Anyway, for all that, an enjoyable and diverting read, which certainly won't stop me reading more DWJ books in future.

strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Read on the way to and from Verona.

I was given this book by one of my MA students when I left Belfast, which means that it's taken me two and a half years to get round to reading it - and even then it only really happened because my actual bedtime reading at the moment is rather large and unwieldy, and I wanted something light that I could fit in my bag on the plane.

The block was that I find fantasy hard to get into if it doesn't have a foot in the world I know. So Doctor Who, Harry Potter, The World of Chrestomanci, His Dark Materials etc. all suit me very well, because they all incorporate the world I actually live in into their universes. This excites me as a reader, because I feel as though the adventure I'm reading about could potentially happen to me, and it also means that I can be introduced to the fantasy world through the eyes of a character who is unfamiliar with it. Even in cases where the main character isn't actually from my world (most Chrestomanci books, HDM), they are at least generally an outsider in the world they are exploring, because they are a child, or haven't yet discovered their full potential - so the unfamiliar eyes effect is more or less the same.

Sabriel, by contrast, has a blurb which begins like this:
Sabriel is the daughter of the Mage Abhorsen. Ever since she was a tiny child, she has lived outside the Wall of the Old Kingdom - far away from the uncontrolled power of Free Magic, and away from the Dead who won't stay dead.
And even though a lot of people whose opinions I trust had told me it was a very good book, this had unfortunately really put me off. I saw no mention of journeys by ordinary children through magic wardrobes, mirrors, time-machines, vel sim - only a plague of Portentous Capital Letters, struggling to lend importance to things which I had no vested interest in. No thanks.

Now I've read the book, though, I'm in a position to say that this is a deeply unfortunate piece of marketing. Actually, it is rather good, and it meets my personal requirements from a fantasy novel a lot better than the blurb had suggested. No place in it is actually the world we know, but the very name of the kingdom of 'Ancelstierre' is a direct etymological equivalent of 'England', while its culture is a kind of 1920s-ish version of ours - rather like the non-magical culture in Chrestomanci's world (12a) in the Worlds of Chrestomanci books. And this is where the story (more or less) begins, and where Sabriel, the main character, has spent most of her life growing up - so that we do start out with something broadly familar, and our point-of-view character can play the role of unfamiliar outsider very nicely when she starts journeying into the wild and dangerous territory of the magical Old Kingdom (vaguely Viking / Scottish) beyond the border.

The language and style of the book isn't exactly high literature, but it isn't bad either - just fairly simple, direct and effective. The story was gripping, well-paced and very enjoyable to read, and Sabriel's character development very absorbing to follow. It certainly did the job of passing the time away nice and effectively while I was sitting around in airports.

There are quite a few questions left unanswered at the end of the book, like: What exactly was the 'blood price' that Mogget's true form wanted to extract from the Abhorsens? What would be the third of the three questions Sabriel could ask of her mother-sending within the current seven years? And what was Touchstone's real name? But I see that there are at least two sequels, so doubtless some of those will be answered there.

I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who likes fantasy literature, particularly if set in a bleak and dangerous landscape of snow, mountains and creeping dead things. It's not up there with the other series I mentioned at the beginning of this review, because it's a little more generic than most of them, and doesn't quite have the fine touches of detail and humour that they do. But still - a good read.

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