Friday, 27 May 2011

Friday Favourite – Kingdom of the Golden Dragon by Isabel Allende

I have been a fan of Isabel Allende’s haunting adventure stories since her first book House of the Spirits. So the Muse was squealing in delight to discover she’d written this series for younger readers.

Kingdom of the Golden Dragon is actually the second book in a trilogy, which begins with City of the Beasts and continues with Forest of the Pygmies. But the three stories are complete in themselves, so you don’t really need to read them in order. In this book, Alex Cold and his friend Nadia travel with his journalist grandmother Kate (a feisty and energetic sort of grandmother!) to a hidden kingdom high in the Himalayas, where a fabled Golden Dragon tells the future to members of the royal family who know the secret of the statue. This includes the king’s son Prince Dil Bahadur (“brave heart”), who is undergoing spiritual and physical training in the mountains with a Buddhist monk, during which he learns how to fly across chasms and speak to yetis.

All is peaceful in the kingdom, until a rich and powerful westerner called the Collector plans to steal the Golden Dragon. He sends his agent to the Himalayas (on the same scary small plane as the Colds) to snatch the golden statue, and also the old king who can make the magic work. Nadia and Alex are soon caught up in the plot, and find their bravery and friendship tested to the limits as they help the prince rescue his father. Only when the Golden Dragon is returned will the kingdom be safe once more.

Translated from the Spanish, the story has a spiritual feel and a lyrical style. Even the chapters have beautiful and intriguing names such as “Three Fabulous Eggs” and “The Land of Snow and Ice”. Alex and Nadia both have totemic animals – Alex’s is a black jaguar and Nadia’s a white eagle – which they can call upon in times of need. Their adventures are great fun, and the Muse thinks the story would make a wonderful film.

The book itself is quite long at over 450 pages, so probably not one for younger readers who want a quick and easy read. But if you’re a confident reader looking for a more challenging story with beautiful language, and enjoy the kind of book that transports you to another world, you should love it – the Muse certainly approves!

Monday, 23 May 2011

Muse Monday - The Ferret by Joan Lennon

I have a suitcase – one of those soft cloth ones, ethnic, stripy – which I take on some of my school visits. I stand up at the front of the classroom and I lay this suitcase gently on the desk, and I say to the kids, “I have, in this suitcase, 12 ferrets. Hands up anyone who would like them to be LIVE ferrets?” Without fail, everyone who is 4 foot and under sticks their hands in the air. I stick MY hand in the air. The teachers make little moue faces and do not join in.

Because they know what kind of commotion would ensue if I really did have a busyness of live ferrets* with me.** I know too. And that is why I choose the ferret to be my muse. (Though a better word might be “acknowledge”.)

Ferrets are spirits of chaos. They are the gods of wild enthusiasm and ridiculous persistence (not to mention the joy of squiggling through small spaces for no other reason than just to see if you can.) They bite and they smell and they are impossible to control. They race when they want and they sleep when they will, deep, deep – they go all floppy, as if they were dead - and there is nothing you can do but wait until they decide to wake up again. They are unpredictable, delightful, and only the certifiably daft would choose to share their lives with them.

And writing’s just like that too. Just like a ferret in the brain. Chaotic, unpredictable, delightful, smelly, bitey … Okay, work with me here. When the writing’s going well, full tilt, ideas leaping about and wrestling with one other, it’s wonderful, right? But when the muse is not in the mood, is there anything more recalcitrant? More dead? And all we can do is wait for the words to come to life again.

Ferrets may be smelly
But there’s more to them than farts
They are bouncier than jelly
And contribute to the arts …

In The Seventh Tide, one of my time travellers is a talking ferret. His name is Professor Hurple, and he arrives in the world of the G from the world of humans. The Library in which he lived had been set on fire by greedy developers, and his friend the Librarian urges him to escape.

“Go! Save yourself!” she said.
For a moment, I honestly didn’t understand what she meant. Go? Go where? The Library was my home – the Librarian was my family! I just stood there, chittering uselessly, until she picked me up and looked me in the eyes.
“Back wall,” she said. “By the window. Where the Celtic Mythology section meets Sci-fi/Fantasy, there’s a gap. It’s tight, but an exceptional ferret should just fit. I’m counting on you,” she said.

Me too, Ferret Muse. Me too.

* A group of ferrets is known as “a busyness” because of their major tendency to bustle about. And because “a craziness” isn’t a recognized collective noun.

** It is a collection of 12 toy ferrets, of different sizes and colours, that I carry in my suitcase, including a number that are rare in the wild – the Rainbow Ferret, for example, or the elegantly striped Tiger Ferret.

Oooh, I'd better watch my tail if there are ferrets about! Thank you very much, Joan.

Joan Lennon's website is
Her books that explicitly include ferrets are The Ferret Princess and The Seventh Tide.
And since the main character of The Slightly Jones Mysteries has “a pointy little face like an inquisitive ferret”, here are her books so far:
The Case of the London Dragonfish
The Case of the Glasgow Ghoul

Monday, 9 May 2011

Muse Monday – The Unicorn by Katherine Roberts

I don’t quite remember when my muse first appeared out of the enchanted mists – but I now realize he’s been there from the start. It just took me a little while to see him, as is often the way with magical creatures.

He was there in my first published story “The Last Maiden” (Dark Horizons, British Fantasy Society 1994), where he is a misunderstood creature hunted by the villagers for goring a baby to death… something he might or might not have done, as I leave it up to the reader to decide. Perhaps that’s how I felt about my writing at the time, since the fantasy genre appeared to be shunned by the literary establishment and generally misunderstood as being all about dragons and magic swords, ignoring its real range and power. This was before Harry Potter made fantasy trendy… though being trendy seems to have had the opposite effect, and now everyone thinks it’s all about boy wizards and millionaire authors... My unicorn shakes his mane in despair.

Shortly after this I won a competition for a short story. The prize was £50, my first real earnings from writing. I don’t remember the story or the publication, but I took my winnings into town to buy something to remind me of the achievement and spotted these unicorn bookends in the window of a local gift shop. They cost £35, which made them a luxury purchase for me. But even though they seemed a bit whimsical with their pink horns and gold stars, I took them home to prop up my favourite books. I think of them as unicorn foals, and they represent the childlike side of my muse… interestingly, this was before I considered writing for children, so maybe they were responsible?

Unicorns have certainly been adopted by children as magical pets. Here’s a fluffy pink one rescued from the bargain shelf of my local supermarket (someone had spilt yellow liquid over him – he only needed a wash!):

But unicorns are not always so sweet. My muse makes another appearance in my second book “Spellfall” (Chicken House, 2000). There he leads a herd of unicorn mares in the enchanted land of Earthaven, where magical creatures have fled from our technological world. When Earthaven is attacked, the unicorns use their horns to defend their home and their foals, but they also let the heroine Natalie and her friends ride them. So they are both fierce and loyal in this story for older readers.

This contradictory nature of the unicorn makes him an interesting muse. He can be mysterious and beautiful when it suits him, and obviously as a mythical creature he is very useful to a fantasy author because he knows a lot about magic and enchanted worlds. But it's a mistake to underestimate him, because in his adult form he is a powerful creature.

A few years later, browsing in Hay-on-Wye during the annual book festival, I came across this poster. I wasn’t actually looking for unicorns at the time – I was after dinosaurs – but I couldn’t resist him. He stayed rolled up in a corner through several house moves, before finding his way on to the wall of my office. Here he is handsome and noble and wears a charm around his neck, and he’s watching me write this with a glint in his dark eye.

The unicorn’s horse-like appearance appeals to my other great passion. Horses have always been part of my life, and my pre-author job was working with racehorses, so I’ve ridden (and fallen off and been kicked by) enough of them to have a healthy respect for a creature who is bigger than me with four solid hooves. Like a horse, he has speed enough to flee from danger when threatened, yet riding him can be harder than it seems. He also has a sharp horn, and creatures with horns can be dangerous when they are cornered or annoyed.

This fierce nature of my muse often surprises people, and in this incarnation my writing takes on a darker edge. I have been published in horror magazines and am the proud winner of the Grotesque Readers’ Award for “Fatstock”, a story about rearing humans for meat. So far my novels have not really shown this side of my muse – the closest is some of Alexander the Great’s escapades in “I am the Great Horse” – though this is often where things start to get interesting. The power of fantasy, remember?

Finally, of course, a unicorn can be tamed only by a maiden. He lays his horn in her lap and becomes gentle under her hand. In this guise, he is sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary, showing his spiritual side – another important thread in my writing.

Some people like to say the unicorn does not exist, and that he is actually a rhinoceros. I can hear my muse laughing right now. Sometimes editors try to cut off his horn and turn him into a common horse. Others would like him to stay a soft-horned foal forever. Too much of that, and he’s likely to disappear into the enchanted mists where he can stay true to his form. But treat him right, and he will continue to bring magical stories out of those mists.

In this brave new e-world, my Muse has embraced technology with this blog. He also Twitters, and has even published an e-book, proving that immortal creatures can be both wise and playful.

Thank you, Unicorn, for being my muse!

SPELLFALL, published by the unicorn, is now available as a Kindle e-book for just £1-71 from


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