Review: Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Even though many have tried, only a few fantasy books have the qualities that come naturally to “Lud-In-The-Mist” – a quirky sense of humor, a complicated and timeless plot, and a sense of the ethereally magical that makes you feel like you’re walking on the thin edge between the real and the mystical.

And while not as influential as works by the titans of the fantasy genre, Hope Mirrlees’ classic novel is nevertheless a haunting and engaging read – it’s as if “The Hobbit” had been written by Lord Dunsany, edited by Neil Gaiman and given a few extra flourishes by Peter S. Beagle. It’s a sweet pastoral story that slowly blossoms out into a very unique story — there’s a little murder mystery, an amusing village of hobbity people, and a quicksilver dream of beautiful fairyland and otherworldly danger.

Fairy is forbidden in the town of Lud — not just fairy creatures and their exquisite fruit, but mentions of them, the dead who walk with them, and the Duke Aubrey who left with them. But all his life, the steadfastly dull Mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer has a lingering longing/fear for a strangely magical musical note. Despite all this, life remains boring and rather pleasant — until Chanticleer’s son Ranulph begins acting strangely, claiming that he’s eaten fairy fruit.

After Chanticleer sends his son off to a farm for a vacation, the teenage girls at Miss Primrose’s Crabapple Academy suddenly seem to go pleasantly insane, and then race off into the hills. Life seems to seep out of the old town, and Nathaniel must connect the present crises to a past conspiracy, all of which hinges on Fairyland, fairy fruit, and the sinister doctor Endymion Leer. The journey to discover the truth will take him out of the everyday world — and change him forever.

“Lud-in-the-Mist” is not one of those stories where the fairies and elves feel like humans with pointy ears, and their magic can be easily understood. Mirrlees conjures a dreamlike atmosphere and faraway lands that are only glimpsed in passing – there’s the underlying feeling that there’s a frightening, exquisite world that is barely separated from ours.

Some parts of “Lud-in-the-Mist” are pleasantly familiar, even if you don’t live in pastoral British regions of the early twentieth century. Little charming towns full of staid, prosperous people who try to avoid the dark, wild things that dwell outside their borders, and definitely The strange and exquisite is always just out of sight, and Mirrlees’ writing is capable of bringing that to life.

She also is capable of spinning up a very solid plot to match the fantastical atmosphere – she intertwines a fantasy and a murder mystery seamlessly into one another, and then winds Chanticleer’s personal journey into it. Her writing style also evolves over the course of the story; during the first parts of the book, her style is pleasantly cozy, mellow and reminiscent of the era in which she wrote it. But as the story blossoms into a tangle of crises and mysteries, Mirrlees’ writing becomes more lush, exquisite and haunting.

It also has a hero who doesn’t fit the usual mold of a high fantasy lead character. Chanticleer is very reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins – who was first written several years later – being a pleasant, boring, stodgy middle-aged man. But we learn that he has a brave, eccentric interior that gradually transforms him from respectability to something more attuned to the fairy world. And the other inhabitants of Lud are similarly engaging and just a little bit quirky — fairy-struck teenagers, snippy old ladies, the haughty farmer’s wife, the quietly malevolent Endymion Leer, and the happily mad people.

While it doesn’t have the fame that many subsequent fantasy novels still enjoy, Hope Mirrlees’ “Lud-in-the-Mist” is a thing of beauty – funny, exquisite and boundlessly clever. Most of all, it will leave you feeling like you just ate fairy fruit.

Review: The Modern Faerie Tales

Over the past few decades, many urban fantasies with a similar theme came up – some girl discovers that she’s part/all faerie and becomes enmeshed in that world. Success varied.

But of particular note is the trilogy that helped popularize that trope – Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie Tales: Tithe; Valiant; Ironside,” a darkly glittering collection of clever, entrancing urban fantasies that spin up spellbinding stories of the fair folk… and then add a little grime and blood to the mix, without sacrificing any of its beauty.

“Tithe” introduces us to Kaye, a young girl who has spent years traveling with her mother’s rock band… until one night when her mother’s boyfriend/guitarist tries to stab her. With nowhere else to go, Kaye and her mother return to her grandmother’s New Jersey house for the time being, which brings back memories for Kaye of the imaginary faerie friends she had as a child.

… except it turns out that faeries are very, very real, as she finds a wounded faerie knight named Roiben, whose life she saves. Soon Kaye finds herself enmeshed in the secret world of the faeries, and discovers a shocking fact about her own life – she is a changeling, a faerie girl swapped out with a human baby, under a glamour so strong that no one knew what she really is. Unfortunately, finding out who she is comes with a lot more danger.

You might be expecting the second of the Modern Faerie Tales to deal with more of Kaye’s adventures, but instead “Valiant” switches the narrative over to Valerie Russell, who runs away from home when she discovers that her mother is having an affair with Valerie’s boyfriend. She makes her way to New York city, and falls in with a gang of teenage subway-dwellers.

She also finds out about the magical underbelly of the city, since it turns out the kids are friends with a troll named Ravus, who makes a mysterious drug that makes faeries temporarily immune to iron… and allows humans to use magic. Unfortunately, a lot of faerie exiles are being poisoned, and Ravus is suspected of the crime. Only Val can save him by uncovering the true murderer.

“Ironside” returns the action to Kaye and Roiben, as the faerie knight is about to be crowned. But when a drunken Kaye declares her feelings for him, he gives her an impossible task – find a faerie who can tell a lie. Devastated, Kaye tells her mother the truth about what she really is – and then begins a personal quest to find the “real” Kaye Fierch, who was kidnapped as a baby.

Meanwhile, Roiben has become tangled up in Silariel’s schemes, and so Kaye also becomes involved in a forthcoming battle for the throne of the Unseelie Court. In order to be together with the man she loves – even if he seems cruel to her at first – Kaye will need all her wits and strength – but even that might not be enough to stop the Bright Court’s queen.

The Modern Faerie Tales are stories that very much deserve the label “urban fantasy,” primarily because Holly Black’s writing feels like a genuine blend of the fantastical and the gritty. Faerie ethereality and glamour is mingled together with grime, wire and subway tunnels of New York; there’s both a delicate timeless beauty to the stories, and a sort of raw rough punk aesthetic.

The same goes for Black’s writing – it’s dark, it’s wild, and it’s studded with moments of poetry (“red and gold flames licked upward. A sea of burning oil and diesel fuel spread to scorch everything it touched”). And she never turns away from the uglier facets of her world — the faerie courts contain casual brutality against the weak and helpless, and Val ends up addicted to a magical drug.

Her heroines are no less compelling, even if they have little to do with each other. Kaye starts the story feeling a little too edgy, fey and immature, but Black smoothly causes her to grow up as she learns who she truly is, and demonstrates her selflessness and love for her family and Roiben. Val is more of an awkward tomboy than a rock’n’roll girl – a wounded girl losing her way and herself, as she struggles to find a place to belong. And there’s a variety of likable supporting characters, like a hunky troll, the icy knight Roiben, and the nerdy gay friend Corny.

Amongst the stories about “I’m a faerie and never knew it,” Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie Tales: Tithe; Valiant; Ironside” stands out as one of the best – darkly glittering, dramatic and perfectly blending the urban and the ethereal.

Review: The Secret of Kells

The Book of Kells is Ireland’s greatest treasure: an ancient book filled with exquisite illuminations.

Technically, “The Secret of Kells” is a fictionalized account about the making of that book. But it’s far more than that — it’s a visual hymn to Ireland’s history, a coming-of-age tale, and a parable about Christianity coming to Ireland. Modern animation is suffused with exquisite Celtic art, music and a sense of fairy magic, and wrapped around a seemingly simple story about a boy learning about the power of art.

Abbot Cellach is determined to save the Abbey of Kells from the Viking invaders, so he’s having the monks (including his nephew Brendan) build a vast wall around the abbey. But when the illuminator Brother Aiden arrives, he brings with him the legendary Book of Iona. Brendan is fascinated by the Book, and ventures out into the forest — against the abbot’s orders — to fetch ink-making supplies for Aiden.

He befriends a strange fairy girl named Aisling, and nature’s beauty inspires his art — until his uncle discovers that he’s sneaking out, and forbids him to have anything to do with the forest or Aiden. But Brendan still wants to become a true master of illumination. And to finish the Book, he must go outside the abbey once more, and snatch away the magical Eye of an ancient sleeping evil…

You can see this movie from many angles — it’s a coming-of-age story, a homage to Irish culture, a story about the importance of art, and a parable about Christianity supplanting Celtic paganism (whilst drawing on its beauty and richness). But however you see it, “The Secret of Kells” is a beautiful story with a calm simplicity, and a slightly quirky sense of humor.

It also tackles some darker, more mature themes — Brendan is exiled to a dungeon for disobeying his uncle, and he ventures into the cave of an ancient god surrounded by wriggling black roots. But directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey drop in lots of beautiful little moments as well, such as Aisling magically “singing” Aiden’s cat into a floating spirit.

It also has a truly unique style of animation: “Kim Possible” style (simple designs with lots of sharp and/or rounded edges) with vibrant jewel-toned backdrops (the sunlit emerald hues of the forests). The best parts are when Celtic symbols and art are woven in, especially since they tend to float through the air like butterflies.

The writers also give great care to sketching out characters — Brendan, the little monk who discovers the “miracles” of the world; Aisling, the elusive wolf-girl who assists him; and the grandfatherly Brother Aiden. On the flip-side we have Abbot Cellach, whose obsession with keeping Kells safe causes him to shut out art and beauty. No, he’s not a 2-D bad guy — he’s just desperate to preserve his community against the onslaught of their enemies.

Obviously it’s not on the level of the Book of Kells, but “The Secret of Kells” is still a beautiful work of cinematic art. Adults will love it, kids will love it, and anyone with the blood of Ireland will marvel.