Sunday, 3 January 2010

Northern lights

Writing in one of those end-of-decade review things (not reproduced on the paper's website), an anonymous Guardian author puts forward this intriguing thesis:
As the decade advanced, one prerequisite for a noughties mega-seller became clear. A journey to the north, realm of occult knowledge and dark forces, links the Harry Potter sequence (King's Cross to Hogwarts) to The Da Vinci Code (Paris to Scotland). Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander/Mikael Blomkvist trilogy similarly begins with the pair travelling northward from Stockholm in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and as a series offers a bracing voyage into Nordic torment that has attracted bookings from around the world.
The article goes on to adduce Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels, in which teenage heroine Bella relocates from Arizona to Washington state, as a further example of the trend.

But there's one significant instance which, surprisingly, the reviewer overlooks. Philip Pullman's massively popular Dark Materials trilogy begins in a parallel-universe Oxford, briefly visits London, then transports its young heroine, Lyra, northwards, to Svalbard and an alternative Nordic world. For me, that northerly relocation was a massive disappointment. I was completely absorbed by Pullman's detailed recreation of a parallel Oxford, which appealingly combined the familiar and the strange, and I was tantalised (despite the author's tendentious anti-Catholicism) by the glimpse he offered of a London where the Reformation had never happened. I wanted more of this dense, intriguing, human world, but instead found myself as a reader whisked off to an unappealing landscape of flying witches and speaking polar bears.

When it comes to the fantasy genre, one's appreciation of a book seems to depend a great deal on matters of personal taste: on whether you find the imaginary world created by the author appealing or jarring. Famously, Tolkien couldn't get on with C.S.Lewis' Narnia series, despite their close friendship and shared love of all things mythological. It wasn't that he disliked the stories, but Lewis' fantasy world - fauns, redemptive lions and so on - just wasn't to his taste. Of course, many readers have found the same with Tolkien's Middle Earth. I'm not one of them, though my tolerance is rather strained when it comes to the pseudo-Saxon warrior world in the later volumes.

In my youth, I used to consume fantasy novels by the bucketload. In recent years, not so much. Pullman and Potter are recent exceptions. And Alasdair Gray's Lanark, I suppose, would be another, very different, example. But, as I noted in the previous post, I'm a nit-picky and demanding reader, and at the first sign of anything too jarring or outlandish in the mythical landscape - talking polar bears being a prime example - a fantasy novel, mega-seller or not, is liable to find itself returned unceremoniously to the shelves.

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