REVIEW

From Ursula Le Guin to Kim Wilkins, the latest titles for Canberra readers from the world of fantasy fiction

A Wizard of Earth Sea, by Ursula Le Guin. Gollancz. $35. 

Ursula Le Guin's classic novel, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), which began her Earthsea series, is now republished by Gollancz in a beautiful hardback collection with illustrations from Charles Vess.

An introduction and afterword by Le Guin place the novel in its original context.

Le Guin writes, "my Wizard never got on the bestseller lists, but he kept on finding readers, year after year. The book has never been out of print".

Fantasy is the sharpest tool to develop and unveil all the miracles and the terrors of our reality.

Cornelia Funke

Le Guin had to compromise on the early book covers. She notes "A great many white readers in 1967 were not ready to accept a brown-skinned hero . . .I didn't make an issue of it, and you have to be well into the book before you realize that Ged, like most of the characters, isn't white".

Ged with, as yet untested magical powers goes to wizarding school, long before JK Rowling's Harry Potter, but he navely underestimates the power and danger of magic and, as a result, will come face-to-face with his dark side through the unleashing of his shadow.

As Le Guin writes in the afterword, Ged has "to find out who and what his real enemy is".

Le Guin probes issues of life, death, power and responsibility in a novel which still resonates strongly, beginning in an a series which established new standards for fantasy.

Pan's Labyrinth, by Guillermo Del Toro and Cornelia Funke. Bloomsbury. $29.99. 

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and bestselling German author Cornelia Funke have collaborated in a novel inspired by del Toro's much praised dark fantasy film, Pan's Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun, released in 2006.

Set in a remote area of 1940s Spain, the novel, like the movie, follows the story of a young girl, Ofelia.

Her pregnant mother has married a sadistic army captain.

As her stepfather's brutality, both to her mother and the local resistance fighters is revealed, the boundaries between reality and a fantasy underworld begin to blur.

Funke has said the movie, and thus the novel, "demonstrates what I believe to be true: that fantasy is the sharpest tool to develop and unveil all the miracles and the terrors of our reality.

"It is both political and timeless, a rare achievement in storytelling".

Allen Williams's black-and-white illustrations complement Funke's detailed backstory vignettes, especially of the leading characters.

This is especially the case with Faun, who sets everything in motion with the tasks Ofelia must perform in the Labyrinth to prove she is the long-missing daughter, Princess Moanna, of the Underworld King.

Queens of the Sea, by Kim Wilkins. HQ Fiction $29.99. 

Dr Kim Wilkins is an Associate Professor in Writing and Publishing at the University of Queensland. Under her pseudonym, Kimberley Freeman, she has published seven novels of epic women's fiction, and is particularly known for her award listed fantasy novels.

Queens of The Sea is the final volume of her 'Blood and Gold' trilogy, set in an alternate Norse/Anglo-Saxon eighth century England. Essentially a story about family, the trilogy follows the story of five daughters of a king.

In Queens of The Sea, the redoubtable, battle hardened, warrior queen, Bluebell has lost her kingdom to Hakon, the Raven King, who is married to Bluebell's estranged sister, Willow, who is aided by the powers of the trimartyr god Maava.

Wilkins skilfully portrays the different personalities of the sisters, noting, "How different they are, what their loyalties are, and how that in-fighting and love between sisters affects everything that happens" Bluebell is a bit like a female Jon Snow, surviving, however battered, from numerous battles. To survive , Bluebell and her sisters must draw on their courage, magic, giants and their gods to seek victory over Hakon and Willow, but at what personal cost?

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, by K J Parker. Orbit. $22.99 

K.J. Parker, a.k.a. British satiric author Tom Holt, tells the story of Orhan, Colonel of an unnamed city's Corps of Engineers, who try to devise "Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City". The Byzantine like city's ruling nobleman have fled from an invading army of 100,000, leaving Orhan and his team to defend the city.

Orhan is a former slave and a "milkface," the wrong colour in a city in which the elite Robur. are blue skinned. Given his low social status, Orhan wonders why he's defending a regime that enslaved him.

Matters become more difficult when he finds out the leader of the invading forces is his childhood friend.

Orhan is a reluctant hero and an unreliable narrator. The book is told from Orhan's archival account, which leaves the war unresolved. "This story is ending abruptly. So is my life, so you'll have to forgive me if I can't tie up the loose ends, . . . say a proper goodbye to the men and women whose adventures you've been following".

Orhan and thus Holt are not afraid to break the rules as they tease and delight in a darkly humorous novel.

  • Colin Steele is a Canberra reviewer.
This story The latest titles in fantasy fiction first appeared on The Canberra Times.