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Fool On The Hill

Matt Ruff, 1988

A first novel by Matt Ruff, set mostly at Cornell University. A sprawling urban fantasy, using a mishmash of conceits and themes that shouldn't work, but do.

The main character, Stephen Titus George, is a writer with a bit of a block, living in Ithica. He has the ability to summon up the wind to fly his kite. He is fated to fall in love, after a dalliance with a personification of Calliope. A being called Mr. Sunshine oversees all this from somewhere, surrounded by a million monkeys at typewriters, whose manuscripts he alters at his own amusement. Luther, a mongrel New York dog leaves the city to search for heaven, accompanied by a worldly wise cat, Blackjack. Along the way to Cornell, he encounters pure-breed racist dogs. At the University, a tribe of sprites forget an old war with an evil creature. The dogs on campus study philosophy. Of the humans, a band of Bohemians wreak prankster havok, including riding around on horses. One of the fraternities is made up of Tolkein acolytes, residing in Rivendell house, which is much larger than it appears. There's a motorcycle riding guy with a troubled past and unrequited love, a father who gets stoned under an oak tree and hopes his daughter is more capricious than she seems, and an animated rubber mannequin.

As Stephen George begins to believe in the power of storytelling, and the Dragon Day Parade arrives, all the above elements combine for a battle between St. George and the Dragon.

Ruff borrows heavily from Stephen King books (The Shining, Christine, Cujo) and John Crowley's Little, Big (one of my most favourite books), but adds enough humour and plot twists to make a very entertaining read.

One aspect of enjoying this was remembering my years living in Santa Cruz, California, which also has a University that is nicknamed City on the Hill. Being a gathering point for hippies, geeks and others people immersed in Fantasy, I could read old friends into many of the characters. Adventures in redwood forests, myriad paths to much-loved places, and absolutely bizarre encounters with people welled up to the fore of my thoughs and made me pause in my reading and smile. Another book with fantasy elements (knights, fairies, coffeeshops), Folk of the Air, is set in Santa Cruz, and would be a good pairing with Fool On The Hill.

27 September 2002

Mortal Engines

Philip Reeve, 2002

A children's book which is the first novel written by Philip Reeve. I bought this for heyoka's birthday a couple of months ago.

The story is set in the far future, when cities are mobile, moving around the world on huge tractor wheels, gobbling up smaller cities. An orphaned boy dreams of excitement and gets it, becoming embroiled in saving the world. Written very much in the "steampunk" genre (cyberpunk with gears and victorian behaviour, see Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine, or Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentleman), but aimed at young readers, it reminded me of the best aspects of Northern Lights, the first book in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. There's a brave innocent boy and a brave innocent girl (who, as in Northern Lights, also has a father with dubious intentions). But Mortal Engines has dirigibles, pirates who want to be posh, spies, a Tin Woodman cyborg assassin, a girl with a face cut in half, a city in the sky, and the cities on the move. The main city is London, piled up high instead of spread out, and split into an extremely stratisfied class system similar to Victorian England.

Books where the main characters want adventure, get it, and strive to survive through it, all the while wondering why the heck they wanted adveture in the first place, are my cup of tea. 'May you live in interesting times', goes that old curse. It's a common theme -- the reluctant hero with dreams -- from The Hobbit to Gilliam's Brazil, and my favourite, letting me always wonder "what would I do?" and thinking about interesting times I've had, and how I survived.

I read this on the train down and back from London recently, which had the pleasant side effect of adding to the reality of reading about moving cities, especially as I went by the low tide mud flats at Manningtree, mirroring the muddy desecrated tracks made by huge cities. Once we were rolling into Liverpool Street Station, with the rumbling echo between brick graffiti'd buildings, I was spinning in and out of the imagined world and the real. There was also a 'mirror' of the London Underground in the book, only instead of a train it was an elevator, filling with the crowds of city people, racheting down the levels of the city, and again, reading this while on the Tube, rocking towards Tottenham Court Road, I grinned at the parallel.

Mortal Engines is one of those books I know I'll reread a few times when I want a good old escape into imagination, into adventure and the struggle to be brave.

September 2002

The Thief Lord

Cornelia Funke, 2002

A children's book from a German author.

The story is set in present day Venice where two orphan boys have run away to. Venice is one of those places I have always desired to visit, so books about it or set there I eagerly devour. Jeanette Winterson's The Passion to Robert Girardi's Vaporetto 13 are two excellent books set in Venice (the Movie Don't Look now has always creeped me out). This one also doesn't disappoint, with descriptions of the famous bits as well as hidden areas, and a magical element I've always associated with it.

The Thief Lord of the title is a handsome boy leading a gang of runaways that he feeds with pawned off loot and houses in an abandoned movie theater. A Poirot-ish detective is hired by the two orphan's guardians to find them while the lure of the theft of a wooden angel wing changes the plot into a fantastical adventure. There's a pathetic Fagin-ish pawnbroker, a carousel out of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, trips to a haunted island, and chases through the piazzas. I read it cover to cover, only pausing to move out to my back lawn to read the remainder, while heyoka tickled my feet with a bamboo cutting.

There are chapter and spot illustrations by the author, line drawings that spark the imagination: tops of buildings, steps into canals, small bridges, winged lion sculptures, wonky bricola, empty piazza and darkened doorways. It increases the draw to this otherworld city.

September 2002