Wild Magic and a Hall of Mirrors

Magic in a 1940s college town and on one of the Autumn Isles in the 1800s. Not to mention spy games in 1980s Moscow.

Issue #48, Sunday 6 August, 2023

I’ve been a bit slack over the last several weeks, both in gathering bookish news and even just in reading and reviewing. But let’s see what we’ve got.

Bookish News


Miles Franklin Award Winner Announced

The winner for 2023 of Australia’s premier literary award was Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens by Shankari Chandran. I haven’t read this, though I will, but was a little disappointed that one of my favourite books from last year, Limberlost by Robbie Arnott didn’t win, though it was shortlisted.

Ned Kelly Awards Shortlist

Just out, the shortlist for Australia’s crime awards. It’s too long to reproduce the whole thing, but here are the lists for Best Debut Novel and Best Crime Novel:


I’ve only read a few of these, but Wake on the debut list was great.

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

This was Leiber’s first novel, published in Unknown Magazine in 1943, so well before the Hugo Awards started up in the 1950s.

I suppose that you would call it an “urban fantasy”, in that it deals with the everyday world with fantasy elements blended in. Some people have described it as a horror novel, but it’s fairly tame horror if so.

In the book, Leiber plays off the deep fear of the hidden powers of women that men have had, going back to prehistoric times. Women, after all, have the power to create new life from their own bodies. And they have knowledge—secret “women’s business”—concealed from men.

In Conjure Wife Leiber spins this deep-seated ancient fear into the concept that even in the modern day all women (or at least, the vast majority of women) have secret knowledge of witchcraft, concealed from men but acknowledged among themselves. And they use this magic, not at all in the gently humorous way of the TV series Bewitched, but much more seriously to defend themselves and their male partners from the evil influences of other women.

The novel is told in the third person, almost entirely from the point of view of Norman Sayler, a sociology professor in his 30s, specialising in ethnology, currently employed at Hempnell College, a university in a small town in the United States. His academic researches have concentrated on the use of ritual magic in primitive societies, and he has spent a lot of time travelling the world to document these practices, accompanied by his wife Tansy.

Though he’s still young, and an outsider, he’s succeeded remarkably well at the College, and he can’t help thinking to himself how lucky he has been, and how well Tansy has navigated the rather close-minded community of college wives.

He’s at home one day while his wife is out, and is idly mooching about the house when he decides on a whim to have a look in her dressing room. In one of her drawers he discovers some strange things: jars of what appears to be dirt, some dried up herbs. As he looks at these things he realises that these materials are very similar to those he’s recorded from primitive society. He looks closer and finds that the jars of dirt are labelled with the names of local cemeteries—graveyard dirt.

Tansy arrives home unexpectedly and finds him standing at her dresser. There’s a confrontation, and he accuses her of having been overly influenced by his researches and the field trips they have gone on. In other words he thinks she’s become obsessed and has become mentally unbalanced. Their emotional discussion goes late into the night, but he finally forces her to promise to give up trying to do magic. As a scientist he doesn’t doubt for a moment that magic is all nonsense.

Tansy, having reluctantly agreed, then goes about the house finding various charms she has secreted about the place, and Norman burns them all in the fireplace. Tansy seems to enter a state of relief and release, as through free from an intolerable burden.

You can see where the story is going. That very evening, things start to go wrong for Norman, and his luck takes a turn very much for the worse. Three of the college wives in particular seem to have it in for Norman as they boost the careers of their own husbands. No surprise that here we have three witches. Norman tries to hold on to his rational, scientific ideas even as the coincidences and malevolent events start to mount up. Finally, with Norman’s life in danger, Tansy tricks him into passing on to her the curses he has had laid on him by the other wives. Shortly thereafter she leaves home without his knowledge, leaving him only a cryptic note, broken off before she was able to complete it.

This is the best part of the book, as Norman, still fighting with his disbelief of magic and assuming that Tansy has had a mental breakdown, sets off to follow her. Along the way, Tansy is able to drop other notes: it seems as though she is (or as Norman would say, thinks she is) in the grip of a powerful, malevolent creature whose attention very rarely is distracted. It is taking her to a bayside town to commit suicide by drowning herself.

The notes Tansy drops add up to the instructions for how to put together a spell which will free her. Despite his scepticism, in his fear for Tansy, Norman tries to assemble the spell, but as a midnight deadline approaches, the simple objects required seem to conspire against him to make it terribly difficult. Leiber does a great job building up the tension here. Norman finally completes the spell. But not quite quickly enough.

I won’t give away what happens after that, but the tension continues and there are a number of clever twists in the story before evil is defeated. I was a bit let down by the ending of the book, however, which implies that despite all that has happened, Norman still tries to hold on to his rationalist point of view. His continued stubbornness in this regard is probably the weakest and most annoying part of the story.

Look, I enjoyed this a lot. It’s a clever idea and it’s worked out very well in the story. I do wonder, however, what women readers were meant to make of the book. Perhaps back in the 1940s Leiber didn’t expect there to be any women readers of magazines like Unknown?

Utterly Dark and the Heart of the Wild by Philip Reeve

This book, which was published last year, is aimed, I imagine, at “middle-school” readers, kids from about 12 years old upwards. It’s a sequel to Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep, the first in this series, published about two years ago. I talked about The Face of the Deep in Episode 67, and at that time I didn’t expect there to be a sequel. Neither, apparently, did Philip Reeve, according to what he said to me on Twitter (should I be calling it “X” now?). Anyway, here we are, and I see that there’s yet another Utterly Dark novel in the works.

Reeve, by the way, is probably best known for his quirky Mortal Engines series, from which a movie was made a few years ago.

The setting of both the first Utterly Dark book and this new one is the fictional “Autumn Isles” which are supposedly located to the West of Britain. The time is the early to mid 1800s. In the first book, we discover that young Utterly was found abandoned in a wicker basket washed up on the shore of the island of Wildsea, and adopted by Andrew Dark, who was the Watcher of Wildsea, tasked with keeping watch for the return of the “Hidden Lands” far to the West, the domain of a powerful entity called The Gorm. He raises Utterly as his niece, but we eventually discover that his relationship to Utterly, and for that matter, with the Gorm, is stronger and stranger than it at first appears.

Andrew’s brother, Will Dark, returned to Wildsea part-way through the first book. At the start of this one, he is getting married to a woman called Aish, who rescued him from a shipwreck in the first book. She’s a strange, powerful woman, close to the land and the wilderness. A month or so after the wedding, Will is invited to help examine some standing stones on another island, Summertide. Aish tells him she can’t leave Wildsea, so Will invites Utterly to go with him.

On Summertide, dirty deeds are slowly uncovered, and Will and Utterly eventually find themselves trapped in the “Underwoods”, an endless forest dominated by the malevolent and powerful Hunter, a primitive demiurge. With the help of their friends and ultimately that of Aish, they do escape from the Hunter, but he follows them into our world and they have to struggle again to put an end to his power. Doing so forces young Utterly to make a solemn promise to The Gorm in order to recruit her help, a promise which we will have to wait for the next book in the series in order to see how it plays out.

All of this makes a compelling story for young and old readers alike. I enjoyed it a lot, and I will be looking out to buy the next book, Utterly Dark and the Tides of Time as soon as it comes out.

The Russia House by John le Carré

I actually listened to this as an audiobook, rather than read it. With audiobooks one of the tricks is to make sure that you can cope with the narrator’s voice. There was no problem here, however, as Michael Jayston does an excellent job of it.

Set during the final years of the Soviet Union, it centres on the book industry and in particular on a middle-aged, unsuccessful publisher, Bartholemew (“Barley”) Scott Blair, who is the book’s main character. And what an intriguing, compelling character he turns out to be.

The novel opens in Moscow, at a trade fair for books, where there are stands for Western publishing companies to sell their wares and to perhaps take on new titles from Russian writers. At the close of the day, one of the stand holders, Nicky Landau, is approached by a beautiful young Russian woman, Katya, who has been desperately looking for Scott Blair. But Blair hasn’t turned up to the fair. She tells Landau that Blair has promised to publish a book, a novel, by a friend of hers. It’s vitally important that he does so, she says, and she presses three hand-written notebooks on Landau, which he is very reluctant to accept.

Le Carré is a master of so many aspects of storytelling. He’s brilliant at characterisation, and I find it interesting that he is often able to have us understand a character not by a direct description of that person, but just through looking at their actions and movements.

There’s some lovely characterisation in here of Landau, despite him taking only a minor role in the book as a whole. He’s an expatriate Pole, more British than the British, with a soft heart towards good-looking women.

Here’s how Nicky thinks of himself, a lovely bit of writing, I thought:

He was a card. That's what he liked to be. A pushy, short-arsed Polish card and proud of it. He was old Nick, the cheeky chappy of the eastward-facing reps, capable, he liked to boast, of selling filthy pictures to a Georgian convent, or hair tonic to a Romanian billiard ball. He was Landau, the undersized bedroom athlete, who wore raised heels to give his Slav body the English scale he admired, and ritzy suits that whistled, “Here I am.” When old Nick set up his stand, his travelling colleagues assured our unattributable inquirers, you could hear the tinkle of the handbell on his Polish vendor's barrow. And little Landau shared the joke with them. He played their game. “Boys, I'm the Pole you wouldn't touch with a barge,” he would declare proudly, as he ordered up another round.

Nicky takes pity on Katya and agrees to get the notebooks to Scott Blair, whom he knows. He cleverly smuggles the notebooks back out of Russia and back in England tries to locate Scott Blair, to no avail and to his increasing annoyance. He looks at the notebooks and finds them full, not of a novel but of mathematics and diagrams, covering some sort of military issue. Suspecting that Blair is a secret agent, Landau doggedly keeps trying until he forces the British intelligence services to take him seriously and accept possession of the notebooks. At which point alarms start going off. This is hot stuff, apparently to do with Russia’s nuclear readiness. The material is eventually passed to “The Russia House”, the department which concentrates on that country. The agents here, and their interactions between each other, and then with the agents of the CIA, become a major focus of the novel.

But Landau is wrong. Barley Scott Blair isn’t a secret agent, not at all.

Le Carré is a master of so many aspects of storytelling. He’s brilliant at characterisation, and I find it interesting that he is often able to have us understand a character not by a direct description of that person, but through looking just at their actions and movements. Think, for example, of how Jim Prideaux is introduced at the start of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy through a description of how he arrives at the boarding school where he is going to teach, in his old Alvis pulling a battered caravan, bouncing over the rough ground. Here is someone bold, experienced in life but down on his luck. Or similarly how Maria Ostrakova, a Russian emigre living in Paris, is introduced at the start of Smiley’s People by a description of her trudging along the pavement with her shopping bags, wearing a black dress and cracked shoes. Someone who has suffered grief and is now living in poverty but nevertheless she endures.

We don’t quite have the same thing here, but we do get a really good view of Barley Scott Blair’s character well before we meet him, through what Landau says of him, and through the investigations carried out into his background by the security services. Blair runs his publishing business, largely owned by his aunts, in a lackadaisical fashion. Indeed, that’s how he treats his life. He has two children from a failed marriage, now in their 20s. He drinks too much, and plays the jazz saxophone in bars, very well, when the urge takes him. He travels all over, apparently at a whim.

The British security forces eventually track Barley down in Lisbon, Portugal and persuade him to talk to them. Does he know this woman, Katya? No. Did he promise to publish a book for her? No. For a while he is as baffled as the British agents, but then he recalls how on a previous trip he met a Russian man, introduced to him as a poet and given the joking name “Goethe” by his friends. During a long boozy evening when they all got very drunk, Barley spouted off his ideas about world peace and disarmament, not particularly seriously. But Goethe took him with deadly seriousness. And Goethe, it seems, is not just an amateur poet, but an idealistic Russian scientist involved in their nuclear program. It’s Goethe’s book which Barley, in his drunken state, has promised to publish, without any real understanding of what it would contain. Goethe thinks that publishing it will cause radical change and save the world.

The material is of such interest and importance to the security of both Britain and the United States that the authorities convince Barley to return to Russia to try to make contact again with Goethe to try to verify the source and possibly to obtain more valuable intelligence. Barley, needless to say, is no one’s idea of a good secret agent, but it appears that Goethe will talk to no-one else.

The first thing to do is for Barley to return to Moscow and talk to the young woman Katya, who it turns out works for a Russian publishing company. She is the only connection they have with Goethe, whose real name they don’t even know.

To quickly summarise most of the rest of the book: Barley soon falls deeply in love with Katya, who is a divorced mother of two children, and who was once Goethe’s lover. The CIA get involved, and treat the British intelligence service as their junior partner. Though this important lead came from a British source, the CIA (or “Langley” as it’s referred to throughout) quickly take control and want to direct Barley as their own agent.

Barley, however, is his own man and has ideas of his own. He soon has serious fears for the welfare of Katya and her young children, unwittingly caught up in the midst of Cold War paranoia and subterfuge.

Interestingly, although the book focuses on Barley Scott Blair as the main character, and for much of the start of the novel appears to be written in the ominscient third person, we discover that in fact it is being narrated from the first-person point of view of Harold de Palfrey (“Old Palfrey”), a legal adviser working for the Russia House, with his own personal concerns. This disconnect bothered me for a bit—how does Palfrey know exactly what Lauder and then Blair were thinking at various points? That is eventually explained, how convincingly I’m not sure. But that’s the smallest of nit-picks.

Le Carré certainly knows how to create a tense, compelling drama, that’s for sure, and here he ends by showing us the absurdity of the hall-of-mirrors of espionage and nuclear strategy. Though this novel is set in the era of Mikail Gorbachev, perestroika and glasnost, these elements are unchanged and still make for a highly readable story.

I can't close without mentioning that *The Russia House* was turned into a movie in 1990, directed by Australian director Fred Schepisi. It starred Sean Connery as Barley Blair and Michell Pfeiffer as Katya, with a script by Tom Stoppard. It seems to have been generally well-received with the two lead actors given credit for excellent performances, but it went nowhere in the awards, and only gets a 70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Currently Reading

I’m part-way through a lot of books! Not a great position to be in, I know, but I’m having trouble “getting in” to books at the moment. Anyway, for what it’s worth, these are the books I’m currently reading.

And that’s all for this issue. See you next time.

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