Tag Archives: hope mirrlees

Reading The High House by James Stoddard

The High House – James Stoddard
(Earthlight, 1998)

It’s rare now that I have the chance to recapture the sense of discovery I experienced when I first began reading science fiction and fantasy. After reading Tolkien, I was hungry for more of this new diet and set off down the primrose path of ‘in the tradition of Lord of the Rings’. In the mid-Seventies, this phrase actually meant something, and I was happily placed to take full advantage of the appearance in the UK of Lin Carter’s ‘Sign of the Unicorn’ series, which he edited from 1969 to 1974. Carter brought many long-unpublished fantasies to readers’ attention, including novels from William Morris, E.R. Eddison (who actually met Tolkien), George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake and the incomparable Hope Mirrlees, and while Carter’s introductions were outrageously egregious, they listed still more books to seek out. It was a rich and varied diet which undoubtedly shaped my taste in fantasy reading forever after. James Stoddard seems to have been similarly affected for his first novel, The High House unashamedly acknowledges his debt to Lin Carter, and he offers this book as an homage to those exciting times.

There is, though, nothing blatant about this homage. It’s as subtle and elusive as those old-style fantasies, a name or country here, a character or building there, a half-remembered … but no, it’s gone. Stoddard recreates that sense of atmosphere, of ‘otherness’, that so few modern fantasies evoke, while his heroes are unconventional and old-fashioned, imbued with a numinosity that modern divinely-inspired heroes seem to lack. The High House itself, in which the adventure is set, stretches on forever, spanning worlds and times, its function only dimly hinted at, and within its all-embracing walls, Carter Anderson enacts a quest to find his father and the Master Key, to restore equilibrium to Evenmere.

This novel is perhaps not to everyone’s taste. Those who like their fantasy sprawling across continents, peopled by races engaged in enormous wars and heroes who lack introspection may find it tame, but for anyone who ever read Eddison or Peake or John Crowley with any pleasure, reading The High House will bring a sense of recognition, a feeling of ‘you too?’ to accompany an absorbing story.

Archive – Roil – Trent Jamieson

Another golden oldie from Interzone in 2011. I recall I struggled to fit my views into the allotted words.

Roil (Book 1 of The Nightbound Land)
Trent Jamieson, Angry Robot, 384pp, pb

Trent Jamieson draws his inspiration for this novel in part from the fantastic fiction of the early twentieth century. He invokes Hope Mirrlees in his portrayal of small-town life, and most explicitly in the town of Mirrlees-on-Weep but he draws his plot, and indeed the trilogy’s title, from William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. The inhabitants of Shale are similarly threatened by a planet-wide cloud of heat and vapour which corrupts everything with which it comes into contact, and in which strange creatures lurk. Hope Hodgson’s characters have long since retreated to the Great Redoubt, a metal pyramid so vast it holds more than a thousand different cities, but on Shale, the survivors struggle on, concentrated into fortified towns, most of which have now been lost to the Roil while the others are threatened by a sudden acceleration of the cloud’s progress.

In The Night Land the occupants of the Great Redoubt, sheltered from the threat outside, have become detached from their past. The inhabitants of Shale, by contrast, are still in the process of losing their history and with it the knowledge that might save them from the Roil. Several characters believe the explanation for the Roil’s presence lies unrecognised in the history books, and this is made explicit, perhaps excessively so, by the way each chapter of the novel begins with quotations from different accounts of Shale’s past. Using this evidence, the smart reader naturally suspects that Shale’s inhabitants may themselves be responsible for the Roil’s creation but this prospect is so terrible they can barely acknowledge it. The Engineers deal in what seem like abstractions to the majority but the Confluents are concerned with day-to-day survival and are critical of the Engineers’ trust in big solutions although they know their own response to the threat is pathetically inadequate. Attitudes have hardened into political ideology over the centuries, leading to the creation of the Vergers, a security force to keep the two groups apart but one with its own inscrutable agenda.

In this atmosphere of fear and paranoia, the Engineers have staged a bloody takeover, leaving David Milde, son of a Confluent leader, on the run. A drug addict, he is an unlikely candidate to survive a journey through dangerous territory, and it is a mercy that he is quickly – too quickly – found by Cadell, a mysterious figure associated with the Confluent but also much older than them. At the same moment, Margaret Penn, daughter of two of the most able scientists on the planet, is fleeing Tait, which had survived in the Roil until its defences were sabotaged. It is inevitable that the paths of the two young people will cross, the only question being, to what purpose?

Purpose is an issue in this novel. Jamieson has worked hard to establish the novel’s atmosphere, a mixture of grime and melancholia that echoes Ray Bradbury and Michael Swanwick alongside the earlier writers. But, as trapped in his own literary history as his characters are in their past, Jamieson seems to have abandoned story. David and Margaret forever teeter on the brink of making significant discoveries without ever quite getting there, as aimless in their thoughts as they are in their wanderings. One longs for them to grasp at least some of the dark hints that Cadell offers them but they seem remarkably slow to understand. I’d like to believe this is Jamieson’s deliberate choice, an attempt to hold the reader’s attention that has misfired, but too often it seems as if he’s not sure which way to go, or else he is too in love with his setting to move beyond it. As a result this novel is stiff with unfulfilled potential as its characters dawdle along, impotent in the face of the Roil’s threat. I only wish I were eager for the next volume because of the strength of the storytelling rather than to see how Jamieson writes his way out of the technical impasse he’s created.