November 08, 2007


The Castle Corona. By Sharon Creech. Illuminated by David Diaz. HarperCollins. $18.99.

Igraine the Brave. By Cornelia Funke. Translated by Anthe Bell. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

The Percheron Saga, Book Two: Emissary. By Fiona McIntosh. Eos. $15.95.

      The archetypes of fairy tales continue to get twisted every which way by modern authors, but the old lessons about the dark woods and the even darker impulses of evil people are nowadays frequently leavened with humor – in part because today’s fairy tales are written with young readers in mind, while the old ones were cautionary tales as much for adults as for children.

      The best users of fairy-tale motifs, such as Sharon Creech and Cornelia Funke, create from them stories with characters who are more than types (or archetypes), whose adventures may seem far away and long ago but whose failures and successes are very up-to-date indeed. Thus, The Castle Corona not only sounds but also looks like an old book – it is not merely illustrated by David Diaz but “illuminated” by him, as pre-Gutenberg books were illuminated with highly decorated initial letters that included miniature pictures indicating a chapter’s subject. Beautiful to look at, The Castle Corona is also a delight to read. It’s all about peasant children Enzio and Pia, who find a royal pouch dropped in the woods that eventually reveals their true identities; and it is about King Guido, so frightened of thieves and poisoners that he must have tasters for his family – and Enzio and Pia become those tasters. What’s in the pouch? Two small bits of red coral, two gold medallions, a lock of black hair tied with a purple ribbon, and a small rolled parchment whose words Enzio and Pia cannot read. Unraveling the mystery of what those objects mean takes quite a while – the story is told at a leisurely pace that gives Creech plenty of time to develop the characters: “Prince Gianni dreamed of walking through a meadow. Words fell upon him like soft raindrops, which he gathered and spun into poetry. The meadow ended abruptly at the river’s edge, where he was lifted across by the breeze. On the far bank stood a peasant girl, who said, Your words are jewels. She did not know he was a prince, heir to the throne. She thought he was a poet.” Who the characters really turn out to be – for many things change as the events unfold – is only part of the charm of this entrancing book.

      The charms of Igraine the Brave are more straightforward and more overtly and constantly amusing. Igraine wishes more than anything to become a knight, but she is stuck in boring Castle Pimpernel with magician parents whose singing magic books are coveted by Osmund, the evil nephew of the baroness next door. How dull. Oh, it’s not dull? But that’s Cornelia Funke’s point: things are interesting enough at the start, and become increasingly so as Igraine’s parents accidentally transform themselves into pigs and so leave their castle at the not-so-tender mercy of Osmund. But Igraine becomes squire to the Sorrowful Knight of the Mount of Tears, and they have a series of adventures that lead in the end back to Castle Pimpernel, a dramatic confrontation with Osmund, and the return in human (or magician) form of Igraine’s father and mother. Before that, Igraine and the Sorrowful Knight meet such characters as a three-headed dragon being hunted by the One-Eyed Duke. One of the dragon’s heads is much smaller than the others: “Look at my third head, will you? The One-Eyed Duke cut it off, and it still hasn’t grown back any larger than one of your silly human heads. I really am sick and tired of all this. …Don’t you and your sort in those tinpot helmets have anything better to do?” The bright prose – stylishly translated from the original German by Anthe Bell – is neatly complemented by Funke’s own illustrations, which make the singing books, the three-headed dragon, the giant (also met on Igraine’s adventures), and all the other characters seem boisterously alive.

      Boisterousness tends to fade from fantasy as it targets an adult audience, though. The Percheron Saga is a typical example of well-written adult fantasy, featuring palace intrigue, feuding gods in the background (and sometimes the foreground), sexual competitiveness, and all sorts of political battles to complement the physical fights. Fiona McIntosh writes well, and the second book of her saga, Emissary, deserves a (+++) rating, but it never really rises above a formulaic approach to fantasy adventure – although the characters are nicely formed within the strictures of the genre. The problem is those strictures: the characters include a young and inexperienced Zar (ruler) of Percheron, Boaz; a secretive Vizier with nefarious plans of his own; a harem ruled by Herezah, the Valide, who is jockeying for position with young Ana (central character of the saga’s first book, Odalisque), who Herezah fears may challenge her status; the former Zar, Lazar, presumed dead but actually recovering from illness far from Percheron and worrying about hearing voices in his head; and the various gods, jockeying for position in their own realm. They are all types, however well McIntosh fleshes them out, and their fears and plots and narrow escapes all parallel the fears, plots and narrow escapes in other adult fantasies. Fans of the genre will surely enjoy this latest entry in it – but unlike Creech’s and Funke’s fairy tales for young readers, McIntosh’s fantasy for adults offers escapism but nothing more.

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