When I look back over the years of my reading obsession, I can see that fantasy was always my first choice. It didn’t seem like I made that decision consciously and it was a while before I recognized that there was a pattern to my reading. The books I’ve enjoyed most were those that lifted me out of the everyday, whether they had historical, imaginary, or pure fantasy settings.
I was an avid user of the public library, a lovely building adapted from an old church, situated on the corner of a road close to where my grandmother lived. I’d joined the library when I was around eight years old and been captivated by the choice of books, and the fact that I could take home a selection, read them and then exchange them for different books – usually the following Saturday, when visiting Grandma. And all this for free. Wow! I still think libraries are magic. I’m a huge supporter of public libraries, especially in the light of the recent cuts to budgets by councils all over the UK.
So in my young years of visiting libraries, I read anything and everything and quickly graduated to the classics. Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louis May Alcott, the Brontes, etc. I felt the anguish of orphaned Jane Eyre as she battled humiliation and loneliness, before finding work as a governess, and thrilled along with her as she sparred with the fascinating Mr Rochester. I enjoyed tramping across the ‘wild and windy moors’ with Cathy and Heathcliff. I completely lost myself in the struggles of Marmee and the impoverished but warm-hearted March family. It was natural for me to identify with Jo, as I’m the oldest of four sisters, and I cried bitterly when gentle Beth died. I was on that desert island with Robinson Crusoe when he saw the footprint in the sand. I was half-scared out of my wits when the convict, Magwitch, encountered Pip in the graveyard. I was young Jim Hawkins, crouching inside the apple barrel and listening, with bated breath, to the pirates talking. So many adventures, through so many books.
I was working for the town’s public library, when I moved on to reading, what we in those days referred to as ‘Sword and Sorcery’ but which is now called high-fantasy. In Stephen R Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, I first encountered the theme of the flawed, wounded super-hero. Covenant was a leper and wonderful anti-hero. He was also an author (as was Jo March – maybe writers had the best adventures? Hmmm…) I was haunted by the white faced, white-haired and red-eyed, albino Elric of Melnibone, Michael Moorcock’s seminal character, another wounded hero. I read Ray Bradbury’s books, and along with Jim Nightshade, shared a nightmarish experience with a travelling carnival. I still think– ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is one of the best book titles, ever. Just reading it aloud, sends shivers down my back.
For a while I read a lot of high fantasy. There were many, many other favourites. A brief skirmish – well a few years actually, when I roamed in the world of vampire fiction and the undead – but that’s for another time. There was one series of books that made a lasting impression on me, which I’ve never really talked about. Until now.
Enter stage left – Jane Gaskell’s wonderful Atlan series.
I read the first book, ‘The Serpent’ many years ago. The main character, who narrates the story, is Cija (Key-a) – aged seventeen. She has been held prisoner in a tower, by her mother, the Dictatress and believes she’s a goddess, and all the men in the world have been wiped out.
Cija is such an engaging character that I was gripped by her from the start. She’s innocent and awkward – who wouldn’t be after being shut away for their entire life? She’s also strappy, difficult, wilful, intelligent and resourceful. I Loved that. And I enjoyed that she’s not a classic ‘great beauty’ – which can be such a cliché – but gets into all kinds of trouble, when out of her depth amongst the sophisticated people she first encounters on leaving her tower prison.
Jane Gaskell’s writing is vibrant and lively, and holds up incredibly well when measured against any fantasy I’ve read before or since. Her descriptions of the world where there’s no moon and the continents are still connected, where dinosaurs still roam in parts of it, and people ride on giants birds – are amazing. An invading army is passing through Cija’s country, on their way to conquer the ancient and mysterious Atlan. The army, cobbled together and inexperienced, is led by the great general Zerd – enigmatic and powerful half-reptilian hybrid, who she is expected to seduce – marry if necessary – and kill. Other hostages accompany Cija on her journey, amongst them is Smahil – sometime-friend, ally, trickster and later lover. We’re never sure if Smahil loves or hates her.
All the characters, even minor ones, are skilfully drawn. Seeing them through Cija’s perspective makes them fresh and endlessly fascinating.
I first read the series as library books, but eventually bought my own set of paperbacks. I was lucky enough to get a first edition hardback copy of ‘Some Summer Lands’ in a library sale. This book, which follows on from the first three Atlan books – or four, depending on which editions you have – is narrated by Seka, Cija’s daughter.
I still have all the Atlan books. I’d been meaning to revisit them for quite a while, and had been glancing at them every now and then, where they sat on the crowded bookshelves in my workroom. So when I began thinking about what books to write for the Cover to Cover blog – it seemed the perfect opportunity to dig them out. Just holding them I felt excited.
I’m only a short way into ‘The Serpent’ but it’s just as fresh, enjoyable and intriguing as I remembered. I’m loving re-tracing this journey with Cija – she’s such a great character, surly and really funny at times. A lot of the details of the later books are a bit hazy to me, since it’s been so long since I read them, (and I was a different person then!) but I’m so looking forward to re-discovering this series and taking my time about it.
A word about different editions, in case of confusion. Originally there were only three books in the series, but at some point it was decided to divide book one into two volumes and publish them separately. So the 1980s paperback editions I have are; Book One – entitled ‘The Serpent’ and Book Two – entitled ‘The Dragon.’ (It might be possible to track down the original first book of the series in one volume. It would have been published in the early 1960s. I’d love to find a copy!) In my paperback set – Book Three is entitled ‘Atlan,’ and Book Four is entitled ‘The City.’ As I mentioned earlier, ‘Some Summer Lands’ was written about 15 years after the first book in the series.
What I love about all kinds of books is that they transport you, not only to other worlds, but into other people’s minds and lives, so you’re able to have adventures of which you could only dream. I wish we didn’t have to squeeze books into narrow categories. Crime, romance, fantasy etc. But booksellers and bookshops, like to do this, and it does give one a guide to where to find one’s favourite genre, although there can be a lot of cross-over. Fantasy covers such a wide range. And in a sense, all fiction is fantasy – after all it’s just stories people make up, lies expertly fashioned to seem like the truth.
There is the suspension of belief as we read and immerse ourselves in a world someone else has created. I’ve always loved that. And I still do. As the world around us becomes ever more complex, worrying and stressful in so many ways, I find myself ever more immersed in the magic world, woven by books. It’s all fantasy and I’m happy to inhabit that world, in my reading and in my imagination, and also as a writer.
Finally – I googled Jane Gaskell, once I’d decided to devote a large part of this blog post to her. And learned that she’s the great grandniece of Elizabeth Gaskell, the Victorian novelist. I did know that Jane’s first novel was published when she was fourteen, which is astonishing. She’s an amazing, standout writer. And I now intend to track down and buy all of her novels, including those outside the Atlan series.
Buy links: Goodreads | Book Depository | Amazon
Genre: YA | Fantasy | Paranormal | Shapeshifters |Fae
Release Date: April 28th, 2017
Pages: 560 pages
Average Rating: 4.47 stars
Description: A gripping fantasy for young adults and anyone who enjoys a journey into a twilight world. Sue Bentley is a master story teller.
Family secrets, changelings, and fairies you never want to meet on a dark night.
Jess Morgan’s life has always been chaotic. When a startling new reality cannot be denied, it’s clear that everything she believed about herself is a lie. She is linked to a world where humans – ‘hot-bloods’ – are disposable entertainment. Life on a run-down estate – her single mum’s alcoholism and violent boyfriend – become the least of Jess’s worries.
Do you have a book that really stands out to you from your childhood? What kind of genre initially got you into reading? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you!