Lamp Black, Wolf Grey: A review

I was recently sent a review copy (via Netgalley) of Paula Brackston’s upcoming book Lamp Black, Wolf Grey. Hooray! I love review copies, and this was one I could discuss here on The Bone Lantern. In the end, I nearly didn’t write a review, and I’ll go into why at the tail end of the post.

The book follows Lauren, and her move from London to the Wales countryside in an attempt to inspire new artwork (and somehow also inspire pregnancy); and Megan, nursemaid to the sons of a Medieval lord and love interest to a young Merlin. Their timelines are woven together, binding each other tighter and tighter as the book progresses. It is something of a gothic romance, tying in historical and contemporary fiction, and a bit of horror towards the end. It’s not a challenging read, but it rollicks along well enough to keep you reading for an afternoon.

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The blurb promised to reach through “gossamer-fine veil that separates [our] own world from that of myth and fable”, and I was hoping for a more in depth exploration of the relationship between the two. There is so much current fiction that explores myth and fairy tales, and the way they influence and intrude on our ‘real’ world, that you really need to do amazing things to stand out from the crowd. Using the old ‘it’s magic, and that’s explanation enough’ exposition doesn’t really cut it. Saying that, Paula has blurred the lines cleverly in some places. Two characters at first appear to be one and the same, but diverge: one into legend, the other into human fallibility. Myth bleeds into reality, and she explores the idea of true ‘magic’ against flaws in the human mind.

Lauren, our contemporary heroine, is not the strongest of protagonists and her motivations not always clear, but her emotional arc is well played out. She begins the story as the archetypal childless Queen, setting out on a journey to reverse her infertility. Megan is the stronger of the two, attempting to survive a precarious situation in a time when women of her social standing were at the mercy of nearly everyone around them. Her story is one of survival and bravery, while Lauren mostly ponders her emotional wellbeing, though she does get a taste of proper danger towards the end. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of depth to the characters, particularly the secondary ones. They are kind and good; dark and mysterious; or simply mad, bad and dangerous to know. I want to see flaws in the innocent, and light shining through the cracks of the villainous. Maybe she was using archetypal characters as a reflection of the fairy tale narrative? Maybe I’m being kind.

The writing clunks a little here and there, but overall the narrative is well structured. The two storylines are tied together skilfully, with thematic and emotional threads binding them at key points in the story. Look, to be honest, I wanted to love this book, and in the end… I enjoyed it well enough. I kept reading, despite my frustrations with it. Maybe I came to the book with conflicting expectations, but now the question is, do I hit ‘publish’ on a ho hum review? Reviews that worship a book are interesting, ones that gleefully despise it even more so! But several paragraphs to say “well, it was ok…”?

If you’ve made it this far, one thing I can do for you is recommend some brilliant writing on a similar theme:

For those who want clever and powerful historical fiction involving fairy tales, read Kate Forsyth, particularly Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl, and her upcoming The Beast’s Garden. Also read Neil Gaiman, in particular his beautiful novellas (novellettes? They are short stories really, beautifully illustrated) The Sleeper and the Spindle and Hansel and Gretel. And of course the all great and powerful A. S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie…

Tell me, what else should I read? Do you have a contemporary book that involves myth and fairy tales, and blows you away with its creative power, dexterity and un-put-downable-ness? I want to read it too.

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