Fighting for Equal Opportunities in a Fantasy World

Cornelia Funke: Tintentod (English title: Ink Death) ISBN 978-3-7915-0476-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ The third and last volume of Cornelia Funke’s fantasy trilogy is no less thrilling than the first two. A page-turner that should delight any voracious reader of fantasy novels. We return of course to the four main characters: Meggie, a young girl, Mo aka “Silver Tongue”, a bookbinder and Meggie’s father, Resa, Meggie’s mother and an enigmatic man of the name of “Dust Finger”. All four have different magic talents and all four are waging a battle against evil in a fantasy world, the “Ink World” which for us readers obviously exists only in a book. For the characters however, lifted by the power ofvthecworld from the real world to the fantasy world, “Ink World” is a matter of life and death, as we have seen in the first two volumes.

And then there are two young boys courting Meggie, who is experiencing her first heart-breaking love adventure. There is no lack of evil characters, triggering quite a number of unfair fights, betrayal being always an option, and ample occasion to show rafinesse and galantry. But I will say no more as I don’t want to spoil anybody’s reading pleasure. Funke’s power of imagination knows no limits, the plot is admirable, there’s a plethora of magic effects – Harry Potter and his friend Ron would be delighted! But what about the end? Well, the end may be satisfying for the majority of the readers I guess, but unfortunately not for me. It frustrated me and made me furious.

Funke has given away the chance to portray a combative mother fighting successfully for her rights as an individual: Resa, Meggie’s mother. She is such a strong and courageous person in the novel, but her strength and her courage are not well used. She deserved a major part in the shaping of events, but Funke does not go beyond the common stereotype: She has ideas, feelings and wishes of her own, but she has no opportunity and no right to fulfill them. She is compliant with the wishes of Mo and Meggie, who get their way in leading a heroic life, while she is relegated to a secondary role, a hero’s assistant, but not a hero in her own right. That’s shameful.

This omission made me quite angry since, from a pedagogical point of view, this is opposite to what young girls should be taught: They should not stand back and they should fight for equal opportunities – in the real world as well ad in a fantasy world. For discrimination is a daily experience for women, young and old, and a novel written for young readers, female and male, should be encouraged to think beyond existing stereotypes.

So no, I am not happy with the end and I am not happy with the role given to Resa. A missed opportunity, as I said, and to compound for this deficiency, let’s hear about a combative, clever woman who got what she wanted: Sheherazade. A few years ago, the composer John Adams wrote an orchestral piece called “Sheherazade.2” for the violinist Leila Josefowicz:

Sheherazade – Only Smart Women Survive

Tortured by Uncertainty

Javier Marias: Berta Isla ISBN 978-3-10-397396-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A romance, a spy thriller, Spain and the United Kingdom are the playgrounds and the subject is human endurance and the infinity of love. Sounds familiar? Right the past review had those ingredients as well and if it is a coincidence that I read the two books one after the other it is at least a strange one. “Berta Isla” however has nothing to do with the Napoleonic Wars, its framework is the Cold War, the end of the Cold War and the British government’s war against the IRA.

Tomas, the main male character is gifted for languages, so gifted he is recruited straight from University of Oxford by the British intelligence service MI6. He is young, talented, ambitious, and his wife Berta, living back home in Madrid, though not too happy with her husband’s repeated absences, tags along. She also puts up with Tomas’ unwillingness to speak about his job and the transformation of his psyche after his return from his studies. But one day, Tomas doesn’t come back. Inquiries about him lead to nothing? Is he alive? Should she wait for him? Should she start a new life? How far does love go? How much patience can one expect in the light of zero information.

Berta raises a child on her own, she sees time go by, the Franco era ends, the Cold War ends, and still there is no information about Tomas. The British intelligence service sends her money as a way of compensation, that’s it. Questions haunt her: Had he been deployed to the Falklands to fight as an undercover agent? Did he fight the IRA? Berta is contacted by a strange couple in Spain that seem to threaten her. Is that related to Tomas’ missions?

No knowing how to make sense of the disappearance of a beloved man is Berta’s tragic fate and her life in the midst of a sea of unanswered (unanswerable?) questions are the basic ideas of the novel.  I appreciated the plot and the language, but I found it too long. Berta’s many reflections of her and Tomas’ fate, the description of her conflicting feelings take too much space in the novel to remain interesting until the end. I found this truly sad as I did like the novel as such.

Do you know the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo? You should. Listen to his Concierto de Aranjuez, it conjures a tragic Spanish fate, a heart-braking mood and passionate love:

A Spanish Tragedy in the Embassy’s Office

A Manhunt across Scotland in the Name of Justice

Andrew Miller: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free ISBN 978-1-444-78466-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ No, this book isn’t about Brexit, thanks God, even if some ideas about human narrowmindedness may seem very familiar! But the novel is rather about a manhunt, an improbable romance and most of all it is about human endurance and the quest for justice. In the end it is also about love. Captain John Lacroix returns from war, a guerilla war in Spain and Portugal, where a British expeditionary army and Spanish irregulars fight Napoleon’s troops.  Lacroix has witnessed a brutal incident that might embarrass the British government if it became known to the general public. The incident involved civilian casualties, collateral damage as one would say today, and the Spanish allies cry for justice. Lacroix has to run fast and far.

Lacroix  covers his track, but a British corporal and a Spanish officer have been tasked to apprehend him and suppress him. He seeks refuge in the Western Hebrides, a remote spot, where he finds a new family. But Corporal Calley and Lieutenant Medina are relentless in their pursuit and Calley has some very good personal reasons to kill Lacroix. As in any good spy thriller, nothing is what it seems. Calley was involved in the incident in Spain and Lacroix knows it. Truth will be the death verdict for one of the two.

Lacroix is perfectly aware that he is a scapegoat and to be sacrified for – for what actually? For the greater good perhaps? But then again sending an expeditionary force to Spain, undertrained and badly equipped, with weak leaders and no strategic concept wasn’t perhaps such a good idea. (Doesn’t that sound a little like Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy? 😜) It actually was a military disaster crowned by the humiliating British retreat after the Battle of Corunna and the death of the commanding general. Is it really the greater good that is at stake? It’s rather the pride of selected British officers and public servants, the unwillingness to acknowledge strategic and tactical errors.

Miller’s plot is exhilarating, but his language is even more ravishing. The way he portray’s the characters – the three men and a couple of women that play important second roles – is impressive. The way he describes the rough beauty of the Hebrides made me go back to my own memories of the place, happy memories. “Now We Shall Be Entirely Free” is a beautiful novel and reading it was a rare treat. I will most likely reread it in a few months which amounts to a great distinction given that I have so many more books to read a first time and to present perhaps here. A wonderful surprise.

The Hebrides are not quite the Orkneys, but both spots are a must for Romanticists. I connect wonderful memories to both Scottish island groups and Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy captures some of the spirit of the region:

Fantasizing over Belligerent Norse Kings

The Dirty Secrets of Barcelona’s Upperclass

Rosa Ribas, Sabine Hofmann: Das Flüstern der Stadt (Spanish title: Don de lenguas) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-3-463-40354-0 Two female writers, a female journalist as the main character in a crime story with Franco’s Falangist Spain as the backdrop – the result is a fantastic novel, a masterful plot narrated in a wonderfully nuanced language. Too bad I never learnt Spanish, I had to contend with the German version of this Spanish-German coproduction. I bet, in the Spanish version I would have been even more fascinated by the refined use of language. Such a well-written book!

Ana Maria Noguer is a young journalist working for a newspaper that each day performs a careful balancing act between not offending the Franco regime and its journalistic mission to report the truth. Ana Maria usually does not come into touch with political reporting, she covers the glamour life of Barcelona’s upperclass society, attending cocktail parties and opera performances. One day however she is tasked to report about the brutal murder of Mariona Sobrerroca, a lady beloging to the said upperclass. She was the widow of a well-known physician. The police is under political pressure to come up with a quick result and the investigation is handed over to Inspector Isidro Castro.

Castro and Noguer meet as they have to cooperate. The police needs a little PR and Ana Maria needs Castro to learn the details about the case. An initially uneasy cooperation evolves into a somewhat trusted partnership. At first they follow a lead saying that Mariona Sobrerroca became the victim of an armed robbery. But Ana Maria has recruited the help of Beatriz, a linguist, to analyze love letters among the victim’s possessions. They conclude that the lady had rather fallen into the trap of a conman, contacting lonely wives to get their money. It all seems to fit together, the police is happy, Ana Maria’s editor-in-chief is happy. Ana Maria herself and Beatriz however have a doubt. It all looks to good to be true.

She and Beatriz continue the investigation that officially is closed, despite Inspector Castro’s explicit injunction to stay out of the way. Gradually they uncover a conspiracy meant to bury disturbing, compromising facts about Barcelona’s upperclass society. A dangerous undertaking as they find out.  Mariona Sobrerroca’s deceased husbands knew a lot of important families and many of Barcelona’s distinguished ladies. He also knew quite a few of their dirty secrets. The murderer of Mariona Sobrerroca knew that too. And so a cat-and-mouse game develops that takes us deep into the Spanish society under the rule of Franco, where the past catches up with the present and puts political careers at risk.

If the cunning plot of this novel is an argument good enough to buy it immediately, I would like to point out another lovely characteristic: The story has a lot to do with books, with writing, with literary style. Recruiting a linguist to uncover a hidden truth – even Inspector Castro has to admit at some point that literary sciences can be of direct practical use to society. Even if he doesn’t like the final result of Ana Maria’s and Beatriz’ conclusions.

I read a the last chapters of this novel while being sick, and besides Ana Maria and Beatriz, I had Mozart helping me through the day with his Piano Trio in D Major:

A Mozart Piano Trio to Recover from a Flu

A Magic Book about Love and Death

Cornelia Funke: Tintenblut (English title: Ink Blood) ISBN 978-3791504674 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Volume 2 of the “Tintenherz”-trilogy proved to be no less captivating than the first volume which I have presented in an earlier post. Again, the focus lies on the power of books and of reading. Books are dangerous, let it be known. They can suck in the readers and spew out the personae dramatis, leading to all kind of troubles in two parallel worlds, the real one and the imagined one.

The main characters – Meggie, her father Mo and “Dust Finger” have been introduced already in that earlier post about the first volume, but several new and interesting figures play a pivotal role in the second book. There is the “Black Prince”, the leader of a band of artists that occasionally turn into robbers, furthermore a dark ruler of the name of “Asp Head” and finally several lovely and courageous and some not so lovely and not so courageous ladies who in the end decide the fate of Maggie, her father and young Farid.

“Ink Blood” goes beyond a mere sequel of a fantasy novel. Meggie’s psyche is explored in greater detail, a fact that brings additional tension to the plot. There’s a lot of love at play, old love, young love, impossible love. The corollary is death, and yes, there are many occasions to die in this volume as Meggie and her friends have set out to fight and overcome evil. Mo’s character becomes more interesting too: Under the right circumstances, a bookbinder can turn into a fearless warrior. Who would have suspected that?

Another element makes this volume even more thrilling to read: As Meggie enters the fictive world of a book (THE book actually!), she is caught in a trap. The fantasy world is wild and dangerous and luring, so luring that it becomes difficult for her to imagine leaving it. But however fascinating a book is, you cannot stay in a fantasy world forever. Or can you? Would you? Should you? As I said, books are dangerous.

I really, really do not want to spoil your reading pleasure, so I will say no more about the plot itself. I liked the second volume of Funke’s trilogy so much that I read it over a weekend. 700 pages, 48 hours – that’s very close to beating my own record. And it speaks for itself: The book is a delight, a pleasure, a real thrill. Now for the music, this one is easy. Love and death are the main themes of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, and around 1870 Pyotr Tchaikovsky composed a wonderful overture about the same subject:

Passionate Love vs. Implacable Hate