Books rock. I mean, who needs to travel when you’ve got books? When you can’t afford a holiday, are wary (read: petrified) of actual, physical travel and are really, really fond of your own bed, you need go no further than your bookcase or that stack of books posing as a bedside table to explore somewhere new, or to revisit somewhere amazing. When you’re having a bad day at work you don’t need to wait until the weekend to slip away somewhere, at lunchtime you can return to that magical place you just left at breakfast, and it will be waiting for you exactly as you left it.
I have a list of brain-holiday locations as long as my arm: Damar, Lancre on Discworld, Middle Earth, the planet Dune, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (I’m a Hufflepuff, naturally), the Descrutinized Zone on the far side of the Moon, Oz, Bas Lag, Westeros … Some I’ve been visiting for years; others I look forward to revisiting again soon. So, being as I still haven’t finished the book I’d planned to write about this week, I’m going to write about five of my favourite imaginary locations instead.
ALL the Pern books (but especially Dragonsong and Dragonsinger) by Anne McCaffrey
I recently wrote a bit of a gushy thing about Anne McCaffrey, (because she’s the most awesome author in, like, forever), and off the back of that I reread the first couple of Pern books and appreciated all over again just what a great creation Rukbat 3 really is. This planet and life on it is defined by a fascinating and deadly ‘weather’ condition called Thread, a spore from space that destroys any living matter it comes into contact with. Everything about Pern – how only the Northern continent was successfully colonised, how the Weyrs, Holds and Craft Halls developed, the semi-medieval way of life, the DRAGONS (squeeee!), and the interdependence between both riders and dragons and Weyrs and Holds – is because of Threadfall. I loved discovering the lost history of Pern with Lessa and F’Lar; I loved the cold in-between of dragonish time travel; I loved Dragonsdawn in which McCaffrey went back to the beginning and told how the colonists first worked to survive on the planet they came to call Pern (Parallel Earth, Resources Negligible). But I love the Harper Hall most of all, and when I visit it’s there that I usually stay. I catch up with Menolly, and later Piemur and Sebell, and I get to play with fire lizards. Menolly and I camp out in the wilderness. We visit the Gather where there are competitions and runnerbeast races and stalls of beautifully crafted things you don’t find out here in this world of throwaway mass-production. And I get to explore the Harper Hall and cheer Menolly on as she finds her place in the world. And then, I get to do it all over again.
The Magicians, The Magician King and The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
Sheesh. Fillory. Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy blew me away. The parallels between Fillory and Narnia, and Brakebills and Hogwarts, have been made and don’t need to be repeated here, but this is darker stuff. Fillory feels magically, stunningly real and, at the same time, terrifying. I wonder if some fantasy-reading punk really upset Lev Grossman as a kid and now he is punishing us all with this B-E-A-U-tiful, awesome, gorgeous, exquisitely-realised gift of a world and then making truly horrible things happen there. I mean, reading the second book The Magician King actually broke something inside me. Forever. This is blood-spattered fantasy.
Nevertheless, Fillory is fascinating. It is full of wonders: talking animals, dryads, gods, dragons, centaurs, (incidentally, I’m waiting for some centaur-centred fiction; vampires, werewolves, mermaids and fairies have all had their turn, so when do centaurs get a go?). It’s a place for the child who loved fairy-tales after s/he’s grown up, gone out into the world, learnt that promises get broken and wishes don’t come true but still wants desperately to believe. When I think I miss the simple naivety of Narnia I return to Fillory. Don’t come crying to me though if you visit and discover you can’t hack it. There will be blood. You have been warned.
Dragon’s Ring by Dave Freer
When I’m not in the mood for the darkness-darker-than-a-moonless-night of Fillory, Tasmarin is my most recently discovered magical plane of existence. It satisfies my need for magic without doing anything unspeakable in front of me. If I’m lucky, and I always am, I meet a travelling gleeman and the young boy-who’s-really-a-girl that he’s taken under his wing (his rather leathery, black wing … hmmm …) and they introduce me to so many wonderful people. There are dwarfish Dvergar, elvish Alvar, more centaurs (hurrah!), sprites and elemental beings. We travel all over Tasmarin and get to stay with the giant Groblek in his mountain home (he’s just the best host). There are plenty of adventures and laughs and tight scrapes, and I’m always guaranteed to see dragons.
The Search for Wondla, A Hero for Wondla and The Battle for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi
An alien planet teeming with life, Wondla is Tony DiTerlizzi’s greatest creation so far. And while it’s aimed at the younger reader, I see no reason why they should get to keep Wondla all to themselves – it’s way too awesome for them alone. It’s a world overgrown with the most fabulous flora and fauna that it would take lifetimes to catalogue and study, although I’m willing to give it a go. I have some favourite species: the six-winged turnfins used for fishing by the Halcyonus and as common a sight as a sparrow is here; the massive wandering trees that collectively make up the Wandering Forest; and the peaceful water bears, in particular Eva’s friend Otto who lets us ride him. I get to meet many of the myriad races of aliens that have settled on Wondla, a lot of whom are friendly and hospitable, thanks to Rovender being our companion and guide. We explore the ruins of a people lost from memory, meet a boy called Hailey who’s got an airship (and an attitude), discover Machiavellian plots to take over the world and help in the fight to overthrow these evil plans. It’s a blast from start to finish whenever I visit, and I’m always sorry to have to leave.
- Osten Ard
The Dragonbone Chair, The Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower by Tad Williams
My final destination has been a favourite of mine for a long, long time. In fact, I’m due another visit soon, (especially as Williams has just written a new book set in this world called The Witchwood Crown which I am so, so excited to read).
Osten Ard doesn’t make for a relaxing getaway. This is another world chock-full of different peoples and cultures, not all of them welcoming to the outsider. In fact, it doesn’t pay at all to be a casual traveller in Osten Ard. This is another land of giants and dragons, a world haunted by memories, and while there are Hernysteri, Erkynlanders, Nabbanai, Thrithings-folk, Wrannamen and Rimmersmen to meet and mingle with, but they all have history and aren’t always on the best of terms with one another. On top of that, there are dark forces a-brewing – beware evil bald priests, for example, and anyone answering to ‘Storm King’ (dead giveaway, that). My favourite people to stay with are the elf-like Sithi and the trollish Qanuc, both of whom have fascinating customs. Anyway, if you latch onto a boy like Simon you get to meet all the best people and see all the best places; he has a knack for finding adventure and is pure of heart. I always travel with him myself. Additionally, teaming up with Simon means you get to be a member of the League of the Scroll, and you just know you’re on the side of right when you’re part of a league.
I was going to make a crack about flip-flops and sun cream when I got to the end of this, but I can’t. Interestingly (to me) all of my favourite imaginary places are cool or cold. All of my favourite Pern stories are set on the cold Northern continent; The Magicians Trilogy starts in a cold Brooklyn, and after than I remember mostly the bits where it’s cold, raining or snowy; Dragon’s Ring starts in early autumn and proceeds into winter; the Wondla books never mention it being overly warm, and Eva’s clothing is all tailored to keep her warm and dry; and winter is coming in Osten Ard (sorry – it had to be said!) because evil immortals called ‘Storm King’ are all about cold weather. So I like to holiday in cold places, it turns out. Flip-flops and sun cream not required.