Book Review and Interview with the Author
(First in a series of book and film reviews, focusing on lesser-known works.)
Too many fantasy writers fall into two categories: imitative of Tolkien, or consciously reacting against Tolkien. But once in a great while, a writer strikes out into uncharted territory.
THE SEVEN CITADELS is a four-book YA fantasy series by British writer Geraldine Harris, published in the early 80’s. It’s something of a misfit: too advanced for children, and too simplistic for adults. But the patient reader is rewarded with haunting images and original ideas.
I encountered the series at age 12. I remember writing down a list of fanboyish questions, and waiting eagerly for the final book that would provide the answers, only to be perplexed by the mysterious ending. I forgot the name of the author and spent years searching for the series, which seems to be a common experience. I re-read the series twice as an adult. Each time, I found striking parallels between the themes in the series, and the projects I was working on at the time.
The setting is the land of Zindar. Kerish-Lo-Taan is the favorite son of the Emperor of Galkis. His aristocratic beauty and strange purple eyes mark him as one of the Godborn, descendants of Zeldin, the Gentle God, who rejected the embrace of a dark goddess and chose a human wife.
There are no mirrors in the palaces of the Godborn; they are forbidden to look into their own eyes. To be the descendant of a god is a strange and terrible burden, bestowing mysterious powers and the risk of insanity. Kerish is haunted by the fate of his older cousin, who looks much like himself but is driven mad by visions of bright birds.
The Godborn have become decadent and corrupt, and Galkis is threatened by war and invasion. The Emperor is a broken man, lost in grief for his dead wife. Only the legendary Saviour, imprisoned behind seven gates, can save Galkis. Kerish and his half-brother Forollkin are sent on a journey to free the Saviour, by persuading seven sorcerers to give up seven keys. This is no easy task, for the keys bestow immortality on those who possess them.
On the surface, this is a standard fantasy quest. But underneath, it’s much more. The cultures of Zindar are a mixed bag, but there are some strikingly original touches. The final book undergoes a startling genre shift into something like anthropological SF.
Most of the villains are sympathetic, ranging from the tormented ruler of a dead kingdom, to the barbarian chief who keeps his soul in a wooden sculpture. There is no overarching theme of good vs. evil; no Satan figure. Instead, there is a recurring theme of the gulf between human and alien, and the danger of forbidden knowledge.
Humans are not native to Zindar. The original inhabitants were a race of three-eyed avians, so unlike humans that it would take a lifetime just to learn their language. Kerish and his companions travel into forbidden lands and encounter their ruined cities, where strange guardians protect deadly secrets. Did the avians die out – or are they still lurking in the hidden places of the world?
The style is understated, and the plot takes a while to get moving. But every book has something unexpected. There are mysteries that are never explained, but left to the reader’s interpretation. (What lies beyond the Ultimate Mountains that portends the doom of Zindar?) There are thought-provoking ideas that open up whole new worlds of speculation. (How would a race with a completely alien mental structure perceive the world?) There are psychedelic visions, more weird and cryptic than anything in Tolkien. (What are the creatures of the lake, so complex and fragile that mere perception destroys them?)
Some of the answers are obvious, if you think outside the fantasy genre. But I won’t spoil it for the reader.
Finally, there is the cruel and heartbreaking final chapter. “Your death is strange and distant and I cannot see it clearly,” said the prophetess in the first book. Younger readers will be perplexed, as many were perplexed by the infamous ending of the Dark Tower series. But in both cases, the ending is exactly what it should be.
Kerish never ascends the final stair, and we are never shown the ultimate reality. The nature of Zeldin, and Kerish’s exact relationship to the god, remains a mystery.
I had the great privilege of interviewing Geraldine Harris via email. It’s not often that a writer gets to talk shop with one of his early influences.
Q. How long did it take to write? Did you keep notebooks and develop the ideas over a long period of time?
A. The books were written over a long period and went through many revisions. The story was originally in nine parts and there was another sorcerer (in Lan Pin Fria) who got cut out. The basic idea came to me when I was sitting in a palace garden in Austria during my late teens. The first thing I did was to draw a map of Kerish’s journey – later turned into a much better drawn map by my brother. The writing of Citadels was interrupted by the need to concentrate on my degree course at Cambridge and later by my research degree at Oxford but I don’t think this was a bad thing. The academic work I was doing fed back into my fiction. Luckily, I had a very understanding research supervisor at Oxford. The sorcerer Vethnar is essentially a portrait of him.
Q. Did you do any specific research?
A. The only specific research I did was on traditional boats and ships and I probably should have done a lot more on this topic.
Q. Would you describe your education as classical? Was it different from the kind of education provided by today’s universities?
A. Well, I’d just finished my Ancient History A Level (which along with my other A Levels I studied for at home without a teacher) when I went on the fateful trip to Austria. I went to some pretty hopeless schools so I would say that I was self educated before I went to university. Two Classical texts were a big influence. I think that reading a children’s version of Homer “Odyssey” when I was six or seven was the beginning of my love for Fantasy and particularly for `voyage stories’. I feel that Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War taught me all I needed to know about wars. I would describe my university education as rigorous rather than classical. I did two tough courses (Part One in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic and Part Two in Egyptology and Assyriology) which each involved learning several languages and studying the history and culture of whole civilizations. The equivalent courses now tend not to be so detailed and usually don’t demand that you read the sources in the original languages.
Q. You have a background in Egyptology and ancient history. Were there any particular eras that interested you?
A. Lots but I suppose I’d pick out Middle Kingdom Egypt, the height of the Byzantine Empire, Britain in the early Dark Ages (though I hate that term), Tang Dynasty China and Heian period Japan. You can find elements from all of these in my work. In this new era of Censorship I expect this counts as `cultural appropriation’.
Q. The ancient Egyptians had some strange ideas about the nature of the soul that historians don’t fully understand. Was this an inspiration for the unusual theology and symbolism?
A. I formed most of my ideas about Galkis before I began to study Egyptology in a formal way but I had been reading about Egypt since I was about nine years old. Many of my influences are visual. Tutankhamun’s jewellery, with its complex mythological symbolism, was certainly the model for the Galkian royal regalia. You are right that I was intrigued by Egyptian ideas about the soul (or souls, since everyone was thought to have several different types). Another Ancient Egyptian idea which had a big impact on me was that personal magic was a gift from the gods to help humans bend the rules of life and death but that humans were really better off without it.
Q. “The Golden Bough” is a well-known resource for writers. Was this the source of ideas such as the barbarians who keep their souls in wooden sculptures, and the young woman who becomes the incarnation of a goddess?
A. I certainly read “The Golden Bough” at quite an early age and parts of it gave me nightmares. An uncle who lived with my grandparents had a large collection of books on folklore, mythology and anthropology. While visiting my grandparents if I was a good girl (which sadly I nearly always was) I was permitted to read my uncle’s books, even though they weren’t all suitable for children. This began my lifelong interest in myth and magic. However the academic writer who had the greatest influence on me (and on Citadels) was Joseph Campbell. I read his “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and his “The Masks of God” when I was a teenager.
Q. “White Cranes Castle” has a similar theme of two brothers with opposite personalities. Did this book serve as a prototype?
A. Although “White Cranes Castle” was my first published novel it was written while I was in the middle of working on Citadels. You could call it a variation on a theme. The central characters are another pair of contrasting royal relatives but their story plays out much more darkly. “White Cranes Castle” was directly inspired by reading two books on Japanese cultural history by Ivan Morris – “The World of the Shining Prince” and “The Nobility of Failure”. Ideas and images from these books also fed into “Seven Citadels”.
Q. Was there anything unusual about your life that served to broaden your outlook?
A. I never lived overseas but my parents quite often took me out of school to go with them on their travels – such as a nine-week voyage around Africa when I was six (this was the first time I saw Egypt). I was also inspired by the exotic presents that my father (a Quaker industrialist) used to bring back for me from his business trips to countries such as Russia and China. I suppose it was unusual that I got to play with members of the Ethiopian royal family in the English village where I lived but that’s a long story…
Q. Was C.S. Lewis an influence?
A. Probably, “Perelandra” and “Till We Have Faces” are among my favourite novels. However, I don’t think authors are always influenced by the books they enjoy the most. Books you argue with can be more stimulating.
Q. Is there any lowbrow or pulp fiction that you enjoy?
A. Do the Adventures of Tintin count as pulp fiction? Captain Haddock has always been one of my favourite heroes. My answers to your specific questons make me sound horribly highbrow but as a child and teenager I read anything I could get my hands on, including my brothers’ comics (so much more fun than the girly ones). Once I got to university and finally had constant access to good bookshops and a specialist library, I gorged on American SF and Sword and Sorcery novels of the 1930s to 1960s. Some of it, like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, I really enjoyed. However, there were aspects of much of this fiction that I reacted against, including the levels of violence, the somewhat prehistoric attitudes towards the female characters and the prevalence of one-dimensional villains. It made me more determined to write about a hero who solved problems with arguments rather than with a sword and to avoid having any characters who are purely evil.
Q. The unusual thing about the series is that’s it’ll full of raw material, novel ideas that are hinted at but not fully fleshed out.
A. I have always liked rough-edged books that leave gaps to encourage the reader to fill in their own interpretations or continue the story in their own way. Two novels with enigmatic endings which were a particular influence are Zelazny’s semi-formed “Jack of Shadows” and “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” by Walter de la Mare (also known as “The Three Royal Monkeys”). I think that the latter is one of the best Quest stories ever written.
Q. The portrayal of the Ferrabrinth raises some intriguing questions about nature of perception and the nature of musical harmony. Was this suggested by Greek philosophy, or esoteric religious writings, or something else? Did you have musicial training?
A. I didn’t have any musical training apart from singing lessons. I have no idea where the Ferrabrinth came from. They arrived in the story unannounced. All I can say is that I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of Beauty and how you define it.
The author also reviews fantasy works on her blog. https://fantasyreads.wordpress.com/
The original hardcover illustrations (shown above) are wonderfully evocative, but the new edition from Speaking Volumes contains the author’s preferred text. Amazon has a confusing multitude of editions, so I’ve provided the links below.
Prince of the Godborn
Prince of the Godborn