Giftwish by Graham Dunstan Martin

Giftwish book cover
Rating 7.5/10
If the bronze age was this much fun why did people bother with iron?

I can honestly say that when I first ran across Giftwish at the age of 16 or 17, I started with a sense of mild disappointment. Though I knew the book was categorized as YA or at least children's, I didn't expect quite as traditional an opening for the story. Ewan, a peasant from a small fishing village is unexpectedly told he has fulfilled the conditions to reinforce the spell that separates the safe and civilized land of Feydom, from the dark and magical land of Kendark, a land ruled by an evil necromancer, who, I felt sure Ewan would defeat before the book ended.

The odd thing is, on the one hand, my first impression was exactly true. In many ways Giftwish is precisely and clearly what it says on the tin, an archetypal almost fairy tale of a young man overcoming various magical dangers in course of a quest to become king. On the other, there are little asides, unexpected quirks, some of the most cunning and yet most mysterious magic I've ever seen and some colourful secondary characters scattered throughout the story. Also, Giftwish is for the most part one of those rare instances where enough of what one expects from a fantasy story is added to original work to create something that generally succeeds in feeling fun, fresh and epic, rather than just a run through familiar clichés, despite the existence of several familiar clichés in the book.

This opposition between the mythic and original can be seen in the world where the book takes place. Martin tells us that this is "before the first iron was forged" making the story firmly set in the Bronze Age. This however doesn't just mean that swords (magical or otherwise), are forged from bronze, but also that the population, community and some of the culture is far from the pseudo medieval world of most traditional fantasy.

The country of Kendark for example where most of the book occurs is a land where occasional castles ruled by lords or ladies hold sway over comparatively small regions, and where each castle's fighting force (even the necromancer's), is more likely to be a couple of dozen, than a few thousand men. Indeed the fact that even major battles just involve twenty or thirty soldiers fighting each other, soldiers who are frequently named in the narrative is a major plus, this is one case where there are no dragons crunching their way through thousands of nameless, disposable playing counter soldiers just to make the heroes more heroic for defeating them.

Martin frequently makes an effort to present the reader with a usual mythological trope, and then subvert it in an interesting direction. These include an invisibility cloak and a suggested path of burglary to succeed in the quest (likely a conscious nod to Bilbo), that proves far more than it appears (or disappears), Dragon's whose flight and magic comes with a decidedly different explanation than what we would expect, and a path of destiny which switches between real, fake and forced to the point that it feels as if fate is playing a hand of poker.

Another element where Martin is to be commended is his use of magic and character. Rarely have I seen magic displayed in fantasy so blatantly and with such a roaring sense of good humour and fun, and yet with equal amounts of mystery and even on occasion pathos. In no other book could I imagine a witch using her weather controlling ring to summon lightning to blast an incoming monster, complaining that lightning is hard to aim, and getting slightly irritated with the main character's manly charge at said creature since it makes it harder to pick off. Likewise, the Necromancer's threat of the torture he will put Ewan through is one of the most purely evil and mysterious threats I've ever seen, couched in language dark and ambiguous enough to be worthy of a far more horrific setting.

That indeed brings me on to the subject of character.

One problem I do have with Martin's narrative is that Ewan is simply not an interesting protagonist. Rarely does he consider much beyond the immediate situation, and though he is said to have a mother (who does appear rather comically in course of the story), and something of a past in a small fishing village, rarely did he feel like an actual person with desires and feelings rather than a walking plot device, indeed even his questions about his own destiny and doubts about the quest feel more a matter of authorial questioning of narrative convention than a real person with human doubts.

Then again, the two other major characters in the book Capostaff the wizard, and the witch girl Catchfire are extremely fun to be around and decidedly much more interesting than Ewan. Capostaff, a plump, cheerful wizard who likes his food, complains at the wear and tear on seven league boots and is far from an all powerful Gandalf figure despite his liking for riddles seems almost a fugitive from Terry Pratchett's Discworld.

Catchfire, a character notable particularly for a book written in 1978 of being a female character who is far more than just the male lead's love interest is a far more complex matter. An apprentice witch who, while not intrinsically evil was at least complicit in the less than pleasant deeds of her foster mother up until the point a magical experiment landed her with an extra soul, she's clever, resourceful, skilled with her own magic and yet extremely kind. I also like the fact that despite her magic and its use in tight situations, Catchfire is clearly a girl with very human feelings, indeed like Capostaff both often feel rather more real people than Ewan. 
Martin's subversion of expectations continues by having Catchfire quite able to rescue herself on the one occasion she is captured by giants (and fairly unique and entertaining giants at that), indeed when late in the quest Ewan is said to have "earned a reward" I rather felt as if Catchfire had done more over all. It does not surprise me that the second book of the Feydom duology is named for Catchfire.

Stylistically, the book is interesting, though does have its problems. Martin is able to use language extremely effectively, from the Latin spells and occasional old English used in Kendark (Martin was apparently a linguist after all), to the use of somewhat archetypal, and yet strangely ironic names, (I loved the swamp called Smotherdale or the necromancer's name of Spinshade). Occasionally deeply poetic, yet still short enough not to alienate younger readers, with the odd witticism, and descriptions which are brief yet pointed; generally the book's style is one of its stronger aspects on an individual level. The problem however, is that Martin's pacing is frequently rather off. Occasionally I found myself growing frustrated with the plodding pace of some chapters (odd given each chapter clocks in at around 20 minutes), and yet speeding effortlessly through others. To some degree this is due to which characters we spend time with, (as I said Ewan is not the world's most interesting protagonist), however in other senses it seems almost random. For example a chapter in which Ewan and a bowman get lost in a dark and rainy forest, a chapter featuring wolf-headed men, the wild hunt and shifting paths I found extremely slow going, while a chapter which just involved a beautifully written and rather Jungian discourse on sorcery flashed by.

Likewise, the sections where Martin pulls back the camera (especially at the start and end), to show the events of the book from almost an ultimate universal perspective were dazzling, while the writing of immediate action tended to be more than capable, (for a supposed YA novel Martin writes some quite gripping combat scenes). However the time lapse sections in between detailing in rather bald statements how "they travelled here and there and did this" were less appealing and tended to take me out of the narrative.

This somewhat uneven style is likely due to Giftwish being Martin's first novel, and the fact that fiction aimed at a younger audience tends to not spend time on time lapses, though I did find it a slight disappointment.

One major plus of the book is, though aimed indirectly at a younger audience, Martin is in no sense patronizing. Characters are not safe and for all the fun uses of magic the world is distinctly dangerous, indeed I applaud the way that men-at-arms tend to be named characters if rather brief ones. There is even a degree of moral ambiguity, although this is more a theme explored in the next novel. I'm actually a little sorry that I didn't run into Giftwish slightly earlier in my life, albeit any adult who still loves magic and isn't so joyless as to not appreciate a good old quest story might still appreciate this one.

Giftwish in general reminds me of nothing so much as The Hobbit. The structure of an epic quest story, but with entertaining asides, colourful characters, and enough variations to be unexpected for anyone familiar with fantastic or mythical concepts. Of course, Martin is no Tolkien, and while he does have an ability to create memorable characters and some truly amazing magic, his actual story telling technique is a trifle lacking in places, especially surrounding his slightly bland hero.

Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a traditional fantasy story with enough twists out of the true to keep you on your toes and some exceptionally magical magic, Giftwish might just be what you’re looking for.

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