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Robin: The Touchstone Trilogy concerns hidden tribes of ‘little people’ (the Various) living in a seemingly impenetrable hill-top forest in rural Somerset. As their history emerges through the three books it seems they were originally travellers from the mysterious Elysse who retreated to the forest as the Gorji, or humans, became increasingly numerous. Ages ago there was a quarrel among the first hill-dwellers, and they divided: the winged tribe—the Ickri—going north in search of greater safety, and the rest staying behind. When the water tribes of the Naiad and the Wisp later sought refuge in the forest, the ones who had stayed behind made a further retreat into the caves, coming to call themselves Troggles and Tinklers, and occupying themselves with mining and smithing. The Naiad then started farming the Great Clearing, while the Wisp continued to venture out at night to fish. When the Ickri came back—generations later—they were intent on returning to the homeland Elysse but, frustrated in that quest, they joined the community as hunters. They also established themselves as leaders over the Naiad and the Wisp, though the cave-dwellers stayed aloof.

It is obvious that changes have occurred over time; memories of Elysse have faded, and whatever magical skills they may once have possessed have become merely old tales, hardly to be believed. The Touchstone, held by the leader of the Ickri, is regarded as a mere symbol, but it is revealed to have power in the right hands, and joined with another artefact, the Orbis, could open the path to Elysse. However, at the time when The Various opens the Orbis has been missing for a long time and is hardly even thought of any more. It is rediscovered in the third book, partly through the agency of a magical creature, the winged horse Pegs, whose birth into the Naiad herd spells the beginning of change for the Various.

The human children who encounter the Various wonder if they are fairies but consider it is too confusing a thought, as they are so unlike story-book fairies, even though some of them are winged. They are just like people, in fact, despite being only “knee-height”. Strange, fascinating, sometimes dangerous, but complex and serious, and completely real. The old country dialect in which the Various speak is very distinctive, and helps to emphasize their separation from the modern world.

The three novels of the trilogy are: The Various, Celandine and Winter Wood.

The Various by Steve Augarde Robin: The Various is the first novel of the Touchstone Trilogy. It opens with a little teaser about the girl Midge meeting the Queen of the Various in the forest, for fear perhaps that you might not persist through the opening chapters otherwise. At least you have something to look forward to while the human business is going on. It starts with the familiar scenario of the city girl not wanting to go to stay with her relative in the country, then finding she quite likes it when she gets there, but it really takes off when she meets the injured tiny winged horse Pegs. The descriptions of how she rescues and looks after Pegs are very detailed and convincing—it is no easy matter and takes a lot of thought.

Meanwhile there is concern in the forest about his non-return. A big meeting of all the tribes is called, where it is revealed that Pegs was sent to investigate a distant wood, as the forest is becoming depleted and starvation looms. The characters—the eager youngster Little-Marten, the dignified general Maglin, the loopy queen Ba-betts and the arrogant archer captain Scurl, for example—are very well depicted and strongly individual. It is decided to send a rescue party of five, one from each tribe, and the adventure of this ill-assorted group out in the Gorji world is one of the best parts of the book.

Pegs’s reasons for introducing Midge to the Various seem weak, but in fact he has a deeper knowledge of the role she is destined to play than he lets on—that will be revealed in the final book, Winter Wood. In the short term it exposes her to danger as Scurl decides independently that it is too dangerous to let her live knowing their secret. His first attack, as Little-Marten leads her back to the entrance to the forest, is frustrated by the mysterious Maven-of-the-Green.

Little-Marten is so terrified by this attack and Scurl’s subsequent threats that he takes refuge with the cave-dwellers. He discovers they have a more interesting life in the caves than any of the Ickri imagine; as he is already half in love with the beautiful Tinkler maiden Henty, this has a profound effect on him. Midge is also deeply shocked, and determines to forget all about the Various, but Scurl later takes his archers to attack the farm, a thrilling episode with unexpected consequences.

The second book of the trilogy is Celandine.

Celandine by Steve Augarde Robin: Celandine is the second novel of the Touchstone Trilogy. It follows The Various, but is actually set before and during the First World War, some 90 years earlier. Like the first novel, it opens with an intriguing episode that does not occur until a good way into the main book.

Celandine, who lives at the farm where Midge later stays, first sees one of the Various at a picnic when she is ten—Fin, a witless young Naiad, who lets his desire for cake overcome his fear of the outside world. She also catches a glimpse of an anxious bearded little man—Fin’s father, as she rightly deduces. She sees none of them again until a few years later when distressed by the death of her horse, she runs off onto the hillside. There she meets Fin again and he, seemingly unaware that she is one of the dreaded Gorji, leads her through a wickerwork tunnel into the heart of the forest, to the consternation of his tribe. Celandine is impressed with the little people: “They were breathtaking. As ordinary as sparrows, yet unimaginably strange”. She realizes she has stumbled into the hidden world so often whispered about, “though it seemed more a world of hardship than of miracles.”

When she returns again and again, the Various try studiously ignoring her, until one of the Tinklers wonders about the book she is reading. She reads to them at first, and finally teaches them to read for themselves, and later to sing also. But only the cave-dwellers benefit, while the Naiad and the Wisp continue to pretend she is not there. After a while, the Tinklers and Troggles come to regard Celandine as a true friend.

And what of the Ickri? The winged hunters who dominate the Various in the first book are in this volume travelling down from the chilly north in search of the Orbis. Their wise king Avlon has a dream: “We shall no longer content ourselves with hiding in the forests like mice… We are heir to powers that shall carry us across the span of ages and return us to the great kingdom of Elysse where we belong. … Then we shall live as our fathers lived, free to journey the paths of the heavens, true travellers once again.” His daughter Una uses the Touchstone to guide them on the long journey to the forest on the hill, but when they reach their goal the Orbis is nowhere to be found.

The story continues many years later in Winter Wood.

Winter Wood by Steve AugardeRobin: Winter Wood, the final novel of the Touchstone Trilogy, is set a few months after The Various. It brings together the stories in the first two books, as the subtle connection between Midge and Celandine, her great-great-aunt, comes into sharper focus.

After the terrible experience of the attack on the farm, Midge and her cousins just want to forget the Various, but Pegs hasn’t finished with Midge yet. The Various are having a hard winter as the forest can no longer sustain them, and after the events of the previous year they also feel vulnerable to the Gorji. It has become imperative that they leave. Pegs and Maven-of-the-Green seem to have an unspoken understanding that it is time for the Touchstone and the Orbis to be brought together at last. Pegs asks Midge to discover the whereabouts of the Orbis, while Maven-of-the-Green persuades the sternly practical Maglin, who now rules the Ickri, to explore the powers of the Stone.

Midge undertakes some detective work to uncover the life-story of her great-great-aunt, but when the Orbis turns up it is apparently by accident—though Pegs knows better: it is all destiny and everything is connected. Pegs is quite mystical at times. This book does not give any final answer as to where the Various came from, or explain anything about Elysse, but sometimes mystery trumps revelation.

Don’t you hate that frequent ending of magical books—the magic is over and everything is back to ‘normal’? Although there is a sad coda where the children look round the desolate forest after the Various have gone, unknown to them two have stayed behind, so it is not quite deserted, and is secret once again.

Robin: This is the second book in the Clemency Pogue series; you may remember she was that tender-hearted fairy-killer who did her best to repair her mistake, with the help of the friendly hobgoblin Chaphesmeeso. Hobgoblins in this fairy-verse (called the Make-Believe) “maintain the order, the balance”, according to Chaphe. Goblins, on the other hand are “nothing but chaos and nastiness”. They are skinny and shrivelled, with cloven feet and ears like goat horns. You can see some goblins on the cover (not to be confused with the baby).

This time Clemency’s concern is for a poor little puppy-dog called Henry; hoping that magic might help the sick animal, she calls on the hobgoblin. Chaphe has troubles of his own, however. He has charge of a fledgling hobgoblin called Kennethurchin who cannot graduate into full hobgoblinhood because… well, that’s complicated.

As Clemency learns, hobgoblins were originally human babies rescued from the goblins who stole them out of their cradles, leaving animated clay babies behind. The proxy babies melt away in their first bath water; somehow, Kennethurchin’s proxy has escaped this fate and grown up into a peculiar little boy known as Inky Mess. His continued existence threatens the Make-Believe as well as holding Kennethurchin back. Chaphe says that no changeling has ever grown up before, and that the fairies, who know everything, say it will be cataclysmic. He expects Clemency to help with this little problem, but she has secret plans…

Meanwhile Inky, befoxed by his inability to read, is holding some fairies captive in the hope of using their magic, and they are hopping mad! Also hanging around is the sinister Fairy of Long Goodnights with her deadly wand. The fairies in this series do have some peculiar talents and interests: there are the Papercut Fairy, the Fairy of Impossible Itches and the Fairy of Awkward Silences, just for example. Although all-knowing, they are, according to Chaphe, as “dumb as putty”. A strange but appealing story. The sequel, in which Inky does his worst, is called The Scrivener Bees.

Robin: The Knights of Liöfwende is a trilogy: the individual books are Spiggot’s Quest, Mallmoc’s Castle and Boggart and Fen. It is a solid adventure story, with lots of travelling, questing and fighting, which is also quite comic, much of the humour coming from the differing expectations of the mortals and the faerie.

Liöfwende (part of the land of faerie) is in the same place as England (part of Mortaland). The covers of the books reflect this, showing maps overlain on each other. In the words of Spiggot: “They sort of live together, side by side.” They even have some of the same place names, though the weather is rather different. It is possible to slip from one to the other, deliberately or by accident. Some of the faerie spend quite a bit of time on the mortal side, others not.

In Liöfwende, little changes. It is “always mediaeval”. There is history – faerie wars of the past are mentioned, and there are newcomers from overseas, some harmless, like the forest-dwelling leshy, and some ferocious, like the trolls. Liöfwende, however, is quite disconnected from human history.

The fairies are the gentry, the aristocrats of Liöfwende, and they are not only more beautiful but more powerful than the elves or the pixies. The goblins are tradesmen, and only accept crooked sixpences in payment. There are many different clans, of all kinds of faerie. Almost everyone looks down on the boggarts, although – or perhaps because – they are skilled craftworkers. The variety of faerie, engagingly described whether good or bad, beautiful or ugly, is a great strength of the trilogy.

The human Jack is always complaining that things don’t make sense, that there’s no logic to what happens; he finds it chaotic. The faerie find this baffling; for them it is magic which is natural. Spiggot claims that serendipity – fortunate chance – is the science of Liöfwende.

At the beginning of the trilogy there is unease in the land. It is under hidden attack, and faerie armies are assembling, though no one knows who to fight – yet.

The first book is Spiggot’s Quest.

The first part of the Knights of Liöfwende trilogy

Robin: Spiggot is a young boggart, an apprentice smith, who lives in one of the boggart villages of Rutland. Typically squat and hairy, he nevertheless has a “soul as fine as muslin” and dreams of being a hero. His father sends him to deliver a golden suit of armour to the fairy king in Northumberland – a long trek, especially as they must avoid bridges because of trolls. He takes Kling, a talking – and very large – water rat to pull the cart. On the way they meet Jack, a lost mortal, who joins them in the hope of finding a way home.

Jack, being a twenty-first century teenager, is profoundly ignorant about faerie, but he gets a crash course, meeting all sorts, including bogles, goblins, elves, pixies, tylwyth teg and the starry drittles. He also unaccountably encourages the susceptible Spiggot to play fairy knight, and the brave boggart dons the precious armour for various clumsy, but successful, fights with monsters.

They encounter the enchantingly lovely but inwardly vile ulcugga fairies, allies of the wicked mortal sorcerer Mallmoc, and rescue the mediaeval mortal maid Rosamund from their clutches.

The next book is Mallmoc’s Castle.

The second part of the Knights of Liöfwende trilogy

Robin: Thousands of thrum are eating the roots of the trees of Liöfwende. Spiggot, now indeed a “faerie knight”, has been given a quest by the king of the Northumbrian fairies – to find the missing keystone of a cairn which should have kept the dire thrum in check. It is no simple hunt, however, as Spiggot believes the sorcerer Mallmoc has it, and to get it back will entail a full scale war against the ulcugga fairies. The ulcugga have already defeated the armies of the pixies and the elves in open battle, and Spiggot must win the support of the more powerful fairies and persuade them to band together under his leadership. Needless to say, he’s thrilled at the prospect.

After running into many clans of English and Welsh faerie in Spiggot’s Quest, in this book the band of heroes range further afield. After doing a deal with Cornish piskies, they go to Eri-niss (Ireland) in a glass ship and are attacked by sea fairies. Spiggot is keen to enlist some leprechauns, whose tricksy minds make them excellent strategists, but they are predictably elusive. Jack, ever unwary, is fooled by a phooka, driven mad by a ghost and captured by a one-sided giant. He also makes a useful contact in the mortal leader of the faerie host, whose changeling he knew back in Mortaland (coincidence is always happening in the land of faerie).

They fly to Thristlac (Scotland) to talk to the fairies of the seelie court. The unseelie court fairies are known to be vicious and viperous; the seelie aren’t exactly full of sweetness and light either, although they do improve on acquaintance. The potential thrum threat to their beloved evergreen forests – and a display of fighting prowess from Spiggot – wins their promise to join the battle; they even undertake to bring the unseelie fairies.

The next book is Boggart and Fen.

Boggart and FenThe final part of the Knights of Liöfwende trilogy

Robin: After the events of Mallmoc’s Castle, you would think the final book of the trilogy would be one big battle. Things are never that simple though, and one unexpected event is the uprooting of Mallmoc’s iron fortress and its transformation into an unstoppable land-ship. Another is the revealing of the sorcerer’s ghastly scheme to plough through the Liöfwende/Mortaland portal at Sutton Hoo, forcing the two lands into one. Timing is crucial; if the ship cannot be delayed, the fairy armies will converge too late. Spiggot, Jack, Rosamund and Kling use their brains and wiles and arcane knowledge to devise a couple of brilliant schemes. The gnomes, who appeared briefly in the first book as an amiable group of faerie, play a big role here.

It is a thrilling moment when Spiggot, the boggart leader of the combined fairy armies, addresses the assembled fairies. A battle plan is worked out, combining the usual fairy modes of fighting with Jack’s culled-from-war-films ideas about good communications and command of the air and Rosamund’s recollection of the cunning devices of her warrior father. Finally they engage with the ulcugga. It is no pitched battle, of course, all the fairies preferring to fight in a tangle of thistles and gorse brakes, and it lasts several days – I expect you can guess the outcome? Though the exact nature of it comes as a surprise to Jack, who is still unversed in the ways of faerie.

There is a suitable amount of romance in the trilogy – mostly arguments and
misunderstandings. Jack and Spiggot make rather gawkish suitors while Rosamund and Fen are spirited characters always ready to speak their mind. In general, all the elements are very nicely balanced, humour, romance, dialogue, character descriptions, excitement, horror, changes of scene, unexpected developments – very satisfying. Only one niggle: like the monk Solomon, I think there’s a bit too much Jack. He even has most of the adventures. Really, you’d think he was the hero.

Creature of the Night by Kate ThompsonColumbine: This is a very compelling book, but upsetting, both because of the central character who is rather urban and gritty and not at all sympathetic and because of the fairy subplot about an abandoned changeling.

Bobby, the fourteen-year-old narrator, is a bit loathsome to tell the truth, a thief and a liar, and revolting to his admittedly feeble mother. When the family moves to the country his only thought is how to get back to a life of crime in Dublin. Later on he does show some human qualities of diligence and doggedness, and there’s a hint he won’t turn out so bad. But you are unlikely to enjoy seeing the world from his point of view.

It is his little brother Dennis who has the fairy encounter. The cottage they are living in is on a path between two fairy forts. The family are warned by the farmer’s wife to put out a bowl of milk every night, but being citified they find this quite hilarious. Being deprived of the milk, the little old fairy woman comes through the cat flap into the kitchen.

Dennis takes it in his stride, but for Bobby, who has only whispers and odd noises and indications to go by, the whole business is sinister and nightmarish to a degree. He hears the story of the people who many years ago lived in the cottage with a strange daughter they thought was a changeling, who used to shriek in the night: “high shrieking, like something out of hell. You couldn’t tell if it was pain or anger or both… Once you got that sound in your head there was no way you would sleep again that night.” Eventually he puts the two things together and has a unexpected realization about the little woman, imagining her living lonely and scared in the fairy fort.