In Hollow Lands
by Sophie Masson
Published by Hodder
227 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Australian children's and young adult novelist Sophie Masson has written a fair number of fantasy novels inspired by the worlds of fairy tale. None of them is a mere "re-telling" or even just an interpretation. She uses whatever elements she believes work well within the story. For example, the delightful Cold Iron, a novel set in Elizabethan England is based on the English version of Cinderella, "Tattercoat," but has quite a few elements of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and even -- cheekily -- gives the Bard a walk-on role. In Clementine, another re-worked fairy tale, this time based on Sleeping Beauty, she sets her tale in France immediately before the Revolution and has two sleeping beauties, woken in the 19th century by two men, one of whom is only technically a Prince, the other not at all. In her version of The Firebird she takes her young readers to the world of Russian folk tale, but also uses other elements.
With the adult novel The Knight by the Pool Masson began to explore the world of Celtic folklore and of Marie de France's Breton Lais. That story featured Marie de France herself as the heroine and included Richard the Lionheart and Marie's husband, in this story, a dignified werewolf under a curse.
In In Hollow Lands, for teen readers, Masson continues her exploration of things Celtic in general and Breton in particular, but she also uses bits of folklore from other Celtic lands, such as Scotland, to give her characters problems to solve.
As in The Knight By The Pool, the author takes real-life historical figures -- in this case, Bertrand du Guesclin, a general during the Hundred Years War and his "fairy" wife Tiphaine -- and makes them her heroes, mixing them in with the world of Faerie, including the story of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady, Dame Ragnell. Tiphaine came from the manor of Raguenel, so one might conclude that Masson couldn't resist having her referred to as "Ragnell-girl" by her Faerie captors. It's suitable, too, because she has been turned into an ugly, owl-like creature until someone asks her "the right question." Her brother, Gromer, like the brother of Dame Ragnell, has been turned into a robot-like knight who can be controlled by his captor, a Faerie ruler.
The "korrigans" -- a Breton version of the Faerie -- are not really evil, they just can't see the consequences of their actions or care; they are immortal and soulless and so can't appreciate the warmth and beauty of life as the short-lived races do. They have one fine day after another, don't have to work for their food and have nothing better to do than play tricks. Whatever else they are, they're not buttercup-dwellers! In fact, I got the feel of "Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania" and there is definitely something Shakespearean about rival Faerie rulers Archduke Bubo (cheekily named for the archduke owl, Bubo bubo) and Queen Rouanez, whom he wants to marry.
There is a beauty and poetry about the style of this novel and it is, at the same time, wonderfully visual; I kept imagining an Arthur Rackham painting. The Forest of Broceliande, where the wizard Merlin is supposed to have been locked in a tree, is almost a character in its own right. The cover shows a brooding face with owl eyes and beak over dark waters -- beautifully done, as long as young readers don't mistake this for a horror novel. In Hollow Lands is highly recommended. | February 2004
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.