Of Swords And Sorcerers: Books For Magical Escape Growing up an "awkward boy" in the grim, gray reality of 1970s England, Mark Barrowcliffe sought out books that offered a glimpse of hidden powers and a life less ordinary.


Of Swords And Sorcerers: Books For Magical Escape

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When the news is bad day-in and day-out, author Mark Barrowcliffe has a suggestion. It's all part of Three Books, our series in which authors choose three books on one theme. Barrowcliffe says to heck with the real world, bring on the fantasy. He first got addicted as a teenager.

MARK BARROWCLIFFE: When I was 14, I wanted be a sorcerer. This did not go over well at school. Your father is an electrician, why not be an electrician, said the headmaster. But I was in the grip of an addiction to fantasy literature and role-playing games that would last my entire adolescence, and I wanted to be Frodo, Merlin or Dr. Strange.

SIEGEL: I was useless at sport, clueless when it came to fashion, laughed at by girls, kicked by bullies and bored to distraction by the grim gray reality of 1970s England, which was like Poland, but without the excuse of totalitarian communism. My entire youth is recalled in shades of concrete gray. Only fantasy gave it color.

Alan Garner's brooding brilliantly written novel, "The Weirdstone of Brisingamen," perfectly captures the dark and foreboding skies of northern England and the magic that seems to lurk beneath them. In it, two children own a magic bracelet that causes them to be pursued by mythic forces over a bleak and haunted landscape.

SIEGEL: If you could just reach out beyond this dull reality, something interesting might actually happen. I bought a small gem from a bric-a-brac store and stared into it, longing to be propelled into a world of peril and magic.

But boys who play with magic do so at their own risk. That's the message of "A Wizard of Earthsea," Ursula Le Guin's earlier darker take on the Harry Potter story, in which a boy destined to be a great magician makes a terrible mistake by summoning a spirit from the kingdom of death that will stalk him forever.

The book has an obvious appeal for the put-upon schoolboy. Bullies are vanquished and weaknesses are shown as enormous strengths. But the real draw is the magic. I thought it very likely that I had this sort of completely untestable power myself. "A Wizard of Earthsea" is technically a children's book, but don't let that fool you. It contains powerful ideas on the nature of good and evil. I still remember reading this book three times in one year.

For an all-out clash of magicians, I turn to "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell," which pits temperamentally opposed wizards against each other in 19th-century England. Witty without being obvious, Susanna Clarke's comedy of manners is like a Jane Austen novel wrapped in a magician's cloak complete with historical cameos by Lord Byron and King George III. Clarke shows that you can write about wizards without having the great shadow of J.R.R. Tolkien darken the pages.

The appeal of fantasy to an awkward boy like me was clear, but by offering readers a glimpse of hidden powers and a life less ordinary, these books pull off the ultimate magic trick: adding a splash of vivid color to a sometimes dour everyday reality.

SIEGEL: Writer Mark Barrowcliffe is the author of "The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing up Strange." He lives in Brighton, England. His three book picks are "The Weirdstone of Brisingamen" by Alan Garner, "The Wizard of Earthsea" by Ursula Le Guin, "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke.


SIEGEL: For more Three Books recommendations, you can go to npr.org.

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