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ANTONY SWITHIN’S LYONESSE: AN INCOMPARABLE WORK OF RECOVERY


Welcome to the continent of Rockall, home to Lyonesse, a place resonant with the Arthurian legends, and home as well to other fabled realms in a marvelous, other-dimensional landscape that’s founded on the ancient story of Atlantis, perennial in its mystery and fascination. Entry to Rockall is gained through a wormhole in the north Atlantic. In Rockall, you’ll find a technologically mediaeval world cross-fertilized with our own and curiously similar in its physical laws and constitution and even in its ethnic make-up, but at the same time evocatively different, with a flora and fauna that is suggestive of an early geological time in earth’s prehistory. It comes as no surprise that Antony Swithin (the pen name of the late William A.S. Sarjeant) was a professor of geology of world renown.


The two novels thus far published in this Perilous Quest series (ten more to come) are novels of adventure in a timeless mode that stretches back at least as far as Sir Walter Scott and carries on from him to writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and Rider Haggard and then even to our own day in the historical novels, for example, of Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden—with an added intimation, I would say, of Graham Hancock, insofar as they recreate a vista of a lost, hidden civilization. One might even call the Perilous Quest novels a thematic cross between Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and his historical novels, set in the Middle Ages. Although Doyle considered these novels his finest work, they are much less known than his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. John Buchan, one of the most accomplished exponents of the fiction of adventure in the first part of the twentieth century, described his own work as “marching just inside the borders of the possible.” It is this “marching just inside the borders of the possible,” its sub-creation of an atmosphere of plausible realism, which resembles historical fiction more so than fantasy, that sets the Perilous Quest series apart and makes it rather unique in the world of speculative fiction. In this, the series is quite different from the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, with its phantasmagoria of hobbits and other creatures, embedded in a cosmology that admits of laws of nature and physics that depart quite clearly from our own.


In other ways, the Perilous Quest series shares a deep and refreshing resonance with the work of Tolkien. For one thing, it is a brilliant exercise in worldbuilding, portraying a world of detailed richness and amplitude. But more than that, the series shares a vital ethos with that of Middle-earth. In his classic essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien discusses the concept of recovery, which, together with escape and consolation, he describes as a keynote of fantasy. By “recovery” he means recovery of a clear view, a freshness of vision. This notion of recovery is, I would argue, a hallmark of the Perilous Quest. Embedded within the series, as its matrix within a classic narrative format, are the touchstones of truth, goodness, and beauty, and this lends to Swithin’s world an enchantment that has been evacuated from the realm of modern literature.


In another more literal way too, the series is a magnificent work of recovery, indeed, a resurrection. I have been privileged as editor and re-worker of the series to bring it anew to a world that is hungry for escape and consolation in the noblest sense of these words. Two novels have been published by Gollancz. There are ten more yet to come. I hope you’ll join me in this journey to Lyonesse.


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