In 2015 Tim Clare released his debut fantasy The Honours. That book felt like a reinvigoration of classic British fantasy. Set in the 1930s around a stately home, Alderberen Hall, it focussed on a precocious 13-year-old called Delphine Venner. The Honours had everything readers might expect of a grand British fantasy – a gateway to another world, strange creatures, secrets, and a plucky heroine who gathers allies for a final battle. The end of The Honours could well have been the end of the story and the book works perfectly well as a standalone. But in The Ice House, a name meant to trigger an association with the earlier book, Clare returns to Delphine and her world. And while this now feels like the second book in what could be an ongoing series, it is a very different beast.
The Ice House opens 73 years after the end of The Honours. Delphine is an old woman and her friend Alice is in an aged-care home. Delphine still keeps company with a giant scarab beetle called Martha, the last of her kind left in our world, and puts feelers out to anyone who might know of gateways to another reality. For those who remember the sprightly 13-year-old, the ageing Delphine Venner is a bit of a shock, not least to Delphine herself:
What a queer, pernicious magic age was. To transmogrify so profoundly, yet so invisibly. To swap out the granules of a person’s being while they slept, to grow a second body over their first until they peered out from within, swallowed whole.
Despite her age, Delphine is still pretty handy with a gun and resourceful in a fight when that other world comes looking for her.
Meanwhile, in the other world, in a coastal city called Fat Maw, constructed on stilts, Hagar, an immortal being in a female child’s body, is planning an assassination. Hagar is the valet to a peer called the Grand-Duc Morgellon; peers are both immortal and can regenerate from their injuries. As his valet, Hagar feels Morgellon’s pain for him, which makes her plans to draw him out of hiding and kill him more than a little complicated. But Hagar has other worries. A doctor she has been working with has been found dead in mysterious circumstances and her plans are unravelling. For most of the book Clare follows Hagar’s story backwards in time, each jump going further back but serving to illuminate another part of her plan as it developed over hundreds of years.
In classic British fantasy style, soon both Delphine and Alice have gone through the portal (looking glass/cupboard) and into Hagar’s world, but not in a way that feels at all derivative. The process de-ages them both to their early 20s, and once again – this time suddenly – Delphine finds herself in a new body, one that has all the moves of her younger self. The world she enters was only vaguely touched on in The Honours, and Clare now fleshes out its geography and its different races of beings, many of whom terrified Delphine when she was 13. As well as humans, the world is populated by the wolf-like and winged Vespari, the bull-headed Harka, the scarab Hanta, and the strange mushroom people.
It is here that The Ice House completely diverges from The Honours, with most of the action and its resolution set in this other world, which Clare explores with technicolour relish:
The air took on a coppery flavour. Gangs of iridescent moths flurried low over the river in heart-shaped formations, attracted by the glow of big, papery lotuses with orange and pink petals. The flowers parted in the sampan’s wake, and when she looked back the river was a corridor of lights.
Hagar’s and Delphine’s stories converge in the city of Fat Maw, in the middle of a huge celebration:
Drumskins began to reverberate with fat, bass pounds, accompanied by the frightful jankling of bellfists. The shunning had begun …
Demons came pouring down the hill.
Skull-masked and razor-beaked, lip-stitched, gnash-jawed, serpent maned and pit-eyed, segmented prowling ones, skittering little ones, roaring, clicking, popping, jeering, jangle-stamping, swinging smoking torches, beating drums with clubs, rolling a barrel of flaming tar before them as they danced and swarmed and revelled.
And following this bacchanal, the potential of a civil war is brewing:
The city would be waking soon, hungover, ugly with remorse. Paranoia gnawing at its sinews. A rich, ripe cholera-corpse, bloated with contagion.
While there is plenty of action along the way, Clare builds to an explosive, page-turning finale deep in the bowels of an ancient temple.
The Ice House provides context for the actions and characters in The Honours, and some deeper explanation of their powers, without having to revisit the action in that book. But Clare significantly expands his world by taking the action deep into the other side of the portal. But even here he only scratches the surface of this world, leaving plenty more to be explored.
The Ice House is a stunning sequel to one of the most interesting fantasy debuts of the last few years. Clare follows in the footsteps of other modern British fantasists like China Miéville and Jeff Vandermeer in drawing on a British fantasy tradition to create a world that is at once familiar but also full of dangerous otherness. Plenty of mysteries still remain in both worlds, and the cliffhanger ending means that this is almost certainly not the end for Delphine Venner. And if Clare can deliver something different again in book three, that is by no means a bad thing.
This review first appeared in The Newtown Review of Books.