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Travels Through the Ghost of a Dragon – a Review of GOGMAGOG: THE FIRST CHRONICLE OF LUDWICH

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

When I read the publisher’s description of Jeff Noon and Steve Beard’s new fantasy novel Gogmagog: The First Chronicle of Ludwich—“the story of an epic journey through the sixty-mile long ghost of a dragon”—I thought it sounded enticingly strange. Then I read the book, and much to my delight, it is a whole lot stranger than that description lets on. Parts of the story, the deep roots and winding ways of this fictional world, the twists and turns of plot and journey, are what I would describe (in highly scientific terms) as completely bonkers, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.

Gogmagog is set in a country called Kethra, which is a sort of rundown, disheveled, alt-universe version of post-war Britain, scarred by war and strife, inhabited by various tribes that may or may not be almost human: the Azeel, the Alkhym, the Wodwo tribe, and more. Through this country runs the river Nysis:

They called it the Winding Way, and by Lud they were right to do so, with so many twists and turns along its length from source to sea, freshwater to salt.” 

The story begins on the shores of the Nysis, in Anglestume, and it begins with Cady Meade, the seventy-eight-year-old former river-boat captain who is now mostly land-bound and retired, scrounging for scraps and rum, surviving as best she can on her pension from The Amalgamated Union of Bargemen, Waterwomen, River Pilots and Apprentices. Cady is old and crotchety, missing the old days when she traveled the river on the regular, bringing people safely through the dangers of the spectral waters. Her river-traveling days are over, so she thinks, but now two strangers are looking to hire her for a job that requires someone who knows the Nysis, someone skilled at spectral navigation, someone who can take a sick girl upriver, all the way to the city of Ludwich, post haste.

Cady doesn’t exactly jump at the chance. She gripes and groans all the way, but eventually she goes. Not just because of the job and the passengers, but because she is haunted by visions of her own, visions of a mysterious threat hiding in the waters of the Nysis, a quest that calls her back to the river, back to her river boat, the Juniper, and back to her own mysterious past.

The journey to Ludwich is perilous because the waters are changeable and unpredictable in ways that have nothing to do with currents and tides:

“…hanging like a shroud over the Nysis, the first dark shimmer of the ghost waters awaited them. From this point on, the river would be taken over by Faynr, the spirit of a long-dead dragon. Taken over, possessed, transformed.”

The crew aboard the Juniper is a decidedly motley one. There’s Cady, of course, and Yanish, a young Azeel man whose shadow has a mind of its own. Cady took him under her wing years ago, and he was once her deckhand but, on this trip, much to Cady’s chagrin, he is the captain. Finally, there are the two paying passengers: Brin, a young Alkhym girl who desperately needs to get to Ludwich for reasons she won’t reveal, and her protector, Lek, a Thrawl, an artificial, robot-like being with a brain of crystal who seems to know things about Cady that the old navigator would rather keep to herself. None of them, least of all Cady, is exactly who and what they seem to be, and each of them brings their own secrets, and their own darkness and shadows, as baggage.

A lot of great fantasy stories are built around quests that turn into journeys. Obvious, classic examples include The Lord of the Rings, Ged’s journeys through Earthsea, and C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Certainly, there is a quest in Gogmagog: to bring Brin to Ludwich before she succumbs to the mystery illness that afflicts her, and there’s also Cady’s own quest, the one she’s received in a vision from “the outer fields,” that concerns the river and the lands around it (and maybe the dead dragon too). But to me, the Juniper’s journey feels more akin to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (or its movie sibling Apocalypse Now) than anything else, what with its group of travelers heading into mysterious waters, navigating strange currents where wonders and dangers lurk, and where they risk being changed irrevocably by what they might find, and what they might lose, along the way.

Navigating through the ghost of Faynr is a dangerous undertaking. Different parts of the ghost have affected the river in different ways, and all sorts of outlandish threats lurk in the waters, in the air, and on the riverbanks, but even in her old age, no one knows better than Cady how to navigate the waters and bring vessel and passengers safely through. However, even she is pushed to the brink of her abilities because the Nysis seems to be changing in peculiar and unexpected ways.

There’s a trippy, phantasmagoric vibe to the entire river trip, indeed this entire book. Every page is filled with strange magic and weird technology, surreal visions, and unusual encounters, and the farther into the ghost waters the Juniper travels, the more we find out about the memories rattling around in the recesses of Cady’s brain, as well as in the crystal skull of Lek, and all sorts of secrets and mysteries begin to unravel. All this while Cady’s, and the crew’s, dreams and nightmares gather like mist and fog over the water, and visions of dragons rise out of the past.

Gogmagog is a book that sprawls and twists, and even in its darkest moments, there’s a playful, joyful feel to the story, personified by Cady, who is a wonderfully cantankerous presence, salty and bawdy, sly and brazen, thorny and (occasionally) soft. Around her, Beard and Noon build Kethra with capacious glee, creating a wholly original world that feels organic and alive, like a wild and vivid garden.

Some of the secrets and mysteries of the crew, and Kethra, are explained before the end of the journey, but other secrets and mysteries only deepen the further we travel with the Juniper, because something ominous is happening to the Nysis and to Faynr’s ghost. I’m not being spoilery if I say that Gogmagog ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, because, as is implied by the book’s title, Gogmagog: The First Chronicle of Ludwich, there is more to come. Indeed, Gogmagog is the first in a duology and book two, Ludluda, is already set for release in late 2024 and I am eagerly looking forward to returning to Kethra later this year.

Gogmagog: The First Chronicle of Ludwich is available now from Angry Robot Books.