T. H. White’s The Once and Future King was one of the trio of formative reading experiences at about age ten for me (along with the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and ever since I read it, I’ve been an avid reader of anything Arthurian. Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy, in which the primary character is Gwalchmai (Bradshaw’s version of Gawaine), begins with Hawk of May, in which the young Gwalchmai grows up a semi-outcast at the court of his father Lot, in Orkney. Bradshaw eliminates two of the Orkney brothers of most legend (bye, Gareth and Gaheris) and has Gwalchmai as the middle child between the somewhat loutish warrior Agravaine, and the child Medraut (Mordred). Lot favors Agravaine, and despises Gwalchmai for his love of music and his different style of fighting, which makes Gwalchmai susceptible to his mother Morgause’s desire to teach him dark magic. The first half of the book details Gwalchmai’s struggles with his darker self while the second half focuses on his desire to join Arthur’s band of warriors and fight beside them.
The first time I read this novel, I was focused on the poetry of Bradshaw’s language (which is lovely) and I think that clouded my memory of some of the things I don’t love about the novel – I don’t think Bradshaw does a great job of incorporating the supernatural into her determinedly historical take on Arthur (there’s a voyage to the court of Lugh that I just found a bit much to take this time around) and Gwalchmai goes from being kind of a klutz to being a brilliant warrior a little too quickly. Still, it’s a wonderful version of the legend, Gwalchmai is extremely appealing as a hero, and Morgause is genuinely terrifying. This one’s a keeper, and I’m planning to re-read the other two books of the trilogy whenever I can steel myself to the inevitable tragedy that attends all versions of Arthur’s legend.
(Read from January 13-14, 2013)
I first read Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks in 2001, and I really liked it at the time, perhaps because this novel was my first experience of urban fantasy and it seemed terribly original, fresh and new (as it probably was when it was first published in 1987.) The intervening dozen years, and many other excellent “urban fantasy” novels I’ve read in the interim haven’t been so kind to my first impressions of War for the Oaks, however; on this re-read I noticed not only that the cultural references were weirdly dated, and that the question of why, exactly, only Celtic mythological figures were present in modern-day Minneapolis was never addressed at all (where were the native American gods/spirits/myths whose names were evoked all over the place names mentioned in the novel?) but also that the characterization was incredibly thin. There was precisely one character whom I found interesting (and who was never explored) and even the phouka, whom I’d enjoyed the first time around, was a fairly standard romance novel character except for occasionally turning into a dog. Also, I don’t think Emma Bull did herself any favors with the overly-detailed descriptions of the frankly goofy-looking clothing everyone was wearing and of the music that Eddi and her band played (I think the only writer I’ve ever read who managed to make the process of composition interesting in and of itself was Thomas Mann!).
I still give this novel some kudos for introducing the idea of urban fantasy (and for introducing me to the genre!) but I’d have to say that if someone wanted to read a far more thoughtful look at what might happen when the gods of the Old Worlds came to the new, I’d recommend Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And the next time I want to read a novel about the intersection of mythology and music, I’ll go back to the perennially fascinating Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.
(Read on January 1, 2013)
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s conception of vampires in Let the Right One In certainly doesn’t include any sparkling, and its human beings behave in rather monstrous ways themselves. Hidden in the pages of this over-long thriller is a trenchant critique of the dark underbelly of all the picture-perfect IKEA commericals, but ultimately, this novel left me with a rather strong feeling of “so what?” I’m not really sure what the point was, and the novel itself seemed uncertain of what it was trying to say and left lots of loose ends still fraying at the end. I’m still interested in seeing the film based on this novel, because perhaps the story works better in a shorter time-frame.
(Read from March 23-March 25, 2010)
The Ragwitch is one of Garth Nix’s earlier books, and there are glimmers of his wonderful storytelling and brilliant imagination here, but the novel as a whole feels unfinished. Paul and Julia, who are sucked into another world by Julia’s falling under the spell of a monstrously evil rag doll, are not particularly three-dimensional characters and neither are any of the individuals they meet, so this is a pretty standard quest story with some very nice imaginative bits. Maybe this works better for younger readers.
(Read from March 14-15, 2010)
Sixteen-year-old Deirdre Monaghan is an exceptionally gifted musician who turns out to have another ability as well – she is a cloverhand, which means she can see members of the supernatural faerie world as they cross over into our world. Her abilities become manifest just as she falls in love with a mysterious young man named Luke, who is not what he seems. In Lament, Maggie Stiefvater updates elements of fairy tales like “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer” in a story set in the present.
I first read Lament in March 2009; upon re-reading a year later, I have to say that I wasn’t nearly as impressed with this. Stiefvater’s premise is utterly cliched: the plain girl who thinks she’s nothing special until a mysterious (and of course, beautiful) man comes along to tell her that she’s the most beautiful girl in the world. The teenagers don’t sound much like teenagers, and, in contrast, the thousand-year-old gallowglass sounds like he’s been watching a lot of “Buffy” reruns which is also jarring and odd. I still like the novel because I’m such a sucker for any version of the Tam Lin story, but I probably shouldn’t have re-read this one!
(Read March 7-8, 2010)
Storm Thief wasn’t quite as wonderful as Chris Wooding’s earlier Poison (or it could just be that I prefer fairy-tales to more science fiction type stories). Nonetheless, the story of Rail and Moa, two young thieves, and their journey through the perils of Orokos, a city lashed by probability storms and ruled by a pitiless oligarchy, is gripping and beautifully told. I’m very excited to read some of Wooding’s speculative fiction for adults now!
(Read from March 4-5, 2010)
I’m one of the rare people who utterly disliked Audrey Niffenegger’s highly touted debut, The Time Traveller’s Wife and so, because everyone who loved that novel seemed to dislike Niffenegger’s second, I felt sure I would feel differently.
I did enjoy Her Fearful Symmetry much more than The Time Traveller’s Wife, but I don’t think I enjoyed it enough to follow Niffenegger’s literary path any farther. A story of ghosts and weird twins, oddly interspersed with random bits of information about Highgate Cemetery, Her Fearful Symmetry had some very nice individual moments, but the characters never felt real to me. They were all constructed to fit into the plot and so Niffenegger could provide us with tidbits of London life and the fruits of her research into the past of Highgate Cemetery. (And, as an aside, her characters’ speech patterns all sounded the same – whether they were 80 year old Londoners or 20 year old Chicagoans. She did try to throw in lots of British-isms like using “skip” for “trash cans” but … they never quite sounded right.) In the end, Her Fearful Symmetry was not so much six characters in search of an author, but a really great setting and some descriptive prose in search of a coherent plot and characters!
(Read from February 18-21, 2010)