12.30.13 The Book of Three

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. Reread: 186/186.

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Probably the thing that is MOST like Lord of the Rings is the dirty king on a quest who is the only person worthy of a mythical sword. He is wise and weary and Taran doesn’t immediately think that much of him because Taran is basically the Hobbit of the story and Gwydion is not sparkling enough for his ideas of ULTIMATE HERODOM. But Taran grows as a person and for awhile everyone thinks Gwydion is dead, and at the end he is not dead, but very beautiful and shiny and wise and possessing of the mystical sword.

WELSH ARAGORN, EVERYONE.

So a nice thing about this book is that they beat the bad guy that they’re after, and it’s the hero who does it. Taran, who is a kind of ignorant kid, helps things along, but he doesn’t do the Heroic Acts, per se. That’s…everyone else. And it’s great! It is actually a fantasy book about a group of people who actually rely on teamwork, and the big finale doesn’t land on the main character by default. In fact, he kind of passes out for most of it.

Another nice thing is that Eilonwy is never made stupid or sweet in this book. She is a smart, opinionated, somewhat obnoxious, frequently correct character who talks in imagery and demands respect. And she knows what she wants! She is a much more interesting person than Taran and obviously is my favorite.

A third nice thing about this book is that it has a pronunciation key at the back for those of us who do not in fact know anything about Welsh.

I am looking forward for wandering through more of these books (perhaps I’ll read the whole series someday???). There’s almost nothing as pleasant as finishing something and thinking, I can’t wait to give this to somebody else!

9.24.13 Witch Week

Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones : reread : 211/211

I’ve read Witch Week a few times and I always think DWJ let more than a usual number of her feelings out in it. If you’re going to pull any morals from this book, they’ll probably be that (1) bullying is revolting no matter who is doing it, and (2) when you have a witch hunt, what you’re trying to kill is probably a part of yourself and you should stop it immediately.

(3) is, don’t trust history books, because someone at some point has probably lied their face off.

8.30.13 The Sea of Trolls

[library] The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer : 450/450

I loved The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm and House of the Scorpion, but I tried to read this book when it came out and I just didn’t get anywhere. Definitely went better with a decade of Norse scholar cohabitation, Marvel fandom, saga-reading and medieval history under the belt. It’s a little more mid-grade than the other two Farmer books I’ve read, but still painstakingly well researched, including the language and lots of treats with regards to mythology and history.

The story is basically that Jack is a Saxon bard-in-training, he and his little sister get abducted by Vikings, and then Jack has to run off to Jotunheim to drink from the well of awesome water at the foot of Yggdrasil to save sister Lucy from an evil half-troll queen. His main companion is a girl named Thorgil who has a bad temper and a bad past and is a tiny Berserker.

Even though Jack becomes friends with people everywhere he goes I like that Farmer doesn’t compromise on the “these are violent cultures funded on raiding and that isn’t going to change just because we like you” issue. I like all the research tidbits. I am more wary about the religious aspects, but also find them incredibly appropriate to Jack’s perspective.

It’s all a little spiritual for me, in that religion is a major theme of the book, and I tend not to read a lot of books where that is the case. On the other hand, some people who are not like me would certainly find them objectionable for the opposite reason: because the book is related by a Christian, but gives proof in the plot that pagan Norse religion is real, and ultimately concludes that all religion is real within the umbrella of the World Tree. That is pretty fabulous, and unusual.

And it’s a good illustration of how religion works in that part of the world 800-1000 C.E. My favorite part of Njal’s Saga is when a local chief decides he will adopt Christianity if and only if he can have St. Michael as his guardian angel. He’s not fussed at all about anything but which cool stuff he gets for being in which religion. IT MAKES ME SO HAPPY.

Also Thorgil is a violent little beast and learns to chill out through magic water and I don’t know if I love that or not. I mean, she’s still a warrior and all. Probably it’s good, probably it’s just like taking your damn magic meds, but I am not sure. Gender gender gender. I always want it to get pushed FARTHER than it is.

Alongside this book I recommend:

A Companion to Wolves by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, for wolf-soul-bonding warrior dudes, gay muscular guy sex, really different and interesting use of the same amount of research. [TW]

Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones for more kids dealing with Norse Things, and also the best Loki ever.

Sabriel by Garth Nix for young people in snow having adventures and really good world building.

Njal’s Saga for proof that Vikings &c are really portrayed as that vulgar, violent, and chill about being killed horribly.

NOT AMERICAN GODS, BECAUSE

okay don’t expect this sentence to end friendly-like

I HATE IT. It has zombie wife and bad god name puns and that woman who eats men with her vagina and nihilism. Blah blah, six hundred pages and all I get is a chafing dissatisfaction.

That said, Njal’s Saga is not about anything particularly nice, either. It’s about a family feud and it ends badly. Lots of people die. But it’s GREAT. There are lots of politics, and people frowning and conniving and some good wives and some bad wives and some brave fellows and weaselly fellows. And it’s so matter-of-fact that it’s hard to be bothered by anything. It’s less everything is worthlessssss, however, and more, well I guess things went that way this time! GOOD OLD NJAL’S SAGA.

7.30.13 Cart and Cwidder

[reread] CART AND CWIDDER by Diana Wynne Jones, 222/222

It’s been a million years since I read the Dalemark Quartet and I always remember most of all this sort of uneasy, pale, muffled feeling about them. A sort of being uncomfortable a long way off. It still feels that way. Plotwise, Cart and Cwidder is, the children of a traveling singer get embroiled in violent politics and try to make their way to the “free” north with a fugitive. It’s also about a magical string instrument that can knock down mountains and make people fall in love and things like that.

The perturbing parts, though, are about loss. Loss because people keep dying, and because ways of life keep ending, and because people who are alive aren’t as much yours as you thought. And it’s all in too much focus and not enough, because they have to keep going and because Moril, who is the mainest main character, sees everything and feels everything through this quiet distand place deep in his head. Reading it feels like dissociation. All the intensity crashes around you and you stand there, perfectly still.

7/15/13: Four Ways to Forgiveness

[library] FOUR WAYS TO FORGIVENESS by Ursula K. Le Guin: 208/208

TW: slavery, violence (gore p.122), rape, murder

Hello, still alive! So this is a set of four novellas set around the unclear path of slave-holding world Werel and its colony planet Yeowe, from plantation slavery to liberation. It is about power replacing power, slavers replacing slavers, and women being the last in line for freedom.

It is also about the value of knowledge and belief, and the idea that “all knowledge is local knowledge”—that the larger the world you see, the easier it is to see the airtight customs of one group of people as foolish or pointless, but despite their flaws, they do function, as much as any other view of the universe functions. They have to, because no one knows everything, and everyone needs to know just enough to live.

Some of Le Guin’s books show more of their sociological foundation than others, and this one, despite being fairly short, manages to fit some real textbook style here and there. The third story, A Man of the People, is particularly declarative. It’s also more than usually (even!) interested in the structure of history, and the characters feel like accessories to that.

There are sparks of hope in this book, usually in the last few lines of the stories, but by and large it is slowly and brutally realistic about the process of progress. Freedom is declared, undergrounds rise, envoys from peaceful alien planets change hearts, and then people are shuffled around and raped and die and women are kept enslaved and voiceless and freedoms are revoked and children are murdered and there’s no safe place to call home, even on the “free world” next door. Friends lose each other because you can both fight for freedom and still have nothing to say to one another.

Hope comes in the form of love in all these stories, specifically heterosexual romantic love, even though throughout the book there are lots of non-straight characters and sexual encounters, and even a fair amount of rejection of sex in general. I admit myself to be a little disappointed by that, because if you’re talking about a whole struggling world of powerlessness and power-grabbing and hope and fear and change, there’s got to be more than cisgendered heterosexuals shacking up to bring hope to the world—whether they’re running printing presses and comforting each other in literal shacks or whatever.

There’s a running theme of this line from the slave class’s religion: “Hold fast to the one noble thing.” And I think that thing’s got to be the unbreaking human connection, the steadfast loyalty of a human heart to another human heart, that isn’t undone by all the evil humanity can muster. And that’s amazing. But they probably don’t have to be straight, and they probably don’t have to have sex. They don’t have to be adults. They probably don’t need to both be human—there are some good pets in this book, and I would argue that love there would be at least as noble as the one noble hot guy you eventually get with. Maybe a slightly broader vision of the one noble thing. That is the bone I pick.

5/20/13: Quest of the Holy Grail

THE QUEST OF THE HOLY GRAIL trans. by P.M. Matarasso: 44/284

Okay, this is some 14th-century French Arthurian stuff, and it is great. Pretty much the first thing that happens is Lancelot goes out to do some knight fun things, and these nuns give him a kid and say MAKE HIM A KNIGHT, which Lancelot does, and this kid is like the most gorgeous person ever made. And now he’s a knight! Lancelot is very impressed with his looks.

This says less about Lancelot’s creepy sexuality (read: smoulder at Arthur,  who is kind of a whiner, and have sex with Guinevere, who is also a whiner) and more about his incredible vanity, since the kid turns out to be HIS VERY OWN CHILD THAT HE WAS FORCED TO CREATE. Honestly I am not even sure what to say about modern rape culture and its application in the medieval romantic ethos, so we’ll just say Lance made a baby on accident with a tricky lady and he thinks said baby is pretty cute.

When they get back to court, Arthur is like, THANK GOODNESS SO HUNGRY LET’S EAT HO BOY, and Kay pitches a fit about how you never start a feast at Camelot until you’ve had an ADVENTURE, dammit! Arthur: not that into this. Kay: IT IS YOUR TRADITION.

Luckily there’s this thing called the SEAT OF DANGER at the round table that will eff you up if you’re not the best knight in the land. I don’t know who thought that was a good idea. Also luckily, this sword shows up that is like I TOO AM FOR THE BEST KNIGHT!!!! And luckily, Lance’s hot bastard son who is Galahad is there, and is a completely perfect human being. So in about two seconds the sword is his and the seat is his and that’s that, adventure over, and they can sit down and eat.

Guinevere, of course, gets super bummed out that Lancelot is no longer Camelot’s hot number one knight bachelor, and Lancelot gets confused about her feelings because he’s so busy being chivalrous that he has no competitive spirit at all.

Then, due to the ongoing plague of magical narrative devices, the Holy Grail arrives. And with its sacred, marvelous power, it…

makes everyone a really good dinner


Then it floats away! And Gawain is like, I GAWAIN WILL NOT REST UNTIL I HAVE AGAIN HAD SUCH A TASTY DINNER SEEN THIS CUP OF CHRIST

questing for a year kthxbai

And then all of the other knights of the round table go too

3/16/13: Talking to Dragons

[reread] TALKING TO DRAGONS by Patricia C. Wrede

I’m nearly at the end—they’ve got out of the D&D cavern, met some dragons, fought some wizards. Daystar’s about to fulfill his combination destiny and filial duty. Which is…a little weird.

Cimorene’s life work isn’t attending a dragon, or being a queen—for half her life as we see it, her driving purpose is to ensure her son is in the right position to return Mendenbar’s sword to him and restore him to his life and kingship. And it fits in the story, with Mendenbar’s returning the power of the Enchanted Forest to the forest, and Kazul rightly becoming King of the Dragons, while the murderous cheat diminished into toad form. Although the initial conceit of the series is a character who says, to hell with these tropes, I don’t have to live by them—in fact the series overall is very much about the maintenance of order.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a little surprising in what appears initially to be a work of subversion. In the first book, everyone pushes against the grain as they like, especially Kazul and Cimorene. By this book, that stout, sensible attitude has shifted towards something a lot more prescriptive.

Cimorene’s kindred spirit Shiara (who as I recall goes off to be Kazul’s new “princess” at the end of the book, so she’s really quite like her) is the only one who questions the tropes and roles that Cimorene does. But while it works out nicely for Cimorene, Shiara learns that her rebellion actively harms her. For much of the book Shiara struggles with her magic—until Daystar discovers that she can only use it when she’s polite.

Now, not being horrible to people all the time is a pretty good thing. But Shiara is a member of a group of people who get the short end of the stick pretty often in this series, and in this story magic’s application is frequently related to battle. It’s a weapon, offensive and defensive…except that Shiara literally cannot use it offensively. SHE CAN’T GET MAD AT PEOPLE WHO TRY TO HURT HER, OR SHE LOSES THE ABILITY TO PROTECT HERSELF.

It’s not deliberate but it’s a very, very different message than the one that Cimorene sends in the first book. No-nonsense, un-mincing, sturdy, stubborn, smart is okay in the first book, but Shiara can’t get away with it.  She has to be nice.

Which is, I think, something of a betrayal of Dealing With Dragons. Because if a girl wants to be nice, or feels nice, or is nice, that’s nice. But she should never have to be. That’s the whole point.

There’s a bit in Diana Wynne Jones’s Eight Days of Luke where David, the protagonist with a number of terrible, demanding, uncharitable guardians, realizes that gratefulness should never be demanded of anybody, and people who demand it probably don’t deserve it. That’s the sort of situation that Shiara is in, except that Shiara never gets to that point in the book. I hope that if the book kept going, she would get there, but it sure would have been nice for someone to spin around on convention and say, “HEY, THAT’S NOT RIGHT AT ALL!” It’s what worked about the first books and it’s certainly what Shiara deserves.