Thursday, July 30, 2015

The High King (1968)

The High King, published in 1968 by Lloyd Alexander, concludes the Chronicles of Pridain. This is the story of the final conflict with Arawn, and the ultimate fates of Taran, Eilonwy, and just about everyone else that we've met along the way.

As a kid, I would have eaten this book up, so I give it generous stars as its target demographic will love it.

Although Alexander does a marvelous job of gathering up and using every character available, and using them rather well, the book feels rather hurried in many places. To me, this book returned the series to Lord of the Rings light.  Often, I felt that events proceeded rather turnkey, with one mini ex machina after another. Turn after turn, I recognized the tropes that Tolkien branded upon the mind of every fantasy writer, or perhaps every editor of every fantasy writer. Make no mistake, you have no doubt that the hero will win, only a doubt about who may or may not live until the end.

As a writer, I appreciate Alexander's use of dangling plots and dangling items. He uses these to produce his many mini ex machinas. Just about every item left unaccountable comes back into play and comes into play logically, down to the last play. If you're a writer and you want to study how to leave bits hanging for later, he's worth studying.

Myself, I reached the end and I was glad to be done. As an adult, I had no deep appetite for this series. The characters never gripped me. The events never carried me away. I just sauntered through the work, always able to keep my distance. Whatever magic that this book contained did not work on me.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Taran Wanderer (1967)

The fourth book in the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, Taran Wanderer, 1967, follow the adventures of Taran, the former assistant pig-keeper. It is the Pilgrim's Progress of YA fantasy, except without the pilgrims.

The tale itself is an ambling one, wandering just as much as the protagonist. Taran bumps his way through an episodic narrative, growing up along the way. Along the way, he meets many peoples, tries many jobs, and earnestly goes about his quest to discover his parentage.

While well written, the book feels empty at the end. It is as if his journey only required that it fill 50,000 words, and then should be done. Exactly how those 50k words happened didn't seem to matter much.

You can cal me a bit thick-headed for missing all the symbolism and allegory. I do that. Each episode does have it's After School Special lesson to teach, with some of them clearer than others. The fault of the story is not that is has allegory, but that you care so little about the allegory that you just don't bother thinking about it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Castle of Llyr (1966)

Lloyd Alexander published the third book in his Prydain series, The Castle of Llyr, in 1966. Eilonwy is sent away to the Castle of Llyr to learn how to be a proper lady. For her trip, her only companions are Taran and Gurgi. This is one of those books that I did not read in school and am only now reading.

To me, the book promised a wonderful comedy, for teaching Eilonwy to be a lady is rather like teaching a pig-keeper to be a prince. Alas, we weren't given a wonderful social comedy on manners vs. an intransigent princess. No, we were given an adventure tale, one where Einlonwy is kidnapped, and so rather than get more Eilonwy, we get far, far less than promised, and to that I object. And what little of her we do get gets shoved into the last few chapters. Boo.

All griping aside, the book moves along wonderfully. It's plot twists feel like twists, yanking you about rather unexpectedly, but otherwise the text is crisp, clear, and enjoyable. The fight scenes are few, which I think rather helps the story rather than harms it. The book suffer a little from, "hey, let's get the gang back together" syndrome, but fortunately, a few members of the gang got pared off, leaving us with a rather more manageable working set.

There are no Lord of the Ring -isms left. This series has fully come into its own, developing along its own way. I rather appreciate the more human-scale dilemmas that the characters face. I guess that the scale would make this a "cozy fantasy," rather than epic.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Black Cauldron (1965)

Published in 1965, The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander continues the adventures of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper. My version says that it's a "Newberry Honor Book," which I think means that it didn't quite win an award, but even being nominated is an honor. This was a book that I didn't read when I was young because I never even heard about it.

In this story, the good warriors of Prydain see that the Black Cauldron, which makes deathless warriors, but must be captured and destroyed if they are to have any chance at all. Knowing the plan ahead of time, you know that the plan will go wrong, and so it does.

Although the book still contains a few Tolkienisms, such as a black gate, many improbable meetings, and even more improbable battles, the story holds together quiet well, for the focus of the story is not on the battles, but the decisions that get our characters from point A to point B. While the first book promised a Celtic style story, but only dressed the story up in Celtic clothes, this book delivers to us a Celtic story with a wonderfully mythic feel. Yet, being a more modern story, we still have to hear about making camp and sitting guard.

Our hero Taran now has more personality, and a temper that gets him into trouble. He also has an internal intrepidness that also gets him into trouble, but for all the right reasons. Eilonwyn still has her attitude, but she is nowhere near as inscrutable, off the wall, or cutting as she was in the first book. She's trying her best to be a real character but not quite there yet. Meanwhile, our trope characters (the bard, Gurgi, Doli) continue on in their trope-centric ways, being exactly what their stereotypes make them, sometimes wonderfully so, but sometimes annoyingly so.

My inner thirteen year old would have loved it.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Book of Three (1965)

The Book of Three is the first book in the Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. Published in 1965, the book describes the adventures of the assistant pig herder, Taran. That may sound like a useless job, but when the pig is oracular, giving answers to questions that no humans know, taking care of that pig is rather important.

I did not read the Book of Three when I was young. To me, this is a new book, so I’ll split this review into two parts: what my inner kid thought, and what the adult me thought.

My kid part says, yeah, this is cool. We’ve got this kid who goes on an adventure, meetings unusual characters, discovers tombs, leads a band, and brings his mission to a success, if through unusual and twisty and turny means. This book contains everything that this kind of book ought to have. All in all, I would have eaten this book up multiple times as a kid.

As an adult, I found that this book contained everything that this type of book was supposed to have. By all, I mean that the writer must have had a checklist next to him. Generic kid? Check. Annoying girl? Check. Inscrutable adults teaching you inscrutable lessons by making you feel stupid? Check. The hero seems to make no decisions yet still succeeds? Check. The whole lot of them deserving to die, yet somehow come out of everything alive? Check.

To say that the book reeks of Lord of the Rings is no small assertion. Wise wizard who talks inscrutably and sounds like Gandalf? Check. Strange creature that talks like Gollum? Check. Dark Lord marching his secretly raised armies about? Check. Hero from ordinary circumstances? Check. Magic swords? Check.  I can rather hear some editors saying, “We’d really like something like Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off, but for kids. Can you do that?”

I may knock the story, but I don’t knock the writing. For the most part, all the text is clear and the character come across well, except for our everyman hero who we are supposed to identify with. (Those sorts of heroes are supposed to be a bit shallow so that the maximum number of boys will identify with him.)

I give this book five stars because I think that it really works well for its target demographic. Most of my problems with the book come from me NOT being the target demographic.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Princess Bride (1973)

Published in 1973 by William Goldman, I found The Princess Bride spiritedly, engaging, and altogether charmingly humorous. I found the reading easy, the humor congenial, and the characters all a bit wacky, which is par for the course for the late 60's/early 70's.

William Goldman himself was a screenwriter by trade, creating the book from his screenplay. I think it's fair to say that this is one of the best written fantasy works that I've encountered from the 70's, not quite resembling anything before or since, except Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This comparison is well noted, for both he and Adams were screen writers who knew enough that you can't do a straight adaptation of a humor film to a book. To create a book, you need humor that works as a book, not just humor that works as in a film. So the book itself is filled with many jokes that never appear in the film.

Goldman asserts that the The Princess Bride is a translation of a book written by an Italian writer back in 1931. The unabridged work is long, farcical, and utterly tedious, so he abridges it into the more readable book that we see. Along the way, he explains why he took out certain sections and complains about the original writing, often telling tangential stories along the way. With this conceit, he is able to fill out his manuscript to proper book length without having to alter his story at all.

In my version, he also includes an introduction which talks about the film, and a purported sequel, Buttercup's Baby, but only first chapter.

In all, I was quite pleased with the read. He captures the mood and the fun of the film years before any actor had been cast. Or perhaps, I should say that the film nicely captured the humor and mood of the book, which was based on the screenplay.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

Ursula LeGuin published the SF novel, the Left Hand of Darkness, in 1969. This is a novel that defies easy summary, existing well within the literary genre. To what extent it is literal or allegory, myth or history, testament or confession deservedly remains inexact. I want to say that this novel is powerful, but even in being powerful, I can’t say that it’s powerful absolutely. The idea of power misleads, suggesting that the novel is about power, or that power is strong. The novel spends all its time dwelling in that place where all that you assume doesn’t apply. Your reflexes will not serve you.

Ostensibly, the novel is about a traveler to a far world, called Winter, seeking to bring this world into the interstellar fold. This interstellar civilization always sends a single person to begin contact, progressing patiently, letting this new communication develop. The world of Winter was settled by human millennia ago, the planet turning to glaciation in the intervening years. What makes this particular planet unique is that the inhabitants are non-gendered, having both gender organs, but being that gender but a few days per month.

As speculative fiction goes, this novel is all speculative. There is relatively little science in the novel, but there is great exploration. LeGuin does not head boldly into this exploration, but gently, using her considerable storytelling prowess to live through this strange place, through the eyes of a strange person, in a strange society, in a strange time. And yet, despite this enveloping strangeness, the humanity of each character emerges, the world emerges, the facts emerge, with few lectures and many examples.

When I was young, I saw this titles on the shelf for many years, knowing that I liked LeGuin, yet very ambivalent of its description. That was shrewd, for this novel would have been completely beyond me. In high school, much of it would have gotten away for me. Even now, I find myself below this work, rather than above it. Its complexities are beyond me. By all rights, this novel should have been a tedious train wreck, but it works at a deep level, engaging you on a level that few modern novels will. Unlike many SF works, this one is based on humanity, moves with humanity, and concludes with humanity.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Decision at Doona (1969)

Decision at Doona was published in 1969 byAnne McCaffrey, In this book, two races, both living on overcrowded world, decide to live on the same pastoral planet at the same time. Once they discover each other, both are wary, but quickly learn to overcome their differences. However, each believes that only misery will come from cohabiting with another race, and their laws forbid it. If not for the out-of-control and headache inducing son of the main character, all might be thrown to ruin.

Due warnings: The science, tech, and social relationships are archaic. The inherent sexism of the age shows. There are more than a few things contrived. It's all part of the age. At least nobody smokes. There's even the period lack of characterization. 
The book reads like an SF version of Dennis the Menace collided with Gunsmoke, with some Lassie thrown in as well. The motivators behind the book are not violent, but social. So lost kids get lost, herds stampede, and barns get raised. And worse of all, the government gets involved, and that's where the major trainwrecks threaten. Fortunately, the book never devolves into Libertarian World.

The story sometimes flounders a bit, making choices that we would consider odd, but fit perfectly well within its own time. The idea is there more than the story. Despite that, I have a great respect for the book, for writing an SF novel without violence as the narrative backbone is harder than it looks.

This may not look like a watershed book to you, but it is for Anne. This book contains the blueprints for all the future dragon rider books. The colonists here have purposely chosen a lower-tech lifestyle, an idea that returns in future McCaffrey books. This novel centers around social conflict, differing goals, rather than the fight. Strangely, there aren't any psychics at all, which is pretty rare for an early McCaffrey.

I suppose that the novel examines race-relations of the age, an allegory of black and white living together. The late 60's were a terrible time in race relations. The book shows that despite laws, both races have the same goals of living good lives, and it's up to the ordinary person to seize that. Mutual cooperation will breed mutual respect and bring blessings to all.