Not a Tame Lion

This is actually a re-posting from about 4 years ago, but I just finished the entire Narnia series for the who-knows-how-manyth time and wanted to share it again because it is more true than ever:

Though the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia are written as fairytales for children, they follows C. S. Lewis’s philosophy that, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest,” and “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” While I have not yet reached the “fifty and beyond” category, I enjoy these books a little more each time I read them (and I have read them every two or three years since I was in first grade).

The Chronicles of Narnia tell the tale of a magical world of talking animals in which British children have a variety of adventures (defeating a witch, winning the throne for the rightful king, rescuing a lost prince, etc.). Though children from our world are the main characters, the true hero of the series is Aslan, The Great Lion and Son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea. Aslan is clearly a Christ character, intended by Lewis to be “a supposition” of what it would look like for the Son of God to appear in a different world. Lewis recognized that “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” Each book, besides being a fun fantasy story, explores a different aspect of Aslan’s character.

  • In The Lion the Witch an the Wardrobe he is the Redeemer
  • In Prince Caspian he is the One who sends help
  • In The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ he is the Guide and Renewer.
  • In The Silver Chair he is the One who guides with his Words.
  • In The Horse and His Boy he is the One in sovereign control of events.
  • In The Magician’s Nephew he is the Creator.
  • In The Last Battle he is the One who ushers his children into paradise.

…and so much more. These books have grown with me through increased understanding in a way described by Aslan in Prince Caspian:

“Aslan,” said Lucy “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

The only book in the series about which I have some reservations is The Last Battle. It contains breathtaking descriptions of paradise but also emphasizes some confused pluralistic ideas that depart from biblical orthodoxy. It is still worth reading, but those who take seriously Jesus’ claims to be the only way to heaven (e.g. John 3:16-18) should approached it with discernment.

The order in which I have listed the books above is C. S. Lewis’s original publication order, and I personally think they are far better when read in that sequence rather than the “chronological” order currently used by publishers. If nothing else, Lewis clearly intended The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to be the readers’ first impression of Aslan. And I will leave you with part of Aslan’s beautiful introduction from that book. Come meet Aslan:

“…Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”
“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”

Two Medieval-ish Reads

Today I will be reviewing a couple books that I received from NetGalley. Both will be published on May 12, 2022. Thank you to the authors and publishers for the free eARC’s (or however you spell the plural of eARC). This in no way affects the content of the reviews.

Title: Equinox
Author: David Towsey
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 4 of 5

I was first drawn to this book by its fantastic cover, which I’ve left larger than usual so that you can admire it. Choosing this book by its cover worked out just fine for me.

I love good worldbuilding, and this book has it! In this world each body is two distinct people, one during the day and one at night. Our protagonist(s) is (are?) Cristophor the methodical special investigator (witch-hunter) by night and his “day brother” Alexander the musician/libertine. It’s an interesting concept that the author fleshes out pretty well. As far as culture and religion, the world closely resembles an early 18th century Europe where malicious magic is most definitely real.

The plot revolves around Christophor’s investigation into dangerous witchcraft in a small border town where he is a stranger. The pacing is on the slow side for most of the book, which I don’t mind at all. However, the end felt extremely rushed and bombastic by comparison, leaving me a bit confused over the actual role and motivation of some of the characters. Notwithstanding pacing issues and a few loose ends, I enjoyed this (rather dark) fantasy and would highly recommend it to fans of the genre. I would love it if the author wrote more books set in this world!

Title: Howls from the Dark Ages: An Anthology of Medieval Horror
Editors: P L McMillan & Solomon Forse
Genre: Horror
Pages: 354
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This is another book that I was initially drawn to by its cover. I appreciate the blend of Medieval and Lovecraftian elements. However, in this case, choosing a book by its cover didn’t work out so well.

Any horror anthology is a mixed bag, and in this one the mixture just wasn’t to my taste. Quite a few of the stories featured gross body horror and/or blasphemy (of the “God is evil / indifferent / non-existent” variety), and I’m a fan of neither. That said, there are definitely some well-written stories here, and it was interesting to see how the various authors play with elements from the life and religious practices of the whole Medieval time period (the stories are not strictly confined to the early-Medieval “Dark Ages”).

Your enjoyment of the book will depend a lot on your taste in horror. I think that someone from a Roman Catholic background might have even more problems with the book than I did, and someone who likes “gross horror” would probably enjoy it a lot more.

Two for the Book Challenges

Over the last month I checked off a book from each of my two reading challenges. From the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge I finished the “Classic in a Place You’d Like to Visit” category with…

Title: The Hobbit
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 287 (10:25 audiobook length)
Rating: 5 of 5

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this book since first reading it in 2nd or 3rd grade, but I still enjoy it every time. As Tolkien’s friend, C. S. Lewis, said: “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.”

It is written with a much younger audience in mind than The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, but (to quote Lewis again), “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children isn’t a good children’s story in the slightest.” It is less grim than his other writings. The overall tone could even be described as charming with small dashes of silly, but Tolkien’s favorite theme of the courage and perseverance of “regular people” (with a few nudges from Providence) shaping the course of events is in full bloom.

This time through, I listened to the Audible audiobook version narrated by Andy Serkis. He did an excellent job with all the voices (not just Gollum) and narrated with enthusiasm and humor. It’s well worth a listen.

My read from The Official TBR Pile Challenge was something completely different, but still a 5-star book:

Title: Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism
Editors: Elijah Hixson & Peter J. Gurry
Genre: Biblical Studies
Pages: 352 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

New Testament textual criticism is the branch of biblical studies that seeks to ascertain the original wording of the NT writings, especially in places where there are differences between ancient manuscripts. Extreme skeptics like Bart Ehrman try to make it sound like the text is hopelessly corrupt, as if it had been passed along and muddled in the party game “telephone.” Such an analysis is needlessly pessimistic. However, in their zeal to disprove it, some Christian apologists grossly overstate, oversimplify, and/or misuse the text-critical evidence of the accurate preservation of New Testament Scripture.

The essays in this book offer a corrective to such mistaken arguments while demonstrating the high textual accuracy of the New Testament we possess and the place of textual criticism in ensuring this. This area of study has always interested me, and I thoroughly enjoyed these essays, learning about the topic in more detail than what could be covered in my introductory seminary classes.

While I highly recommend this book, it isn’t necessarily a good introductory book if you have no background in the topic. For that I would suggest The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration by Bruce Metzger & Bart Ehrman (from before Ehrman went off the hyper-skeptical deep end).

Also, on a personal note: postings here will continue to be sporadic as we are still dealing with major health problems triggered by my wife’s bout with covid.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Title: The Goblin Emperor
Author: Katherine Addison
Genre: Court Intrigue Fantasy (possibly YA)
Pages: 449
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book pleasantly surprised me. The original cover and publicity blurb made me think it was some sort of cutesy YA fantasy clone, but a fellow book blogger’s rave review convinced me to give it a shot. There were a few of the usual YA tropes (teenage outsider whose parents are dead and who doesn’t want the role that has been thrust upon him), but it never descended into the obnoxious whining pity party and simplistic plotting/characterization that I think of as characteristically YA.

Maia, the unloved youngest half-goblin son of the elf emperor has been raised in obscurity far from court, but he is suddenly thrust onto the throne when the emperor and all of his other heirs die in a catastrophic accident. The rest of the book follows the challenges of growing into this role while navigating (potentially deadly) court intrigue.

In my experience, fantasy books that center on political maneuvering tend to be either cynical grimdark dystopias or trashy romance novels disguised as fantasy. This was neither as Maia brings kindness, warmth, and wisdom to the table. There’s plenty of awkwardness, self-doubt, and grief along the way, but this is the story of a refreshingly good-hearted young man.

If you are looking for high action, you’ll want to go elsewhere. If you need a break from angsty anti-hero fantasy this book is a breath of fresh air.

He’s back…

Title: A Master of Djinn
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Alternate History Fantasy
Pages: 400
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

For me, good worldbuilding covers a multitude of sins, and this book has excellent worldbuilding. This first novel in P. Djèlí Clark’s djinn universe continues and expands on his fascinating alternate history from the first two novellas (A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015). While you could enjoy this book without reading the novellas, I would strongly suggest reading at least A Dead Djinn in Cairo which introduces most of the major characters, their world, and some important plot points.

This world was irrevocably changed in the mid-1800’s when a Soudanese mystic, Al Jahiz, bored a hole into the kaf, allowing djinn and assorted other supernatural entities to freely enter our world, bringing with them their magic and technology and transforming Egypt into one of the “Great Powers.” Now (in 1912) as Europe is teetering on the edge of conflict someone claiming to be Al Jahiz has reappeared sowing discord and mayhem. It’s once again up to Agent Fatma el-Shar’arawi (one of the few women working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities) to figure out what is going on and save the day.

Like all of P. Djèlí Clark’s work, the storytelling deals with moral/social issues (feminism, post-colonialism, LGBTQ+, etc.), in a pretty heavy-handed fashion. Depending on how much preachiness you are willing to put up with in your fiction, this may affect your enjoyment of the book to some degree.

I was a little disappointed in the mystery aspect of the plot as I thought that certain parts of it were painfully obvious and Fatma was much too slow to figure them out (given how brilliant she is supposed to be). That said, the overall plot was engrossing, entertaining, and revealed fascinating new details of this alternate world. I am looking forward to further installments in the series!

Witcher Series Review

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark Fantasy
Number of Books: 8
Total Pages: 3,404
Rating: 3 of 5

If you enjoy grimdark fantasy and don’t mind moderate amounts of profanity, sex, and gore, this is probably right up your alley. Personally, I swung back and forth on how much I enjoyed it depending on the book and my mood (but enjoyed it enough to finish the series).

Our hero, Geralt the Witcher, makes his living by slaying monsters with his magically, genetically, pharmacologically enhanced fighting ability…kind of. He actually spends the bulk of his time bedding sorceresses, navigating political intrigues, and attempting to rescue/protect the Child of Destiny. I enjoyed his character’s sense of responsibility and overall decency in a dark world, but his need to sleep with every attractive woman he comes across (especially if she’s a sorceress) got really old (especially since he’s supposedly so in love with Yennefer).

The first two books (The Last Wish & Sword of Destiny) are short story collections that mostly involve monster-slaying and fairytale mashups, but also set up a few characters and situations for the main Witcher Saga. Once the Saga starts (in Blood of Elves), monster-slaying largely falls by the wayside and we are treated to a complex swirl of rebellions, invasions, pogroms, court intrigue, and any other nasty human behavior you can think of…most of it centered in some way around the remarkable young woman, Ciri, to whom Geralt (and various companions met along the way) are bound by destiny.

The plotting of the Saga is impressive, but the farther you go into it, the more depressing it gets. Even when a character survives a dangerous situation, Sapkowski often feels the need to jump ahead and describe the pointless/ignominious way in which they will die in the future. The Lady of the Lake ends the saga ambiguously enough that you can kind of decide for yourself how sweet or dark you want it to be. The final book (Season of Storms) is a prequel to the Saga that goes back to being more monster-slayer oriented, but it should not be read first since the ending would make little sense without having read the other books.

As far as narration, large parts of the story are told in flashback with a wide variety of framing stories. One chapter will be [Character X] catching [Character Y] up on what has happened since they last met, and the next chapter will be a storyteller recounting events surrounding Geralt as legends from the misty past or a historian researching “what really happened” with Geralt and company several centuries ago. It’s odd and a bit disorienting, but I think it works to give the sense of these being legendary events of which there might not be a “definitive version.” Bolstering this impression, there are frequent references and parallels to fairytales, Arthurian legends, Shakespearian plays, etc.

I listened to the audible versions read by Peter Kenny, and he did an excellent job providing character voices and accents. To me, the audiobook format made it a little more difficult to keep track of the many, many characters involved in the various intrigues, but it was worth it.

Overall, I don’t know if I would ever read or listen to these again, but that probably has more to do with my personal taste than any deficiency in the author’s writing style. I think that the Black Company novels are about as grimdark as I can comfortably go in the fantasy world.

Several Series Started

This year I have started reading/listening through a few different series and trilogies. I don’t plan on reviewing every book because that can get a bit repetitive and/or spoilery, so I’ll be doing a big overall review as I finish each series or trilogy. That said, here is my current impression of each one (picture is of the first book in each series):

A Dead Djinn in Cairo: A Tor.Com Original by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Series: Fatma el-Sha’arawi
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Alternate History / Detective
Read: 2 of 3 (first 2 are novellas)

This alternate history features a fascinating early 20th century Cairo transformed by constant contact with the world of the djinn. There are elements of magic, steampunk, and liberal politics. The author has a tendency to be a little bit preachy, but it doesn’t generally come at the expense of a good detective story. I am looking forward to reading the first full-length novel in the series.

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Series: The Murderbot Diaries
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-fi
Read: 1 of 6 (mostly novella-length).

Our protagonist/narrator is a security cyborg who has hacked its governor module, essentially making it a heavily-armed illegal unfettered AI. All that Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to enjoy its massive collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment. I’m only one book in so I’m not sure where the overall story-arc is going to go, but watching Murderbot navigating the world of humans and their schemes has proved entertaining so far.

The Big Sleep: A Novel (Philip Marlowe series Book 1) by [Raymond Chandler, Richard Amsel Movie Tie-In Cover]

Series: Philip Marlowe
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Read: 2 of 7 (rereading)

Hardboiled detective fiction from the 1920’s-50’s is my go-to escapist genre, and Raymond Chandler is top tier (equaled only by Dashiell Hammett). His Philip Marlowe is smart (even making occasional literary allusions), tough, and snarky but actually a pretty nice guy. You do have to be able to cringe and then overlook some product-of-its-era prejudice/slurs to enjoy the genre.

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]

Series: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Lovecraftian Weird / Humor / Satire
Read: 2 of 3

I haven’t ever listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), so I don’t know how the books compare. These books give me weirdness overload. They have their funny moments but there is so much random strangeness (and occasional preachiness) that I’m having a hard time working up the motivation to read the final book.

The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher (The Witcher Saga Book 1) by [Andrzej Sapkowski]

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark-ish Fantasy
Read: 5 of 8

The first two books in the series are short story collections with a strong monster-hunter, fairytale-retelling vibe. Once the series actually kicks off, it has more of a Glen Cook Grimdark feel: heavy on the political machinations and reveling in moral ambiguity. There’s more profanity & explicit content than I really care for, but not enough to make me quit the series. I’m listening to these as audible audiobooks, and the narrator is excellent with voices and accents…but why oh why does he keep changing how he pronounces Dandelion’s name?!

Classic Weirdness & Satire

The Back to the Classics Challenge is a fun incentive/excuse to mix some classics into your reading for the year (and there’s a chance to win $30 in books, so win-win!). It’s not too late to sign up if you’re interested…just click the graphic to the left. Anyway, I’ve finished two more books for the challenge, so time for a pair of reviews!

Through the Looking-Glass (AmazonClassics Edition) by [Lewis Carroll]

Title: Through the Looking Glass
Author: Lewis Carroll
Genre: Children’s Classic
Pages: 151
Rating: 4 of 5

A few years ago I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was unimpressed. I found it obnoxious and shrill as the whole thing consists of Alice being rushed about and berated for being confused by the nonsensical world of Wonderland. The random nonsense level in Through the Looking Glass was about the same, but I enjoyed it a lot more. Alice’s imagining to herself was charming, the wordplay was a lot of fun, and who doesn’t love the poem Jaberwocky (to say nothing of the classic illustrations)? This classic weirdness is well worth reading.

The Way We Live Now by [Anthony Trollope]

Title: The Way We Live Now
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Satire
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In this satirical novel, Trollope skewers late 19th century British high society. The sprawling story was originally published as a serial, and I think that Trollope couldn’t quite decide (or changed his mind partway through) about which character or plot thread was primary.

No matter which character of plot thread you follow, the overarching concern seems to be the manipulation of other people…usually for money, matrimony, or both. Trollope casts a cynical eye on mercenary marriages, feckless young men, and financial scandals.

None of the characters are pure as the driven snow (except for a couple of the young women who act like complete ninnies for most of the book). Few of the characters are sympathetic, but some of them are interesting. One character particularly caught my attention due to some similarities to a certain orange individual who shall remain nameless: a businessman much fawned upon because of his reputed wealth (despite rumors of past failed businesses and shady dealings) who enters politics as a conservative though having few real personal convictions.

Like a lot of satirical novels, the overall effect of the story arouses disgust more than amusement. Trollope doesn’t often demonstrate the witty turn of phrase that some satirists use to at least elicit a snort of derisive laughter. This makes parts of the book a bit of a slog, but overall it’s readable and insightful as long as you don’t mind a cast almost entirely void of sympathetic characters.

Warhammer Sampler

Title: The Hammer and the Eagle:
Icons of Warhammer
Author: Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Guy Haley, etc.
Genre: Grimdark Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

This anthology serves as a perfect introduction to the most popular characters in the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar universes. By page count, the split is approximately 70% WH40k sci-fi and 30% Sigmar fantasy.

Some familiarity with the Warhammer history and universes is helpful but not necessary for enjoying the grimdark escapist vignettes of violence (you can always check a wiki if you’re completely lost). Characters run the gamut through space marines, commissars, inquisitors, witch hunters, stormcast eternals, and a massively overpowered dwarf.

Before this, I had not read any books in the Age of Sigmar universe. However, I had read a few of the older Warhammer fantasy books (mostly Gotrek & Felix) and found the characters seriously overpowered…and the new Sigmar version seems to amp that up even more. I doubt I’ll be picking up any books from that side of things, but I did appreciate the chance to sample the universe.

On the 40,000 side, I recognized a handful of the stories from other anthologies, and several of them are a bit unsatisfactory as stand-alones since they were originally written to bridge a gap between two novels. Other than that, they were decent military sci-fi. I still prefer just about any character to the flat, overpowered loyalist space marines, but it’s all good/grim escapist fun with a nice variety of characters (and some variety in storytelling, though there’s only so much you can do in a universe where “there is only war”).

Overall, a decent collection: story-wise I’d give it 3 stars (my usual rating for most things Warhammer) and tack on an extra half star for the broad sampling of characters.

Eternity Ends

Title: The Chronicles of Castle Brass (Eternal Champion Volume 15)
(Count Brass; The Champion of Garathorm; The Quest for Tanelorn)
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Trippy Dark Fantasy
Pages: 432
Rating: 3 of 5

This volume concludes the story of the Eternal Champion (so apparently he isn’t quite as eternal as his title suggests?). The three stories contained in the volume focus primarily on Dorian Hawkmoon, but three other aspects/incarnations/versions/whatevers of the Champion play major roles: Erekosë, Corum, and everyone’s favorite emo albino, Elric (complete with evil soul-sucking black sword).

These stories would make little sense without reading previous volumes in the series that deal with these four aspects of the Champion. In the Orion/White Wolf volume numbering that would be volumes 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, & 12 (and possibly 13 which I haven’t read). Other volumes seem to have little or no bearing on the overall story arc (and many of the stories in them seem to have been clumsily reimagined/rewritten as Eternal Champion stories simply to lengthen the series).

The stories in this volume a pretty much par for the course. There’s plenty of trippy jumping between planes of the multiverse, some repetition of previous stories from a slightly different point of view, some escapist swords and sorcery style action, a lot of moping and whining from the Champion about being the pawn of fate, and quite a bit of preachiness from the author.

The series ends appropriately for the direction it has been taking since the beginning. It wasn’t actually as unremittingly dark as I was expecting, which was a nice surprise. However, it did turn into a paean to atheism (and disparagement of theism) that echoed somewhere between William Ernest Henley’s Invictus and John Lennon’s Imagine. While not entirely surprising, this is diametrically opposed to my own worldview of a sovereign, loving God, so this somewhat curtailed my enjoyment of the book.

Overall, if you’ve read all about Erekosë, Corum, Elric, and Hawkmoon this is worth your time to round out the storyline.