Jephthah & Inanna

Title: Ever
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Genre: Youth Fantasy/Mythology
Pages: 256
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Gail Carson Levine regularly passes the C. S. Lewis test of “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Even as an adult, I find her stories like Ella Enchanted (the book, NOT the movie!) and A Tale of Two Castles  to be charming and entertaining with strong, resourceful heroines. Ever is a little more mature and little less whimsical in tone, but I still enjoyed it overall.

Levine leaves behind her usual fairytale subject matter in favor of more historical and mythological elements. The plot riffs on an interesting combination of the biblical story of Jephthah’s rash vow (Judges 11:29-40) and Sumerian/Akkadian culture and mythology (especially Inanna/Ishtar’s descent to the underworld). Our main first person POV characters are are the Jephthah’s-daughter-equivalent and a young god of the winds.

The plotting veers a little toward the “and then this happened, and then the next thing happened for inscrutable reasons, and then something else happened just because, and then the convenient deus ex machina happened…” manner of ancient mythology. People expecting Levine’s usual style may find it a little off-putting or flat, but I think that it works well with the subject matter and is fairly interesting even if it isn’t quite as charming as usual.

Also, this is another book checked off my 2019 TBR Challenge!

Quick Fire Fantasy Tag

This might be the first one of these I’ve done on this blog, but it gives me a chance to talk about some of my favorite books, so here we go!

The Rules

5-Star Book

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis isn’t quite as well known as some of his other works, but it should be! This retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche illustrates Lewis’s assertion 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.” As we read one woman’s diatribe against the gods, Lewis explores themes of beauty, jealousy, longing, and theodicy.

Always Going to Recommend

This is the book that got me into fantasy:

Image result for the lion the watch and the wardrobe book cover

I have reread The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, and all The Chronicles of Narnia, every couple years since first reading them at the age of 7 or 8. Every time I do, I get something new out of them. Read it as a charming story about children having adventures in a world of talking animals and mythological beings…and then read it for the “deep magic” where Lewis supposes “there was a world like Narnia and supposing, like ours, it needed redemption, let us imagine what sort of Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection Christ would have there.” This is the place to start when you read The Chronicles of Narnia (don’t go with the new chronological ordering).

Own It But Haven’t Read

So many books, so little time…

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake has been languishing on my shelf for a few years now. I have seen the gothic Gormenghast series described as a masterpiece on par with other seminal fantasy works, and I have seen it described as tediously over-descriptive and depressing. I don’t always mind lengthy low-action character-driven works (see final entry below), so one of these days I’m going to give this a shot!

Would Read It Again

More like “have read it again, multiple times” for most of the fantasy books I really enjoy…

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion Wooden Book Cover Wall image 0

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien doesn’t resonate with most people like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but after a couple attempts I now love it! Sure, the tone is more like reading ancient mythology than a novel, the plethora of similar sounding names can be confusing at first, and most of the storylines don’t have happy endings. Tolkien’s language-nerd side ran away with him a bit on this one, but this sweeping history covering thousands of years emphasizes that there is courage, nobility, and beauty even in the midst of (often self-wrought) tragedy…and it provides amazing backstory that enriches LOTR if you’re willing to make the connections.

In Another World

So, pretty much anything that isn’t urban fantasy or alternate history?

Image result for The Black Company Cover

The Black Company by Glen Cook kicks off the series that helped define the dark fantasy sub-genre. Rather than “rogues with a heart of gold,” the men of the Black Company are true mercenaries. They aren’t always completely heartless, but they are pretty amoral as their primary goals are to survive and to get paid (and sometimes that means making sure that their world survives the machinations of powerful magic-wielders). I don’t like to read this kind of fantasy all the time, but it’s an interesting change of pace and I intend to go back through the whole series at some point.

Back on Earth

Hardcover Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Book

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrelby Susanna Clarke reads like a fantasy novel written by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens after they had read On Fairy Stories by J. R. R. Tolkien. It is set mostly in England during the era of the Napoleonic Wars and has elements of alternate history and old fairy tales (where the fairies are neither particularly nice, nor sane). The character-driven plot is slow and meandering with extensive footnotes that offer snippets of this England’s grand history of fairy magic. Some people find it tedious, but it’s one of my favorite books.

I Tag:

Heroism, Greed, & Betrayal

Title: The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun
Authors: J. R. R. Tolkien
Editor/Commentator: Christopher Tolkien
Genre: Narrative Poetry (plus tedious commentary)
Pages: 377
Rating: 4.5 of 5

J. R. R. Tolkien’s description of Norse poetry is that it “aims at seizing a situation, striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning…” In this retelling of the tragic Volsung/Rhinegold legends Tolkien’s terse, alliterative poetry does just that. He interweaves strands from The Poetic Edda, The Prose Edda, The Volsung Saga, and The Nibelungenlied, smoothing out discrepancies while adding a few elements of his own invention.

Tolkien’s most interesting innovation is providing Sigurd the dragon-slayer with a “special function.” For all of Tolkien’s insistence that he prefers the pagan, pre-Christian version of the story, he gives Sigurd some elements of a Messianic/Christ character that are not present in the original:

If in the day of Doom
one deathless stand
who death hath tasted
and dies no more
the serpent-slayer
seed of Odin
then all shall not end
nor earth perish.

(cf.And I will put enmity between thee [the serpent/Satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) and “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8b) and “I [Jesus] am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” (Revelation 1:18))

The copious explanatory notes by Christopher Tolkien are an oddly organized jumble that cover plot, vocabulary, use and alteration of sources, and possible historical origins of the legends. If you are already acquainted with the Volsung stories these notes can be a bit tedious and repetitive, but they contain some interesting elements and may be of help to someone new to the Volsung legends.

Despite Christopher’s rambling notes, this is one of my favorite books. This tragic tale of heroism, greed, and betrayal illuminated by the flashing lightning of Tolkien’s poetry takes the reader on an intense journey back to the heroic age.

Speak of the devil…

The Devil Aspect: A Novel by [Russell, Craig]Title: The Devil Aspect
Author: Craig Russell
Genre: Psychological Horror
Pages: 414
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Psychiatrist Viktor Kosárek believes that horrific criminal behavior is caused by the “devil aspect,” a dark facet of human nature present in everyone to some degree. His new appointment to the Hrad Orlu Asylum allows him to study Europe’s most infamous violent criminals: the “The Devil’s Six.”

The story drips with atmosphere. The asylum is a sinister castle (an Elizabeth Bathory-like nobleman figures in its past) in 1930’s Czechoslovakia (Nazis casting covetous eyes on the Sudetenland) with a serial killer known as Leather Apron on the loose in Prague. The plot splits its focus between the hunt for Leather Apron and Viktor’s sessions with each of the Devil’s Six as he attempts to isolate the “devil aspect.” Add a sprinkling of Slavic mythology, and chilling, gory details abound.

As much as I appreciated the atmosphere, this was only a 3.5 for me. Some of the Devil’s Six material (chilling as it was) felt like it contributed little to the plot. The pacing was slow until the end which was rushed and unsurprising (the foreshadowing of Leather Apron’s identity was fairly obvious much too early in the book). I was also very annoyed by the final coda as it eliminated a certain intriguing ambiguity. Overall, this is worth reading if you are a fan of psychological horror, but I feel like it could have been a lot better in terms of plot & pacing.

Even Better as an Audiobook

Title: Norse Mythology
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Mythology
Pages: 293
Rating: 5 of 5!

Last year this was one of my favorite books of the year. I’m not going to repeat my praise since you can find the original review here, but I want to highly recommend the audiobook version (as read by Neil Gaiman himself). Some people find the style of this book disappointing since it very much copies the simplistic Norse style found in the Prose Edda. What may come off a bit childish in print for those unused to the style works brilliantly in the audiobook! These stories were originally passed along orally from generation to generation and listening to a master storyteller like Gaiman spin them anew gives a feeling of being part of that grand tradition. We listened to this in the car on the way back from our (successful) house hunting trip in Michigan, and everyone in the family loved it (beware a few crass bits and discreet references to seduction/lovemaking if listening with young children).

Gods & Heroes

Title: The Poetic Edda
Translator: Lee Hollander
Genre: (mostly Narrative) Poetry
Pages: 357
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Ever since being exposed to tales of Thor, Loki, Odin, Sigurd, Fafnir, Brunhilde, and so forth in My Bookhouse children’s books, I’ve enjoyed Norse Mythology. When I started trying to find the original (or at least oldest recorded) versions of the stories, I discovered that Norse prose is pretty dull in translation…then I discovered the far more interesting Norse poetry, and this book collects the best of it. This is my “Reread a Favorite Classic” entry over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

This poetry covers subject matter ranging from Norse cosmology to squabbles among the gods to the Volsung stories (Sigurd the dragon slayer, Brynhilde, the Rhinegold, etc.). I found some of the didactic poems a bit tedious, though some did give interesting insight into Viking culture (the Hávamál is basically a Viking book of Proverbs). The narrative lays in all their humor, heroism, tragedy, and brutality more than made up for any tedious bits…and who doesn’t want to read about cross-dressing Thor (Thrymskvida), Loki getting in an insult contest with the rest of the gods (Lokasenna), and the final showdown at Ragnarok (Völuspá)?

Lee Hollander’s translation is a challenging, but enjoyable read. He gives priority to maintaining the original meter and alliteration, which may mean that his rendering is a bit more functional (thought-for-thought) than formal (word-for-word). Personally, I prefer this approach in translated ancient poetry as long as the translator isn’t changing the intent/meaning of the original poet. It was written in a certain meter and/or alliteration and/or rhyme scheme and that is how I would like to read it!

The rhythm and alliteration take some getting used to, some of the words used in the translation are archaic, and the poets sometimes assume that you already know the basic story (especially in the bits about the Volsungs), but it is well worth the effort. There is so much more passion, sorrow, and artistry in the poetry than the plain prose versions.

Perfect Retelling

Title: Norse Mythology
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Mythology
Pages: 293
Rating: 5 of 5!

I like to read mythology, and Norse mythology is my favorite. However, I usually prefer to read from old sources rather than retellings (The Poetic Edda is one of my top 10 books). I was especially leery of this book since the last Norse retelling I read (Loki by Mike Vasich) was pretty disappointing. I needn’t have worried; Gaiman was brilliant! He didn’t try to do anything clever and edgy or push some kind of agenda. He just told the stories of the Eddas in his own words, arranging and tweaking them only enough to add some consistency/coherence.

His style was similar to that of the Prose Edda with fairly basic sentence structure, relatively limited vocabulary, and humor that was by turns dry and 8-year-old-laugh-at-fart-jokes immature. Gaiman’s skill as an author makes the prose less plodding /dull than the actual Edda while still sounding like you are sitting in the longhouse listening to Vikings retell their favorite stories. I absolutely loved it and hope that he does the same thing with the Volsung Saga.