Posts Tagged ‘Books To Buy’

shika2

“He sleeps beneath the lake,
The dragon child,
But he will wake
And spread his wings again,
When the deer’s child comes.”

Sounds so peaceful, right? Pastoral, almost.

But the Tale of Shikanoko is a bloody game of thrones inspired by medieval Japan and told in riveting, heartbreaking fashion.

About :

If you haven’t read book I or at least my review of book I, my recap of the plot won’t make much sense because there’s sooo much going in this series. Lian Hearn’s spare style allows for constant action, and the politics of the large cast is fairly complex, so if I try to recap every important plot line, my entire review will be one long recap and you won’t need to read the book anymore!

But here’s the short version of volumes 1-2:

An impostor prince sits on the Lotus throne and the Heavens take out their vengeance on all as the true emperor hides his identity from his scheming enemies. Shikanoko, The Deer’s Child of the prophecy, retreats to the magician Shisoku to mend his broken deer mask, following a humbling magical defeat by the Prince Abbot. While there, his heart softens toward a dangerous new threat, the five Spider Tribe demon children birthed by the Lady Tora. But despite the chaos all around him, all Shikanoko can think about is the true child emperor and his guardian, the lovely Autumn Princess…Autumn Princess, Dragon Child is an adult fantasy written by Lian Hearn and published June 7th 2016 by FSG Originals. Paperback, 288 pages.

Thoughts :

“The Tale of Shikanoko” series contains four volumes, but it’s really one long story published in four installments. FSG Originals published all four in quick succession in 2016. I read the first installment back in August 2016, so I worried about keeping track of the large cast after so many months; but with a little patience and piecing together, I was able to pick up the story again. I do, however, recommend reading them all within a shorter space of time than I did.

As in volume one, the main form of currency in volume two is power. Although the women vary in motivation and personality, the men all ruthlessly take power to protect themselves and their own families and tend to blend together to some degree. (I felt the same way about the genders in Across the Nightingale Floor, Tales of the Otori #1; but my antipathy toward the bland male characters in that earlier book was much stronger. I do find the characters in The Tale of Shikanoko much more interesting, as a whole, as well as finding the larger plot and style much improved.) But Hearn has a way of changing my mind about seemingly-irredeemable primary and secondary characters. I always end up caring about them by the end.

Shikanoko’s character develops in particularly interesting ways. His defeat at the end of book one broke him, and during the course of book two, he starts to grow from used child to adult warrior/sorcerer. His new humility proves to be a strength, by the end of this volume. His character development is one of my favorite things about the story.

Each volume ends with a monumental choice by Shikanoko—usually a combination of glorious victory and terrible mistake—and each time this poignant victory/defeat has made me eager to to pick up the next installment (although I didn’t get the chance to do that after volume one). Many readers have concluded that combining Shika’s story into one large volume would have made more sense, since the four small volumes (all well under 300 pgs, extremely short for adult fantasy) have very little in the way of self-contained plots. But regardless of this publishing model, the story is just as compelling in one or four volumes.

Overall :

So far The Tale of Shikanoko series is very dark and very adult, nothing like what I remember from Across the Nightingale Floor. I’m completely hooked!

Plot: 3.5/5
Characters: 4/5
Writing: 5/5
Worldbuilding: 4/5

****4/5 STARS

Recommended To :

If you enjoy literary fantasy and Asian settings (specifically feudal Japan, in this case), I highly recommend this series. Not recommended to readers wanting fast, action-oriented or “magic-systems” fantasy; though the spare, impactful style never wastes a word, the tale’s emphasis on character and political machinations leaves little room for action or humor. And although magic exists and influences the story in interesting ways, it remains completely mysterious to readers, used for atmospheric and structural elements.

The opinions I share are completely my own and in no way compensated for by publishers or authors. Thank you so much to Lian Hearn, FSG Originals and Netgalley for my free review copy! I loved it.

BookBurners

“‘How bad can it be? I’ve never seen a demon attack on the news.’

‘People disappear all the time. All over the world…Lost legions. Lost cities. Have you ever heard of the town of Colebridge, New York?’

‘No.’

‘Exactly.’”

About :

NYPD detective Sally Brooks walks into her apartment one day to find that her techie younger brother, Perry, has come for a surprise visit—needing her help, as usual. This time Perry’s brought a strange book with him, the source of his latest troubles.

Things just get stranger when the Bookburners kick down Sal’s front door, demanding the mysterious book. They arrive too late to save Perry from opening the book and releasing a destructive power from inside.

Next thing Sal knows, her brother is hospitalized and comatose and she’s chasing down demon-possessed books of power with the same team who tried to save her brother. Her new team, the Societas Librorum Occultorum, works for the Vatican by containing the threats posed by magical artifacts. Sal wants in—if only to find some way to save her brother. Bookburners is an adult urban fantasy collection of serials, hardcover, 800 pages. Published January 31st 2017 by Saga Press. Authored by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty & Brian Francis Slattery.

Thoughts :

I first heard about Bookburners in a Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine review, and though I was interested in it, I couldn’t afford to pay $1.99 per episode (season one has 16 episodes) because I didn’t have a job at the time. But soon after that, I heard about Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence books and immediately fell hard for the humor, worldbuilding and characters. So I was pretty stoked when I heard that Saga Press was releasing a collected volume of all sixteen episodes in season one. I’m happy to report that season one easily lived up to my atmospheric expectations. If you pick up this collection, get ready to kick some demon butt with the Bookburners!

I love the premise of the worldbuilding: that books can be a window to the dangerous and mysterious world of demon magics and the Vatican protects the world from said dangers. Each episode has a full arc dealing with a new demonic or magical threats, and it never fails to deal moments of genuine urban fantasy “cool factor.” Whether it’s possessed restaurant owners, deal-making machines that steal knowledge from your mind or hand-drawn “tornado eaters” come to life, I guarantee you’ll enjoy the imagination of these four top notch authors. Some episodes also really hit home emotionally. One of my favorite episodes is Big Sky by Slattery, which is set in the US and just so moving. It feels like a western tall tale. As Sal walks through a small town Oklahoma in search of a mysterious pulse of magic, she reflects on the homey scene:

It was all so recognizable to Sal. She didn’t have a general theory about people—she’d seen a little too much for that—but if someone had forced her to give one, it would have ben that most people don’t ask that much from their lives. They want a roof over their heads, a job that isn’t too terrible, a couple of days off to relax now and again. If they have kids, they want to do okay by them. That’s about it.”

It’s an emotional moment for the cop, who doesn’t get to see this side of life in her line of work.

The writing feels a little choppy in the very beginning episodes (especially if you’re breathlessly anticipating Max Gladstone’s word perfect “Craft Sequence” humor, as I was), but it quickly smoothes out and regardless I enjoyed every episode very much.

Perhaps most interesting to me about the world of Bookburners is the debate among the characters over how to handle the magic: use it or destroy it? Magic is clearly dangerous, but what if it could be harnessed? Can it be harnessed? The religious members feel so genuine in their convictions, and the secular debaters pose equally strong arguments. It’s a hot topic in this urban fantasy world and I enjoyed seeing it bandied about among the characters.

‘Information is like a contagion. It spreads. Your employers do an admirable job controlling that, but they aren’t the only players in the game. As much as they might want to eliminate the knowledge and use of magic completely, not every vector can be silenced.’”

I love how Max Gladstone engineers all his work to be full of secrets, questions and conflicting opinions, a mirror of life itself. It reminds me of Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings quote, “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” I love it when an author can channel that into their storytelling—and make it cool! [Also, highlight to view SPOILERY discussion: Even though Sal’s new team keeps emphasizing how much they trust each other in spite of their differences of opinion, I keep wondering if any of them are going to split over the issue of whether to use magic or destroy it, perhaps with Asanti and Sal forming a splinter group. That would be nuts! But I could see it happening! I don’t know how I’m going to wait to read season two, ahhh!]

And speaking of characters, everyone gets their own full, fascinating arc throughout the season, and often an episode laser-focuses on one or two characters. I especially fret over poor, damaged Liam, a studdly gym rat with a history of demon possession and a rocky, but fervent lifeline in the church. The conflicts surrounding him have hugely personal stakes (and he does tend to attract ALL THE DRAMA, lol), although Grace, the kick-butt ninja of the team has her own crazy magical secrets and is a very close second favorite…and Father Menchú, now there’s a cool priest…you know what, they’re all awesome. Forget I said anything about favorites.

Overall :

Fantastic and I can’t wait for season 2. We will get a compilation of season two, right? Pretty please?!

Recommended To :

Readers looking for a fresh take on the demon hunters trope.

4.5/5 STARS

The Shaod, it was called. The Transformation. It struck randomly—usually at night, during the mysterious hours when life slowed to a rest. The Shaod could take beggar, craftsman, nobleman, or warrior. When it came, the fortunate person’s life ended and began anew; he would discard his old, mundane existence, and move to Elantris. Elantris, where he could live in bliss, rule in wisdom, and be worshipped for eternity.

Eternity ended ten years ago.”

A lot has changed in the decade since Elantris fell: the Shaod transformation has become a curse; a militant religion called Shu-Dereth has risen in Arelon’s theocratic neighboring country, Fjorden; and almost every nation has fallen to the Fjordell Empire. Now only Arelon and Teod stand free.

Prince Raoden of Arelon betroths himself to Sarene, the princess of Teod, hoping to create an alliance against Fjorden. But his plans change, suddenly, when the Shaod descends on him and his parents, the king and queen of Arelon, secretly exile him to the rotting city of Elantris.

A short time later, Princess Sarene steps off her ship from Teod into Arelon’s capital city of Kae, only to find herself a “widow” to the “deceased” prince Raoden. However, never one to waste an opportunity, she uses her new station and powerful personality to begin digging into the diseased heart of the crumbling kingdom, searching for strength necessary to keep her new home safe from Fjordell.

Meanwhile, Hrathen, a Derethi priest from Fjordell, plots domination of Arelon as he also arrives in Kae—and his plotting involves the Elantrians. Elantris is adult Fantasy authored by Brandon Sanderson and published 2005 by Tor.

Thoughts:

It took about two seconds for the mystery of Elantris to grab me. Who were the Elantrians? What happened to them? Could their sickness be cured? The characters work to answer these questions in different ways.

In fact, the three main narrators maintain a continuous duel of wits, throughout most of the book, hoping to reach their own ends before the others can stop them. It’s difficult to express just how fun a conniving dance of a novel like this can be, but let’s start with the cursed Prince Raodan.

Raoden makes it his goal to discover the secret behind the Elantrian curse. It’s almost like an Undercover Boss moment, for him, when he realizes how the city next door has been suffering during his parents’ reign. I loved following him around Elantris as he brought small, but clever changes that made all the difference to the Elantrian standard of living. Raoden uses his curse to solve problems constantly, and it’s just so much fun to read! For example, at one point he needs to escape the guarded walls of Elantris. He knows of a river that runs under the city to Kae, so he takes advantage of the fact that he can’t die: he holds his breath and lets the river drag him, underwater, to freedom.

Now is that clever or what? And all this while plotting to thwart Sarene’s and Hrathen’s plans for the city of Elantris and keep his old identity a secret from everyone around him.

Sarene comes up with equally clever plans to destroy the power of a certain Derethi priest from Fjordell (hrm hrm, Hrathen). If Hrathen wants the people to hate the Elantrians, Shallan will start a food drive for those poor souls. If he wants a certain noble sympathizer to topple the king, no problem, she’ll marry someone else to give her own sympathizer a step up over the competition.

I seriously love this chick.

These characters pull the best tricks on each other, but Gyorn Hrathen might be the most conniving of the three. To him

Elantrians represented the ultimate flaw of human arrogance: they had set themselves up as gods. Their hubris had earned their fate. In another situation, Hrathen would have been content in leaving them to their punishment

However, he happened to need them.”

All three really came alive, for me, with their clear motivations and proactivity. Occasionally Sanderson would “tell” a character’s feelings, instead of showing them, but even in the “telling,” their motivations felt so truthful.

While I did enjoy the setup of all these tensions, the pacing does drag, at times. I think the biggest reason for this drag has to do with the questions about Elantris. We wonder about the Elantrians from page one, but it takes a long time to start getting answers. I raced through the pages when Raoden made a discovery, or a big plot twist happened. But other times, I was just plugging along to get on to the good stuff. A few other, smaller things contribute to this. For example…it’s a little maddening that Raoden won’t just tell Sarene his identity! Also, it took me some time to get into Hrathen’s POV, although he really came alive before the end.

My only other beefs with this book have to do with the ending, which feels a little rushed. First of all, Raoden’s mother sort of disappears. [Highlight to view SPOILER: What about her heroic death? Why isn’t she buried with honor near the king and Hrathen?? Did Sanderson just forget about her or something?] But Queen Eshen feels slightly shell-like, to me, anyway. I mean, what mother wouldn’t tear down even the walls of Elantris to reach her sick son?!? Other than that, I just have a few unanswered questions that I’m hoping might find answers in book II or Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection. [Highlight to view SPOILER: What “possesses” Hrathen, near the end? And where do the Fjordens get their power? Through a corruption of the Dor?]

Overall :

Fantastic debut. Absorbing mystery, compelling characters and a world that I would love to explore in further books.

Characters: 4.5/5
Plot: 3.5/5
Worldbuilding: 5/5
Writing: 3.5/5

****4/5 STARS

Recommended To :

Anyone who already loves Brandon Sanderson will enjoy Elantris. It’s also a great place to start with him, being a standalone, although I would recommend other works (*ahem* The Way of Kings *ahem*) as even better starting places, since they’re more polished than Elantris. Anyone looking for a really original fantasy with fleshed-out characters, cultures and religions will enjoy this novel.

Truth can never be defeated, Sarene. Even if people do forget about it occasionally.”

Have you read any great standalones lately?

waer

“I forced myself to accept his help. I needed to regain my strength. I had not escaped Caerwyn to just like down and die.”

About :

Young waer Lowell Sencha and his family live in the sheltered, idyllic Gwyndhan Valley, where they can shift into and out of their wolf forms without fear of persecution from the prejudiced blood-purists residing in other parts of Oster.

But when a wounded female waer named Lycaea washes up on the shores of the valley river, everything changes. Lowell helps the renowned healer Moth Derry care for Lycaea until, suddenly, a powerful blood purist attacks the valley in a frenzied hunt for the waer girl. The two women convince Lowell to travel to Lycaea’s home-city of Luthan to gather allies against the blood purists. Debut standalone YA Fantasy by Australian author Meg Caddy, a personal mentee of Juliet Marillier. Waer was published March 1st 2016 by Text Australia and available in the US on Book Depository. Shortlisted for the Text Prize.

Thoughts :

In the tradition of Juliet Marillier, Caddy brings a legend to life and surrounds it with a lush world of tradition, travel and diverse cultures. Readers journey with the characters through the lands of Oster, discovering mythology, new terrain and the ins and outs of shape-shifting.

‘There are waer in the southern desert, near where Dodge Derry comes from. But they are…different from us.’

‘How?’

‘Much bigger, and more savage. They do not cook their kills, they take meat raw. And some other are not…born waer.’”

I wish I could quote half the book to you, just to prove how wonderful the travel-writing is; but rest assured, I got lost in this world and you will, too, if you read Waer. One of my favorite things about the worldbuilding is how tenderly Caddy builds Lowell’s shape-change religion (and, later, challenges it and everything it means to Lowell).

I burned a sprig of rosemary in the candle, and let the ashes fall into the water in homage to Freybug, born from a rosemary bush. Finally, I blew out the candle, sipped from the bowl and trickled some of the water over the stranger’s brow. It was a bitter brew, but all elements of life joined in the water. Drinking it was a giving of thanks.”

And the characters! If Tamora Pierce wrote in first person, she might write characters like these. Lycaea is a prickly new shape-changer. She has a complicated relationship with her Waer form, but luckily for her, Lowell, a believably perceptive and wholesome country boy, understands this.

It was clear to me from the beginning that she had her own distaste for our people, complicated by the fact she was one of us.”

Caddy develops the characters well enough that they have actual fights about things that matter. I wish I could quote one for you, but as with the travel scenes, it’s probably better if you experience them in the context of the story.

As for the plot, the twists didn’t surprise me, but Caddy still uses the main one effectively as a psychological expression of Lycaea’s internal struggles. And although one character is clearly a convenient plot device, the writing, characters and worldbuilding far outweigh an any problems with the fast-paced and straight-forward plot, especially for such a young author with her debut.

I just had such an emotional, immersive experience with this book, I can’t seem to care about anything else!

Overall :

What a fabulous surprise! This is exactly what I want, when I pick up a YA Fantasy. It’s so nice when YA—which has so much potential for emotionally impactful coming-of-age fantasies—gets the details right. I love everything about this book. An ungrudging five stars for Waer!

Recommended To :

Fans of Juliet Marillier, Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley. At the risk of sounding like the complete fangirl I am, I would say, were J. R. R. Tolkien writing in the modern YA field, he would write something like Waer. I can’t wait for my birthday, so I can buy this for my personal library. And when it becomes available on Amazon, I’ll be getting it for the teen section at my work! I can’t wait for Meg Caddy to publish something else!! Hurryhurryhurry….

Thank you so much to Meg Caddy, Text Publishing and Netgalley for my e-galley of Waer.

*****5/5 BRILLIANT STARS

In the last year or so, I’ve found myself hopelessly addicted to mysteries—mostly of the Pre-WWII or Victorian Era variety, both of which are normally tame enough for my bed time reading, but clever enough to keep me interested. Here are two of my favorites:

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

A middle-aged spinster—for I was at that time thirty-two years of age, and I scorned to disguise the fact—who has never received a proposal of marriage must be a simpleton if she fails to recognize the sudden acquisition of a fortune as a factor in her new popularity.

When her shockingly rich father dies, Amelia Peabody adroitly dances from the reach of her grasping relatives and suitors by taking the course of any self-respecting self-proclaimed Victorian spinster: touring Egypt with her friends. There, she finds enough adventure to satisfy even her demanding expectations. But traveling as an independent woman comes with dangers, especially in a land so full of ancient secrets as Egypt. Victorian Era Mystery, First published 1975.

So, let’s start with the fact that I supremely enjoyed this book.

I’ve known about the series for a long time and knew I wanted to read it—partly because it’s set in Egypt, partly because I’ve developed an affinity for old mysteries, and partly because so many library patrons love it.

But this book is refreshingly funny.

Piero was not silent when I first encountered him, in the lobby of the hotel, where, in common with others of his kind, he awaited the travel of helpless foreign visitors in need of a translator and guide…. He expressed his chagrin to his compatriot in his native tongue, and included in his tirade several personal comments on my appearance and manner. I let him go on for some time and then interrupted with a comment on his manners…After that, Piero and I got on admirably.

Surprisingly, delightfully humorous. I didn’t expect that.

Although the book purports to be a mystery, the mystery element doesn’t assert itself very strongly until the second half of the book; even then, the reveal is not a surprise, nor is it the most important aspect of the story. The book’s real charms lie in the characters, particularly in how Amelia herself, the anti-Victorian lady, interacts with and perceives others. The mystery element is only slightly stronger than the elements of social satire and romance.

At any rate, I think most mystery readers enjoy this because even if they solve the mystery early on, they’ll read on just to enjoy the banter. If you like the social satire of Jane Austen and Gail Carriger, you’ll enjoy this book.

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Harriet returns to Oxford for a school reunion, but soon after her arrival, she receives a nasty prank letter—apparently, a prankster has been tormenting the students and staff for months. Harriet discreetly sleuths around campus until the pranks turn ugly; only then will she call Lord Peter to help her find the culprit. Pre-WWII Period Mystery, 1935

So, that’s the premise…but that’s not really what this book is about. The brilliant plot illuminates the real story, here: Harriet’s psychological journey. This story is really about Harriet coming to terms with the events of book 6 in this series (wherein she is tried for the murder of her awful former lover), which is, in turn, a necessary step in finally answering the advances of her paramour, the famed sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. The mystery explores Harriet’s psyche in a dazzling fashion new to Sayers.

Sayers’s other Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries explore the psychology of the criminals (as does this one), but this novel delves deeply into the mind and soul of the protagonist herself. (Peter, the usual protagonist of the Sayers mysteries, is examined from afar. Other books only occasionally probe his psychology with any depth.)

I adore the pitch-perfect tone and voice of all Sayers’s work, this book included. I have always loved Sayers’ dialogue and the way she plays with her readers’ expectations, but Gaudy Night truly perfects the art.

At first, Harriet and her uppity college friends irritated me—they were so judgmental and bitter! But this reaction became an integral part of the story [Highlight to read SPOILER: as part of what motivates the antagonist]. Sayers explores the theme of “women in modern society” throughout the book, and the cloistered atmosphere of the women’s college is a very important element to both the mystery and the exploration of Harriet’s psychology.

Of course I highly recommend this book to anyone. I love it. I love the whole series. But I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you start with Gaudy Night, if you’re reading the series for the first time. I would recommend starting with book #6, Strong Poison, because of the charming protagonist we find in Lord Peter Wimsey, the stellar mystery and the added bonus of an unattainable love interest. (It introduces the character of Harriet, for the first time.)

I love them all and I think you will, too.

The-Blue-Sword

If I were marketing a new edition of this book (*hint hint, publishers*), I would only half-jokingly market it as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park meets Alanna The Lioness: The First Adventure.

Premise :

Harry Crewe, an orphan, lives on the charity of an upper-class Homelander family in the desert country of Damar. But when the king of a native, magical Hillfolk population senses with his “kelar” magic that Harry will be important to his people, he spirits her away to his desert tribe.

Harry soon exceeds the Hillfolk king’s expectations by developing a military skill that marks her a symbol of hope for the downtrodden Hillfolk. To them, she becomes known as “Harimad-sol,” a legend in the making, and among them she finds purpose she never found among the Homelanders. When the King declares her a king’s rider and gifts her with the legendary blue sword of Lady Aerin, Harry carries it to war for her adopted country.

High Fantasy, first published 1982, winner of Newbery Honor (1983), Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award Nominee (1988) & Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (1984).

My library has copies of The Blue Sword in both the children’s section and the adult sf/f section; but if this book were published today, it would probably be marketed as YA, even though it doesn’t feel like modern YA (kind of like Sabriel by Garth Nix doesn’t feel quite like YA). It would also probably have more romance and less of a European feel.

As is, it appeals as much to adult-me as I think it would have to teenaged-me.

The Plot :

The first few chapters start slowly, but the writing is so lovely, I didn’t mind a bit. The plot fits nicely within the Hero’s Journey/Quest plot, except that it’s about a girl, instead of a guy. I love the “training” portions of the novel, since those often get skipped, in modern YA Fantasies.

The Worldbuilding :

The worldbuilding is a delightful mix of Victorian English, almost-American-western and middle eastern societies, as impossible as that sounds. The Homelanders have civil servants, rickety trains and fabulously fresh orange juice, and they spend their time hosting fancy dinners with the militia to find eligible mates for their daughters. Meanwhile the conquered Hillfolk, a clan-like desert people, live in the real world where wars and magic and concerns over a dwindling population take precedence.

It’s quite a fun world.

The subtle “kelar” magic reminds me of The Lord of the Rings. Nobody knows how the magic works, exactly; it just does. It appears to be more of an uncontrollable, fates-driven thing than an ability.

The Characters :

There’s so much to love about Harry Crewe. She’s my very favorite kind of protagonist—one who is complex and compelling, but also very good. She’s a heroine not just because she’s skilled, capable and loyal, but because she has a mind of her own and accepts responsibility for her own choices without complaint. She doesn’t expect the world to be fair; she just does her best to make it better.

She reminds me so, so much of Keladry in Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series.

Modern heroes and heroines are often flawed, but Harry proves that “good” doesn’t have to mean “simple,” “boring” or “formulaic,” just as “flawed” doesn’t always mean “complex.”

The Style :

The Blue Sword deemphasizes voice in favor of worldbuilding, a technique I love. McKinley’s unaffected, genteel and lightly humorous third person objective narration is, I think, more difficult than the more far more common and subjective “third person limited” and “first person” narratives that populate YA today. A lot of older Fantasies seem more adept at this technique; perhaps the style was more popular, then.

Recommendation :

The Blue Sword won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I would HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend this book for fans of Tamora Pierce, Rosemary Sutcliff and Cinda Williams Chima. (Also, possibly fans of Sherwood Smith. I haven’t tried her, yet, but she sounds promising.) Anyone who just wants a good story.

I’m already rereading it and enjoying the lush worldbuilding all over again. It’s no wonder Robin McKinley’s books have survived and thrived decades after they were written.

Do you know any great books like this one? If you have any recommendations for me, please tell me in the comments!

Premise:

T. H. White retells the Arthurian epic with a modern touch. King Arthur attempts to use “Force, the metal illness of humanity” for human good, creating an age of chivalry that will one day come again. Published 1958, considered the literary pinnacle of the fantasy genre.

About:

T. H White actually wrote five books about King Arthur, but only four of them were published together in The Once and Future King. The Book of Merlyn was published later, in 1977. So my copy of The Once and Future King contains The Sword in the Stone (upon which the Disney movie was based, delightful humor and all), The Queen of Air and Darkness (a much darker book about life in the Middle Ages before the Round Table), The Ill-Made Knight (a book about the glorious Round Table and its darling knight, Lancelot), and The Candle in the Wind (about King Arthur, in his weary old age, as his Round Table falls about him in ruins).

What I Liked:

(1) Book I. All of it. It’s adorable, hilarious fun (Merlyn is…so funny. And The Wart is adorable), and it really brings the Middle Ages to life, especially for children. My favorite joust in all of literature:

“The knights had now lost their tempers and the battle was joined in earnest. It did not matter much, however, for they were so encased in metal that they could not do each other much damage. It took them so long to get up, and the dealing of a blow when you weighed the eighth part of a ton was such a cumbrous business, that every stage of the contest could be marked and pondered.”

(2) The whole book really enlivens the Middle Ages in humorous, detailed ways:

“The Dark and Middle Ages! The Nineteenth Century had an impudent way with its labels.”

“Did you know that in these dark ages which were visible from Guenever’s window, there was so much decency in the world that the Catholic Church could impose a peace to all their fighting—which it called The Truce of God—and which lasted from Wednesday to Monday, as well as during the whole of Advent and Lent? Do you think they, with their Battles, Famine, Black Death and Serfdom, were less enlightened than we are, with our Wards, Blockade, Influenza and Conscription?”

(3) T. H. White manages to humanize everyone, especially King Arthur, Queen Guenever and the knight Lancelot, despite their questionable decisions and outright mistakes. Arthur, despite his preoccupation with justice, prefers to overlook the affair between his wife and Lancelot. Lancelot, despite his preoccupation with holiness, cannot keep himself from the queen. And the queen herself?

“People are easily dazzled by Round Tables and feats of arms. You read of Lancelot in some noble achievement and, when he comes home to his mistress, you feel resentment at her because she cuts across the achievement, or spoils it. Yet Guenever could not search for the Grail. She could not vanish into the English forest for a year’s adventure with the spear. It was her part to sit at home, though passionate, though real and hungry in her fierce and tender heart. For her there was no recognized diversions except what is comparable to the ladies’ bridge party of today. She could hawk with a merlin, or play blind man’s buff, or pince-merille. These were the amusements of grown-up women in her time. But the great hawks, the hounds, heraldry tournaments—these were for Lancelot. For her, unless she felt like a little spinning or embroidery, there was no occupation—except Lancelot.”

What I Didn’t Like:

(1) I didn’t enjoy book II or think it necessary. It drags, it’s dark, and most of it seems unnecessary. The point of it is to humanize “the Orkney faction” while Arthur, Lancelot and Merlyn conceive of the idea of “the Round Table.” But mostly, it’s a lot of unpleasant or boring episodic “showing” that could have been condensed into a few scenes. (2) King Arthur’s questions, the questions asked by the whole book, get only very vague answers, at least to my understanding. The thematic questions are mainly these: (a) Why does humanity fight and go to war? (b) How can we stop ourselves from doing so?

His solution appears to be that humanity must rid itself of political boundaries.

“The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to [the birds], and would to Man if he could learn to fly.” OH, OH, and also EDUCATION! “The hope of making [the new round table] would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.”

I don’t really mind the vagueness of the dear king’s answer to his own troubling questions; perhaps his are the best humanist answers. And the book is too lovely for me to really mind; the answers aren’t the point, after all. Fortunately, this little piece of culture (or, rather, big piece of culture, coming in at 639 pages), instructs us in history, empathy and how to laugh at ourselves.

Overall:

I loved this book. Everyone who loves fantasy literature, or wants to read just one account of the Arthurian epics, should read this book.

Recommendation:

Book I is a great kid’s book, in addition to being a fun read for teens and adults. Books II-IV are fine for teens +.

*****5/5 STARS

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