Tag: Arthuriana

My Top Ten “Gateway” Books

  1. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. As with, I suspect, many other people, The Hobbit was my gateway into The Lord of the Rings, a book that, almost uniquely, sits deep in my psyche. And so it was a gateway, too, into a fandom and a way of writing and thinking and into a shared code of story.
  2. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. This was my gateway into feminist thinking, and into serious, weighty literary criticism in general. It showed me what you can do with criticism, the anger you can wield with it and the worlds you can create.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. A gateway into the Gothic, a mode which holds so much interest for me, deep and dark and ambiguous and strange.
  4. The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon. This was the book that made me realise that postmodernism is actually pretty cool, definitely more cool than Modernism.
  5. Havelok the Dane – Anonymous. Havelok the Dane is a thirteenth-century narrative poem about, er, a Dane called Havelok who…invades Britain or something? I can’t even really remember what happens in it. Anyway, I read this a couple of weeks before I started at university, in a vague panic because I didn’t get the reading list when I was supposed to get it, and just being utterly enchanted because it was so Tolkien-y and fairy tale-esque. And it was that that made me choose to study Middle English instead of Old English in my first year, so I got to read lots of other wonderful works like it, including several Arthurian romances, and overall I had a great insight into a literary period that doesn’t get studied very often.
  6. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. This was my first graphic novel, and I couldn’t really have asked for a better introduction. It’s punchy and fearless and full of emotional truth.
  7. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. So this was my gateway into proper grown-up fantasy, really: fantasy in which worldbuilding is metaphor and metaphor is worldbuilding, in which our world is always half-glimpsed in the strangenesses of another one.
  8. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I was quite lucky that this was my first Dickens novel: it’s sentimental and sprawling and right up my street, and it’s why I continue to read Dickens novels. (To be fair, there’s only been one real dud among the ones I’ve read.)
  9. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. This made me properly want to go to university and study things in dusty old libraries.
  10. Steampunk Your Wardrobe – Calista Taylor. I mean, I still haven’t made anything from this book, but it was my first steampunk reference book, so to speak. I now have three, and intend to collect lots more!

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I Didn’t Choose for Myself

  1. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever – Stephen Donaldson. A present from the Resident Grammarian, this is high fantasy, which I really would not have picked out for myself, but its ragged emotional darkness kind of got me.
  2. Paradise Lost – John Milton. This was a university text. It’s fantastic, and surprisingly accessible for a seventeenth-century poetic epic.
  3. Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl. Another one picked by the Resident Grammarian, featuring a bookish and unreliable heroine. Just perfect.
  4. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. The Circumlocutor lent this to me. I love the way Mirlees manages to keep the atmosphere of Faerie alive throughout this strange little book, which is a rare achievement: too often the wonder of fairyland is punctured when you look too closely at its rules.
  5. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. A present from the Circumlocutor and a very clever look at the ways in which science and culture interact and clash.
  6. A Face Like Glass – Frances Hardinge. This was lent to me by a TolkSoc friend who thought I would like it, and I did. Hardinge creates this lush dystopian world in her underground city of Caverna, told in her whimsical, hypnotic prose.
  7. The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro. I actually won this in a giveaway, but I enter giveaways willy-nilly so I didn’t exactly choose for myself. Anyway, it’s a really interesting and heartfelt look at Arthurian mythology.
  8. Persuasion – Jane Austen. I studied this at school: it’s gentle, sad, autumnal, and yet full of Austen’s savage, angry wit.
  9. A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schwab. This was a present from the Circumlocutor. I love the steampunk vibe to it, and the fact that it’s a bit different from most run-of-the-mill fantasy.
  10. Power of Three – Diana Wynne Jones. I just remember being really impressed by this tale when I read it for a Children’s Literature course at university. It starts as a vaguely Celtic story, of a little people living in mounds on the edge of a harsh moor, and widens its perspective until it becomes something quite different.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors So Far in 2016

“Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Because this year has already been great reading-wise.

  1. Becky Chambers. I need the next Wayfarer book. NEED IT NOW.
  2. Kameron Hurley. I loved God’s War and disliked The Mirror Empire, but I do really enjoy what Hurley does with gender and sexuality and race, so I’m interested to read more of her work.
  3. Zen Cho. Again, Cho seems like an author to watch in terms of diverse representation; I want to keep an eye out for her short story collection Spirits Abroad.
  4. Helen Oyeyemi. I love the fairytale influences in her work, and her clever, knowing use of fantastic elements in a way that doesn’t patronise the genre.
  5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m not an enormous fan of literary fiction, but Americanah gave me many, many feels, and was a really interesting book to inhabit for a week or so.
  6. Nnedi Okorafor. I liked Okorafor’s blend of fantastic and science fictional elements in Lagoon, and I’m trying to keep an eye out for her novella Binti as well as The Book of Phoenix.
  7. Kazuo Ishiguro. Another litfic author; The Buried Giant was right up my alley, an Arthurian work that resonates with Middle English epics. I’d like to try Never Let Me Go next.
  8. Ann Leckie. The Ancillary series can’t quite live up to the hype, but they are still properly solid SF novels, well characterised with fascinating politics.
  9. Brian K. Vaughan. I’ve got into graphic novels for the first time this year, and, with the exception of volume 3, Saga has been awesome. I know Vaughan has written a number of other graphic novel series, so they’re high on my list.
  10. Victoria Schwab. I thought A Darker Shade of Magic was a really original and fascinating fantasy with environmental undertones; now I just have to get round to reading the rest of the series!

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Buried Giant

“Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”

Kazuo Ishiguro

This review contains spoilers.

The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel (and by latest, I mean 2015) is refreshingly and unapologetically a Fantasy novel; by which I mean that the fantasy isn’t easily reducible to metaphor, as is the case with much magic realism and “literary” fantasy.

Set in post-Arthurian Britain, it follows Axl and Beatrice, an old couple who set out on a long-delayed journey to visit their son in the next village. This is a greater undertaking than it sounds; for a mist of forgetting lies upon the land, causing mothers to forget children who went missing only a few hours ago, and entire villagers to forget members of their communities who have left. Axl and Beatrice are not, even, one hundred per cent sure that they have a son; they are not sure whether he is married, whether he has children, or even quite where he lives. All they have is a feeling.

Inevitably (for this is a Fantasy story) their quest for personal memory becomes slowly a quest for national memory: to find the source of the mist so that they can remember their lives together and so that others can remember their ties to each other. Along the way, they meet ogres and fiends and monsters and giants and dragons and knights and other strange and mildly disturbing characters.

So there are two obvious traditions on which Ishiguro seems to be drawing: the Arthurian tradition (Axl and Beatrice meet an aged Sir Gawain, with rusted armour and a clapped-out warhorse) and the Tolkienian one. And both of these traditions, of course, are exercises in collective memory: retelling the story of Arthur has always been a nationalistic enterprise, and Tolkien was explicitly trying to create an English mythology, constructed from bits and pieces of Old English and the Homeric legendarium.

My point being that it’s difficult not to read The Buried Giant as a text about mythmaking, about the process of creating collective memories.

It’s a tricky text to write about without reducing it; but it certainly seems to register an ambivalence about the value of memory. There’s a distinction being drawn here, I think, between personal memory and collective memory, which is rather neatly illustrated by one of the novel’s central paradoxes: although it’s written in an archaic, almost stilted, register, one which recalls Middle English Arthurian epics such as Layamon’s Brut and the Alliterative Morte Arthure, both of which are performative texts, texts concerned with public, political life, the core of the novel is a very modern preoccupation with interior lives – more explicitly, the interior lives of two poor, unimportant old people.

With that in mind: the book pulls us in two directions in a way that quite cleverly pulls apart our modern-day focus on individualism. Because we are twenty-first century readers, and because of the way the novel is focused, we care about Axl and Beatrice’s relationship (which is, by the way, gorgeously and hopefully written), we are rooting for them to remember their son and all the events of their lives; but the novel is also very clear that the return of memory to the country will mean war between the Britons and the Saxons who at the moment cohabit peacefully if uneasily. With the mist of forgetting created and upheld by Arthur and later Sir Gawain, the irony of the novel seems to be that the Golden Age of peace supposedly ushered in by King Arthur was in fact a Dark Age; only without Arthur can an Arthurian age be established.

And yet: it is better to remember than forget, and so we, and the characters of the novel, continue our mythmaking.

There’s certainly more to say about The Buried Giant, and I hope to say it; but for now: it is a lovely, powerful book, and I hope you read it.

Top Ten Books for Tolkien-Lovers

“The Written Word is a Fairy, as mocking and elusive as Willy Wisp, speaking lying words to us in a feigned voice. So let all readers of books take warning!”

Hope Mirlees

Now, obviously, there are a lot of terrible Tolkien ripoffs out there. So I’m going to try and stay away from the murky realms of Epic Fantasy (which I don’t much enjoy anyway) and concentrate on the less obvious aspects of Tolkien’s works which you might conceivably want to replicate in your reading experience. (Was that last sentence pretentious enough?)

  1. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever – Stephen Donaldson. “Didn’t you just say you were going to stay away from Epic Fantasy?” Well, yes. But the Covenant series deserves a mention for its existential take on Tolkien, questioning as it does the “reality” of its Middle-earth analogue. A warning, though: Donaldson doesn’t shy away from gore and sexual violence.
  2. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. Lud-in-the-Mist, a novel from the 1920s which has enjoyed something of a renaissance of late, reminds me very much of The Hobbit, both in its slightly facetious narrative voice and in its gentle, ineffable atmosphere of mystery and magic just over the hills.
  3. The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett. It’s absolutely possible to love something and yet to weary of it, and Pratchett’s Discworld series is excellent at deflating the seriousness of Tolkien’s themes without hating on Epic Fantasy or degrading it (yes, Bored of the Rings, I am looking at you). An excellent follow-up to a Tolkien Marathon.
  4. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Something I often forget about The Lord of the Rings is just how good it is at creating place. Tolkien knows every step and stone of his secondary world, and while Peake’s work doesn’t have quite that sense of verisimilitude (I doubt if Gormenghast could ever be mapped even by its inhabitants) it does reproduce that overwhelming atmosphere, that setting-as-character, that to me really characterises the Dead Marshes and Minas Morgul and the Shire.
  5. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory. There is nothing quite like stumbling across the phrase “middle-erth” in a text six hundred years old for generating fangirling. Fans of Tolkien’s archaic, expressive diction will enjoy this – although it might take a while.
  6. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. This is for those who love that grandiose Tolkienian feeling of vast spaces just over the edge of sight, of destinations untold leagues away, of unimaginable sentiences in the dark places of the earth. And for those who love endless, hopeless quests.
  7. The Haunter of the Dark – H.P. Lovecraft. This is really a cultural/historical response to Tolkien, I suppose: Lovecraft was writing roughly at the same time as Tolkien was, and his work seems as Tolkien’s does to speak to the upheavals in the Western psyche that followed the First World War. As China Mieville put it on Crooked Timber: “Tolkien’s is the fantasy of a man murmuring to himself ‘it’s alright, it’s alright’, but not believing it; Lovecraft’s of a man shrieking ‘none of it is alright, nor will it ever be’. Unconvinced forgetting versus psychotic fixation: both are the results of trauma.”
  8. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. Speaking of China Mieville. Perdido Street Station is a novel for those who really want to get their teeth into something with that same richly-imagined sense of place and culture; again, that verisimilitude, that all-encompassing and almost hypnotic reading experience.
  9. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. Another recommendation I’m basing on verisimilitude: Novik is excellent at delineating the social rules of the culture she creates, and adding some fantasy (dragons!) to destabilise it all. (Not that this is really the purpose of Tolkien’s fantasy; but it’s still fun.)
  10. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke. Tolkien was never shy about the fact that he was essentially trying to create the mythology he felt Britain had lost; Clarke’s project in some ways feels quite similar with her brand of very English magic. In the works of neither author is magic to be underestimated or easily dismissed as rational, understandable: in both, deep magic lies in every stone of England.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Classics You Should Read…

“I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.”

T.S. Eliot

…if you’d like to get a general flavour of English Literature Through Time (my opinions only). So, chronological order!

  1. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory (pub. 1485). There’s stuff before this that’s pretty great, but this is probably around the earliest thing you can read without having to learn Middle English. Read for the chivalric romances, which are fairly typical of literature of the time, for the French colouring (lots of French people around in the 1400s), and, of course, for the tricksy, slippery set of stories that is the myth of King Arthur.
  2. The Faerie Queene – Edmund Spenser (first pub. 1590). Or some of it, anyway – it’s approximately a bazillion pages long and quite hard going. Read for the complex allegory and religious overtones, both very common in this period, and Spenser’s rather delightfully old-fashioned verse. Oh, and Arthur crops up again.
  3. The Shoemakers’ Holiday – Thomas Dekker (first performed 1599). I’m skating over Shakespeare here because it’s too difficult to pick one of his plays, but Dekker’s anarchic rough-around-the-edges drama of city life is a half-decent substitute. Read (or watch) for its evocation of the troubling democracy of the city and its deft defanging of that democracy.
  4. Paradise Lost – John Milton (pub. 1667). Pretty much the exact opposite of Spenser’s work – Milton’s verse is as clear and ringing as a bell, and his dramatic religious conflict isn’t obfuscated by clinging allegory. It’s very accessible to a modern reader (I recommend the Longman edition if you can get it – the spelling is modernised throughout and the font is very readable). Read for the Biblical overtones, and because its story covers pretty much every concern seventeenth-century poets had, and because it’s generally awesome.
  5. Pamela – Samuel Richardson (1740). I actually intensely dislike Pamela. But it’s really where the modern novel begins: a deeply psychological tale emphasising felt experience over empirical truth. Read for its heavy moral overtones and its revolutionary placing of importance on the honour of servant girls.
  6. Evelina – Fanny Burney (1778). Burney isn’t as good a writer as her contemporary Jane Austen, but Evelina is nevertheless a funny and rather enjoyable example of the mannered romances of the period. Read for its broad social satire, its rather emotionally overwrought scenes of familial reunion, and for its close focus on the trials and tribulations of female experience.
  7. In Memoriam A.H.H – Alfred Tennyson (1849). A long and elegiac poem about a dead friend of the poet’s. Read for its Romantic focus on the processes of grief and the tension between its individual lyrics and the narrative whole.
  8. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens (1865). Serially published, Our Mutual Friend is an enormous, baggy, sprawling book, a state-of-the-nation novel, Victorianly sentimental with a core of bitter anger. Read for its wide cast of characters and its social commentary.
  9. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (1899). An atmospheric and deeply chilling novella about a journey into the depths of Africa. Read it for its almost Impressionist descriptive style, its thoughts on story and narrative and its stirrings of post-colonialism.
  10. The Waste Land – T.S. Eliot (pub. 1922). Possibly the seminal poem of the 20th century. Read for its string of abstract fragments, its tapestry-work of old stories and its magnificently apocalyptic overtones.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Song of Susannah

“There is no love in thought, nothing that lasts in deduction, only death in rationalism.”

Stephen King

Song of Susannah

SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Song of Susannah is the sixth book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and it’s also the shortest since…actually, potentially since The Gunslinger, the very first book. It sees Susannah, possessed by the sinister Mia (mother of one, daughter of none), leaving Mid-World for New York, there to have her demonic and mysterious baby.

I rated Susannah very highly the first time I read it, mostly, I think, because it was rather a relief to read such a short book on the heels of the bloated Wolves of the Calla, not to mention Wizard and Glass. But it doesn’t stand up nearly so well to a re-read, partly because the conflicts upon which King builds his world haven’t actually developed at all from The Waste Lands, and partly because he makes some very dodgy storytelling choices.

But I’m feeling generous today, so let’s start with the good, shall we? Because there are good things about Song of Susannah, never think otherwise. I very much enjoyed the relationship between the story’s core characters, Susannah and Mia: their carefully negotiated dance of alliance and betrayal and help and hindrance is nicely orchestrated and ultimately rather sad. I can’t help thinking there’s a feminist message in all of this, as both are manoeuvred, manipulated, forced to turn against each other, by the forces of the male Crimson King, who is Evil. (This is all you need to know about the Crimson King; he never becomes anything more than a cipher.) Which would at least make some sense in King’s multiverse, as the King is a servant of Discordia, the force opposed to everything that is shiny and nice, a category which definitely includes civil rights (and something is made in the novel of Susannah’s past in the civil rights movement of the sixties) and presumably includes feminism. Discordia and the Crimson King, we’re led to believe, are opposed to progress, at least in the humanitarian sense.

But this is where it all falls down. Because it turns out (this is very much a book where things Turn Out, more or less hand-wavily) that the march of Discordia, the rooms of ruin, the falling of the Tower, are all to do with the fact that magic has been replaced by technology:

The magic went away. Maerlyn retired to his cave in one world, the sword of Eld gave way to the pistols of the gunslingers in another, and the magic went away. And across the arc of years, great alchemists, great scientists, and great – what? – technicians, I think? Great men of thought, anyway, that’s what I mean, great men of deduction – these came together and created the machines which ran the Beams. They were great machines but they were mortal machines. They replaced the magic with machines, do ya kennit, and now the machines are failing…Soon enough the Dark Tower will fall. Perhaps there’ll be time for one splendid moment of universal rational thought before the darkness rules forever. Wouldn’t that be nice?

So…progress is bad now?

Of course, this pleasant little passage (and I just want to remark here that, however irritating the ideology, Susannah does contain some of the most visionary and most haunting writing of the series) is picking up on the motif of alienation that King’s been riffing on since The Waste Lands. Machines, it’s implied, distance us from the way the world works; they make inferior copies of nature, they make us forget what human is, what natural is. Fine; this is core SF stuff, potentially interesting if handled in the right way. But giving it a why, and a fantastical one at that, is a huge mistake, because the whole point about the kind of alienation King describes in The Waste Lands, the alienation that comes, ultimately, from that book’s namesake, T.S. Eliot’s hauntingly and dangerously beautiful poem The Waste Land, is that there is no why. There is no narrative that allows us to join up all the dots; there is no connection to the past, because there are no connections anywhere. That is what alienation means. Connecting us back to that past, giving us a reason for our alienation, however horrible the reason is, effectively un-alienates us and undoes all that strange, fantastic worldbuilding King’s been doing for five books.

Annoying as it is, none of this stuff actually affects enjoyment of Susannah; it’s stuff that occurs to you when you’ve finished it, when you’re thinking about the series of the whole. The one thing that actually made me want to throw the book at the wall – not a thing that happens as often as you’d think – was King’s insertion of himself into the story. This is a bad idea at the best of times. Here, however, there are whole passages in which King the Writer describes King the Character as a god, the key to all the worlds, the saviour of the Tower – I mean, how self-important can you get? No one, after all, remembers the singer. It’s the song that remains, and that’s how it should be.

Susannah may be the nail in the coffin of the strange and wonderful world we get in the first three books in the series. It’s not, in itself, a bad book, and it’s certainly better than Wolves; but it is the book which turns the Dark Tower series, finally, from a potent, apocalyptic, profoundly unsettling view of a world not quite ours but not quite not into just another fantasy series, easily tidied away into the box labelled “Quests”.

O, Discordia!