The Chronicles of Prydain: A Review

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
Henry Holt and Company, 1964-1968

If there was ever a series that steered the craft of my childhood it was The Chronicles of Prydain. First published fifty years ago these novels established Lloyd Alexander as a giant in children’s literature. Across five books and five years the Chronicles of Prydain, garnered a Newbery Honor (The Black Cauldron), a Newbery Medal (The High King), and two ALA Honors for The Book of Three and The Castle of Llyr.

Alexander’s inventive tale follows the exploits of Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper. At the outset Taran resides in the pastoral paradise Caer Dallben with a three-hundred-year-old wizard and a seasoned war veteran. When his charge, the oracular sow Hen-Wen, escapes her pen and flees into the forest Taran is thrust into adventure and finds its not exactly what he hoped for.

Alexander deftly handle’s his young hero’s coming of age, taking care to never force him into contrived situations. This is never more clear than in Taran Wanderer, the fourth volume of the Chronicles. Its tight focus and lack of world-shaping quests make for the most introspective and, what I feel, is easily the best-written novel of the entire series.

Long ago I yearned to be a hero without knowing, in truth, what a hero was. Now, perhaps, I understand it a little better. A grower of turnips or a shaper of clay, a Commot farmer or a king–every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone.

Taran Wanderer, Lloyd Alexander

During his many journeys across the entirety of Prydain, Taran is joined by three tried-and-true companions. Together, they go from revering the legendary figures of old to becoming ones in their own right.

Fflewddur Fflam: a boisterous and gregarious minor king of the north with a penchant for stretching the truth and magical harp that keeps his tongue in check.

Princess Eilonwy: the queen of strange metaphors and a descendant of enchantresses who never misses an opportunity to tease Taran. Her only tie to her ancestors of Llyr is a magical bauble, the Golden Pelydryn, that glows at her will.

Gurgi: a strange creature, neither animal nor human, but both. He is the most loyal and trustworthy companion one could hope for and a steadfast friend of Taran whom he refers to as “kindly master”.  He is often concerned for his “poor tender head”, protecting himself from “thrashings and smashings” and when he can next fill his belly.

The wonderful, magical land of Prydain. A land so fascinating I doodled it every day of first grade rather than pay attention.

It was truly a pleasure to re-read this series that has given me so much. The Chronicles of Prydain introduced me to the wonderful possibilities of fantasy and instilled a life-long adoration of farm-boys thrust into adventure. My original journey with Taran, Gurgi, Fflewdur, and Eilonwy will never be forgotten.

Series rating: 4 out of 5 crunchings and munchings
Up next: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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The Wide Window: A Review

The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket
214 pgs, HarperCollins, 2000

A couple weeks ago while preparing to move, I was clearing my bookshelves. As I was working through my childhood books, lovingly appraising each of them before packing them safely away, I was slapped in the face by wave after wave of nostalgia. When I reached A Series of Unfortunate Events thinostalgia became tinged the scent of horseradish and confusion. Try as I might, consulting all thirteen volumes for reference, I found I couldn’t remember a thing about the third Baudelaire adventure The Wide Window. Adventure is a word which here means latest despairing trial.

This seemed preposterous, on a level of absurdity that rivaled Count Olaf. To say I was a fan of this series as a child is a monumental understatement. How could I have missed one? To give you a glimpse into my childhood madness consider this escapade.

I remember, after tearing through The Grim Grotto (I believe the same day—at the latest, the day after—it was released) sitting on my Batman Animated Series comforter flipping back through the story collecting newly revealed clues. What the hell is the deal with the VFD? I wondered. And why do they care so much about a damn sugar bowl? What will the next book be about? What will its title be? This last question intrigued me. It seemed within the realistic grasp of a twelve year old child to somehow deduce two unpublished and more than likely not-even-started-yet books. Could there be a pattern, a code of sorts, waiting for Trevor to come along with his sole genius and discover what no one else knew?!

Well, obviously.

You see, all the titles follow a pattern. Each word starts with the same letter (I didn’t know the word alliteration yet). Very interesting. There must be a pattern. Quick Robin, to the bookshelf. On the fourth shelf behind the books, next to the John Deere piggy bank and the Batman wallet, is your Secret Agent 007 notebook. Get to work.

My findings: the next, and final, two Baudelaire adventures will begin with the letter E and then the letter J. That’s as far as I got. In time it was revealed that the twelfth and thirteenth books would be called The Penultimate Peril and The End. So basically, I’m awesome, and bow down you filthy pagans. Oh, and do be so kind, forget that I had a 50% success rate by sheer chance, that I was ruined by the abrupt dismissal of alliterative titles with the last book, and that even though I guessed the correct letter ‘E’, I guessed it for the wrong book.

Needless to say, I was more than happy to right this thirteen-year-old mistake and read The Wide Window. If my tale of superior detective skill made you excited to pick up the series, you’re in for a treat. Lemony Snicket is one snarky bastard. It’s fantastic. Sit back and enjoy tales of horseradish, the Incredibly Deadly Viper, and poisonous mushrooms.

Bonus note: Apparently Netflix has made the series into a show. Yes! And, it stars Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket. That’s all I needed to hear. I’ll be there. Who doesn’t want more David Puddy?

Rating: 3 out of 5 Lachrymose Leeches
Up Next: The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

Middlesex: A Review

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
544 pgs, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux 2002

Whereas I, even now, persist in believing that these black marks on white paper bear the greatest significance, that if I keep writing I might be able to catch the rainbow of consciousness in a jar.

Oh family sagas, you are my cup of tea. On the occasion you utilize a postmodern voice that tends toward the embattled label of hysterical realism you become my crack. So effective is your snare that as the cover of Middlesex closed for the final time a now familiar sentence slipped from my mouth “that was the best book I’ve read in a long time.” Just how high in Trevor’s Pantheon of Greats—on your left ladies and gentleman you’ll see our Authors gallery if you look carefully you can just make out Novels to the right—remains to be seen.

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974. . . My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license…records my first name simply as Cal.

Fascinating as that opening is Cal’s story is but a portion of this bildungsroman/epic. Over five hundred and some odd pages Cal traces his family’s adventures over continents and three generations. What family secrets and courtings could have led to the peculiar genetic hand he’s been dealt?

I have a feeling another author tasked with this story of secret hermaphroditism and incest would have crafted a character study and made the external mundane—by repressing the individuality and inner turmoil of others and more than likely muting nature— to emphasize the protagonist’s upheaval of the self. Instead, Eugenides somehow possesses enough authorial magic to both give just service to Cal as well as guide all of the Stephanides through a mesmerizing plot. It’s a treat to watch how the family handles every sort of environment, from villages in the shadow of Mount Olympus or riot-ridden Detroit, to Californian brothel or Detroit mosques, or finally to Calliope’s last summer as a girl and Cal’s romantic woes in Berlin.

Now, glowing praise aside, I must point out Eugenides’ one flaw: he has only published three novels. Lucky for me, a latecomer, his first story collection Fresh Complaints, is set to be released later this year. You can bet I’ve already pre-ordered it and impatiently await its arrival. In the mean time I’ll try not to use it as my latest yard-stick for determining future ratings.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Obscure Objects
Up next: The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket

Ilium: A Review

Ilium by Dan Simmons
725 pgs, HarperCollins 2003

Ilium is a work of vivid imagination. In its interplanetary scope and off-the-wall plot is what all speculative and fantastical fiction should strive for.  Even with the Iliad as the jumping off point and the Tempest to guide plot elements Simmons managed to create the unexpected in every chapter. I do not exaggerate when I say this is the strangest novel I have ever read.

In the first 150 pages:

-An old-style human is eaten by an Allosaurus in what once was Ohio.

-Zeus rides from Mars, yes Mars, on a quantum-powered chariot and lances a spaceship—carrying four robots from the moons of Jupiter—to smithereens with a lightning bolt.

-A 21st century Homeric scholar, tasked with observing the Trojan War and noting discrepancies between reality and what the poet recorded, has decided to make war on, and destroy, and the gods.

And that’s just the beginning. Ilium also has Moravecs (robots) obsessed with Shakespeare and Proust, Greek gods that use quantum technology to teleport and terraform Mars, and Little Green Men that erect statues of Prospero along the Martian sea.

There are two ways to take the above. Does it sound ridiculous? Then congratulations, you and my friends now share the same opinion. Very quickly a routine developed between my girlfriend and I over the two weeks I read Ilium. I’d laugh or gasp at the insanity, relate the unrelatable, and then watch as she walked from the room.

Does it sound strange but awesome? Then you’re like me! (I’m so sorry.) I advise you to read the seven-hundred pages and relish in its oddities. Only then can you spend weeks wondering if it was actually well-written and thus worth it to read Olympos, the conclusion of the duology, or if its novelty was its main attraction.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Allosaurses

Up next: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Nutshell: A Review

Nutshell by Ian McEwan
197 pgs, Nan A. Talese 2016

I’ve taken a break from the fantastic, the unbelievable; no magic here. No wizards or swords, scullions or prophecies. Nutshell‘s narrator: a sentient fetus enlightened by his mothers voracious consumption of podcasts and his poet father’s tendency to erupt in spontaneous readings.

“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

With such parents life might be easy but of course without conflict this book would not exist.

“It’s in me alone that my parents forever mingle, sweetly, sourly, along separate sugar-phosphate backbones, the recipe for my essential self. I also blend John and Trudy in my daydreams—like every child of estranged parents, I long to remarry them, this base pair, and so unite my circumstances to my genome.”

The ancestral home is in disarray. For reasons unaware to our narrator Trudy has cast John from his London manor. Trudy further strains her bond with her unborn son by soiling his beloved father’s memory by replacing him with a banal, cliche-ridden lover: Claude, none other than John’s brother. Together the pair plots to murder John, sell the London manor, and live off the millions.

“Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.”

The murder of a family member; tragedy in most scenarios. Imagine the sorrow here. Not yet a part of the world but already exposed to its evil. (Write this book one hundred years earlier and its major theme would be: has evil been imprinted on the innocent? Is he destined to be monster?) Compound that exposure with the inability to act and you’ve got among other things, a page-turner.

Nutshell’s concept, its gimmick, sounds ridiculous. It certainly is; I admit, that’s why I picked it up. Don’t let that dissuade you reader of realistic fiction. It would’ve been easy for Nutshell to come across as contrived. A worse, pulp-fiction author may have given our narrator undue agency, the ability to influence on the world. Rest assured McEwan treats us with more respect than that and delivers a novel well worth reading.

Rating: 4 out of 5 spiked smoothies

Up next: Ilium by Dan Simmons

The Dragonbone Chair: A Review

Cover art by Michael Whelan

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
672 pages, DAW 1988

The Dragonbone Chair is pure and simple: perfect fantasy.

One book into the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy I’m a fanboy. Williams hooked me with his prose—something that doesn’t happen as often in fantasy as I’d like. Its not lyrical like Patrick Rothfuss, isn’t a pastiche like Susanna Clarke, and isn’t whimsical like Bradbury. Instead its… for the lack of a better term: immersive. My friend deemed it slow, but what he took as drudgery I saw as deliberate pacing and a superb construction and explosion of tension.

The world of our hero Simon, more than Roshar, Westeros, or Annares, fills my head and tickles my imagination. Williams is meticulous in his rendering of Osten Ard. (Notice, the blatant absence of the term ‘worldbuilding’. Recent pieces like Electric Literature’s Against Worldbuilding and responses such as Emily Temple’s on Lithub In Defense of Worldbuilding have cast doubt on my usage. I’ve found points of merit in both but am still working out a cogent reconciliation.)

I’m not alone in proclaiming The Dragonbone Chair‘s mastery. The cover of my edition is emblazoned with blurbs from three of my favorite fantasy authors. George R. R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Christopher Paolini all sing its praises. I know, I know, I can see it now. “Paolini?” you say. “The Eragon author? A favorite?” Yes. Him. The sword Brisingr and dragon Saphira provided some of my happiest reading.

Okay, back on track. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn had a clear influence on all three author’s famous series. Don’t believe me? Here’s a few off the top of my head…

-The dragon slain (Well, supposedly. Let’s see what Morgenes’ history reveals about the fight.) by a young Prester John in The Dragonbone Chair is named Shurakai. In Eragon the evil Galbatorix’s twisted dragon is Shruikan.

-As in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire the true threat to the realm of Osten Ard comes from an immortal, long-forgotten foe from the wintry north.

-Thorn (Memory, Sorrow, Thorn), Dawn (ASOIAF), and Brisingr (Inheritance Cycle) are all forged from fallen stars.

Maybe I’ll make a list of parallels when I get to the next doorstopper in the series. That’ll be a bit yet. I’m forcing myself to take a break before jumping into the sequel Stone of Farewell. Not to expand my horizons or try something new; no, nothing so stimulating. This imposed hiatus serves only to reset my brain and pull it out of Osten Ard, to make sure I bathe, eat, and drag myself into work instead of devouring the entirety of the series in one go. When I’m not daily pondering whether the Ice Worm survived or imagining Morgenes life before the Hayholt I’ll know its time to return to the magic of Osten Ard.

Rating: 5 out of 5 White Arrows

Up next: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

The Builders: A Review

The Builders by Daniel Polansky
219 pages, Tor 2016

When my roommate comes to me with a book recommendation I move it to the front of the list. “The Builders,” he said, “is like adult Redwall. Its got amazing cover art and ends with a great joke.” Alright, I’m sold.

Carnage abounds in this tale. The Captain, a small field mouse, gathers his former team, now outlaws scattered over the country, for one last mission—one of revenge. Each war-hardened member has its merits but I fancied two in particular: Bonsoir, a French stoat who’s a heartless killer that, of course, wears a beret and Cinnabar, a salamander that draws his six shooter fast enough to make Billy the Kid look like an infant fumbling with a plastic gun. If those short descriptions aren’t enough to make you want to read this I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

Do yourself a favor on an afternoon when boredom closes in around you and you need a pick-me-up. Embrace the badassery of Barley the Badger, the eeriness of Elf the Owl, and the terror of Boudica, the sniper opossum.

 

Rating: 4 out of 5 BONSOIR!(s)

Up Next: The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams