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Thou dost not know me, Holly. Hadst thou seen me but ten hours past, when my passion seized me, thou hadst shrunk from me in fear and trembling. I am of many moods, and, like the water in that vessel, I reflect many things; but they pass, my Holly; they pass and are forgotten. Only the water is the water still, and I still am I, and that which maketh the water maketh it, and that which maketh me what I seem, seeing that thou canst not know what I am.

It is always a great pleasure for me to encounter a classic adventure serial or novel and still be gripped by the narrative. Too often the trickle-down effect caused by plagiarizing and imitative creators robbing the beats of these original tales in the years since its publication lessen the impact. H. Rider Haggard has been a writer I have avoided precisely because of this. ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ has appeared in different guises not only in the writer’s own sequels featuring Allan Quatermain, but the work of J.R.R. Tolkien with the Lady Galadriel and of course in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey.

As was the fashion of the time with fantastical adventure stories, Haggard plays up the conceit that this is an account of true events. So the story we are reading is in fact a document received by an nameless editor – the author himself – from one L. Horace Holly. The manuscript describes an incredible journey taken by Holly and his charge Leo to Africa, hoping to unravel a dynastic mystery connected to the younger man that stretches back in time to the pre-Christian era and may have led to the death of his father. Accompanied by long-suffering manservant Job, the group follow the directions left to them on a preserved clay shard , only to be shipwrecked and left stranded in a dangerous and unexplored region of the continent.

The group are rescued from certain death at the hands of a hidden civilization of man by the wise and venerable Bilali. Holly and Leo manage to communicate with the old fellow via a corrupted modern day version of his language and are informed that ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’, the white-skinned ruler of these people desires to see them. What unfolds is an adventure that becomes increasingly perilous for these proto-Indiana Joneses – being Cambridge academics that are also a dab hand at fighting off a multitude of opponents when the occasion arises – and one that may cost the young Leo his very soul.

My edition of She comes with an introduction from Margaret Atwood, lampshading the present-day relevance of the book by claiming Ayesha as prefiguring feminism. This feels unnecessarily shallow. The quotation I opened this review with comes from the most interesting section of the book, wherein Haggard flirts with the anti-Christian substance of She Who Must Be Obeyed. Ayesha is fascinated by Christ’s message of peace, because in her eyes this is a typically weak and perilous philosophy for the cruelties of existence. It is a fantastic scene, because Holly is of course merely spouting the party line of what Christianity represents, as opposed to the realities of conquest, occupation and oppression that empowers the Church as an institution.

In that sense Ayesha in fact prefigures the secularist critique of Christianity, albeit in a fantastical way.

Haggard work is of its time, so there remains issues of chauvenism, racism and anti-semitism (towards both Jews and Muslims) in play here. If the modern reader can accept these caveats, the book can be enjoyed as an adventure story with ambitions beyond its seeming rip-roaring escapism.

She by H. Rider Haggard

The elders had always maintained, without even the slightest wavering on the matter, that we Survivors were the only ones of our kind. But they had taken it so much further than that, insisting that there were no other supernatural creatues in this world, nor had there ever been. Recently, in late night discussions with Lizzie and Sarah, elders with whom I felt close, they had told a few of us tales of how the outside world believed in creatures that God did not create. They had given us some aging copies of literature that a select few from my generation – Noah, Benjamin, and me – were allowed to read. We each got one book that, in turn, we’d end up sharing with each other. Until then, we had only ever read the Bible. Noah received a copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Benjamin got a copy of Beowulf, and I got a tattered, gold-lined compilation of Hesiod works including Theogony and Works and Days.

Some months ago I first encounted Amanda Havard over Twitter. She is one of an exciting new generation of writers who fully embrace the potential on blogging and online tools for the purposes of book promotion. It is an exciting development in contemporary writing. I was very happy when Amanda offered me the opportunity to read her novel – an offer I would never have received without the agency of Twitter and my own blogging project.

The story opens with a group of children exiled in the wilderness during the time of the Salem witch trials. Miraculously the majority of the minors survive the outdoor extremes – and take ‘The Survivors’ as their name and the definition of who and what they are.

Then the narrative jumps forward in time several centuries to the present day. We meet Sadie, a Survivor who is travelling to her friend’s wedding. It is quickly revealed that she is an unusual member of the community that has survived in isolation since their exile from the human world. For one – she has left. The Survivors have based themselves rigidly on religious precepts taken from the Bible, searching for a divine explanation for their own supernatural abilities. In addition to long life, each of the colony has certain powers. Sadie is considered undeveloped because her own skills have not evidenced themselves as readily. This outsider status informed her inquisitiveness and her consequent leaving of the colony and everything she has ever known to explain the outside world.

But are the Survivors really alone in this world, or is there more to their mysterious status as as society of immortals?

What I enjoyed the most about this book was how Havard demonstrates how Sadie has acclimatised herself to modern life after centuries of isolated existence. It is quite telling that a story that begins with the Salem witch trials is preceded by a musical quote from Coldplay. Sadie even has a Twitter account (I was tempted to investigate whether it existed or not). The character’s online activities reflect the author’s own online engagement strategy – somewhat meta that. While Sadie has lived a sheltered – obsessively so – life behind the walls of the Survivors’ colony, Havard establishes that she has managed remarkably to cope with the vagaries of the outside world. She is a true Survivor.

The influence of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer is evident here. Personally though I much prefer this work, because its breadth of reference is broader. Yes there is the requisite love triangle of Paranormal Romance, but it is informed by a central character who is legitimately conflicted. She has left behind everything she knows because of simple curiousity and as a narrative motivator, I find that quite a bold choice as opposed to random chance, or the disaffection of Bella Swan.

Also, that title font with the stand-out scarlet ‘S’ is just a delightful stylistic choice.

This is an entertaining and intriguing start to a new Paranormal Romance franchise. I look forward to the next entry in the series.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

 

‘It was on this precise spot, as I remember it, that Calica stood to address the senate, urging caution in the Empire’s eastern expansion. It was down there that Juvens replied to him, arguing boldness, and carried the day. I watched them, spellbound. Twenty years old, and breathless with excitement. I still recall their arguments, in every detail. Words, my friends. There can be a greater power in words than in all the steel within the Circle of the World.’

‘A blade in your ear still hurts more than a word in it, though,’ whispered Logen. Jezal spluttered with laughter, but Bayaz did not seem to notice. He was too busy hurrying from one stone bench to another.

A few months ago I came across this very interesting discussion by Joe Abercrombie. I had become a fan of the writer since my review and his account of how he was unfavourably compared to J.R.R. Tolkien by Leo Grin raised a grin. This notion of moral relativism in fantasy is quite an amusing one, particularly since the last thing The Lord of the Rings is about is righteousness (Hobbits being made of much softer stuff than warriors and kings, yet in the end winning the day). The comparison was playing on my mind when I began reading this book though.

After the events of the previous novel, Logen Ninefingers finds himself trekking into the wilderness in the company of a legendary wizard, Bayaz First of the Magi, chasing after a long-lost weapon. Colonel West has been handed the unenviable task of ensuring the foppish Crown Prince Ladisla achieves a safe military victory in the Northern territory of Angland. To the south Inquisitor Glokta has been assigned to protect the city of Dagoska from an implaccable foreign army. His mission is hopeless, but he is spurred on by his hatred for the people who broke his body under torture, leaving him a bitter and twisted shell of a man with a razor sharp mind.

With the business of introducing the cast of this series done by The Blade Itself, Abercrombie concentrates on delivering sizable conflicts on a grand scale. The siege of Dagoska in particular is horrific, with Glokta using every trick he can think of to stall the Gurkish army in their progress. West finds himself in the centre of a rout when the arrogance of the Crown Prince, and a peculiarly wily enemy who outmaneuvers the main body of the army, forces him to flee a devastating assault. In the company of a motley gang of Northmen exiles he desperately tries to hang on to his civilized bearing and perform his duty in protecting the life of Ladisla. Unfortunately nothing would make him happier than to take the selfish prig’s life.

To all intents and purposes it is Logen’s sections of the series that supposedly describe the central narrative. Abercrombie gives us a sense of scale with the different outbreaks of war, but Ninefingers and his fellow adventurers are evidently on a quest, of the sort most common in fantasy novels. This is where I began to think of the comparison made by the uppity Grin. As it happens much of the material was disturbingly familiar. Bayaz is a flawed and occasionally unreliable magus, much in the way of Gandalf the Gray. The group visit the devastated city of Aulcus, which reminded me a little of Moria with its ominous shadows and incredible grandeur gone to rot.

My worry is that fantasy novels invariably begin to plough the same furroughs. I could mention that Robert Jordan also echoed Moria with his Shadar Logoth, yet another haunted city. Just how many wizards and weather-beaten warriors have traipsed before our eyes on the page over the years. The author here has a running joke that the magi all speak in riddles and circumlocutions, which few of the other characters have any patience for, a welcome criticism of the genre.

Abercrombie’s theme though is that the characters in this series The First Law Trilogy are in effect all monsters. Some are simply better at hiding it than others.

Perhaps the material is familiar, but Abercrombie still invests his writing with far more bite than most out there. Plus these books are very entertaining and deliciously black humoured. I cannot wait to read the next entry.

Before They Are Hanged Joe Abercrombie

‘Granny Weatherwax is going to hear about this, and you’ll wish you’d never been born…or un-born or reborn or whatever you are!’

‘We look forward to meeting her,’ said the Count calmly. ‘But here we are, and I don’t seem to see this famous lady with us. Perhaps you should go and fetch her? You could take your friends. And when you see her, Miss Nitt, you can tell her that there is no reason why witches and vampires should fight.’

Pratchett and vampires? Oh you do know how to make me happy.

I have always liked the Discworld take on vampires, which is essentially that they are pathetic poseurs (which is how you spell ‘posers’, in this instance). However, the Discworld also happens to be a fantasy world where racial pluralism is a reality (take that Tolkien!) so there are vampires who are members of the Black Ribbon society in Ankh-Morpork. Sure they are undead, but do they have to live as monsters? – is their creed and it is a very amusing take on the traditional fiend.

With Carpe Jugulum Pratchett returns to oldschool vampires, with a slight twist. No more talk of temperance. Just systematic murder, organised under the simple principle of their being superior to humans and all the other ‘low’ races of the Discworld.

The story itself is set in the kingdom of Lancre, the setting for most of Pratchett’s Witches novels. Now some folk like Rincewind, others Vimes, but my personal favourite Discworld protagonist has always been Granny Weatherwax, the witch who will brook no nonsense (needless to say I am also a big Nanny Ogg fan). At the start of the story Granny is feeling her age once again, as well as a sense of isolation. She abandons Lancre in a fit of pique, believing that she was snubbed by her fellow witches and Queen Magrat when she does not receive an invitation to the royal baptism. Of course her departure comes at the worst possible juncture. King Verence, the former court fool who was revealed to have royal blood, is once again trying to be modern and extends an invitation to a very important family from the Überwald region.  Except of course they are vampires and by inviting them, Verence has literally just handed them the keys to the kingdom.

Only Agnes Nitt seems to be immune to the glamour of the vampires. The youngest of the Lancre witches, Agnes literally has a thin girl inside her trying to get out – which is to say, she hears this voice in her head making a running commentary on everything that she does wrong. This ‘Perdita’, allows her to resist the influence of the vampires, enough for her to realize what is happening to the rest of the citizens of Lancre. Her only companion is a young priest from the theocratic state of Omnia, last seen in an early Pratchett novel Small Gods (which happens to be one of my favourites). Mightily Oats suffers from profound religious doubt about his vocation, so like Agnes he too is of ‘two minds’, about everything. Together they try to organise the people of Lancre to rise up against the racial supremacist vampires and find Granny Weatherwax before it is too late.

Pratchett is simply too clever by half at times. Yes on initial inspection this book seems like a merging of Small Gods and that *other* book about Lancre falling victim to an invasion Lords and Ladies. It is a brilliant combination of themes though. The crisis of faith suffered by Mightily Oats allows the writer to expound on his humanist beliefs to great effect.

What’s more the book also addresses the limits of tolerance in multicultural society. This is something of a bugbear with me, the notion that ‘multiculturalism has failed‘ continues to gain traction in political circles, which is absurd as the definition of what it means seems to change all the time. Different races living together is nothing new. What has changed is that now there is this expectation that races should be treated with equal respect, under a shared national identity, which is where politicos come grinding to a halt. How can a statesman exploit class and racial divisions in a multicultural society? The very idea.

Pratchett wittily dispenses with all of this in a book about vampires, little blue people with Scots accents and a dwarf highwayman. This is why he is the master.

Wonderful book.

Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked

In position for the drive,

Bone-shaken, bumped at speed,

The nurse a passenger in front, you ensconced

In her vacated corner seat, me flat on my back –

Our postures all the journey still the same,

Everything and nothing spoken,

Our eyebeams threaded laser-fast, no transport

Ever like it until then, in the sunlit cold

Of a Sunday morning ambulance

When we might, O my love, have quoted Donne

On love on hold, body and soul apart.

Seamus Heaney? Oh it’s on now. I haven’t forgiven you yet, you vino voleur, you grog guzzler – I will have my vengeance!

‘cough’

And yet – when I read the poem quoted above, titled Chanson d’Aventure one of the early entries to this collection, I could not help but remember my father back home in Ireland. That frustration with wanting to say what is on your mind, but incapable of giving expression to these thoughts due to physical infirmity. Heaney’s words are instantly evocative for me of witnessing my dad’s irritation at his condition. The poem itself refers to the writer’s own stroke in 2006 (I just wasted ten minutes searching the Irish Times website to find mention of this. A golden goose for whoever can find it for me).

I should not be surprised really. A lot of Heaney’s work conjures up images of an Ireland I know, instantly familiar and well realized here through verse. The title is take from one of the poems collected here, which is dedicated to Terence Brown and describes the action of passing ‘bags of meal‘, along a line of aid workers. In this moment the individual becomes a part of a chain of humans, united in a rare moment of communal activity. The work is true, the goal worthy, allowing the insecurities and seperateness of the individual to vanish. An annihilation of self that he suspects can only be equaled by death itself: “A letting go which will not come again/ Or it will, once. And for all.”

My favourite poem from the selection here is The Conway Stewart, a beautiful transformation of a new pen into a living creature, an ally for the poet to help in the composition of future works:

The nib uncapped,

Treating it to its first deep snorkel

In a newly opened ink-bottle,

I am also fond of An Old Refrain which contrasts the ordinary English words for countryside fauna with the local idomatic descriptors of Heaney’s Northern Irish childhood.

Where I start to look in askance at the page is the later poems referring to the Aeneid and provincial French poetry. On the one hand I admire the effort to place poetry drawing a connection between Irish countryside life with Provence, but it is not an association that comes naturally. For one the poet mentioned here Eugène Guillevic seems like a more natural companion to English masters like William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy. Peppering verse with different French words does not help the attempt at solidifying the connection between Ireland and the Continent. Ireland is part of Europe, but I feel as if this attempt to be more European only succeeds at turning a blind eye to life in my homeland. I am reminded of John Banville‘s early attempts to be a more European author:

“So I decided, with no cosmopolitan experience, to turn myself into a European novelist of ideas: Banville, the modern European master. I was young. I was reckless. There are people who tell me they think Doctor Copernicus and Kepler were my best books, but I feel now that in those novels I took a wrong direction, that I should have done something else.”

Even that famous neologism of Ireland’s most famous literary expat James Joyce – ‘riverrun‘ – appears in the poem Colum Cille Cecinit. Joyce is literary Ireland, but how many of the Irish have read Ulysses, or even A Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man? Perhaps that is an unfair question, but it played on my mind when reading some of these poems. They seem isolated from life at home.

Yes the material is familiar to me and I do not think Seamus Heaney could fail to evoke strong memories of home and the past if he tried, but I suspect for me it is not enough.

 

“You mean the Greek gods are here? Like…in America?”

“Well, certainly. The gods move with the heart of the West.”

“The what?”

“Come now, Percy. What you call ‘Western Civilization.’ Do you think it’s just an abstract concept? No, it’s a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years.”

I grew up on Robert Graves‘ translations of Greek mythology. Heracles was a pre-modern superhero, Theseus a tragic hero whose cleverness and bravery could only get him so far, Odysseus proof that intelligence could give a hero the edge when faced with a physically stronger opponent. I enjoyed the morals these stories seemed to contain, alongside fantastical descriptions of minotaurs, gorgons and cyclopses.

Of course later, when I returned to these texts, or read different translations, I realized something – those ancient Greeks were jerks!

Unfortunately Percy Jackson has yet to learn this lesson. An ordinary boy growing up in New York with an unusual habit of getting expelled from schools – he swears that it is never his fault – as well as suffering from dyslexia and ADHD, life has dealt him a pretty poor hand. When he discovers he is also the illegitimate son of the god Poseidon and targeted for assasination by both Hades and Zeus, as part of a growing Olympian civil war, well, it is just not fair really.

Being the son of a god has some advantages though. He gets to escape to the safety of Camp Half-Blood for one, where the marauding furies and minotaurs on his trail are held at bay. What’s more he discovers he has several abilities related to the control of water, which could even help him survive a frontal attack by a monster.

He’ll need every trick to stay alive when he and two friends leave the camp on a quest to discover who has stolen the thunder bolt of Zeus and framed him for it to boot. So it is time for a road trip to the Land of the Dead – Los Angeles.

While Rick Riordan is said to have completed the manuscript in 1994, but it was not actually published until 2005. It  therefore does seem likely that segments of the book were rewritten to suit the Pottermania fad. Camp Half-Blood is a Hogwarts filled with the abandoned off-spring of gods and yes Percy is yet another child of destiny.

Where I found the story sticking in my craw a bit was the translation of Greek myth to American culture. I accept that this is the conceit of the book – as the quote featured above states, America is now the ‘seat’, of Western civilization – but it leads to some uncomfortable moments. For example Medusa is described disguised as a Middle Eastern woman. Hades is said to resemble “the terrorist leaders who direct suicide bombers.”

Really Riordan? You went there huh? What’s more, much like the tarnished Greek heroes of my youth, Percy is actually quite a bloodthirsty little punk. I get that his life is at stake, but after the second, or third decapitation I started checking the book for a parental advisory sticker. Through in spouse abuse – his mother has endured a horrible relationship for years, in order to keep Percy hidden – and this becomes an uncomfortable, sickly feeling cynical package.

This is one fantasy series I will not be continuing with.

‘You don’t see anything,’ he snapped. ‘You’re as blind to the wonders of the world as the rest of us. We know nothing, Mr Raimi. We have theories, guesses and opinions. We hold beliefs, each as valid and ridiculous as the others. We trust scientists to delve into the pits of time and space, tinkering with great questions like children playing with sand.

In all my years I’ve met just one man who seemed to really know. He was crazy, a drunk working on the docks. He had trouble tying laces and buttoning his coat. He spoke in fits and riddles, but every word struck me to the core. I listened a very short time, then had him executed. I was afraid of him. If I had listened much longer, I’d have gone mad too. Truth is too much for minds as small as ours.’

You’ve heard the story before. A young man comes to the city to find his fortune with nothing but big dreams and the change in his pocket to fall back on. Everyone from Dick Whittington to Norville Barnes began their fictional adventures in this same way.

Capac Raimi is no different. Arriving in ‘the City’, to work with his uncle Theo and learn the business, he is a young man still on the right side of thirty with big plans.  The Cardinal, a crime boss who runs every scam and business in the City, is at the top of the food-chain, an alpha predator whose control cannot be challenged. Of course Capac intends to do just that. After all, he’s a young gangster on the make.

Instead through a sudden reversal of fortune he finds himself working for The Cardinal, who seems to be grooming him for some position in his organisation. Capac slowly becomes more curious about the history of The Cardinal, seeing past his own greed to the peculiarities about his new mentor, who claims to have a near preternatural understanding of fate and is obsessed with Incan culture.

There other strange things going on that Capac has failed to notice before. Such as the blind monks who appear whenever the City is shrouded in fog. Or the way in which various henchmen of The Cardinal have a nasty habit of disappearing, leaving not a single trace – even in people’s memories. For some reason Capac can remember, which makes him think either everyone is lying to him, or these people literally are being wiped from existence.

Of course, Capac has blanks in his own memory. In fact he cannot recall anything of his past from before getting off the train to the City.

That sense of the familiar persisted throughout this book. Where D.B. Shan decides to do something different, is to have Capac become a sympathetic figure, before plunging the narrative down a very dark path.

Unfortunately, I found myself reminded of Frank Miller‘s comic book series Sin City, steeped in noir clichés with every female character a prostitute (or dead); as well as Will Self‘s novel My Idea of Fun, which features a seemingly innocent protagonist doing very nasty things. This book apes the worst aspects of both of these works. There is a depressing nihilism at its heart, made worse by the whopping deus ex at the plot’s climax.

In Shan’s defence for the majority of the story events proceed in a slightly unreal manner, which creates an intriguing ambience. It feels like an uncanny crime drama, but then the identity of The Cardinal is revealed and suspension of belief collapses.

Initially quite interesting, but ultimately a disappointment.

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