Book Review: “Warrior Scarlet” by Rosemary Sutcliff

Warrior Scarlet titleTitle: Warrior Scarlet
Series: No.
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
Pages: 207
Published: 1958
Spoiler-free Synopsis: One-armed Drem desires to win acceptance and respect as a hunter in his tribe, but for that to happen he must prove his passage into manhood by killing a wild wolf on his own, and no one is allowed to help him even if it results in his death.
Reason for Beginning: Sutcliff.
Reason for Finishing: An enthralling character study of a boy who happens to have a disability, and a beautiful series of word-paintings of an ancient, beautiful British landscape.
Story Re-readability: Warrior Scarlet is the kind of book you may return to often throughout your life and be well-rewarded each time, but you’ll probably want to space those readings out to give yourself time to contemplate it more fully. It has a slower pace than many of Sutcliff’s other novels, but is no less worthwhile. Also, as Sutcliff herself was in a wheelchair for life, this may be one of her most personal novels.
Author Re-readability: Sutcliff.
Recommendation: Very much so, although it asks for some patience from the reader. I never found it to be boring in the least, but it has less action and overt tension than any of Sutcliff’s other novels that I have read.

Key Thoughts

Warrior Scarlet 1The wild landscape of Britain is more a character in Warrior Scarlet than in any other book I have read of Rosemary Sutcliff, and this for an author already famed for her lush and precise vocabulary of the natural world. Here more than ever she becomes a word-painter of every sort of tree and thicket, every spring flower and snow-covered moor, every sleeping valley and heather-banked brook, and all the other myriad wonders that God in His creative joy has adorned the earth. Bronze Age Britain is even less populated than Roman and post-Roman Britain, the eras of which she most frequently writes, and the connection between the native tribespeople and the land is stronger than ever. These are the Golden People, who have conquered the Dark Hill People on the island, and their way of life is the hunt, the bounding over earth in search of blood and food, and for this livelihood they learn all the sights, smells, touches, and even the tastes of nature.

Into this world is born Drem, a boy whose withered arm is the only thing that separates him from his ambition to become a great hunter. But this is a great divide, for if this one-armed boy cannot pass the test of manhood by slaying a wild wolf on his own, then he is driven from his tribe and forced to live as a shepherd among the servile Dark People of the hills. Despite the doubts of his family and tribe, Drem resolutely believes that he will slay the wolf and take his place as a man among men.

The forest is terrifying after dark.
The forest is terrifying after dark.

The plot is short, but full. It’s very satisfying if you are able to accept the novel’s slow pace; just don’t go in expecting rousing adventure of the sort Sutcliff offers in The Shining Company or Tristan and Iseult. There are many patient scenes of hunting and time spent among nature, where the story is not about accomplishing goals so much as realizing truths about oneself and finding one’s place in a vast, dangerous, and beautiful world. As ever, she avoids hysterics and forcibly shortened time spans, preferring to let her tale unfold naturally over many years. Dramatic crises are few for a novel of this length, but what unfold between them are clearly-seen moments of Drem’s life that reveal him as a proud and private boy, unworried by his disability except when his Grandfather refuses to believe he can overcome it, his mother tries to pamper him because of it, or his peers mock him for it. His family hut is also inhabited by his healthy big brother Drustic, who can be kind but does not quite understand him, the quiet, odd girl Blai, who was taken in by the family after being abandoned in the village by her traveling father, and the good dog Whitethroat, whom Drem wins by his own hunting prowess and raises from a pup.

Blood brothers.
Blood brothers.

Sutcliff herself suffered from Still’s Disease, which confined her to a wheelchair from early childhood to the end of her days, and she seems to write Drem with instinctive empathy. Warrior Scarlet is not about a disabled boy at all – it is a coming-of-age story and a tender study of a boy who happens to have but one arm. It is painful to him sometimes, and it is a big part of his life, but it does not define him, nor the book. When he makes friends, as with the venerable one-handed hunter Talore and the chieftain’s son Vortrix, it is because they realize this and do not address his lacking arm except when it is relevant, and even then they try not to give it more attention than Drem himself does. Part of the delight in this book comes from the emotional maturity and honorable friendship that Talore and Vortix offer Drem, and the true Manliness displayed therein. Drem himself struggles with the sort of gentleness his two friends display, as his instinctive reaction to fear is prideful anger. But he fights it, and begins to see that there is someone else in his life who needs the kindness and respect he himself desires. His realization carries through up until the very last page.

Shield or spear -- a one-armed boy must choose one or the other!
Shield or spear — a one-armed boy cannot carry both!

It is not all slow character-building and hunting scenes. There are some thrilling fights, some among prideful and cruel young boys, some between prideful and honor-bound young men, and some with animals. One such fight with a hungry wolf pack attacking in the middle of a blizzard is really harrowing stuff, as though the fierce brutality of Jack London’s stories were filtered through the lyricism of Robert Frost.

I admire Sutcliff’s willingness to take narrative risks and her ability to then handle them gracefully. We think we know what to expect from a plot like this, which we assume must be about overcoming a physical disability, preferably in a triumphantly public way. But in the final third of the book Sutcliff follows the road less taken, and allows a kind of failure where we expect victory. The key is that she doesn’t stop her story there, but explores the consequences of what happened and how Drem must deal with it. Life does not end merely because we do not accomplish our dreams and goals the way we expect. Disappointments are a part of life, and this book is the more powerful for showing how one may deal with them without succumbing to despair. The story, I think, reflects some Christian values relating to this, though not explicitly and perhaps unintentionally; the idea that the timing we desire for our lives is not the same as God’s timing. Our lives have more anticlimaxes than dramatic this-is-it-once-and-for-all climaxes and do not follow easy formulas. But hope persists, and the good may come slowly but it will come, and the faithful are rewarded in the end. Drem’s reward, when it comes, is swift, and almost too sudden, filled with unexpected joy, and perfectly fitting.


Book Review: “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Sadly not my edition’s cover. But an awesome cover nonetheless.

Title: Treasure Island
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
Pages: 298 (Puffin Classics edition)
Published: 1883
Spoiler-free Synopsis: When Jim Hawkins discovers a treasure map amongst the effects of his late friend “Cap’n” Billy Bones, he has little idea the trouble and danger it will cause him. With his friends Dr. Livesy and Squire Trelawney joining him, he sails on the Hispaniola as cabin boy, along with the overtly friendly, yet cunning, Long John Silver as the ship’s cook, and a crew of shifty moods and uncertain loyalties on a remarkable and dangerous quest for the buried treasure of the legendary Captain Flint.
Reason for Beginning: It’s a classic about pirates by a legendary Scottish writer. I love classics and pirates. And Scottish writers. (Also, see my intro paragraph under Key Thoughts.)
Reason for Finishing: This is a genuinely exciting, even thrilling, adventure, and probably the best pirate story that has yet been told (or that I’ve yet come across, to be fair about my inexperience).
Story Re-readability: High, I’d reckon. Stevenson’s a master storyteller, and wastes no time with anything that might be uninteresting. The pace is fairly quick, but the characters and plot fleshed out enough, and the turns of event are fascinating not just for plot reasons, but for what they reveal about the characters involved.
Author Re-readability: Robert Louis Stevenson is regarded as one of the three Scottish literary giants, alongside Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns (to them I would add George MacDonald, who doesn’t get nearly their press but deserves to). This is because he tells great stories that can be reread and reread with great satisfaction each and every time.
Recommendation: Yes, for every reader. This book is everything it promises, and a little bit more. It is the definitive pirate story, yet also a deconstruction of the idea of the romantic pirate. It’s a fast-paced boys’ adventure, full of stormy coves, sun-spangled seas, mutinous rogues, and honorable Englishmen, yet also something of a character study and a coming-of-age story. It is tremendously enjoyable, yet sobering upon reflection. It also one of the few books I can find no fault with.

Key Thoughts

Many moons ago, when I was a bookish third grader, I had to do a book report and art project on Treasure Island. I got an A. I had read only a few chapters of it. So iconic was the story that it had seeped by osmosis into my imagination, and I could easily recap the plot to my teacher’s satisfaction. Finally (actually, much earlier this year), I picked up the book again and read it cover to cover. And I must say, it’s gratifying to read one of the classics—especially one so oft adapted and clearly outlined in the popular imagination—and have the adventure and characters be so fresh, so lively, and so colorful.

Robert Louis Stevenson has some of the most efficient creative prose around; just see how quickly he sketches the character of the wandering, alcoholic ex-pirate Billy Bones:

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking around the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest –
Yo-ho-ho-, and a bottle of rum!’

in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. Then he rapped on the door with a bit of stick like a handspike that he carried, and when my father appeared, called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste, and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard. (2-4)

It isn’t poetry, but it’s evocative. From the first page, you can smell the salt sea breeze that sweeps by the Admiral Benbow Inn; indeed, I’ve reread that first page many times just to revisit that place. Later you’ll hear the sounds of harbor bells and snapping sails, the shouts of sailors and the snarls of pirates, and the spouting and bellowing of breakers upon the island’s rocks. Stevenson has a strong sense of place; he knows exactly where his characters are and how to situate the reader in the same environment.

We see and hear the story mostly through the pen of Jim Hawkins, who writes to us after the fact and gives us some insight into the virtues and vices of all the major players. I like him; he’s an honest, observant boy, well-suited to such an adventure, but fairly naïve about the criminal mind. Not nearly so naïve as Squire Trelawney, though; a large, boisterous man whose careless tongue lets the whole Bristol harbor know that their “secret” expedition is for buried treasure, his mistakes—and his fiery, often unsupported, pride—can be exasperating. After all, it’s his fault that over half the crew he hired were secretly pirates planning a mutiny before the Hispaniolaever left port. But he makes up for this with conspicuous bravery and a determination to regain the respect of his peers.

Dr. Livesy is more reliable; a softspoken, stern man who thinks clearly and acts honorably, is absolutely devoted to his healing profession, and has nerves of steel. Consider one of his introductory scenes, where he is making a house call at the Admiral Benbow, while the drunk (and sick) Billy Bones is loudly intimidating and verbally abusing the other guests. When Livesy casually remarks that if Bones continues with his present drinking, the world will soon be rid “of a very dirty scoundrel,” Bones growls and brandishes a knife, threatening to pin him to the wall.

The doctor never so much as moved. He spoke to him, as before, over his shoulder, and in the same tone of voice; rather high, so that all the room might hear, but perfectly calm and steady:
‘If you do not put that knife this instant in your pocket, I promise, upon my honour, you shall hang at next assizes.’
Then followed a battle of looks between them; but the captain soon knuckled under, put up his weapon, and resumed his seat, grumbling like a beaten dog. (10-11)

Quite the cool fellow. Even cooler is Captain Smollet, who is hired to command the Hispaniola with no previous knowledge of its crew or destination. He may be my favorite character, for the surety of his honor, his cool sensibility under duress, and the sheer manliness of his gentlemanly nature.

But why beat about the bush? When people hear Treasure Island, they think of Long John Silver. The first thing you should know is that the literary character is every bit as charismatic, cunning, sympathetic, treacherous, and pretty much awesome as his pop culture reputation says he is. But what I hadn’t remembered from other adaptations is how desperate he is. I said in the Recommendation that Treasure Island is a deconstruction of the idea of the romantic pirate, and this is what I meant. For all of Silver’s picturesque charisma, long experience, entertaining cunning, admirable perception, and, sometimes, rogue’s honor, he is not ultimately an anti-hero or a person to be much admired. We like him because we recognize that God has allowed some good to survive in him despite his criminal lifestyle, and because he himself laments his evil nature and expresses a desire to be good. But he’s a lost soul. His life is full of wretchedness and poverty, filth and backstabbing. He has colleagues, but no friends he can trust—at least, not until Jim Hawkins. The pirate’s life is not one of freedom, dignity, and self-respect, no matter what Jack Sparrow may say. It’s murderous, low, and deeply unhealthy. Silver knows this in his bones, and his last act of piracy is a misguided attempt to be free of that life. Jim’s real moment of growth (into manhood, if we can say that for a young teenager) is when he recognizes this warring dynamic, which is Silver’s struggle against the dangers and addictions of sin.

So that’s what I found to be the story’s great staying power. Silver’s struggle against his sin nature is similar to our own. The friendship between Jim and Silver is so affecting because of its genuineness. And Jim’s coming-of-age is strongly linked to his greater understanding of human frailty, that love for a lost sinner should coexist with condemnation of the sin itself.

Of course, it’s a rollicking, red-blooded, action-packed adventure story, too. That Stevenson can balance such keen observations about human nature with such fun is a testament to his skill. And he makes it look easy!

In closing, I repeat here the poem Stevenson includes before the title page, which he addresses “To The Hesitating Purchaser”:

If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
 Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
 If schooners, islands, and maroons
 And Buccaneers and buried Gold,
 And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
 Can please, as me they pleased of old,
 The wiser youngsters of today:
--So be it, and fall on! If not,
 If studious youth no longer crave,
 His ancient appetites forgot,
 Kingston, or Ballyntyne the brave,
 Or Cooper of the wood and wave:
 So be it, also! And may I
 And all my pirates share the grave
 Where these and their creations lie!

Book Review: “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman

Title: Neverwhere
Series: Nope.
Author: Neil Gaiman
Pages: 370
Published: 1996
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “Richard Mayhew is a plain man with a good heart—and an ordinary life that is changed forever on a day he stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London sidewalk. From that moment forward he is propelled into a world he never dreamed existed—a dark subculture flourishing in abandoned subway stations and sewer tunnels below the city—a world far stranger and more dangerous than the only one he has ever known…” (Book jacket)
Reason for Beginning: I’ve heard all these years the worshipful praise lavished on Neil Gaiman by geeks and nerds, and even some trustworthy friends, but I haven’t been overly impressed with his short stories. So I was told to read his novels, where he really shines. Neverwhere, I was told, I would probably love.
Reason for Finishing: I did! Gaiman starts with a rattling superb premise and does it full justice.
Story Re-readability: High, I think. The pace is brisk, the prose easy and clever, the characters very interesting and likable, and the plot just detailed enough to reward multiple readings.
Author Re-readability: High. Finally, Neil Gaiman lived up to his legend. I don’t know if I’ll like his other long works as much as this one, but I’m now eager to give them a try.
Recommendation: Yes. I’ve a hard time imagining any lover of fiction who wouldn’t enjoy Neverwhere. It sucks you right in and carries you along, the kind of book to keep you reading late into the night. I can even imagine it attracting people who aren’t normally big readers of “genre” fiction; it’s a magnetic page-turner that repays its readers’ attention with strong world-building and worthwhile characters.

Also, I am proud to announce that the detailed review below has no SPOILERS of any significance to the plot.

Key Thoughts

Richard wrote a mental diary in his head.

Dear Diary, he began. On Friday I had a job, a fiance, a home, and a life that made sense. (Well, as much as any life makes sense). Then I found an injured girl bleeding on the pavement and I tried to be Good Samaritan. Now I’ve got no fiance, no home, no job, and I’m walking around a couple of hundred feet under the streets of London with the projected life expectancy of a suicidal fruit fly. (135)

A really neat piece of fan art, symbolizing various aspects of the story.

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere evokes the wonders and nightmares we imagine (or suspect) to lurk in the tunnels, subway systems, and catacombs beneath our great cities. It conceals many dark and fearsome mysteries, some which are scarier because they aren’t understood, and others which are the scarier precisely the more you understand them. Yet the overarching feeling one gets from reading this book is that of a witty pulp adventure that skips along almost cheerfully, acknowledging the presence of horror without submitting to it, and showing us also many welcome moments of beauty, tenderness, and humor. I don’t know if it’s high art, but it’s certainly high entertainment.

Door scratched her nose. ‘There are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber,” she explained. “There’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere—it doesn’t all get used up at once.’

‘I may still be hung over,’ sighed Richard. ‘That almost made sense.’ (228)

Patchwork societies of people and beasts—a few invested with magic, and many quite dangerous—have existed beneath us for thousands of years. Invisible to most of the Above inhabitants, these disorganized groups have a culture made of the scraps of human history: a societal organization somewhere between tribalism, feudalism, and anarchy, where clothing outfits may combine Elizabethan doublets with ripped jeans, and the subterranean streets may be lit by Dickensian gas lamps and 20th century cigarettes. These are also where go the people who “fall between the cracks” of the Above societies. London Below has homeless beggars who have learned to talk to rats, soldiers from a lost Roman legion who never reported back to their commander, and deadly remnants from ancient mythology. Often they travel through the London Underground, either making use of abandoned stations and unused lines or shielding themselves from the notice of normal Londoners through unexplained magic.

‘You’ve a good heart,’ she told him. ‘Sometimes that’s enough to see you safe wherever you go.’ Then she shook her head. ‘But mostly, it’s not.’ (4)

Nothing in the securities business has prepared Scotsman Richard Mayhew for London Below. He’s a hero very much in the Arthur Dent & Bilbo Baggins tradition; that is, a mild-mannered, middle-class, normalcy-loving Brit who finds himself ignominiously thrust into dangerous adventures through little fault or desire of his own. I like him. In some ways, it’s his determined decency that causes him to be dragged into these adventures; if he were only a bit more callous and selfish, he’d have been left undisturbed. There are worse faults by which to fall into danger.

The Lady Door.

I also like the cast of distinct, engaging personalities that Gaiman has created for Richard to encounter. The girl Door is sweet and manages to be both approachable and a little enigmatic all at the same time; Gaiman gently teases the possibility of a romance between her and Richard, and cleverly leaves that an open, uncertain possibility even at the end. The Marquis de Carabas is an eccentric tangle of disreputability, honor, self-described cowardliness, conspicuous courage, and general awesomeness—similar in some ways to the Doctor, especially in an amazing and disturbing scene where he confronts the monstrous villains Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. Croup and Vandemar themselves are like more sinister and effective versions of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd from the Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever.

He had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.(13)

Gaiman’s prose style is a bit sparser than I expected, but it works well for his story. He moves everything along at a brisk pace, never dallying without something interesting to show us. He’s got a nice ear for clever phrases, sometimes for beautiful ones (“The Angel Islington was dreaming a dark and rushing dream.” [254]). Quirky British humor, of the Douglas Adams kind that explains the fantastic with references to the absurdly mundane, is present and welcome. Perhaps most importantly, his style can shift for the needs of the story.

That story itself I refuse to summarize. I’d love to discuss it with anyone else who’s read the book, but for anyone who hasn’t, you’re much better off discovering it for yourself.

I cared for the protagonists and loathed the villains. I smiled or laughed at the funny parts, grinned at the awesome moments, and was a bit tense during the dangerous moments. I had a lot of fun. This is the kind of book that makes your next visit to London even more magical than it otherwise would be, as you constantly find yourself wondering whether this particular subway train leads the earl who holds court at Earl’s Court Station, or whether this homeless guy can speak to rats, or whether this park or department store will be the next place to host the Floating Market.

Book Review: “The Bell at Sealey Head” by Patricia McKillip

Title: The Bell at Sealey Head
Series: No.
Author: Patricia McKillip
Pages: 227
Published: 2008 by ACE
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Sealey Head is a small coastal town home to a mysterious phenomenon: the sound of a bell tolling at every sunset, with no bell to make it. For centuries the citizens have ignored and accepted it as part of everyday life – most just tune it out. But some know more secrets than they tell others…
Reason for Beginning: It comes highly recommended by some of my friends. Plus the premise and the cover both are beautiful.
Reason for Finishing: A very sweet, lovely book, modest in tone but just about perfect for what it is. It’s also an easy, pleasant read, with characters you would want to meet in real life.
Story Re-readability: Reasonably strong, I think. Not so much for the plot, which is nice but not urgent, but for the characters, who are so likable and real they begin to feel like real friends. I felt comfortable and happy in their presence, and I’ll want to hang out with them again.
Author Re-readability: Very much so! In some ways McKillip’s writing in this book reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s. It’s deceptively simple, appearing almost unadorned, yet she chooses just the right expressions and images to evoke her world and characters. The story is neither rushed nor too slow, and the tension never so taut as to drastically disrupt the sense of comfortableness nor so lax as to seem boring. It’s a page-turner, but not in the conventional sense of a cliffhanger at every chapter break. Rather, I felt compelled to keep reading and reading, long after I told myself I’d stop for the day, simply because I wanted to be in Sealey Head, spending time with these people.
Recommendation: Yes! It would feel strange to call this book a classic, in the way that I can so easily name The Last Unicorn or Lilith one, not because it is lesser than they but because I think the book would blush and apologize for attracting so much attention to itself. Like its main characters Judd, Gwyneth, Emma, and Ridley, The Bell at Sealey Head has a charming modesty that belies its intelligent and poetic soul. It’s fantasy, with splashings of fairy story and myth, but really is more about the characters, their loves, and their society – parts of it feel inspired by Jane Austen.

Key Thoughts

There is a moment in this book where the hairs on the back of a character’s neck prickle at a story being told to her, and I felt my own neck hairs prickling as well. The humming of the refrigerator in the bank’s break room faded away, and I was fully immersed in the goings on in a small room in a humble house in the coastal town of Sealey Head. It wasn’t just the events of the plot that drew me in, although they did their part. It was that I could so easily locate myself in that character’s mind, see things through her eyes, and follow her thoughts as they mirrored my own. That’s the special gift of McKillip’s book: characters who feel like friends I know, like people I want to be like, who love what I love, and who are probably smarter and surer than me in everyday situations. I can hardly think of any flaws in the main characters, yet they all feel natural and real to me.

We first meet Judd Cauley, son of a local innkeeper by a seaside cliff at Sealey Head. He’s quiet, modest, hardworking, responsible, easy-going, and a voracious reader. I dare you not to like him. In fact, I dare you not to like Gwyneth, and Emma, and Ridley Dow. (The other characters are more…subjective in this regard.) I deeply suspect that just as writers love to write about writers, so do readers love characters who read as they do. Gwyneth has the distinction of being both, and a short story that she is working on ends up being important to the mood and gradual revelations of the plot. Her struggles in finding the right way to develop her story are easy for me to relate to. It is hardly a spoiler to say that the book’s primary romance is between her and Judd – the instant we discover that they both are readers, we know they are meant for each other. (Would that it were so easy in real life!)

Of course there are a few complications: Gwyneth is being aggressively courted by a richer young man, the brother of one of Gwyneth’s good friends, whom Gwyneth’s aunt (her mother having passed away) arrogantly assumes she will marry. This rich young man, Raven Sproule, is a nice fellow, surely, but far and away no lifelong match for her. The chief pleasure of Gwyneth’s romance with Judd is that, although they have this obstacle and maybe one or two others between them, they otherwise have a pretty easy time of it. Meaning, they don’t have to deal with those contrived misunderstandings and irritating catastrophes that show up in so many so-called “romantic comedies.” Each of them loves and trust the other – they just proceed carefully because they are unsure if their feelings are requited. Their sweetness is honest, understated, and warm. They say what they mean and recognize honesty and delight in each other. And when this becomes clear—when they realize that they do indeed love each other—the other obstacles immediately lose their threat, despite the desperate natterings of Gwyneth’s aunt.

Ah, but this is merely one part of the book, out of many! See how easily I speak at length about the characters I love the most, in a book that is ostensibly about a haunting phenomenon and portals between worlds? The above relationship is what sticks most in my mind, but the fantastic mystery itself is also plenty interesting. Every day, as the sun hits the line of water on the horizon, a bell tolls across the headland. Yet there is no bell in Sealey Head! Gwyneth writes stories about what she thinks it might be, but Ridley Dow comes to town to discover the truth. A somewhat absent-minded scholar, modest yet obviously wealthy, respectful yet impulsive, speaking in hushed tones of strange things and suddenly disappearing into the night for secret investigations or heroic actions, he is likable and fascinating all at once. We don’t get into his head as we do with Judd and Gwyneth, but he’s a great character for them to interact with. In fact, I could almost see a series based on his adventures…

But no matter. The secret of the bell at Sealey Head I will leave you to discover on your own, as there is no point in discussing it here. I am satisfied with it, although a little more explanation on the how and why would have been appreciated. It’s poetic, and a bit unexpected in the right way.

Patricia McKillip has managed the difficult job of stumbling upon an excellent premise and then refusing to let it dominate the plot entirely, focusing instead on natural, immensely likable characters who in return enrich all the story around them.

P.S. You have no idea how many times I almost typed “Ridley Scott” instead of Ridley Dow!

Book Review: “The Habitation of the Blessed” by Catherynne Valente

The cover is lavish, complex, and beatifully detailed. So is the story, but not without problems.

Title: A Dirge for Prester John: Volume One: The Habitation of the Blessed
Series: The second and final volume, The Folded World, has just been released.
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Pages: 269
Published: 2010
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Four stories intertwined are told. The first is of Brother Hiob, who in 1699 travels to India searching for Prester John, the mythical Christian priest-king ruling a hidden and fantastical kingdom. Hiob finds a magical tree on which books grow, and plucks down three of them to read. The first book (and our second story) is by John himself, a medieval priest, who tells of his shipwreck on a sea of sand and his discovery of Pentexore, a secluded land in the East filled with bizarre creatures, perverse philosophies, and secrets of ancient history. Our third story is by Hagia, a blemmye who becomes John’s queen, who writes in bitterness of her life before and after his coming. The final story is by Hajji, a panotti, who recounts her famous early life as nanny and storyteller to three royal children.
Reason for Beginning: I bought it at Borders’ closing book sale, on the strength of recommendations for Catherynne Valente, and because I could not find her Orphan’s Tales. I also have a keen interest in medieval history and the legend of Prester John.
Reason for Finishing: Beautiful writing, but also as a bit of a challenge. Valente launches an attack on Christianity in the book, and in order for me to understand it and reply I had to finish it.
Story Re-readability: Low, for me, because there was too much to dislike, but going by other reviews, many people loved it. The prose is rich and worth returning to, and the story is certainly layered, with enough complexity to sustain rereads. In fact, I would gladly revisit the world of the story, for the most part. But the characters and themes were distasteful to me, and I have no current desire to return to them.
Author Re-readability: As said above, Valente’s prose is beautiful, and in many places quite original, and I will be seeking out her Orphan’s Tales, which come highly recommended by dear friends of mine. But I’m not in love with her: in fact, her prose is so florid and grandiose that it nearly smothers her characters, and I had difficulty connecting with them emotionally. But much of this comes down to personal preference: I gravitate towards storytelling that seems almost unaware of its greatness, that has an element of modesty and love for its readers. The Habitation of the Blessed, in contrast, feels very much wrapped up in its own Greatness, as if it expects its readers to bow down and worship it. This tone put me off, and is one reason why I probably won’t reread it.
Recommendation: My recommendation is more subjective than ever, here. In general, I will say no, because I found the story itself to be lacking in true value and Valente’s themes to be offensive and steeped in poor philosophy. Christians will feel attacked by this book, as Valente does everything she can to belittle and attack our faith at every turn, even going so far as to rewrite sections of it and then use that as the basis of her misunderstandings. I note, with some pessimism, that the reviews I have read on other sites fail to notice her prejudice. However, the world she creates is so blooming with life and creativity, and her prose so glimmering, that a good reader will find much to enjoy and learn from, even if he dislikes the things I dislike about it.

Key Thoughts

In her Acknowledgements, Valente credits the inspiration for this novel to “a very bad poem” about the titular priest-king left in her office by an anonymous student that caused her to say to herself, “Prester John deserves better.” I smile, because I can completely relate to that moment. I had many like it myself as I read The Habitation of the Blessed. Oh, I do not mean to says that Prester John deserves a more skilled proser. Valente is among the very best I have ever had the privilege of reading. She’s high-minded and down-to-earth, bold and gentle, and has qualities belonging both to the lyricists (writing surreal images of great visual and emotional power) and the chroniclers (blending myths and folk tales with history in a pseudo-historical manner). But she utterly brutalizes the man Prester John and everything Christian he stood for to the medieval people who heard his legend. It is her story and she may write what she likes, but I am not obliged to like it or agree with it, nor to accept or reject it in its entirety.

Fortunatus interrupted us, squinting in the snow. He turned his liquid golden eyes on me. ‘Why do you continue in your faith, when it means you must deny all the evidence of your senses and suffer for the promise of ever-postponed bliss? Because it is the way you have found to understand the world, to live in it and not despair. You speak of war in your country; we do not have it. You speak of jealousy, of coveting wives and wealth; we know nothing of this but in old, old tales of times we are glad we do not live in. You speak of vicious cruelty on account of whether or not to paint an image of your God; I and all of us find this obscene, and do not begin to understand it. We live forever and we live in peace and it is fragile, John. It is so fragile. And when a thing is fragile, it is best left undisturbed.’

‘In Christ there is also peace,’ I said, and the angel said nothing.

The above quote, between John and a creature who looks like a biblical angel (many-winged, many-eyed, song-voiced), is one of many passages where Valente sets up a false and shallow idea of what she thinks Christianity is and tears it down by way of the magical rules she invents for her world. To her, Christianity is a set of rules in conflict with what is natural, and so she uses as her Christian mouthpiece the puritanically disturbed and abused John. John meets the amazing creatures of Pentexore and becomes obsessed with converting them; not, that is, in giving them true life and freedom through Christ, but in making them say Mass and dress by his customs and build things he can call cathedrals. He is not a villain – Valente has some sympathy for all her characters, I believe, and she does a good job of portraying John’s inner struggle with the text he remembers from the Bible, what he was taught by Nestorius (who denied the fullness of the Incarnation), and what he sees before him in Pentexore. He is capable of great passion and affection, and shows tenderness to those creatures he becomes more familiar with. But as a spokesperson for Christianity, he is a poor choice, because he lacks any real understanding of the gospel. He lacks spiritual life, in fact. He is bound by the Law, and has no concept of freedom in Christ (I’ve been in the Book of Romans quite a bit lately). He tries to fight sin with rules, and falls apart in so doing. For instance, one of his great weaknesses is lust. So Valente pits him against one of the other narrators, Hagia, who is of a race of human-like people whose heads are located in their chests. This means that her mouth is in front of her heart, and her eyes are at the ends of her breasts. So John is forced to stare at her naked torso if he wishes to pay her attention; this causes him no end of grief, because he believes women and their bodies are inherently sinful, and yet he is overcome with lust for her. Talk about a shallow misunderstanding of Christian notions of sexuality and modesty! Yet Valente uses him to represent Christianity, and seems to take his ideas as mostly representative.

Well, not completely representative. To be fair, she has two other Christian characters who are far more sympathetic. Brother Hiob, whose tale is the frame in which the others are set, is obviously a kind and good man, much more wise and healthy than John. But his faith is easily shaken by what he reads in the memoirs of John, Hagia, and Hajji. His goodness seems to be in spite of his faith. The other character is Thomas, also called Doubting Thomas, the apostle. His part in the story is small, but vital. John learns that after Christ’s crucifixion, Thomas left for the East and discovered Pentexore. Initially disturbed by the bizarre creatures and their ways, he nonetheless responded with love and charity, marrying one creature, settling down, and finding a way to synthesize their strange world and morals with his own understanding of Jesus’ teachings. For the most part I liked him as a person – he obviously understood that love and relationships are more important to God than rules. But she has Thomas be Jesus’ twin brother and offer an account of His life that is similar in some respects to the gospels, but just different enough to miss the point. On the one hand, Valente does not contradict His miracles, or His prophesied birth, or His perfect wisdom and love. But she leaves his identity in some mystery, and suggests that even if He is the Son of God the Father, then the Father is probably different from what Christians believe.

I also disliked the handling of the Pentexoran characters, even though I have great admiration for how Valente could portray such fantastic creatures with such down-to-earth, human-like personalities. Now, just because the characters are unlikable is not reason enough to dislike a story – Matt Schneider at Catecinem has an excellent discussion of the value of unlikable protagonists in certain stories. The problem here is that I dislike characters that Valente wants me to like. Immortal, bizarre, and wonderful, the Pentexorans are supposed to represent an ideal outlook towards life. They are not intended to be perfect themselves, but to be as perfect as flawed creatures can be. Yet their hypocrisy is astounding. They lecture John angrily on love and tolerance, yet are smug, condescending, and arrogant towards him and all Christian ideas. They believe their society to be the epitome of Goodness and Naturalness, yet—because of a ritual that causes them to reshuffle their lives ever century or so, as an antidote for the monotony of immortality—they are forced to frequently break the natural ties of family and friends. Because of these issues, I was unable to connect emotionally with any of them, although I remained interested in their lives.

I admit that it is difficult to explain my complaints against the book in a review that should be kept to no more than a handful of pages. The book’s plot and themes are complex and best explained in its own words. Much of what I dislike are the final implications of many layers of world-building that Valente has built up, and for you to quite understand what I mean would necessitate me explaining all her worldbuilding, which I have neither the time nor energy to do.

But perhaps I can comment on the world-building, but as a way of speaking more positively about this book.

See, what I do love is how Valente is just bursting with stories to tell. She is not satisfied with four interlacing tales, no; she fills every corner and crevice of the pages with stories. Little ones, big ones, some dealing with the mundane life of Pentexorans, some with extravagant myths, all of them striking in imagery and soaked in atmosphere. The Ship of Bones traveling over the sea of sand, by which the first fantastic creatures of a civilized nature arrived in Pentexore to settle it. Trips to the Fountain of Youth, where a goose-headed old woman serves immortality from a pool of sludge on the side of a mountain. How the Phoenixes died in their great forest to leave only one behind. How Alexander the Great entered the hidden land and built a wall of diamonds to shut in the evil giants Gog and Magog, and then left to continue his conquests of humanity. How a squat creature named Astolfo makes a living brewing potions and inks in his great mouth, while his wife, Hagia, tends the trees on which books grow. Hundreds of stories are told this way. There is a certain thrill from realizing the easy magic of this world.

So there we have it, in as best a summary as I can manage now. The Habitation of the Blessed is composed with great skill and passion, overflowing with a generous love of words and the art of storytelling. It is ruined, in my opinion, by the prejudices of its author and her poor philosophy. I disliked this book because its worldview was opposed to my own. If you can read it and not feel attacked or belittled, then you will probably enjoy it much more.

Book Review: “Tristan & Iseult” by Rosemary Sutcliff

Title: Tristan & Iseult
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
Pages: 150
Published: 1971
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the days of King Arthur, Tristan defeats Ireland’s champion and gains the friendship of his uncle, King Marc of Cornwall, who entrusts him with a mission: to sail the seas in search of a flame-haired queen. But a troublesome fate descends when Tristan and Iseult fall in love, and their passion for each other wars with their love and respect for Marc.
Reason for Beginning: Sutcliff. Arthurian historical fiction. Retelling of a medieval legend. BAM, said the lady.
Reason for Finishing: Sutcliff. Arthurian historical fiction. Retelling of a medieval legend. You get the picture.
Story Re-readability: Fairly high, I should think. It’s very short for a novel, and moves quickly. The story, legend that it is, has more inherent drama than is usual for Sutcliff’s laid-back novels, so every chapter you read will tell you something interesting and important that is happening. And you’ll like these characters enough to revisit them.
Author Re-readability: It’s no secret that I love Sutcliff and find her the most endlessly re-readable author in my library. For me to reread her novels is like reminiscing about the good times with an old friend. Maybe not everyone will feel as strongly as I do, but if you read a book of hers once and like it, I highly recommend you reread it again after a year or so. She always rewards her readers with more subtle depth in her stories than we initially expect. After two, three, four, or even five rereads, many of her characters will be counted among your dear friends.
Recommendation: Most certainly, for everyone. In fact, this is probably a good introduction: 1) to Sutcliff, if you’re wary of committing the time of a longer, slower novel for an author you’ve never read, or 2) to Arthurian romance, if you’re intimidated by the medieval tellings themselves but want to get some of their feel and texture through a modern lens. Established fans of Sutcliff or this subject matter will be completely satisfied with her treatment.

Key Thoughts

In most of her novels, Sutcliff’s prose evokes deep, earthy textures that seep into you as you read; sometimes you have to slow down a bit and breathe a bit slower as her sentences curl their roots around your imagination, intending to stay and grow there. In Tristan & Iseult, her prose is quicker, livelier, but still uniquely hers, like a thickly woven tapestry which is not as immersive as, say, a sculpture, but is not as two-dimensional as a painting. At least, that is how I think of it. It’s the perfect style for this story, hovering as it does between historical fiction and legend. We watch it unfold in a fairly accurately-described Wales, Ireland, and Brittany, but on the edges of the tale are King Arthur and a dragon, and at its center is the tragic love triangle that gave birth to the intrigues of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.

What makes it especially tragic is that there is no villain. We love all three of them, and they all love each other: Tristan, Iseult, and King Marc. They are all good people, who desire justice and admire it in others. When Marc discovers the affair, neither of the lovers can blame him for his anger and pain, because they know in their hearts they have wronged him. But they are too weak to the temptations of the flesh to stop themselves, and King Marc too hurt by the betrayal of his two dearest companions, that we feel the threads of a black fate tightening around them all, bringing inevitable doom and heartbreak to the end.

And when he made no reply, she said, ‘Shall I tell you the true reason that I did not kill you when I found the splinter lacking from your sword blade?’

‘I am thinking,’ said Tristan, ‘that it is best you do not tell me.’

‘It was because I loved you,’ said the Princess. ‘I was not knowing it then. I was not knowing why it was like a sword turning in my heart when you stood before my father and claimed me for the King of Cornwall when I had thought to hear you claim me for yourself. I was not knowing until you lifted me in your arms to carry me ashore in this place. Tristan, whoever takes me for his wife, whether you will or no, and God help me, you are my Lord as long as I live.’

And Tristan bent his head into his hands and groaned.

Although these are the characters and landscape of legend, Sutcliff writes them with tender dignity and a sort of restrained realism, the kind that takes note that the trees overhanging the lovers’ hideout are not just any trees, but hazel and hawthorn and thick-set oak. They are flesh and blood and tears; whereas some medieval versions of the story invoked a love potion to force Tristan and Iseult into adultery, here it is just their passion and their loneliness. There is some room for epic heroism, though. Tristan’s worries and passions are recognizably human, but his feats are just larger enough than life to inject the somber tale with some good, old-fashioned thrill and excitement.

The gulls wove their white curves of flight across the face of the cliffs below him; the jump would have been death to any other man, but Tristan had learned well from his masters in his Lothian boyhood, and had not forgotten how to make the Hero Leap. He filled himself with air until he felt as light as the wheeling sea-birds, and drew himself together and sprang out and down.

If I have one criticism of the book, it is that Sutcliff makes Tristan so good, honest, and self-controlled that I can hardly believe he would actually betray his uncle and best friend with Iseult. Both he and Iseult know it is wrong, and Tristan at least is very principled. I didn’t quite believe that they would give into their passions, when Marc himself is so good and worthy a friend to them both. But this is legend, and their fates are sealed. I think I can detect, from Sutcliff’s telling, a loneliness to both Tristan and Iseult. They each are greatly loved by many people and have many friends, but no true spiritual companions except each other. Maybe that’s why Sutcliff thinks they fell into each others’ arms so desperately, so often, despite the harm they knew they were doing to a good man.

Book Review: “Waverly Hall: Relois” by Brian Melton

This is a solicited review, and a free copy of the book was sent to me. In no way does this affect my opinions expressed here.

Cover is cool, but doesn't accurately reflect the story's tone.

Title: Waverly Hall: Relois
Series: First in a projected series.
Author: Brian Melton
Pages: 255
Published: 2010, by Lantern Hollow Press
Spoiler-free Synopsis: While staying at her mysterious Uncle Warren’s mansion, teenaged Meg O’Reilly stumbles across a portal to a dystopian world ravaged by plague and tyranny and must fight for the world’s freedom if she ever wants to return home.
Reason for Reading: Solicited review. Also the premise is interesting.
Story Re-readability: Story-wise, I would say low, because it doesn’t leave much of an impact. There were some nice characters, but none that were engaging enough to return to. The plot is okay, but carries few surprises. And the pacing was awkward, alternating between too slow and too fast. Still, if you really enjoy the book, the author has hidden numerous allusions to literature, philosophy, movies, and even video games all throughout it, and he encourages readers to try to find them all, as an extra game. I won’t be doing so, but it was fun to note some of these allusions as I read.
Author Re-readability: I’d be willing to give Melton’s next book a try when it comes out. His writing style is bland, but good-natured and with lots of room to grow. His ideas are more interesting, at least, even if their execution needs a lot of work to be worthy of them. Basically, I think he’s got some good stories to tell, but I hope to see him improve at their telling.
Recommendation: I think this is a decent book for teenagers and middle-schoolers, as they are more likely to relate to the fourteen year-old heroine and less likely to be picky about issues with style, pacing, and originality. More sophisticated readers may get a little bored or frustrated with it in parts, but it’s not without some charm. I wouldn’t put this on any must-read list, but it did provide its fair share of entertaining and interesting moments.

Key Thoughts

The plot is actually more complex than I had expected, but I’m undecided on whether that works for or against the book. Waverly Hall: Relois is loosely broken into three parts: Meg’s arrival and early weeks living at the titular mansion, her time living with a family in Relois’ dystopic city of Paucée, and her subsequent fight against the bad guys. The final part is probably the most entertaining, but also the weakest from a narrative standpoint. More neat things happen as the story approaches its finale, but they make less and less sense. The underlying story is good and could have provided a really fascinating book, but the end result is decidedly mediocre.

So let’s backtrack and start with the good stuff. Meg is a likable and fairly believable fourteen year-old girl. She’s a little bit disaffected and unhappy with her parents (who don’t understand her) and her little brothers (who are brats), but isn’t as angry and cynical as she makes out to be. Though she’s happy to plug in her iPod’s earphones and ignore the rest of the world, she’s also a reader and is familiar with a lot of classic literature, from Sherlock Holmes to The Lord of the Rings. When confronted by weird stuff, she asks reasonable questions. When confronted by human suffering, she is deeply affected. In fact, looking over her character traits, she has some clear similarities with Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time; the comparison only serves to remind us of that classic’s superiority, however. But more on that later.

The side characters are also likable and mostly well-drawn. The homey Mrs. Davidson is a warm and wise mother-figure to Meg who also engages in the book’s most explicit discussions about Christianity, science, and philosophy. The family Meg meets in Relois is interesting because it manages to be a loving and functioning unit even though its individual members have been so abused and broken by the dictatorial system. Uncle Warren is amusingly weird in much the way that Merlin is in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King…only perhaps a bit too weird, without enough reason behind his madness being revealed. He felt more like a plot device than an actual character. Though I expect him to get more development in future volumes, he needed more in this one. Another key character, named Selcwis (no prize for guessing who that’s an anagram of), is also a case of lost potential, being a man of much wisdom, humor, and some mystery, who really deserved much more development.

However, I don’t like how Meg’s becoming soldier gets romanticized it as if this is some fun kids’ story. She essentially becomes a child-soldier, yet suffers little psychological trauma. Oh she is scared often enough, sure. She’s often terrified, and confused, and desperate for adult help. But then she gets a deus ex machine in the form of a sentient futuristic fighter jet and starts cheerfully slaughtering enemy soldiers by the dozen. These scenes are admittedly more fun than much of the rest of the story because they are faster paced and contain actual victories for the good guys (and because the jet fighter’s personality, named Ai, is amusing), but they also feel contrived to be like a video game in book form. The comparison is not a positive one. Now, The Chronicles of Narnia also had teenagers killing monsters and bad guys in battle. So what’s the difference? Those were fairy stories told in broad strokes, and inhabiting a world that was clearly allegorical. But Relois is a gritty sci-fi dystopia, and the sudden shift in tone to cheerful child-soldiering is too much a contrast. It’s jarring, a bit disturbing (in a way Melton doesn’t seem to intend), and just doesn’t fit. But maybe that’s just me. Maybe teenagers weened on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games won’t see a disconnect.

That’s one of the book’s major problems: its uncertain tone. Is it a dark, dystopic sci-fi story, or a Narnia-style young adult fantasy adventure? It’s got elements of both, but they never fuse comfortably. The cover hints at a gritty, serious tale, but most of the beginning and end is relatively light-hearted. And then the dystopia of Relois and Paucée is too grim and depressing for the video-game style shenanigans that ensue when Meg escapes in a sentient jet fighter whose personality is unsatisfyingly trite. Maybe Melton was trying to keep the story from being too dark by turning that most formidable vehicle of war into comic relief, but it’s too jarring. Or take the creature Reep, a cute squirrel-rabbit-dog thing that appears randomly at the beginning and attaches itself to Meg, following her in all her adventures yet functioning mostly as a fluffy thing for her to hug when she’s scared or tired. He doesn’t serve much of a plot purpose, and his existence—especially since it is entirely unexplained—feels superfluous.

This disparity is also reflected in the art. I was excited when I first realized that the book is illustrated. Unfortunately, the pencil sketches are of a quality comparative to your average deviantArt or Elfwood teenager’s anime fan art. While I have no intention of hurting the young artist’s feelings, this book really needed more sophisticated and evocative illustrations, or none at all. I wish the artist all the best in her future drawings, and I’m sure she will greatly improve in the coming years. Another artist contributed two pictures which are a little bit better, but also far less than what the book needed. All the pictures look drawn by a teenager doodling in the margins of their notes, and this childish quality contrasts too much with some of the more serious goings-on.

The ending was mostly acceptable, but failed to explain a few things it should have. It’s understandable that Melton wants to leave lots of the lesser mysteries unanswered so they can be explored in future volumes. It gives us something to look forward to. But I think he really should have revealed more about Waverly Hall by the end. Too many bizarre things happened in the mansion near the beginning that were glossed over by the characters, but that any sane person would have angrily demanded answers to. Some explanations need to be offered in this book regarding the creature It, the potentially-living carpet, the origin or identity of Reep, and the weirdness of Uncle Warren. Not the complete explanations, but at least something that is plausible and interesting. I expect them all to be elaborated on later in the series, you can’t just have some majorly random but quite important elements like these pass without some illumination. Take Uncle Warren, for example. His behavior in his few scenes is extraordinarily weird, unpredictable, and buffoonish, and he makes some very odd choices that seem counterintuitive to things he and his servants – Mr. and Mrs. Davidson – say. By the end of the book, we get some of his history, but nothing that explains his personality or the choices he makes. That’s just the opposite of what it should be. What we need is insight into his character; some historical facts about him are useless unless they are used to do just that. But sadly, they don’t. Melton makes us wait for the promised next volume to see if he will provide anything satisfactory then.

While I share a great many of Melton’s literary inspirations, I think he is too caught up with imitating them and paying them tribute, such that his own originality and vividness suffers. If a writer can’t put down a paragraph without quoting someone else, there is little room for his own ideas. The great writers that Melton admires all had their own writing voices, their own passions, their own stories they burned to tell, and I wish he would spend more time developing his own than reminding me of theirs. This isn’t a bust of a book by any means – it’s just weak, for lack of a confident storytelling voice.

Other Reviews
J. Holsworth Stevenson @ The Library of Libation