Book Review: “The Thief” by Megan Whalen Turner

This is where you earn your reputation.

Title: The Thief
Series: 1st in The Queen’s Thief series, but can be read by itself
Author: Megan Whalen Turner
Pages: 219
Published: 1996
Spoiler-free Synopsis: The self-proclaimed “greatest thief in Sounis,” Gen is moldering in the King’s prison when the magus, the King’s highest advisor, sets him free in return for his aid on a very secret and difficult journey. But on this quest for a hidden treasure, politics, myth, and personal motives entwine dangerously…
Reason for Beginning: Recommended by Urania of The Egotist’s Club (who kindly bought me the book!); also the plot sounded interesting.
Reason for Finishing: Fast, fun, intriguing read. The character of Gen is the most interesting aspect of the book, but the others don’t disappoint either. The book has a good mix of adventure, humor, and heavier dramatic intrigue, but overall it veers towards “light” adventure rather than a “dark and grim” one.
Story Re-readability: Reasonably high, I’d say. I do intend to reread it eventually, to get more of the subtleties and to spot clues regarding the twists in the story, but isn’t exerting as massive a draw on me as, say, McKillip’s Bell at Sealey Head or a Sutcliff book. It’s fast-paced and well-written, though, so a reread should go quickly. Plus, it is entertaining.
Author Re-readability: Again, reasonably high. Her style isn’t as immediately impressive as Peter Beagle’s, Rosemary Sutcliff’s, or even Patricia McKillip’s (despite her modesty), but it’s clear, effective, and has more subtleties than you might notice at first. Her great skill seems to be sketching out lively, layered characters, but she can handle world-building, landscapes, and suspense very well, too, as needed. I’m interested in the rest of The Queen’s Thief series, but this book is a complete story in itself and needs no continuation.
Recommendation: Sure. It’s suitable for young teenagers but intelligent and entertaining enough for adults, too. It’s good, solid, and very enjoyable.

Here’s the book trailer put out by the publishers.

Key Thoughts

Here we have a clever little adventure that manages to provide some genuine surprises even up to the very end. The book’s centerpiece is its protagonist, Gen (short for Eugenides), apparently the greatest thief in the kingdom of Sounis. He narrates the story, and what I find amazing is how well we get to know him without really learning much about him. Oh, we know what he looks like (a short, non-muscular adventure hero! Finally!), and we become very familiar with his distinct personality. We even hear some stories and memories of his past, although distinguishing between facts and fiction is trickier than you might think at first.

He’s a master manipulator, actually. He’s brash, arrogant, and insouciant; but he is also sensible, perceptive, and passionate. He doesn’t care if you call him a coward, because he considers it practical to be afraid of things that can hurt you. He doesn’t mind if you think him weak or spoiled, either—he will complain until he gets the comforts he thinks are reasonable, and satisfies himself with the knowledge that he can always get revenge later. He’s irreverent towards almost everything, especially people with power. Even if you beat him up, he’ll still send back a snarky comment. In short, he should be quite unlikable, but he isn’t. He’s funny, he’s fascinating, and surprisingly sympathetic. We’re allowed to see fairly deeply into his mind, as he seems to hold little back in showing us the world through his eyes. And yet, it is only when we reach the end that we realize how little about him we know. Even as much gets revealed, it is clearly only the tip of an iceberg. I found all of this delightful. Gen is still a hero at the end, but not a typical one. He’s immensely fun to read about, but would probably be a trial to have as a personal friend.

‘Do you think I want everyone in the city to know that you are out working for the king?’
‘Why not?’
‘Do you announce that you’re going off to steal something before you start?’ He thought for a second. ‘Yes, you do. Well, I don’t.’
‘Why not?’ I asked again.

The world Turner creates in The Thief is deliberately anachronistic. On the one hand, it’s a loose recreation of ancient Greece, with the kingdoms of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia being about the size of powerful city-states, and the landscape full of sun-baked olive trees, rocky hills, dusty mountains, and a glittering inland sea always on the horizon. The myths of the land also resemble Greek myths of quarreling gods and humans struggling to make their fame without offending heaven. On the other hand, gunpowder, the printing press, and complex locks all make an appearance. In truth, I found this jarring and unnecessary. I will allow Turner the more modern locks so that Gen can do the lockpicking that is expected of him, but the presence of gunpowder is too inconsequential to the story, and too radical a technology for the setting, that I didn’t feel it had a reason to be there. It felt like an arbitrary anachronism. It doesn’t really hurt the story, per se, it just feels gratuitous, in a story that is otherwise very streamlined.

Her prose, as I said above, is clear and suitable for the story. There are a few sections where characters tell each other myths about the gods of the land, and Turner writes well in that sparse, casual style so common to the most fantastic tales of old. She’s created her own mythology, but wisely shows off only those elements of relevance to her story. We get the feel of a real world, without being overburdened with superfluous names and details.

The Thief is an entertaining, skillfully-plotted book, with twists and turns you aren’t even aware of until they’re past, and an ending that ties everything up (or almost everything) in a satisfactory, enlightening package. That even the plot twists deepen our perceptions of the characters says much for Turner’s ability to write lively, multi-faceted personalities. Try it out for yourself.

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Book Review: “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle

Title: The Last Unicorn
Series: No.
Author: Peter S. Beagle
Pages: 212
Published: 1968
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A unicorn, hearing that she may be the last of her kind, sets out to find the other unicorns, with the help of an almost-incompetent wizard and weary woman who has lost her way in life. To do so, they must confront the infamous King Haggard and his terrifying, enigmatic Red Bull.
Reason for Beginning: I’ve heard of it for quite some time, always mentioned with fondness and respect, and finally snatched it up.
Reason for Finishing: A truly beautiful fairy tale, which manages the difficult task of including bits of anachronistic whimsy and humor without letting them ruin the solemnity of the magic.
Story Re-readability: High. It’s short and fast-paced, but expertly written and atmospheric.
Author Re-readability: I would gladly read anything else by Beagle. He chooses only the right words to express himself and can swiftly build charcaters that feel warm and real, yet never too far removed from their fairy-tale roots. He understands that taking fantasy seriously doesn’t always mean being serious.
Recommendation: Yes and again yes, for everyone with the slightest interest in fantasy and fairy tales. This is one of those few books that really deserves the label of “classic.”

Key Thoughts

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

“She still moved like a shadow on the sea.” The music of this phrase was the first of the hundreds in this book that made me fall in love with it. Mr. Beagle has a passion for words on their own merits, in addition to their meanings and the stories they can tell. Not an image or metaphor is haphazard or ineffective. Each is striking, burbling with life, original, and perfectly fitted to its object. The smell of iron “seemed to turn [the unicorn’s] bones to sand and her blood to rain.” A hostile crowd begins “to hiss like embers.” Firelight makes a sleeping cat “look like a heap of autumn leaves.” The escape of a wicked harpy from her iron cage is described in terms of a terrible blooming flower, the cage falling away as the harpy rises screaming into the air, “her hair swinging like swords.”

The Mel Grant painting from which the cover was taken. His illustrations in the book are sketches and quite effective.

There is a joy and beauty to this book that feels effortless, as if Mr. Beagle had just happened to find the story growing in a strange, secluded grove, plucked it from the tree of childhood dreams, and handed it to us as a gift. It is a fairy tale, and knows it. The characters tell each other so themselves, and discuss the implications of the traditional fairy tale structure on their lives. When the magician tells the mysterious white girl, “You’re in the story with the rest of us now, and you must go with it, whether you will or no…you must follow the fairy tale to King Haggard’s castle, and wherever else it chooses to take you,” there is the sense that there is a sort of Fairy Tale Providence that guides its characters down predestined paths, often against their will, but most likely for their own good.

The plot ebbs and flows, sometimes stopping to visit a curious place by the side of the road but never straying too far. It moves quickly, but not hastily, if you catch my meaning. Like an experienced traveler who never fails to take in all that is around him, even while his gait is so assured that he always seems to arrive at his destination right when he needs to.

But let you not think this is some verbose or dreary tale of philosophy masquerading as entertainment. Far from it! The Last Unicorn is an absolute delight from beginning to end. It is filled equally with pathos and humor, beauty and terror. There are beautiful, magical forests populated by obscure, slightly incompetent outlaws who think themselves Robin Hoods and eat tacos. There are gypsies running a farcical circus that happens to contain a genuine, dangerous harpy. There is a butterfly who sings in pop songs and poetry, and there is the Red Bull, one of the most genuinely terrifying creatures in any story I have encountered.

The main law of his existence seems to be inevitability: you can never escape him, because he is always fast enough to catch you, large enough to squash you or small enough follow you through caves, smart enough to corner you or herd you in the direction of his will, and just mindless enough that you cannot reason with him. He is a force, whether of nature or of magic, or perhaps of something else. He is a riddle that remains largely unsolved, and is the more effective for it. I can still feel the rumble of the earth as he rages down the mountain.

Also by Mel Grant.

The unicorn herself is superb. She is just how I would imagine a unicorn might be, were she real. Wise and beautiful beyond anything purely natural, of course, yet also aloof, because of her immortality, and somewhat disconnected from the world around her. We are privy to her thoughts, but they are rarely the thoughts any mortal creature would have. And so it is that we feel as though we get to know her, but cannot claim that we really understand her. There is an element to the unicorn that is always unpredictable. We cannot fully comprehend her being, nor can she fully comprehend ours. It is a phenomenon that her human friends, Schmendrick the Magician, Molly Grue, and Prince Lír all try to come to grips with. It also leads to some interesting arguments. Just because the unicorn is uncannily wise and probably thousands of years old does not mean she is infallible. And her judgments are even and final, sometimes ruthless. Mr. Beagle has written the most iconic and best unicorn I have come across.

Side characters also enrich the story. Ironically, their very down-to-earth and realistic natures complement the magical side of the story instead of detract from it. The unicorn is more the perfect fairy tale creature when contrasted with the hopes and sorrows, failures and uncertainties of Schmendrick and Molly. She is more unworldly and pristine beside their many-colored humanity. Prince Lír lacks a little of their depth, but mainly because he is young while Schmendrick and Molly are middle-aged and mature in life experiences. I liked him, but I loved the latter two. Even Haggard himself is layered and surprisingly believable, even a bit sad and lonely, far from the cliché wicked king I initially expected.

Tender. Terrifying. Lovely. Silly. Somber. Magical. Human, in the best way. There is power in this book.

Book Review: “A Swiftly Tilting Planet” by Madeleine L’Engle

“Wind, unicorn, and boy merged into a single swiftness.”

Wind, unicorn, and boy merged into a single swiftness.

Title: A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Series: 3rd in the Time Quintet
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Pages: 304
Published: 1987
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “When fifteen year-old Charles Wallace Mury shouts out in desperation an ancient rune meant to ward off the dark, a radiant creature appears. It is Gaudior, unicorn and time traveler. Charles Wallace and Gaudior must travel into the past on the winds of time to try to find a Might-Have-Been—a moment in the past when the entire course o events leading to the present can be changed, and the future of Earth—this small, swiftly tilting planet—saved.” (Back Cover)
Reason for Beginning: I continued on from A Wind in the Door because L’Engle’s writing is consistently engaging and her stories powerful.
Reason for Finishing: See above. Nothing’s changed.
Story Re-readability: I might reread this eventually, but not for some time. It’s an easy reread because the narrative style is so beautiful and well-paced, but none of L’Engle’s books have quite elevated themselves to my Pantheon of Books, as it were.
Author Re-readability: Even though now, after this book, I am taking a break from L’Engle to focus on other authors, I will easily come back to her in the future. She is one of the most readable authors I have read, for beauty and clarity of phrase, for interesting ideas, and for organic plots populated with warm, well-developed characters.
Recommendation: It is completely possible to read this book, or the two before it, independently and without having read the others. Thus I would heartily recommend A Swiftly Tilting Planet to anyone interested in the subject matter, even if they don’t want to or for some reason can’t get a hold of A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door. Fans of L’Engle’s previous books will want to see how the Murry family has grown and developed in the intervening nine years. In fact, this may be my favorite of the series so far, though that’s not to say it is perfect. But the bottom line is, this is excellent storytelling of the kind we too rarely receive.

Key Thoughts

I may end up saying more negative things than positive things about this book, so keep in mind that A Swiftly Tilting Planet is quite close to being my favorite of the first three books. It is more beautiful, and in some places more powerful, than either A Wrinkle in Time or A Wind in the Door. This third book, though, has more elements that I think hold it back from being the best expression of its story.

STORY

A time-traveling unicorn is a greatidea. A winged unicorn that literally flies through time and drinks moonlight and fights demons with a telepathic boy in order to avert a nuclear apocalypse is a fantastic idea. It leads to some beautiful images that cry out to be illustrated, or perhaps even animated.

The wings are described as larger in the book.

I like that L’Engle skips about nine years to show us a fifteen year-old Charles Wallace and a married-and-pregnant Meg. We see how they have grown up, but they are still recognizable as the same characters we love from the previous books. The narrative device of Meg sitting at home and kything with Charles on his adventure is welcome and useful. The time-traveling is streamlined because only Charles and Gaudior, the unicorn, are involved, but whenever the plot threatens to become confusing, L’Engle brings the reader back to Meg, who can puzzle over what has happened and give the reader some clearer answers. Because the time-travel is used to explore two branches of the same family over millennia leading up to the present day, the interlocking genealogies and Might-Have-Beens can start to blend together.

History buff that I am, I love the time-travel aspect. It gives L’Engle the opportunities to greatly vary her cast of characters and, thematically, reveal the hand of God throughout history. Unfortunately, she doesn’t make the best use of these opportunities. The characters I will discuss in the next section, and her theology in the final section, but from a story perspective I feel that her portrayal of the Native Americans is lacking. The “People of the Wind,” she calls them, and they are all uniformly perfect, almost magical people in touch with their past (and God, by other names) and unfailingly kind and tolerant; always the best of the good guys. Since I know L’Engle is capable of more complexity, I wish she would have spent more time making the Native Americans more realistic and less of a caricature with all the right answers all the time.

My other problem with the story is perhaps more subjective. Some time-travel stories have the past set in stone as utterly unchangeable, while others, like this one, have the hero changing the past in order to avert disaster in the present. The upshot is that when the hero returns to his present time victorious, it is a different present time than the one he left. So when Charles Wallace succeeds (not much of a spoiler, really) and returns to the night that started it all, his family remembers different events that night than he does, because the events Charles Wallace and Meg experienced literally did not happen for them. It’s like when sci-fi stories solve the public exposure of aliens by erasing everyone’s memory. I never find these endings satisfying, because they erase the experiences and struggles that have led to the characters’ growth. The other Murrys were learning a lot and growing so very much in their different reactions to the specifics of the nuclear threat that when it’s all erased and made “okay” by Charles Wallace’s tampering with history, it feels like a letdown. Why negate all that character development?

CHARACTERS

The greatest strength of the series is the Murrys themselves, who are consistently a healthy, intelligent, affectionate, and complex family. While Meg and Charles Wallace are the designated odd ones of the family—that is, less socially adept and more worried, but also more cosmically significant, than the others—I like it best when all six members are working together as a unit. They would make a potent force if they ever went on an adventure all together. Charles Wallace still suffers from overconfidence in his own abilities and a tendency to try to take things into his own hands, but generally he has matured believably from his six year-old self. He’s more likable than in the previous books, where he would sometimes be a little too solemn and wise.

Gaudior the time-traveling winged unicorn is a welcome addition, fulfilling the role each book has of an otherworldly guide and mentor. I don’t get why he is always blowing silver bubbles; it’s a weird image, but I suppose L’Engle decided it was whimsical enough to seem properly strange. But Gaudior is a fine character. I like him even more than Proginoskes the cherubim in A Wind in the Door (who was quite a nice fellow himself, if a bit prejudiced against humans at the beginning). He’s gentle, wise, and forgiving, with a touch of good humor beneath his sober surface. He reminds me very much of Falcor the Luckdragon from The Neverending Story.

Lots of time spent with the people Charles Wallaces goes Within, so that there is quite a large cast of characters. Each family in each period of time that he visits is a descendent or ancestor of the previous one, and the same few names crop up with slightly different spellings throughout: Madoc, Madog, Maddok, Maddox, Matthew, Bran, Brandon, Zylle, Zyllah, Zillah, Zillie, Richard, Ritchie, Rich. Characters with the same names throughout history seem to essentially be the same person, or fill the same roles in their families. Thus Matthew is similar to Maddox, and all versions of Zylle/Zyllah/Zillah/Zillie are beautiful, sensitive, wise young women, though they live hundreds of years apart. Likewise, both Duthbert Mortmains are mean, dumb, lustful brutes. I suppose it is convenient from a storytelling perspective, but it carries the unfortunate implication that anyone who carries the name of a disreputable ancestor is destined to be just as disreputable, free will not seeming to enter into the picture.

Similar to the problem with L’Engle’s portrayal of Native Americans is her portrayal of the early Pilgrims and Puritans, which is embarrassingly shallow and clichéd. They have one good representative in the Llawcae family, who are fine, godly people who are well-versed in Scripture, but one gets the sense that they are only so good because they are designated thus from a story perspective. All the other Puritans are portrayed as small-minded sheep who follow the demagogical Pastor Mortmain, a hysterical witch-hunter full of false superstitions. This one-dimensional caricature believes that singing is inherently evil and at one point actually cries out “Storytelling is of the devil!” (145) Having an over-the-top villain is one thing, but L’Engle uses Mortmain as her representative of the culture of that time, and I believe it’s a gross misrepresentation. She really should know better.

WRITING STYLE

Delightfully, L’Engle’s writing is even more beautiful and poetic than before.

The great unicorn flung himself into the wind and they were soaring among the stars, part of the dance, part of the harmony. As each flaming sun turned on its axis, a singing came from the friction in the way a finger moved around the rim of a crystal goblet will make a singing, and the song varies in pitch and tone from glass to glass. (72)

As always, she wastes no words but carefully chooses the right ones for maximum effect and clearest communication.

Gaudior’s breath came in silver streamers. He had folded his wings into his flanks to prevent the Echthroid wind from breaking them. Boy and unicorn were flung through endless time and space. (166)

She manages the tender balance between communicating the richness of her own mental image and allowing the reader’s imagination to embrace the scene and own it.

As the baby [unicorn] had been following Gaudior in the steps of the dance, so it imitated him now, eagerly trying to drink moonlight, the rays dribbling from its young and inexperienced lips and breaking like crystal on the snow. Again it tried, looking at Gaudior, until it was thirstily and tidily swallowing the light as it was tipped out from the curve of the moon.

THEOLOGY

From an orthodox Christian perspective, L’Engle’s theology is getting more suspect, unfortunately. Charles Wallace is brought through various ages of the Earth, and it becomes apparent that L’Engle is using an evolutionary schematic for the planet’s development. There is no Adam and Eve—rather, she seems to say that the earliest human groups were pure and unfallen. Unfallen, that is, until some early humans were corrupted by Echthroi and discovered violence. She has this happen to Europeans first, and later spreading to the ancient Americas.

This is a bizarre rewriting of biblical history that makes no sense from a spiritual perspective, as it negates the rationale behind Christ’s Incarnation and sacrifice. The Bible specifically says that sin was passed directly from Adam by his bloodline to all of humanity. (Romans 5:11-2 “And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”) Thus Christ became of that bloodline and redeemed it. In L’Engle’s rewriting, this redemption is impossible.

Also, her most holy and Christian-seeming people are usually old pagans, like the Native Americans, who are in tune with the Old Music and follow God by different names. Unfortunately, she never mentions Jesus Christ or redemption, and seems to think that these primitive beliefs are the actual, pure worship of God rather than shadows that, while pointing the way to Christ, do not provide salvation themselves. She borrows the form of Lewis and Tolkien’s metaphors without the substance.

SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATION

I do heartily recommend A Swiftly Tilting Planet to anyone interested in time-travel, fantasy, or anything related to this subject-matter, and especially to fans of the previous two books. The writing is very pretty and the story excellent. Christians will need to be aware of the book’s serious spiritual errors, but that should not preclude us from enjoying the good that is present. We need more books of this storytelling caliber.

Book Review: “King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition” by Tyler Tichelaar

[N.B. A review copy of this book was sent to me by its author. In no way has this influenced the opinions I express here. You can find Tyler Tichelaar’s blog at CHILDREN OF ARTHUR.]

Title: King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition
Author: Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D.
Pages: 179
Publisher: Modern History Press
Genre: Scholarly study
Blurb: “…The first full-length analysis of every known treatment of King Arthur’s children, from Welsh legends and French romances, to Scottish genealogies and modern novels by such authors as Parke Godwin, Stephen Lawhead, Debra Kemp, and Elizabeth Wein. King Arthur’s Children explores and often overlooked theme in Arthurian literature and reveals King Arthur’s bloodlines may still exist today.” (Back Cover)
Recommendation: For anyone with a more-than-casual interest in the Arthurian legend, especially regarding different versions and the more obscure tales, this is a very handy resource. The end significance of many of the discussions may not mean much except to serious scholars, but Dr. Tichelaar’s book will open even the eyes of an amateur hobbyist of Arthuriana to the extraordinary diversity of the legends and the ways in which they have been continually adapted and retold over the centuries.

Key Thoughts

“It may be Geoffrey of Monmouth’s responsibility that Arthur’s sons disappeared from later versions of the legends; The History of the Kings of Britain was so popular that it firmly placed a structure on the way the tale would be told from then on, and since Geoffrey did not give Arthur any sons, his successors avoided creating sons for Arthur. And if writers had added sons to the legend, they would have had to come up with explanations for why these sons did not succeed their father.” (23)

Though a slender volume, Dr. Tichelaar’s book examines an impressively large amount of texts in its pursuit of all information that could potentially shed light on its subject of study, which is in some ways a bit obscure. Loads of scholarship exists on King Arthur himself and the main body of legends, but surprisingly little is known about his progeny except for Mordred, the bastard son of Arthur’s incest with his half-sister Morgan (whose name has numerous spellings). There are actually quite a few others just in the medieval and Old Welsh sources. The great virtue of King Arthur’s Children is how methodically Tichelaar goes through every mention of a character being a direct descendent of Arthur and examines all possible ways in which that mention interacts with other versions of the story.

The first section of the book concerns the Welsh traditions, which give Arthur three sons: Gwydre, Amr, and Llacheu. They have brief mentions—and in the case of Gwydre, only one undeniable mention—and thus little is known about their stories; nonetheless, they are the oldest mentions of Arthur’s progeny.

The most substantial section of the book discusses Mordred and the myriad portrayals he has had. Popularly he is Arthur’s bastard son, but in some tales he is legitimate, in others he is a nephew, in still others he is a brother, and sometimes he is not said to be related to Arthur at all. Scottish traditions even regarded Mordred as the good and legitimate king of England, with Arthur the evil imperialist usurper! This section really shows the diversity of the legends.

The third section is more interesting from a historical perspective, as Tichelaar looks at Arthur’s descendents and heirs. The English monarchy has often claimed descent from Arthur, but I was surprised to hear that those of Belgium and the Netherlands also make the claim. There is virtually no possibility of these claims being true even if there was one man who was the real King Arthur, but it’s still fascinating to explore all the possibilities.

The final section of the book deals with modern literature. Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset is identified as the first twentieth-century novel to give Arthur a child—a daughter—although the role is minor, since the infant dies soon after birth and serves mostly to provide a source of tension between Artos and Guenhamara. Discussions of other authors follow: Barbara Ferry Johnson, Catherine Christian, Parke Godwin, Vera Chapman, Susan Cooper, Patricia Kennealy-Morrison, Bernard Cornwell…even Stephen King’s Dark Tower series gets some attention! Not all sources seem legitimately relevant (such as the 1995 movie A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), but no one can deny Tichelaar’s thoroughness. This discussion of modern treatments is a great way to trace the legend’s influence, although Tichelaar does mix in a lot of these analyses in the earlier sections of the book, to distracting effect. I’d have preferred that he keep all the modern novels that deal with Arthur’s children in this final section, rather than sprinkling a lot of his discussion of them in the earlier sections as well.

As the subtitle indicates, Tichelaar is interested in the way Arthur’s children have been used by various authors. He believes in the possibility of a historical Arthur and goes to great lengths to see if any of the sons and daughters mentioned stand a chance of also being historical, or if not, then at least part of the earliest stories. Mostly this is done by checking what is said of them against the more venerable facts of older traditions. Tichelaar’s detailed examinations of the conflicting theories of various authors and later scholars is welcome, though often confusing for someone like me. I feel that many of the theories Tichelaar brings up rely too heavily on literary or mythical analogues, such as similarities in names and story events—many of which sound unlikely to a non-specialist. However, Tichelaar knows that the flexibility of Arthurian legend is such that it is extremely difficult to be dogmatic on almost anything. When discussing the more far-fetched theories of other scholars (such as the death of Llacheu coming from the tale of a Welsh solar god, or Norma Goodriche’s theory that Lancelot and Mordred were brothers because the Irish gods Lugh and Dylan might be interpreted to be brothers), he often comments on their unlikelihood. All the same, with subject matter as nebulous as this, it’s good to treat all legitimate possibilities seriously.

I cannot claim to know how exhaustive Tichelaar’s work really is, but it appears very thorough. I found King Arthur’s Children to be very interesting, and I’m glad to have it in my Arthurian collection.

Book Review: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle

Title: A Wrinkle in Time
Series: First in the Time Quintet, but each book works as standalone
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Pages: 232
Published: 1962
Spoiler-free Synopsis: On a dark and stormy night, three strange visitors whisk away three children for an interplanetary adventure to fight an evil shadow that threatens the universe.
Reason for Beginning: My fifth grade teacher had read it to the class, and I remember it being good. Since it’s apparently a classic of children’s lit and sci-fi, I was eager to revisit it.
Reason for Finishing: It was refreshing to read a story that developed naturally, organically, without undue reliance on simple plot formulae.
Would I reread the story? Sure, but not soon. It’s a fast read with some interesting ideas, and can be easily revisited. Took me about four days of casual reading to finish. Sharply paced. Good for reading in bed, when you are tired but want to fill your mind with some interesting adventure before drifting into dreams.
Would I reread this author? Yes. She’s got good ideas, knows how to communicate them, creates charming characters, and has at least four other books in this loose series that I intend to read soon-ish.
Recommendation: Especially for those interested in children’s novels and young-adult science fiction and fantasy. It’s also probably a great introduction to novel-reading for kids who haven’t been pulled in by the likes of Harry Potter and its copycats. But even for adults this book is good fun and has enough substance to make one think.

Key Thoughts

As an adventure story with dashes of philosophy, A Wrinkle in Time is excellent. L’Engle has real ideas that she wants to impart, and she generally finds the right images and story elements to convey them. The book’s pace never lags nor seems hasty. Just the right amount of character and setting development is given before the story launches into its exciting premise. In her descriptive style, L’Engle mentions only details that are important or helpful, and does not waste her readers’ time with unnecessary diversions. She generally knows what she wants to say, and says it in a focused and entertaining manner.

The characters are strongly defined and likable. Meg Murry represents what most preteen girls probably think of themselves, and her appeal is that of every awkward, good-hearted geek. “I hate being an oddball,” she complains to her mother, and repeatedly calls herself ugly or “repulsive-looking,” even though we are assured by her new friend Calvin O’Keefe that she has “dream-boat” eyes when she takes off her glasses. It was sweet to see the two of them become friends and, at least in Meg’s case, be utterly oblivious to the sparks of innocent first love. If I have one problem with Calvin, a physically gawky but sharply intelligent and perceptive boy, it’s that he seems extremely forward romantically with Meg. Their ages are never stated, but Meg appears to be about thirteen, and thus the older Calvin is about fifteen. Those two years are a huge gap, especially in the perception of kids that age, but Calvin has no qualms taking Meg’s hand without her permission, taking off her glasses to tell her she’s beautiful, or, later, outright kissing her. I suppose that’s just part of his character – that is, being fearlessly forward with people and never masking his feelings – but it feels a little jarring, considering his age. Meg’s little brother Charles Wallace has a similar problem from my view – I like him well enough, but L’Engle states that he is five years old, when his diction and ability to conceive complex ideas is that of an adult (think Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, but not played for comedy). Of course he is supposed to be a special genius, possibly telepathic, but five years still feels too much a stretch– I’d accept him easier if he were closer to eight or nine years old. Still, I like them both, especially Calvin, whose good sense and moral strength make him an interesting character and a good model for young boys.

At times it felt like A Wrinkle in Time utilizes a cosmology borrowed from C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and simplified for preteens, to the point where all the theological complexity of eldils, unfallen planets, Deep Heaven, and spiritual rebellion is reduced to a war between Light and Darkness. This is not a bad thing; the details and meaning of Lewis’ invented cosmology can be difficult to untangle even for sophisticated readers. Perhaps for this reason his trilogy has remained fairly obscure, even for his fans (Lewisians?). In A Wrinkle in Time young readers are introduced to the idea of every thing in existence being linked to each other naturally by the praise they give God, their Creator. The stars are angels that battle a Dark Thing that spreads like an inky shadow throughout the universe and who seek to inspire mortal creatures to fight it also, whether or not the mortals realize it. Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are shown the Dark Thing engulfing Earth and are told that it cuts off a planet’s possibility of communication with other planets and retards intellectual and creative growth. On the alien planet of Camazotz, this Evil is given a personality and a pounding rhythm by which it seduces people to give up independent thought and surrender their wills to its purposes. It thrives on anger, fear, and despair, and the only way to defeat it is through…love.

All this is good, but I wish L’Engle would have developed more the religious implications of her story. Characters, even aliens, quote verses of Scripture with some frequency when seeking answers and help, but they almost never identify the words as from the Bible, or discuss their spiritual meaning and religious context. And take this passage, where Mrs. Whatsit (a star-angel disguised as an old woman) explains the universe-spanning fight against Evil:

‘And we’re not alone, you know, children,’ came Mrs Whatsit, the comforter. ‘All through the universe it’s being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, how there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.’
‘“Who have our fighters been?’ Calvin asked.
‘Oh, you must know them, dear,’ Mrs Whatsit said.
Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, ‘And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
‘“Jesus!’ Charles Wallace said. ‘Why of course, Jesus!’
‘Of course!’ Mrs Whatsit said. ‘Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.’
‘“Leonardo da Vinci?’ Calvin suggested tentatively. ‘And Michelangelo?’
‘And Shakespeare,’ Charles Wallace called out, ‘and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!’
Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. ‘And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!’ (100-101)

The qualifications for being a great fighter of the Powers of Darkness seem to be fame, notable accomplishments, and being counter-cultural – yet none of these are intrinsically good traits, morally. L’Engle lists Jesus alongside men who did not live their lives to glorify God, and by implication equates them. Jesus, of course, was no mere moral teacher, but L’Engle neither highlights His uniqueness as the Son of God nor explores what spiritual good, if any, exists in the lives and works of the other men. This is highly disappointing. From a purely literary perspective her point is not developed enough, and from a Christian perspective it is rather alarming.

A Wrinkle in Time is a fun and fascinating little book, a theological science fiction adventure fit for bright children and anyone older. In the following books of the Time Quintet I hope to see how L’Engle develops her cosmology and her endearing family of characters.

Look out for my Day 16 post on the Book Meme, coming before the day is out! David tessers away

Other Reviews
kodama @ Crescent Moon Book Reviews
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Amy Paterson @ Reading Log

Book Review: “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliff

Title: The Eagle of the Ninth
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
Series: No, though it forms a thematic trilogy with The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers.
Published: 1954
Pages: 255
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Around A.D. 117, the Ninth Legion marched north of Agricola’s Wall to deal with an uprising of Scottish tribesmen and was never seen again. Years later, the commander’s son, Marcus Aquila, decides to venture north to find the lost Eagle standard of his father, taking with him only Esca, the former British slave who has become his friend. The Eagle means Rome, honor, and good faith kept – but in the hands of Rome’s enemies, it could become a powerful weapon.
Reason for Rereading: The release of the film adaptation The Eagle prompted me to return to the book, some of which I’d forgot.
Reason for Finishing: It’s simply a really good story, exceptionally well told.
Story Re-readability: There are reasons this is considered a legitimate classic of both young adult literature and historical fiction in general; reasons I hope to expound below. This was my third read, and I can’t wait until I have a good excuse to return to it again.
Author Re-readability: Sutcliff is one of the very few authors whose books I will buy just on her name alone, as long as I have enough money available and it’s a book I don’t own. Her prose style is so consistently graceful, warm, and personal, that rereading her books feels like reminiscing about shared halcyon days with a fond old friend, and reading a new book by her feels like catching up on the life of a good friend whom you haven’t seen in a long time.
Recommended For: Surely everyone could get something from Sutcliff’s writing, but those who might especially appreciate The Eagle of the Ninth are: history buffs, particularly of Roman and “Dark Age” history, those who love adventure stories, and writers (because anyone who loves words and the good use of words should appreciate Sutcliff’s work)

More information on this title: HistoricalNovels.info Continue reading “Book Review: “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliff”

Book Review: “Taliesin” by Stephen R. Lawhead

Title: Taliesin
Series: Book One of The Pendragon Cycle
Author: Stephen R. Lawhead
Pages: 486
Published: 1987
Spoiler-free Synopsis:Taliesin is the remarkable adventure of Charis, the Atlantean princess who escaped the terrible devastation of her homeland, and of the fabled seer and druid prince Taliesin, singer at the dawn of the age. It is the story of an incomparable love that joined two worlds amid the fires of chaos, and spawned the miracles of Merlin…and Arthur the king.” (Back cover)
Reason for Beginning: Arthurian fiction! Plus I’d heard of it before and just wanted to try it out.
Reason for Finishing: Good book!
Story Re-readability: Maybe a couple years from now. I’m more interested in getting to the other books in the series than in rereading this. But since it seems that a lot of little things are being set up that will have huge payoffs later on, maybe when I’m done with the series it would be neat to reread Taliesin and understand more of them.
Author Re-readability: Yeah, I like Lawhead’s style, for the most part. It’s straightforward, detail-driven in most of the right ways, and fairly textured and colorful. Lawhead doesn’t reach the level of sharpness and poetry of someone like Guy Gavriel Kay, nor the mythic resonance of J.R.R. Tolkien, nor the textured grace of Rosemary Sutcliff (though he tries). At worst he can skirt the edge of purple prose in a way that brings you out of the story a little bit. His handling of especially dramatic character arcs is a bit rocky. But most of the time his writing style works well for the story he is telling. His integration of historical research is top-notch. He’s written a bunch of other books on topics ranging from Robin Hood to St. Patrick, and even some urban fantasy ones, apparently, and I definitely want to try them all.
Recommendation: Fans of Arthurian fiction will especially want to check this series out for its genuinely interesting take on the legend, but fans of high fantasy in general will probably appreciate it too. Continue reading “Book Review: “Taliesin” by Stephen R. Lawhead”