High entertainment for lovers of fantasy. Especially if you’re the kind who likes to play as a rogue or mage-thief in RPGs.
a.k.a. Mistborn: The Final Empire Series: Functions as a standalone, but is followed by The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages. This Mistborn Original Trilogy is itself followed by another series in the same universe, called the Wax and Wayne Series. Author:Brandon Sanderson Pages: 643 Published: 2006, Tor Books Spoiler-free Synopsis: Teenaged thief Vin falls in with a crew of rogues, and learns that she, like their dashing leader Kelsier, is a Mistborn, a person born with a rare ability to magically manipulate metals (Say that 5x fast!). Using a variety of magical and criminal skills, the crew plans a rebellion against the Lord Ruler, a tyrant of immense and mysterious power who has ruled for a thousand years and just might be immortal. Reason for Beginning: Accolades online gave the impression that it was a fresh, creative twist on high fantasy. Plus, I liked the title and cover art. Reason for Finishing: Excellent, page-turning writing. Plot and characters both kept me invested, while the pacing kept me up late reading many nights. Story Re-readability: Moderate. I’m more immediately interested in pursuing the next book in the series, and perhaps other titles by Sanderson. It has enough depth to reward at least a second reread, and the Thrilling Adventure and Intrique quotients should be high enough to counteract any restlessness from knowing the story’s conclusion in advance. Prose Style: Sanderson’s style is approachable and direct, keeping the story focused and the characters lively. He successfully engages with some fairly serious themes without getting ponderous or preachy. In prose, there is a definite preference for directness, sometimes at the expense of beauty of phrase, but that seems the right side to err on for this story.
Recommendation: High entertainment for lovers of fantasy. Especially if you’re the kind who likes to play as a rogue or mage-thief in RPGs.
Billowing cloaks. Misty streets. Shadowy figures watching from rooftop perches, working to protect an intimidated populace from evil, corrupt forces. Whispered plans in secret hideouts. Unraveling conspiracies rooted in ancient legends. Warm banter between comrades who have mischief in their eyes, noble intentions in their hearts. A bit of magic. Romance, dancing and more magic.
I’ve always loved these imaginative elements, especially running together in the same story. This very blog is named for one of my earliest characters, the elusive, noble Twilight’s Warden, whose stories have had all of them in some form or another. Reading Mistborn is almost like experiencing my childhood daydreams sifted through someone else’s mind. The base elements of my own daydreams are here, but the forms they take are new and exciting to me. I think you’ll enjoy them too.
The hook of Mistborn is the new magic system Sanderson developed, called Allomancy. Characters who are born with this power can manipulate metals in specific ways. They ingest metals in powder form and use their power to “burn” the metal reserves in their stomach. For example, burning iron and focusing on a metal object Pulls it towards you, while burning steel Pushes it away. But Push against something heavier than your own body, say a metal door, and you will be the one Pushed back! It’s a tight, exciting system, with clear rules to define the powers and their limitations, while still allowing room for creative results and surprising, but logical, discoveries.
If Allomancy is the hook to set the book apart, the beating heart is still the characters and their fun, heartfelt interactions. The world they live in, the Final Empire, may be a depressing place, full of ash and haze, and drained of vivid colors, but Kelsier and his crew of rogues laugh, banter, and dream big in spite of it all. One of Sanderson’s themes is that of friendship and trust, a lesson that our heroine Vin struggles to learn. As an orphan of the slave class, raised on the streets as a thief, she’s been taught her whole life not to trust anyone, not even the criminals who take her in and work with her. It’s a shock when she realizes that Kelsier is actually friends with his “Merry Men”; they genuinely like and trust each other, and want to include her in what passes for a family. To Sanderson’s credit, he doesn’t gloss over this by making it an easy transition for Vin. A teenager who has only known betrayal, disappointment, and selfishness from those supposed to be close to her isn’t easily going to learn how to trust. She struggles with it the entire book. It’s an affecting, compassionate portrayal, and I was glad that as she began to put these new virtues into practice, she also was able to teach Kelsier and his friends a thing or two. Nobody’s perfect, everyone can learn something from each other.
Mistborn manages the deft trick of being an action-packed, character-focused epic. It takes great joy in some classic fantasy tropes, while carefully overturning others. The magic is integral to the setting and story, and provides avenues for the characters to learn more about themselves. While it doesn’t strive for the sort of high poetry or mythopoeia that much other high fantasy does, it presents a compelling story in an entertaining, substantial package, without any real flaws to speak of. It also has a number of twists and secrets that I haven’t even hinted at here, but that worked very well for me. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think most readers will too.
You can read the story direct here. On the off chance that you’re interested in short stories based off odd photos like this one, I welcome you to check it out and let us know what you think! Also be sure to read the very entertaining second-place story by Michael Atkinson.
The website for Locus magazine — which I admit an unfamiliarity with — is hosting an open poll, which closes tomorrow on November 30th, asking readers to vote for the best novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories in the genres of fantasy and science fiction from the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century. Fortunately, they allow for multiple votes, and have conveniently broken down the categories.
Since my reading of the shorter literary forms, and of science fiction, is extremely limited, I didn’t vote for any short stories, novellas, or novelettes, and only a few sci-fi novels. For the fantasy novel ballot I filled all ten slots.
My Short List of Great Sci-fi Novels from the 20th Century
Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
That Hideous Strengthby C.S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
Ringworldby Larry Niven
Fahrenheit 451by Ray Bradbury
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxyby Douglas Adams (which I actually forgot to include on the ballot! Oops.)
Again, I haven’t read much science fiction, and fewer still that has really impressed me.
My Short List of Great Fantasy Novels from the 20th Century
The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobeby Lewis
The Hobbitby Tolkien
Watership Downby Richard Adams
A Wrinkle in Timeby Madeleine L’Engle
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
The Last Unicornby Peter Beagle
The Neverending Storyby Michael Ende
If on a winter’s night a travelerby Italo Calvino
The Black Cauldronby Lloyd Alexander
I’ve read a fair bit of fantasy novels.
It was painful to leave certain books and authors out, and I admit that my list is very close to my list of personal favorites. I just couldn’t fit in Neil Gaiman nor Patricia McKillip, nor Lawhead, nor even Rosemary Sutcliff (though on a longer list I might put her Tristan and Iseult).
But Tolkien and Lewis are givens, of course. I doubt many would argue against A Wrinkle in Time and The Last Unicorn, although the former is frequently categorized as science fiction; I personally find it to be solidly fantasy inspired by some scientific ideas. A very neat blending, certainly.
I finished Peter Pan not too long ago and became convinced it is one of the most important fairy tales that English literature has produced, as well as one of the most beautiful.
It has been many years since I read Michael Ende, but The Neverending Story was a powerful reading experience, and the 80’s movie was formative for my childhood. I look forward to reading it again with adult eyes, but I’m fairly confident in its position here.
I’m using The Black Cauldron to stand in for the entire Chronicles of Prydain. I couldn’t bear to leave out Lloyd Alexander’s prolific, always entertaining and often moving work.
Italo Calvino is a tricky writer, and If on a winter’s night a devilishly tricky novel. I’m not even sure it’s fantasy, but it feels safer to put it here rather than in science fiction or realism. It’s the most wildly original, experimental novel I’ve ever read. Parts of it I hated, most of it I loved. It must have been a torture to conceive and write, but it was certainly a pleasure to read. Even if no one else reads it, it deserves a place on a list like this.
In the comment section, I recommended that there should be a poll for the best pre-1900 fantasy and science fiction; the real foundational stuff. Everything from Homer to Edmund Spenser to Jules Verne and George MacDonald and Hans Christian Andersen. Generally my favorite stuff. +)
You’ve all got until tomorrow to vote, so go to it! Which fantasy and sci-fi books do you consider the most important and the best?
HEY HEY! THIS IS MY 200TH POST! THIS GIVES ME THE RIGHT TO USE ALL-CAPS, WHICH IS NORMALLY A CAPITAL OFFENSE IN MY BOOK! HEY HEY! THIS IS LIKE, SPECIAL, OR SOMETHING! +) [But seriously guys, thanks for reading my blog and having unbelievable conversations and all. Otherwise this would be a very quiet, very sad corner of the Internet.]
Title: Digger Author/Artist: Ursula Vernon Pages: Difficult to say, because the numbering is disorderly and unreliable, but the web address count is 921. Published: February 1, 2007 to March 17, 2011 Status: COMPLETE Spoiler-free Synopsis: A pragmatic, good-hearted wombat engineer gets wrapped up in a quest involving dead pagan gods, talking statues, vampiric squash, the social politics of an anthropomorphic hyena tribe, a possibly-demonic shadowchild who wants to be good, an oracular slug with an attitude, a shrew pirate-troll-awesomething with even more attitude, mythologies so tangled even the god Ganesh has trouble working them out, and far too much magic for her comfort. All Digger really wants is to stop being lost and go home. Reason for Beginning: Ursula Vernon has been known on deviantArt and Elfwood for her oddball drawings and clever, slightly-insane explanations for them. I like her creative weirdness, and her sense of humor, and wanted to see if it would hold out over a longer story. Reason for Finishing: It did. And fortunately, the central characters are all very interesting, mostly likable folks, and the mythology Vernon creates is intriguing. Story Re-readability: While the overarching plot might only beg for one or two rereads at most, to catch all the details, individual pages and passages make for fun and satisfying rereads on their own, on account of Vernon filling every nook and cranny with something uniquely funny, touching, ominous, and/or character-building. Author Re-readability: Definitely. She knows how to keep the characters and setting interesting even when not much appears to be happening plotwise. Artist Re-viewability: Her main weakness seems to be drawing human faces; they often don’t succeed in communicating the characters’ age or even expressions very well. Fortunately, most of the characters are non-human, which she manages much better. The stark black-and-white art at times causes problems when she’s drawing particularly complicated objects or an odd perspective, because with all the lines and shadows it can be hard to make out the details, but on the whole it creates a heavy, ominous atmosphere. Vernon’s real specialty, though, is creating weird new creature designs, often of a goofy variety, and then giving them a certain dignity; check out her fierce hyena tribes, bridge trolls, and oracular slugs below. There are many memorable, even iconic, images in this strip. Recommendation: Aye! It has an effective mix of pathos, comedy, and mystery. Digger herself (yes, the wombat is female) is one of the more original and likable webcomic protagonists I’ve met, and you get to know her very well. Where the story becomes more interesting than just a fantasy adventure is when it throws in some surprisingly difficult moral quandaries that challenge Digger and engender some thoughtful discussions among the characters, as well as, hopefully, the readers.
The thing is, I’m a wombat. And no self-respecting wombat has anything to do with magic. It’s dangerous, but mostly it’s just bad taste.
This is a peculiar twist on the idea of the fantasy quest, but an entertaining one. If you read mainly for the plot, you might get frustrated, because it takes some time to get going. For the most part, and despite heavily featuring prophecies and divine intervention, the plot of Digger reveals itself naturally in small stages, like one of the dark underground caverns through which our heroine often walks with her lantern held high and her sensitive nose sniffing the dusty air. It takes quite awhile for the main quest to get moving, but honestly, I didn’t miss it. The build-up is every bit as entertaining and fascinating as the climax – perhaps even moreso, in fact.
The naming of Ganesh, a Hindu deity, would seem to set this story in India, yet the designs of the humans look either more oriental or, in the case of the village nurse or a local ruffian, very Caucasian. I don’t know if this is due to Vernon’s afore-mentioned difficulty with drawing humans, to laxity of design, or to deliberate artistic choice, but it does work to make the setting rather vague. In the long run, this probably helps the story, as it has enough exoticism to feel different from standard Western fantasy while still retaining a certain timeless quality. Sort of timeless. I mean, this is still a pre-industrial society we’re talking about.
Digger herself is an eminently likable main character, full of common sense from her toe-claws to the tips of her furry ears, and she functions as a reader stand-in. Chatty and reflective in a down-to-earth way, her observations and opinions on everything from temple architecture to a village nurse’s medical practices make for a charming and often funny running commentary on the story’s world, serving to deepen the worldbuilding as well as develop her character. She, like all wombats, loves the art of engineering but distrusts things like magic (which the dwarves fiddle with too much) and religion (which, being wholly of the pagan and polytheistic kind in this story, is disorganized and full of dangerous or untrustworthy spirits).
Now, at this point, I should probably tell you about some buried trauma of mine so that you’ll be willing to open up to me and tell me whatever. But frankly, I don’t have any buried traumas or dark secrets or anything. Well, I’m scared of ducks, but it’s really not the same thing.
Her character feels consistent: she never denies that gods and magic exist, she just goes out of her way to avoid them whenever possible. When, at the story’s beginning, she finds herself lost and confused in a bewitched tunnel far from home and crawls out of a hole into a temple to the Indian god Ganesh, she is noticeably disappointed. And yet, because the spirit of the god’s statue can talk (it is careful to inform us that it is only the spirit of the statue representing Ganesh, not Ganesh himself), and can talk quite sensibly and courteously at that, Digger addresses it politely, even while honestly admitting her distaste for the supernatural.
Most of the supporting characters are equally entertaining, and some of them nearly as developed as Digger:
Digger: You’re a lifesaver. Statue: On occasion, yes.
It is Ganesh—or the statue, rather, but Digger just gives up and conflates the two—who is responsible for kicking the plot proper off. He’s a fun personality, sometimes speaking grandiose words of prophecy, other times letting out an eloquently snarky comment, but always fairly humble and polite. The story’s cosmology is extremely vague, but seems to be loosely Hindu. After all, the character Ganesh is clearly a supernatural spirit who inhabits the statue. Yet he insists that he is not the actual Hindu god Ganesh, but merely the god’s representation in this particular temple. It doesn’t make much sense, but Ganesh himself admits it is confusing, and Digger is less concerned with pagan theology than with how Ganesh can help her get home.
Ed: Of course It remembers! It remembers the rabbit It ate yesterday too, but rabbit still gone. Memory not life.
The hyena Ed is perhaps the comic’s most fascinating and iconic character. Gentler than a puppy, more joyous and forgiving than a child, his outward appearance of simplicity betrays a mind and heart that have dealt with some of the most difficult issues, morally and emotionally, that it’s possible to imagine even in real life. The secrets of his story are revealed slowly, late in the comic, but prove crucial to Digger’s growth and understanding. I like Ed a lot – it’s almost impossible not to love him. I believe that a truly good character, well-portrayed, is inherently more interesting than a villain, and Ed is proof of this. For all the interesting flawed characters in this story, it is Ed, the kind and loving soul who made a heartbreakingly difficult choice based on his values, who may be Ursula Vernon’s greatest achievement.
Murai: The Veiled serve the gods, Honored Digger. Comparative mythology and hand-to-hand combat are our specialities.
The character who is the least fun is the girl Murai. She’s apprenticed to the Veiled monks who guard the temple of Ganesh and supposedly act as his police force, but have their own agenda. She’s another gentle soul whom Digger feels compelled to take care of, and then becomes surprisingly crucial to the quest. As a character, she’s okay, but because the Veiled are always, well, veiled, Murai can only express herself through her eyes, since we can’t see her mouth. While Vernon tries hard to make the character emote, Murai still comes off blander and less interesting than the others around her. The fact that she’s sometimes either insane or possessed by a prophetic spirit only makes it harder to figure out her own personality. Personally, I thought she got in the way more often than not, and I wish Vernon hadn’t made her so central to the later parts of the story.
The artwork is always engaging, sometimes powerful. While I mentioned some of its weaknesses in the summary section, the truth is that Digger is still a joy to look at. Environments—particularly the forest—are well-evoked, and the level of detail is usually very pleasant and balanced. As vague as the setting is (vaguely Indian), it acquires specificity through all the little surprises Vernon adds to the corners and backgrounds of each page. Look at Ganesh’s library, pictured below. Little rats and mice nose around scrolls and books with titles like Ryleh Text and Chickens of the World II.
Or this beautiful dark forest, where a trenchcoated and fedoraed lizard sidles into the bottom right corner, probably pondering the mystery of who killed his late partner or something. It has nothing to do with the plot, and this little guy doesn’t ever appear again. But it adds a welcome whimsy that’s not out of keeping with the weirdness of the world as a whole.
Wombat ethics are pretty straightforward, and were not meant for situations this complicated unless geology is involved.
The characters, humor, and artwork are enough to make Digger excellent entertainment, but what gives it resonance are the discussions of morality and mythology that crop up more and more as the story progresses. The creature Shadowchild is so-named by Digger because he appears to be made out of shadow material, and has the demeanor and innocence of a child. He doesn’t know what he is or what morality is, so Digger finds herself having to explain to him what’s right and wrong. This proves difficult. As a Christian, I found these segments interesting because even though I know what the absolute standard for truth and morality is, Digger (and presumably Ursula Vernon) takes a loosely agnostic stance on theology (not denying the existence of gods, but rather their relevancy and utility), but finds herself trying to defend what her conscience tells her are universal truths. She does a pretty good job; while obviously insufficient from the standpoint of Christian knowledge, her explanations avoid complete relativism and do illustrate the difficulty of articulating deeply-held beliefs.
Other times, Digger herself is directly faced with thorny moral quandaries. The most prominent and interesting one I cannot, unfortunately, tell you, for fear of spoiling important plot points, but it involves Digger’s need and desire to take part in a tribal ritual that—very contrary to her desire and morals—involves a kind of cannibalism of the dead as a way of honoring them. It was a case where I would still say that the tribal culture is wrong, but Digger’s choice was likely made for righteous reasons and, in context, may have been morally acceptable. But it’s a tricky case, and undoubtedly one that has come up for real-life Christian missionaries before. I’m glad that Vernon is able to ask questions like this in her story.
More troublesome is a section where one character relates a myth—possibly true within the comic’s world—that quite overtly echoes the Christ story in certain key elements. It begins on page 366. It calls the Christ figure the Good Man who was revered as a god, who was born miraculously by his mysterious mother who was revered as a goddess, and he healed the sick, raised the dead, and converted politicians (to which Digger cries out “Now I know this is a myth!”) until one day he was attacked and mortally wounded by the families and friends of the people he hadn’t cured and raised from the dead. He is carried by his goddess-mother back across the sea over which she had originally come, and never seen again. There is no talk of sin, grace, redemption, or any kind of salvation, but there is a promise to return. The story is powerfully told through Vernon’s artwork, but in the context of the whole webcomic it doesn’t end up amounting to much. It helps explain just one minor plot point and never shows up again. The elements that resemble the Christian gospel feel forced to do so, and contrast oddly with the parts that are clearly un-Christian. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. If this were presumed to be a retelling of the actual Christian gospel—as Catherynne Valente tries to do in Habitation of the Blessed—it would be easier to see this as blasphemy and a perversion of the gospel. But Vernon doesn’t make that claim, and is rather just telling a myth she made up for her fantasy series That story, however, goes out of its way to use Christian imagery and language. She doesn’t seem to be critiquing actual Christianity, but it left me feeling rather uncomfortable, for she did co-opt the story of my Lord to tell another one that is untrue and much less meaningful.
Likewise leaving me uncomfortable is the great quest—the main plot arc—which involves killing a god (possibly two). Again, these are definitively pagan gods, weaker even in Vernon’s world than those of Greek, Norse, or Egyptian mythology, but it still reflects an idea of divinity which is increasingly common in our time, that of any idea of divinity as pathetic and weak, unworthy of reverence, and able to be conquered and killed by man. The god Ganesh is the only positive portrayal of divinity, and even then it’s only his statue who appears, and he’s hardly powerful, just knowledgeable and wise. As a Christian and an amateur classicist, I cannot be offended by the negative portrayal of deities which are explicitly very far from the true God I know. But as a Christian and a person aware of the prevailing trends in popular and academic culture, I am still worried that this is one more work that denigrates the idea of the supernatural, to the elevation of the created over their Creator. It’s a good comic here, a good story, but not without elements a Christian might object to.
So there you have it – a very long review in which I probably left out a great many important things from the comic. To re-iterate, most of the comic is really very funny. The oracular slug is hilarious, as is Surka the shrew who is also a professional troll (and sometimes professional pirate queen, and even the possibly-demonic morally-confused Shadowchild is a great source of comedy. Digger’s internal voice is a delight to read, what with her wry comments on the weirdness about her, and Ed is so cuddly you just want to hug him and give him a cup of tea. But there is some serious stuff going on to balance out the laughs, and the main plot is of a quite dark nature.
Title:The Secret of Kells (2010) IMDb Director: Tomm Moore (yes, two M’s) Voice Actors: Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally Score Composer: Bruno Coulais Length: 75 minutes Rating (US): No MPAA rating; suitable for older children, but beware of a few very intense, scary sequences, including an implied slaughter of village folk Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the Irish monastic community at Kells, young Brendan dreams of becoming a master illuminator, but is frustrated by his Abbot’s obsession with fortifying against the Vikings over book-keeping. Brendan’s hopes are raised when a kooky old monk (and master illuminator!) arrives in Kells with a beautiful and unfinished Bible. In order to help with the book and learn illumination, Brendan must venture outside the walls of Kells, where he meets Aisling, the Fair Folk spirit of the forest. Unfortunately, the Vikings aren’t far behind… Reason for Watching: It was this movie’s Oscar nominations that brought it to my attention, and I’m glad it did, because pretty much everything about it is right down my alley: the Middle Ages, Ireland, a fairy story, elves/fae, Christianity, striking 2D animation, Celtic music… Movie Re-watchability: High. In addition to an enthralling, thoughtful story, the artwork itself is beautifully layered and complex, worthy of many close viewings. Director Re-watchability: This is Tomm Moore’s only completed film that he has directed, so far, and I’m interested in his future work. He has a good grasp of how to match a movie’s visual style with the content of its story, and also knows the value of careful pacing, moments of silence, and simply taking one’s time to do things right. Recommendation: Oh aye. This is a more intelligent and bold movie than we’re used to seeing in the children’s genre, as it has plenty for adults to think about. In fact, I’d wager to say that it’s really an adult movie that can happily be enjoyed by kids as well. Also, it knows how not to break its own magic. There are no pop-culture references to be found, no hipster catchphrases, no easy resolutions. Most modern kids’ movies aspire merely to be a drug to keep the kids quiet for an hour and a half—this one aspires to give them poetry and beauty, and trusts that it will do them good.
[I’ve been very careful to avoid SPOILERS in the review, but do talk about some of the plot.]
Aisling: I’ve lived through many ages. I’ve seen suffering in the darkness. Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light.
The first thing you notice about The Secret of Kells is its visual style, which imitates the flat planes, geometric symbols, and striking colors found in medieval and Celtic art. The effect is lovely, and unlike any other animated film I know of (although it reminds me somewhat of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which took medieval stained-glass windows for inspiration). Inside Kells, the shapes are formed of hard lines and points, often in the staircases, scaffolding, tables, and chairs. The effect is orderly, but sometimes the spatial edges of, say, a room seem to just roll away, and we’re left with a slightly surreal image of the picture’s main object almost hanging in space, as seen in the picture below with the Abbott looking out the tower window. Outside Kells, in Aisling’s forest, Celtic swirls and spirals become more prominent, shifting and swaying with the wind like living things. Here, the sound design gives a tangible reality to the stylized images. Then, when the Vikings arrive, with their fire and metal and violence, everything changes: the colors bleed into stark black and red, perspective suddenly makes the world large and menacing, and the invaders lack detail, appearing as menacing, unthinking monsters. It’s not an accurate depiction of Viking culture, to be sure, but it does reflect the medieval terror of Viking ruthlessness.
You’ll like Brendan, the ginger-headed boy who desperately wants to illustrate books, but tries to respect the wishes of his uncle, the Abbott Cellach (tries, at least, until Brother Aidan gives him an “excuse” for disobeying). Brendan has never left the walls of Kells as long as he can remember. His parents died to the Vikings, and his uncle has taken care of him ever since. He’s a curious and creative boy, though prone to absent-mindedness. Living in safety and peace, he gives nary a thought to the reports of Vikings raids along the coast and islands. His uncle, the Abbott, can think of nothing else. When he should be guiding the spiritual welfare of his monks and the other people living in the settlement of Kells, he instead can only think of designing and building larger and stronger fortifications.
The status quo is upset by the arrival of Brother Aidan* from Iona, fleeing the Vikings. Aidan is the most celebrated illuminator of the times, and he brings with him the unfinished Book of Iona—later to become the Book of Kells, the most complete and beautiful example of medieval illumination and Celtic art we have today. A sprightly, roguish, and rather unorthodox man, Aidan immediately sees that Brendan has immense artistic talent and enlists his aid to finish the Book, but secretly so that the Abbott won’t find out.
As part of their surreptitious work, Aidan sends Brendan into the surrounding Irish forest to collect the special berries for their colored inks. It’s there that Brendan meets Aisling, a white shape-changing fairy girl who claims to be the spirit of the forest. She’s the movie’s most charismatic and entertaining character (easily seen in the movie’s marketing, which disproportionately emphasizes her), and it’s easy to see why. Sometimes a wolf, sometimes a girl, sometimes a flying ghost, she is otherworldly, but possesses a very minxish sense of humor and speaks her mind clearly. When Brendan tries in vain to convince her that he knows how to climb trees, but that the ones he is used to are “smaller,” she laughs and says, “Yeah…like bushes!” She also takes a liking to Brother Aidan’s white cat, Pangur Bán, and in one beautiful instance transforms him into a ghostly creature in order to help Brendan.
The children—for though Aisling is likely very, very old, her personality and appearance are of a young girl—develop a charming rapport, and somehow their teasing and silliness escapes the pit of “hipness” and irreverence that most mainstream fairy tales keep falling into these days, that would rob it of timelessness. Perhaps this is because, for all their childlike qualities, they are not truly irreverent regarding important things. The Abbott frustrates and confuses Brendan, but Brendan still loves and respects him. Aisling doesn’t understand the Christian love for books, but she respects Brendan’s desires even if she doesn’t fully understand them. And the magic itself is taken very seriously.
Perhaps you remember that essay of C.S. Lewis’ where he said that, in fairy stories, you may have humor, but the magic itself must never be laughed at? The Secret of Kells follows that rule. Even the apparently carefree Aisling is terrified of the cave of the pagan god Crom. This ancient Irish deity—or demon impersonating a deity, from the Christian perspective—promotes death and darkness, and is enemy even to Fair Folk. Brendan’s encounter with Crom is one of this laid-back movie’s more tense and interesting moments, as black superstition and fear is challenged by sacred art and creative inspiration in a stunning and surreal battle.
Most of the tension derives from two sources: the Abbott’s increasing anger at Brendan’s disobedience in serving Aidan, and the inevitable approach of the Vikings. While the latter is more terrifying, the former is more interesting. The Abbott is not a villain, but he does fail to see what is truly important. Still, Brendan is wrong to disobey him, and Brother Aidan is wrong to encourage his disobedience, even if for good intentions.
The movie does have a happy ending, though not a traditional one. In a surprising move by the filmmakers, the last ten minutes or so take us through some fifteen or twenty years, quietly observing how these characters grow and mature until they are ready to be reconciled. It was heartwarming and thought-provoking to see how reconciliation and forgiveness were gradually obtained between these three people.
If I have any critique, it is that the story doesn’t actually delve that much into the process and results of illumination. There is talk of creativity, and the amazing brilliance that a master artist can bring to the text he illustrates, and we see Brendan try his hand at it a little bit, here, and there. The Book of Kells (also called the Book of Iona) is frequently praised for its beauty, but rarely shown. In the end, this is okay, because the movie is focused more on the personal journey of Brendan, but the themes of creativity and inspiration would have been stronger had the movie investigated the Book and the principles by which the art was made.
I have mentioned Christianity a few times in this review. To be honest, the movie never explicitly discusses religion or faith, nor does it ever identify the Book of Kells as the Bible (although one can easily find online that it is such). I wish the movie had, but I doubt the filmmakers are Christians, and they wanted to appeal to a wide audience. Still, I think Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald would have liked this story a lot. The Bible is, indeed, the book that turns darkness into light!
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
– John 1:5
*Fun note: Aidan is voiced by Mick Lally, a popular Irish actor, who also played Grandpa Hugh in The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), one of my favorite film fairy stories.
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 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?’
‘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.
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.
There is a moment in this bookwhere 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!