writing about thinking about writing

Readux: Something Wicked This Way Comes Edition

Title: Something Red

Author: Douglas Nicholas

Published: 2010

Date Started: October 8, 2014 Date Finished: October 26, 2014

Rating (out of 5): ★★

Every book has a story: I like to try to read one scary novel a year. I’m a terrible sissy, but I love a good horror novel, so I have to limit my exposure with careful choosing. Honestly, in my limited experience, I’ve never read one horror novel I didn’t like. Dracula, The Woman in Black, and The Haunting of Hill House are books I constantly praise and recommend. Last year there was an article in The Huffington Post that had a list of new horror novels, and among them was Something Red. I held onto that title in my brain library and finally bought it early in the new year (before my brain library could fail me), just to hold onto it until October.

Hob began to feel an unease of spirit, an oppression. The sensation grew swiftly till his bodily woes shrank beside it. He looked left at the slowly passing forest, rightward across the ripping, smoking haunches to the trackside brush and more trees, climbing away to the west. He felt breathless and ill. He felt like a coney in a snare, and he could not tell why.

If combining or defying genres is truly all the rage, then Something Red is one of the most fashionable reads around. Part gothic horror, part historical, part coming-of-age, part fantasy, it weaves a single story from all of these threads, an uncommon tapestry of a tale. A group of travellers are venturing through the woods in a harsh winter in 13th century England, seeking sanctuary from the cold. Their leader is Molly, an Irish exile and wisewoman, trained in healing and magic. There is also her granddaughter, Nemain; Jack Brown, a former Crusader, whose exploits in the Holy Land left him silent and scarred; and Hob, an orphan boy chosen by Molly some time ago as an addition to her troupe.

They finally find sanctuary at a monastery hidden high in the mountains, where they meet several other groups of pilgrims and travellers taking shelter from the storm. All have similar tales of an eerie feeling on the road, the sense of being followed, of being hunted. After a monk is savagely killed, they all face the trepidation of returning to the road on their separate journeys and some groups decide to travel together. Molly’s troupe travels alone to their second checkpoint, a fortified inn. But bloodshed finds them again, and the farther they travel, the more violence they find.

Nicholas’ history as a poet is clearly on display even in this horror novel, rather the most unlikely of places. Though there are long periods of silence between the characters, the woods and the mountains constantly take on sublime lives of their own, sometimes protective, sometimes dangerous. The 13th century is early for what we call “gothic,” but Nicholas frequently uses the hallmarks of Victorian ghost stories to tell this monstrous story. Hidden monasteries, foreign travellers, a handsome ruler who may or may not be trusted. And what gothic horror novel would be complete without a parallel subplot of sexual awakening?

Something Red celebrates all the best qualities of horror, history, fantasy, and romance… if you can call torn-apart bodies and monster fights in a castle a celebration (which I certainly do). And for all the jumps and supernatural scares it provides, its less bloody subplot is no less potent. What it means to grow up, what it means to be overwhelmed by those first romantic urges, and is that really any less powerful than what it means to change form and howl at the moon?



Readux: Magic Dance Edition

Title: Neverwhere

Author: Neil Gaiman

Published: 1996

Date Started: September 10, 2014 Date Finished: September 16, 2014

Rating (out of 5): ★★

Every book has a story: I distinctly remember being quite young and perusing the bookstore, and on several occasions picking up a certain book and reading the synopsis on the back: a young man finds a young woman bleeding on a London street. I didn’t know who Neil Gaiman was (yet) and even though I looked at the book again and again, it was not one of the hundreds I ever got my parents to buy for me. As the years passed and I not only found out who Neil Gaiman was but became a crazy fan, I had it in mind that I really should read Neverwhere. I could hardly call myself a Neil Gaiman fan without having read it, could I? Well, I did anyway. For several years, I was a Neil Gaiman fan poseur. But no longer!

The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself.

Despite the fact that I live in a world and amongst a nerdy people who have basically accepted Neil Gaiman as our benevolent overlord, I didn’t know much more about Neverwhere beyond “a young man finds a young woman bleeding on a London street.” And he did! But that was pretty early on, and the plot quickly moved on to explore London Below.

The young man in question, Richard Mayhew, finds the bloodied young woman, Door, indeed on a London street and takes her to his home in an offer to patch her up. This basically decent and seemingly innocuous thing, though, invites Richard into a world with magic and darkness and angels and the Marquis de Carabas. They are all denizens of the world of London Below, a land made up of the forgotten and discarded bits and buildings and people of London Above. Door is trying to solve the mystery of her family’s murders, Hunter is her formidable bodyguard, the aforementioned Marquis is the sometimes-leader, sometimes-liar, and Richard is along for the ride.

I’ll never know reading Neverwhere any other way, but I have to say that it was quite delightful to move through both London Above and London Below and be familiar with London myself. And now I’ll never be able to separate Earl’s Court Station from the image of the Earl himself.

By comparison to the rest of the Neil Gaiman oeuvre, Neverwhere was not as heavy as The Ocean at the End of the Lane nor as daunting as American Gods. I think what it brought most to mind was Stardust in its “whoop, here we go on an adventure!” kind of way. But what Neverwhere most reminded me of was Labyrinth. Yes, the movie with Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie and all the puppets to haunt your dreams.

In Neverwhere, we are not meant to ask questions of backstory and deeper motive and more subplots and all these things. We are just meant to go along for the ride. Take the explanations as they are given, believe in everyone’s causes for action, but trust no one. Lean on your “everyman” protagonist as your guide. Just enjoy getting dropped in the labyrinth and try to find your way out.

(I have to say, so far as this comparison goes, Jareth the Goblin King > Angel Islington.)

(Jareth the Goblin King > everyone.)

When Richard finally returns to his life in London Above, where he doesn’t have to scream for his life every twenty minutes or thrash in sewer water or run headlong into the dark, he misses his adventures in London Below. When he finally makes his choice to leave behind all the cushiness and comfort of London Above and steps through the door with the Marquis de Carabas, I imagined that they joined Door in her room for a dance party with the complete cast of the book, rocking out to “Magic Dance.”

And not only was Neverwhere all these wonderful things, it was also just the palate-cleanser I needed after the disappointments of The Mists of Avalon and Hild. Sometimes I can forego the politics and the grimdark and the historical accuracy and really just sit back and enjoy a simple adventure.

Readux: Excalibur Edition

Title: The Mists of Avalon

Author: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Published: 1982

Date Started: June 20, 2014 Date Finished: September 6, 2014

Rating (out of 5): ★★

Every book has a story: The Mists of Avalon is one of those book that I felt obligated to read. It has gone down as a major contribution to the fantasy genre and as a strong impression made on behalf of female fantasy writers. Reading it was a study in fantasy literature… and maybe that’s why it felt a bit like homework.

But this is my truth; I who am Morgaine tell you these things, Morgaine who was in later days called Morgan le Fay.

In all the many, many, many hours I spent reading The Mists of Avalon, I mentally wrote this epic review that could nearly rival the books itself in scale and bitterness. Now that I’m done… I kind of just want to throw my two cents in and be done.

I don’t mean that to sound quite as bad as it does. (Maybe I do…) When The Mists of Avalon was on a roll, it was fantastic. It was tragic and romantic and violent and vengeful and all those things I tend to like. However, in between the fantastic bits tended to be 200 pages of Morgaine wanting Lancelet, but not being able to have him; Gwenhwyfar wanting Lancelet, but not being able to have him; Morgaine hating Gwenhwyfar for looking at Lancelet like that; and Gwenhwyfar hating Arthur for looking at Morgaine like that. These are not bad plot points or character developments. These feelings lead to some truly harmful and horrible things done between two women who could have been friends – who probably should have made the effort to be friends considering how the pressures of court life weighed on both of them. But I think if you collect all of the passages that include this kind of behaviour, which covers decades of characters’ adult lives, it comes to be over half of the 800+ page book. And that got really tiring at around page 300.

There’s a great story beneath all of that, about Morgaine and her struggle to return to the literal magic of her childhood, a struggle that leads her too far into her own pride and out of the Goddess’ hands; about Gwenhwyfar living between two men who love her and who love each other; about Viviane and Igraine and Morgause, three sisters who are the personifications of power and obedience and ambition. But that story gets diluted by jealousies and bitterness that with every mention become more and more petty and undermine the strengths of their characters.

The exercise of The Mists of Avalon is that it is the epic legend of Arthur and his Round Table, all from the perspective of female characters. The male characters make many appearances, and certainly exert a lot of force on the story. In fact, perhaps they are saved from my sour feelings by virtue of not featuring in the book as much as their female counterparts.

I lugged this big book around with me for two months. I did take a two-week break because I was going on holidays and no way was I taking The Mists of Avalon on an airplane. I happened to read the much more travel-friendly Outlander during that time in preparation for the premiere of the TV series, but that’s another story for another time. I finally finished reading The Mists of Avalon because last Saturday, I parked myself at Starbucks and did not leave until I had finished that book. Because I wanted it to be over. And that’s not how I wanted to feel about The Mists of Avalon, but there it is.

I think maybe The Mists of Avalon is crushed under its own epic scale. It goes on long enough for heroines to become empowered, sulk/hate other characters, go bad, sulk/hate other characters, decide they will never attempt anything ever again, sulk/hate other characters, try to reclaim their power, and by then I was too exhausted by their pettiness to care anymore. I welcomed the deaths and the fadings-away of the ending.

I’m glad that I read it. It’s one of those books I felt that, as a fantasy writer, I needed to read for the sake of my own education. And I’m relieved that it’s over, and I can’t say it’s something I’ll ever have the will to revisit. Despite all that, though, I think I will always keep it in mind. Point, Marion Zimmer Bradley.

I’m just going to leave this here for anyone who needs cheering up after that.