inkyfingersinkymind

writing about thinking about writing

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.

A Not Very Merry Non-Readux: Hild

Title: Hild

Author: Nicola Griffith

Published: 2013

Date Started: May 7, 2014 Date Finished: unfinished

Rating (out of 5): \

Every book has a story: I read some excellent reviews of Hild shortly after it was released in November. With its historical angle and a so-touted strong and spirited protagonist, I didn’t think twice about adding it to my Christmas list. It’s a beautiful hardcover book, and I shlepped it around with me for weeks before it went back to the bookshelf…

The child’s world changed late one afternoon, though she didn’t know it.

Hild sets out to tell the story of the girl who will become Saint Hild of Whitby, an early Christian saint of early Christian Britain. It is set in the seventh century, a time when Britain was divided into several small kingdoms and when cultural and religious allegiances were varied between ancient British paganism, the Saxon pantheon, and this new Christianity brought from Rome, long after Britain has freed itself from the hold of the Roman Empire.

So far, so good, right?

The books begins when Hild is a young child, in third person, but limited to her point of view. Given this case, I can accept the fact that Hild is confused about what goes on around her, especially as the politics of it grow more and more complicated. Still, it’s a hard place to be as a reader who is not terribly familiar with the daily goings-on of the seventh century. I wanted to understand the big picture, but I couldn’t, and with young and confused Hild as my guide, I found the beginning of the book quite hard to follow.

I also found it very difficult to keep straight the minor characters such as other kings and princes, who do not have a lot of page time themselves, but are sometimes mentioned. I can also understand the virtue of keeping the spellings of the names as-is, whether they be Saxon or Gaelic or British. But since the pronunciation of these names is deeply rooted in each language itself, I found myself frequently flipping to the language guide at the back (which, while thorough, was not a good quick reference guide) to help me. I had to do this so frequently that it was quite a disservice to the immersive reading experience.

And, at the very base of it, I also found Nicola Griffith’s writing style quite unfamiliar and hard to parse sometimes. Again, not always so good for getting swept up in a story when you have to read a paragraph five times to try to understand where it’s going. I’m not saying that books that are this rigorous and demanding are bad. It’s just that my personal preference is to get into plot and character rather than having to stop and examine nearly every brick of a sentence the story is built on.

It makes it hard to convince yourself to continue on in a book called Hild when you find yourself completely uninvested in the character named Hild. I didn’t find any other character endearing enough to latch onto either.

So, at page 350, I finally put Hild down for good. To be completely honest, I could have put it down at page 50, because I felt exactly the same at the point as I would 300 pages later. I will say of it what I always try to say of most books I don’t enjoy: it just wasn’t the right time for me and Hild. Maybe if I could dedicate a few days to reading it and not have to refamiliarize myself with everything each time I opened it again, I would have found it easier to follow. I don’t choose the books I read very lightly, so I’m never happy to have to return one to the shelves uncompleted.

I know the common philosophy among die-hard readers is to always finish a book, but I broke away from that idea quite some time ago. There are so many books to read – just among the books I own, let alone all the books in the world – that I just can’t bear to sit through something I’m not enjoying, knowing that I could be reading something else I’m actually excited about.

So, back Hild goes to sit among the other hardcovers. Maybe some other day will be better for us, but I don’t think it will be sometime soon.

Readux, Double Down Edition: The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One & Day Two

Title: The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Published: 2007 & 2011

Date Started: March 18, 2014 Date Finished: May 3, 2014

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★★

Every book has a story: I started reading The Name of the Winin Paris, of all places. There was a small library of books from previous guests at the apartment we were staying in, and The Name of the Wind was one of the few in English. As luck would have it, I had been waiting for a good time to start into The Kingkiller Chronicle. And what could be better than your Parisian apartment basically telling you to read it? Always do what the Parisian apartment says.

It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

This review is going to gush for a while and then become remarkably selfish. On we go:

I don’t know if it’s an occupational hazard, or if I just haven’t been able to pick ‘em lately, but I feel like it’s been rather too long since I got this swept up in a book. I looked forward to my commutes on the train just because it meant I could keep reading The Kingkiller Chronicle. It was one of those marathon readings that ended with a quick Internet search to find out when the third book is coming out. (So far marked for 2015… sadface.)

This is the story of an innkeeper in a small town in a big world that is drawing ever-closer to a dark and mysterious reckoning. It is also the story of the innkeeper’s famous – and mostly secret – identity as Kvothe, the Arcane, the Bloodless, who can call down the name of the wind. The innkeeper has settled to tell his life’s story to an attentive biographer, a story rather different from the legend. As it happens, the innkeeper is also quite fond of the songs and stories of the world, old tales to which his life has been deeply linked.

With The Kingkiller Chronicle, Rothfuss has undertaken a remarkable exploration of what it means to tell a story. There are stories within stories within stories and yet, they all weave together so naturally that it hardly looks like any effort at all. The tiny detail/payoff ratio is amazing – probably even more amazing if you’ve read the books more than once. (The books will definitely require a reread before Day 3 comes out.) It’s really not until I stopped to think about it – which wasn’t often as mostly I wanted to keep going – that I realized that the clues were laid out all along, or that a little rhyme at the beginning of the book takes on rather a different meaning by the end.

Both the characters and the world feel as whole as a mostly first-person narration can make them. Kvothe is a born romantic with just enough practical fighting skills. He’s a hero who’s deeply in touch with what it means to be afraid and helpless and out of control. He’s a daydreamer and an academic. And we’ve seen enough hints now to know that in the next book, something terrible is going to happen to him. Rothfuss has firmly secured out hearts to Kvothe’s cause, and that makes some of the reading almost painful, in the most artful and creatively controlled way. Heartbreak, and likely a magical catastrophe, are on the way.

This is epic, heroic fantasy as I haven’t seen often these days. The world has gotten swept up in the grimdark, Game of Thrones-ness of it all – and that’s fine! The subgenre certainly has its place.

But The Kingkiller Chronicle is much closer to the kind of book I’m interested in writing, and its popularity has somewhat put my mind at ease regarding what fantasy readers will endure. Sometimes the middle is long, and the payoff is an emotional reaction rather than a swordfight. Sometimes your heroes will fall apart and not be quick to put themselves back together – sometimes they are only put back together with the help of someone else. There’s romance and there’s friendship. Although, I can’t say that my book will have anything like the coolest magical school on this side of Hogwarts, which Rothfuss has created in his Arcane University.

As a reading companion to The Kingkiller Chronicle, I will point you to the unbelievably thorough reread done on Tor. Enjoy the discoveries and the conspiracies and the theories. And count down the days until The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day Three.