Review: The Book of the Dun Cow

After about 70 pages, I almost didn’t finish this one. The middle half is better, and probably made it worth reading, once, but I’m not even quite sure about that. The story owes something to Chaucer, and something to Milton, references various European legends, and possibly authors I didn’t pick up on. The plot is fine; it’s the style that breaks down.

The end paper informs me that Rev. Walter Wangerin, Jr. mostly wrote children’s books, and that this was his first novel. The problem with the first part of the book is that he can’t decide whether he’s writing tongue-in-cheek or not. The effect is rather like a story-teller who keeps winking at the audience but never gets to a punchline; possibly never actually meant to tell a joke at all.

The language – throughout, but especially in the first part – has the angularity I associate with Lutheran hymn tunes: where other denominations tend to subtly alter rhythms to suit English better, the Lutherans have, as best I can tell, kept the original German rhythms despite translating the words. The effect is a bit odd when you grew up with the other, and this book produces the same effect – as if English, at least in its most common American incarnation, isn’t quite the author’s native dialect. Of course Wangerin was actually a Lutheran, but I didn’t know that when I started reading or came up with the comparison – I don’t ever read the end papers first.

The final problem is that the story just isn’t consistent. The characters – talking animals all – don’t develop, they just change as necessary. The rules that seem clearly laid out – Wangerin spends whole chapters on them – are subverted without sufficient explanation. And there’s a sort of Book of Judges problem in that the characters are, for the most part, not actually likeable. I think Wangerin meant the book to be deadly serious; but he keeps slipping into – or never quite gets out of – a narrative tone that leads the reader to expect something much lighter. On the other hand, he keeps giving hints that the story is supposed to be, if not allegorical, at least some way religious in meaning; but the moral is never spelled out, and if it’s just a parable about the Providence of God I would rather go re-read Job. Or “The Wanderer”.

Review: Black Sun

I picked up Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun looking for something by an author I hadn’t read before, and something that wasn’t a series. Apparently I didn’t manage the latter: the cover may just say “a novel” but inside you will find “Between Earth and Sky: Book One”, which I hadn’t bothered to look for until I’d bought it.

Anyway.

It is a fairly good fantasy novel, in a setting recognizably based on Mesoamerican civilizations. This is mainly cosmetic: the author’s interests and morality are as anachronistic as in most fantasy. However, the character Serapio is a startlingly unique creation – how much is due to American myths and how much to the author’s imagination I can’t say, but for his arc the book was worth reading if nothing else.

Roanhorse exhibits a gift for portraying character types in very short descriptions: this has the unfortunate effect in places of making minor characters seem more intriguing than some of the major ones who are portrayed in details but whose own motivations and actions end up rather flat. The action runs as tightly to a time-table as any mystery novel, which has the unfortunate effect of inducing one howling plot hole where an impossible timing is forced through without comment – oh, I can think of two or three different ways to at least hint at a justification within the story, but I can’t tell from the book as actually written whether Roanhorse missed the problem or intentionally elected to leave it to the reader’s imagination.

As Roanhorse explains in her afterword, she deliberately set out to write “epic” in a setting not based on Europe, and this extends to defying social conventions as well. Actually by the standards of much fantasy characters’ personal sexual habits, as far as explored, are rather restrained and have unsurprising consequences, even if it’s clear the author thinks those might be unfair. One city’s clans are ruled by matriarchs – although this hardly relevant to the story, and thus what I referred to as a “cosmetic” detail earlier. The ruling priesthood is – this being modern fantasy – egalitarian, and the potential weaknesses there barely hinted at.

Most unconventionally, Roanhorse includes characters who refuse to call themselves men or women – only she does it, I have to say, in such a way as seems calculated to irritate the most possible readers. I have seen it alleged that this is an attribute assigned to certain priests or shamans in some cultures; however, Roanhorse makes no use of or reference to that here: the behavior portrayed is the modern one of defying one’s physical sex as a personal choice.

On the one hand, she treats this behavior as legitimate, and the pronominal bastardizations insisted on today read like a slap in the face. On the other hand, to carry this off at all she is forced to avoid descriptions that would be given to any other character – one of the few awkwardnesses in the writing – and she quietly implies such behavior is a choice, not an essence, in that the dead body of one is described according to its sex.

This is evidently the only sensible way to regard the phenomenon, whether one condones or condemns it – but it runs counter to the “orthodoxy” insisted on by those who allow or encourage it today. Thus my comment that Roanhorse is likely to have irritated as many people as possible this way: traditionalists by including such characters at all; and today’s progressives by implicitly refusing the putative dominance of self-identification over reality.

Roanhorse – at least in retrospect – does at least use this effectively within her plot. The actual effect is hidden in a first read, and dampened overall, by her inclination to push egalitarian themes rather than trying to really get into the head of characters living in what is, by many indications, fairly traditionally divided. The themes Roanhorse still manages to hint at could have been handled with much more regard to mythic significance if she weren’t, as you might say, at war with the conceptions of the majorities within her created world.

I allow that it’s possible that many of these themes hinted at in this first volume may be worked out in greater detail or power in the remainder of the books still to be written. Only, even having read the book, I’m inclined to think it should have been left to stand alone. The ending would have to be handled differently – two or three ways come to mind – to wrap up the loose ends of the plot (or in other words, to avoid sequel hooks). The difficulty I see is that any future plot must – it seems to me inevitably – succumb again to more conventional elements, leaving the setting merely cosmetic once again. While this book was worth a read, I don’t know that I’ll re-read it, and certainly not often; as for whatever comes next, I’m likely only to look up the plot some day.

Review: The Mists of Avalon

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Arthurian masterpiece is the sort of book that gets burned or banned by critics unable to refute and too timid either to try or to call in greater masters to do so, and unwilling to take the care that it find its way only into prepared hands. The unwary reader, if not repulsed, will certainly be drawn under its spell and left troubled; even the careful reader will have to careful sort through thoughts jarred loose.

What is this book? It has layers. From the title, anyone can deduce that it is a modern retelling of the Arthurian saga. The work, though, tells the story with the women around Arthur as the main characters; and for the most part devotees of – at least a literary version of – the Druidic religion, which is pointedly pagan and licentious.

And this is where the danger comes in: it seems to me that to a reader unfamiliar with other tales of Arthur, or without strong moral convications of his own, Bradley’s characters are so strongly drawn as to color the reader’s imagination ever after. The narrator’s opinion is that all religion is potentially a legitimate yearning for the supernatural Mysteries; the Druidic God and Goddess shade into pantheism; Christianity is not refuted and indeed triumphs – but the priests, mostly nameless, are the only persons routinely belittled, and for narrow-mindedness and ignorance even of their own faith. However, I suspect Bradley is most true to herself in the characters who are – openly or quietly – agnostic: they seem to me to be about the only likeable ones.

This is also an openly feminist work: the principle put forth by the Druidic priestesses is that men may be needed to fight and die for the land – and father children – but women should rule and guide, though perhaps never stated so succinctly. The wiser kings are made to consult with their wives; Morgause rules comfortably as Queen in her own right after King Lot dies; King Arthur in war is indispensible but in peace Gwenhwyfar comes more to the fore.

Yet this is not a perfectionist feminism: this is still a tragedy. I call it feminist because these women – mainly of Avalon – are made to bear the responsibility, while the warriors and courtiers do as they will. But this is still a tragedy: hubris is the name of the day and if at any point our various leading ladies had simply stopped meddling and let things go, a happy ending for all concerned would have been hard to avoid. But as a story-telling device, I must admit that providing motivations for the actions of all concerned is more satisfying, to my modern taste at least, than the older tales where a barge or boat or arm holding a sword or whatever shows up with no explanation or any reason beyond the necessity of the plot. On the other hand, Bradley does assume that the basic plot is known to the reader – however compelling the story she tells, some of her effect depends on the reader being expected to notice how the story is changed this time.

There are, I think, two faults with the book as a work of art. First, the main narrative is periodically interrupted with reflections by Morgaine in the first person, and I struggle to find anything that they add. They suggest Bradley could have told the story quite well in the first person, but the perspective is not in any significant way different from the main narration, so that the shift mostly seems to me to disrupt the flow of the story.

Second, the conclusion is handled awfully hamfistedly. Since this is an Arthurian retelling, the events are not really in doubt, and any number of the intricate schemes set up through the book could have gone awry and prompted them. Instead we have Morgause – whom any number of people have considered ambitious, but without real cause – suddenly dabbling in blood magic; Mordred claiming – without any previous narrative justification, but with no need or plausible case for lying – that Morgause put him up to proving Gwenhwyfar’s infidelity; and no real reason – every other war we get more, and again enough provocations are suggested that even a hint could easily be given – why Mordred and Arthur should fight. Of course, the story is well-enough known that the prepared reader can be assumed to interpolate from other accounts: but this is the one place the book really fails if taken purely on its own terms.

Despite these few faults and the great number of cautions, I have no doubt that as a literary work this is a worthy addition to the collection of the tales of King Arthur.