bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I loved Three Parts Dead so much that I immediately ran, did not walk, to borrow the sequel Two Serpents Rise from my roommate, and then I ate it (by which I mean I read it really fast; eating other people's books is rude).

The book started off inauspiciously with me catching two minor terminology errors in the first chapter, which depicts what is clearly a game of no-limit Hold'em, one in which our main character makes a very bad fold. But at least the book knows it's a bad fold, so it's got that going for it. Fortunately, things get better after that, as we learn more about the city of Dresediel Lex and the complex system of creepy magic that keeps it supplied with water.

Dresediel Lex, part Las Vegas and part Tenochtitlan, is a desert city that is trying to be very modern and run on Craft and ignore its prior history of human sacrifice, a history that only ended a few decades earlier. Our main character, Caleb, is the Dresediel Lex equivalent of an annoying finance bro, doing risk management and analysis for Red King Consolidated--the magical Concern that runs the city's water supply--and playing a lot of poker. He has daddy issues -- quite understandably, since his dad is one of the last priests of the old religion (the one that feeds its gods hearts) from before the God Wars, and he keeps running around trying to overthrow the Craftsmen and return to the old ways, and basically being a creepy terrorist zealot.

In classic annoying white bro protagonist fashion, Caleb picks up an Obligatory Love Interest by seeing a woman out and about and immediately becoming completely obsessed forever. In this case, the woman is a cliff runner named Mal, who turns out to be a Craftswoman for the firm that Red King is currently in the middle of a rather complicated merger with.

Meanwhile, back at Caleb's job, one of the reservoirs is suddenly full of creepy demons, and while that initial attack is sorted out easily enough, it really wasn't supposed to happen and it turns out to just be the first in a long line of complicated god- and demon-related acts of sabotage that somebody somewhere is committing against Red King Consolidated and Dresediel Lex's water supplies. The resulting complex web of law, religion, magic, explosions, and creepy lobstery water demons is fantasically difficult to sum up but it all makes sense in the book, I promise.

Despite my general underwhelmedness with both Caleb and Mal as people -- seriously, they're perfect for each other, because they're both irritating and I would not like to hang out with either one of them in real life -- I thoroughly enjoyed the book. They were still entertaining enough characters, and they certainly went through enough interesting shit. Plus a lot of the secondary characters were great, especially the Red King, a coffee-drinking skeleton who usually appears in a red bathrobe, because he lives in the creepy pyramid that is the Concern's headquarters. Caleb's dad is also actually quite hilarious, despite being a giant scary religious zealot.

Anyway, it's a book about unsustainable resource extraction, but it's also about giant fiery serpents and water gods and human sacrifice and all that good stuff, so it's quite a head trip in a good way.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The Raven King is, I think, the most Raven Cycle-y of the Raven Cycle books. It’s also my favorite because my copy is signed by Maggie Stiefvater herself, which is always a plus. But it’s also a really fulfilling end to the series, drawing on all the themes and motifs set up right at the beginning—Blue’s prophecy and the vision of Gansey’s death and the tomb of Glendower and all that stuff—but also introducing wacky new elements and characters right up past where you’d ordinarily think you’d be getting much new information in a story this long. Henry turns out to be pretty important, and while it seems weird to be basically adding a fourth Raven Boy a few hundred pages from the end of a four-volume series, Henry is too awesome for it to matter—as is RoboBee, Henry’s magical robotic bee that functions as something between a familiar and a James Bond spy gadget.

Much of the series thus far has dealt with uncovering family secrets, but there are still more to be discovered, and they’re pretty big ones. Ronan has the most outlandish ones, and you’d think they’d be predictable after a while but they’re somehow not—after finding out in book two that his father dreamed up his mother and in book three that he dreamed up his brother, you wouldn’t think there would be more things to find out that he accidentally dreamed up, but there are. And that’s not even getting into the business end of things. Adam is still in some sort of weird possession/communication with the spirit of Cabeswater, which was getting better for a while as he learned to listen to it, but which is not becoming a problem again as Cabewater gets infested with the demon awakened at the end of the last book, which looks like a giant-ass black hornet (because wasps and bees and stuff are a huge recurring thing in this series and if I’d known I would have insisted the bees panel talk more about it at Readercon) and seems to function a lot like Hexxus from Ferngully. Henry has… well, he has the backstory that gave him RoboBee. Gansey is dealing with all his rich dude legacy problems, plus the having died already once thing, and while this Glendower quest has taken him all over the world, it turns out the answers might lie closer to home than he suspected.

Blue may be having the worst of it, though, because they found her father and brought him home, and he’s been cowering in a broom closet avoiding Gwenllian for the whole time, and it’s kind of sad. And then there’s some stuff where Blue might be basically part tree, and it’s pretty weird, even though Blue already has a lot of experience with being weird. It’s above and beyond weird and Gansey is still going to die.

On top of that, Piper, who has graduated to becoming our main villain after murdering her husband and adopting the demon hornet, might be more knowledgeable about magic shit than her husband was, but still does not seem to really grasp the gravity of what she’s doing when she decides to sell the demon hornet to the magical-object-collecting community. Frankly, the Piper/demon alliance is not the most seamless pairing of personalities, and it’s pretty hilarious. Piper also disses Legal Sea Foods, because she is the worst. Legal is a venerable Boston institution and their food is delicious even if they are functionally a chain now.

While the plot gets darker and weirder and more and more people die and Cabeswater is unmade, the language in the book actually gets funnier and more Stiefvater-y, and somehow it works. Part of this is because there are deceptively goofy-sounding characters like Piper and Henry, who are, respectively, amusingly shallow trash and using humor as a form of camouflage/coping mechanism for all the weird shit he’s part of. But even the third-person narration has gotten even less invisible than it was at the beginning of the series, using all sorts of interesting tricks like repeated lines, words and half-words floating about with no punctuation, stream-of-consciousness description, and jokes. Also, how do you not laugh every time you see “RoboBee” written on the page, no matter how dire the situation? Especially when everything else going on is so medieval?

Overall, it does end up reminding me a bit of the Lynburn Legacy books, with a similar blend of death and jokes, and of the modern and the historical. I’d definitely put it in the “sassy Gothic” subgenre that I wish was larger because it’s basically the sweet spot of Relevant To All My Interests. I can’t wait to see what Stiefvater comes up with next.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I got back up to Maine to finish the Raven Cycle books! Go me!

Technically I started Blue Lily, Lily Blue the last time I was up there but I only got a few pages into it. But this time I splonked down on the porch and pretty much ripped through the whole thing. It was pretty glorious.

In this one, Blue’s mother has disappeared to go look for Blue’s father underground. Blue and the Raven Boys start sort of looking for Blue’s mother, but also looking for some entities known only as the three sleepers. One of them is the king they’re looking for, Owen Glendower. They’ve been warned that one of the sleepers must be woken and another one must not be woken; apparently, there’s no word on the third.

Of course, it’s the third one they end up actually waking first; this is Owen Glendower’s awesome and thoroughly batty witch daughter, Gwenllian. (No, I don’t know how to pronounce that. Irish I’m starting to get a hold of but Welsh is still quite beyond me.) This is possibly not even the weirdest thing going on, even though Gwenllian speaks in riddles and songs and wears multiple dresses at a time and has giant curly hair that she keeps things in and generally sounds like a cartoon character drawn up by a disgruntled Disney animator on acid. I heart her.

We meet more bad guys, including the Gray Man’s insufferable former employer, Colin Greenmantle, and his similarly insufferable wife, Piper, who—in a fun twist that I appreciated more than words can say—Colin seems to believe is his trophy wife but who actually knows more about creepy magic shit than he does and has a lot more experience dealing with it and, consequently, can command more power and get up to more nefarious things that Colin doesn’t quite understand. It’s enormously satisfying.

In other news, Gansey and Blue start secretly sort-of dating; Adam is dealing with how to interpret invasive communications from Cabeswater, with help from Persephone; Ronan is doing sketchy dream stuff at the Barns that no one seems to quite understand and that isn’t working anyway; Noah is still dead but having an increasingly bad time of it; and Gansey’s British friend Malory has found a mysterious tapestry featuring three bloody-handed ladies who all look like Blue.

Most of the magical action in this book focuses not on Cabeswater but in a cave on the property of a man named Jesse Dittley, a large farmer who speaks in all caps and only eats Spaghetti-Os. The cave carries a curse on it that results in a Dittley dying in it every couple of decades or so, otherwise the walls of the farmhouse bleed and all that other poltergeist stuff. There are actually multiple caves because there’s also one for the sleeper who must not be woken (guess what happens to that one at the end of the book), but it’s complicated figuring out where they are and how they’re all connected, because magic.

We also meet an amusing Aglionby student named Henry who does not seem very important at first, just very friendly and cheerful with big hair. He drives an electric car. He will be important later.

I’m getting some of the plotlines confused in my memory because this book does quite a large amount of setting up things that are going to explode spectacularly in the next book and I don’t always remember where one book ends and the other one begins, with the exception of the bit with the sleeper who must not be woken. But it doesn’t have that lack of tension that some books that are all setup have. Things are moving along and weaving together in complicated ways that all will probably make sense eventually and everyone is having lots of feelings and there’s some lovely register-switching going on depending on whose head we’re in at the time. Colin Greenmantle has a glib, dismissive, affectedly witty inner voice that’s simultaneously as insufferable as he is and genuinely funny to read. It’s almost painfully modern in the context of all the mythological timeless stuff going on in the rest of the series, even though it’s reminiscent of writing styles that I love when they’re on the Internet, but it does an extremely good job of characterizing Colin as a superficial type who doesn’t really understand what it is that he’s messing with. Meanwhile, the rest of the book is filled with lush, colorful prose interrupted by periodic bouts of swearing, usually from Ronan.

Ronan, by the way, is an underappreciated comic genius. Probably nobody would ever tell him that since he is angry and powerful and all dangerous and stuff, with his pet dream raven and his biker jacket and his fighty attitude and his adorable crush on Adam, but his trolling abilities are top-notch (especially regarding deployment of the murder squash song) and he can do wordplay in both English and Latin. Also, Chainsaw might be my favorite character in the whole series.

The book does end on a massive uh-oh, with a bunch of people dead and bunch of other people who were previously either lost or dead being recovered, so I can understand why fans of the series were very upset about having to wait for the next book to come out. It’s the sort of thing that’s why I waited so long to read this book in the first place, and I am glad I did, because it meant I got to jump right into The Raven King.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Do you ever, like . . . read a book wrong? Because that's sort of what I felt I did with Kai Ashante Wilson's short but intricate debut novel, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. Though it's less than 250 pages long, it took me nearly three weeks to read, mostly in small chunks of 10 pages or less.

This is not the recommended way of reading this book. There's too much going on, and it's not all laid out and explained as clearly as one might need if one is, you know, not actually fully paying attention.

The basic storyline is that of a demigod (put simply) named Demane, a healer, who is traveling with a band of mercenaries/security guards to escort a caravan across a magically-guarded road through the Wildeeps to its destination. The road is supposed to be protected from the mysterious time-and-space-bending monster-filled magic of the Wildeeps, but there are reports of something coming onto the road and eating people anyway. Demane and another demigod-posing-as-a-human, who goes by "the Captain," have to protect their fellow mercenaries and hunt down the threat, while simultaneously pretending to be humans and hiding their relationship with each other from the humans, who are apparently not OK with that sort of thing. If that sounds boring, it's because I'm explaining it badly. The narrative is structured nonlinearly, with a lot of flashbacks and bits that are hinted at, and it's a very character-driven story, so the main point of the thing is really more Demane's struggles to find a place within the humans' weird ways of doing things, managing his relationships with all the other fighters in the caravan, and, eventually, learning to go back to and harness his demigodhood to protect them.

The language in the book is a big glorious colorful tapestry of code-switching, blithely ignoring the constraints of any one register or sensibility of real-world history. Some of it dips into a sort of modernist, poetic stream-of-consciousness style; other parts are gory and action-movie-y; some bits are silly to the point of slapstick (some humans are silly to the point of slapstick too, so I supposed that's realism); the setting is mostly in the pseudo-medieval-fantasy vein--although it's more of a McAfrica than McEurope--but there's elements of science fiction, or at least science fiction terminology, woven in there too. There's slang that sounds very modern to my ear, which I admit I could be entirely wrong about since it's mostly Black slang and I'm not very well educated on Black slang, and there's bits of French and Spanish tossed in (which was fun but frankly a little jarring since it's a secondary-world fantasy), and basically the point here is that it's a ridiculous ton of fun if you like playing with language! Also it keeps you on your toes.

People closer to the topic than me have written, and in all likelihood will continue to write, insightful things about what it means that nearly the entire cast of characters in this book is black men, and the two leads are queer black men. I will read those things; right now I'm only going to say that I don't think this should be such a rarity. (Also I don't think reading it damaged my fragile white lady brain or anything.)

I'd be very interested to read more things set in this universe, partly because it was really engaging but also partly because there's clearly a lot more to it than was actually explained in the book itself and now I'm curious. I'm also not sure if this is a standalone novel or the first in a series; it has an abrupt ending that really seems like it could go either way.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So far, one of the most-hyped books I've seen this summer was Shadowshaper. Granted, I deliberately sought out a bunch of the hype because I loved Daniel José Older's adult "ghost noir" fantasy books, Half-Resurrection Blues and Salsa Nocturna. But then it was actually released, and even more hype appeared, in places I was not expecting it--Holly Black's review in the New York Times, for instance, or Kate Beaton praising it on Twitter.

I had deliberately chosen to avoid preordering it so I could buy it at Readercon and get the author to sign it. I had deliberately chosen to torment myself.

After a brief heart attack when the Crossed Genres table said they only had limited copies available so we should all hurry up--I had to be late for the con because of work so this scared me--I finally arrived at Readercon, and ran immediately to the dealer's room to get two copies (one for me, one for a friend) before I keeled over dead.

Now recovered from Readercon (except financially) and not deaded, I can say that I have read Shadowshaper and it was quite worth all the running around and flailing.

Shadowshaper is the story of Sierra Santiago, a 16-year-old street artist in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn (i.e. the current one). Sierra's project for the summer is to paint a mural of a big old dragon on the side of an abandoned monstrosity of a development project in the Junklot, near where all her old dude neighbors play dominoes. Things start to get weird when she notices that one of the other murals in the Junklot, a portrait of a now-deceased neighbor, is fading--and crying. Also, her grandfather--who hasn't spoken coherently in over a year, since he had a stroke--suddenly starts apologizing and telling her to hang out with Robbie, a tattoo-covered Haitian kid at her school. And then a thing that's basically a zombie shows up at a house party and chases her, at which point things are definitely weird and she's not imagining it.

This confluence of weird things is how Sierra finds out she's a shadowshaper, a type of sorcerer who can channel whatever spirits are present into art, bringing the art alive and giving the spirits form and herself access to the spirits' power. It's a very original and thoroughly enviable form of magic power, and one that I (and probably every other reader of the book) instantly coveted. The shadowshaper community is in a sorry state, though, having been hijacked by male chauvinism and anthropology over Sierra's lifetime, which is why she didn't know about it.

Sierra, her awesome wisecracking friends, tattooed cute shadowshaper Robbie, Sierra's brother Juan who is in a salsa thrash band, a librarian at Columbia, and Sierra's possibly-a-gangster godfather all must band together to find the mysterious, powerful ancestral spirit Lucera and save the shadowshaping tradition from the machinations of a power-hungry anthropologist named Dr. Wick, who has gotten a little too deep into multiple of the spiritual traditions he studies and is, apparently, miffed that he hasn't been accepted as the #1 most powerful leader in all of them, like the sweeping-in-late-outsider white dude always does in stories like Dancing with Wolves/Dune/Avatar/any of a number of others. He's convinced that the shadowshapers need to be "saved," for a value of "saved" that apparently involves killing a bunch of them, and he has to be the one to do it.

Daniel José Older is not shy about his political views, especially the view that white people need to learn when to stay in their lane, and while he is extra not-shy about them on panels and on Twitter (seriously, everybody go follow him on Twitter), the book is also a pretty explicitly political book (all his books are). Because he is a very smart dude, he doesn't believe that there's such thing as a non-political book, just books that don't acknowledge their politics or explore them intelligently and ones that do. This particular book explores issues of gender, race, gentrification, the imperialist history of anthropology, street harassment, ethnic identity (this is different than race), plus the YA staples of family, finding out unflattering things about grown-ups in your family, and taking on adult roles and responsibilities. There is a lot of a lot of stuff going on here, is what I'm saying. It is both built into the fabric of the plot and, often, called out explicitly, which I know is not necessarily everyone's bag but would probably be kind of weird not to do, because I think most people occasionally do try to talk about stuff that's going on with other people. It also establishes Sierra as an intelligent straight-talker who's not afraid to call out bullshit--or in some cases, who becomes not afraid to call out bullshit, which is a vital growing up skill.

A big part of the book is Sierra's sense of identity and place as a black Puerto Rican in Brooklyn, and as an outsider to all of these things (seriously, I think the last time I went to Brooklyn was when my great-grandmother was alive, for her surprise 90th birthday party, which is not what killed her don't worry) I am not in any way qualified to be having opinions on how this is approached or portrayed--the author knows more about this than I do, for obvious reasons--but what I will say is that, to someone not very familiar with this milieu, it's very vibrant and grounded, with a palpable sense of place and culture that permeates everything and makes it all feel cohesive and natural. Like, sometimes people know exactly what they're talking about but they're not very good at bringing it alive for other people, and this does not seem to be one of those cases. And I love, love, love that the city functions like a city--and especially like a city at this current moment in time for U.S. cities--with street-harassing douchebags yelling gross things at you when you walk down the street, and public transit taking like ten goddamn years to get anywhere, and the lightning speed of gentrification turning things into Starbuckses every time you look away for a second--all that I am in a place to tell you is all VERY TRUE STUFF these days. (The place is Boston, supposedly the most rapidly gentrifying city in the U.S. right now.)

Anyway, all of that is wrapped up in a big loud fun fast-moving ACTION FANTASY PLOT of FANTASY ACTION, with FIGHTING CHALK NINJAS and SNOTTY OLD CHURCH GHOSTS and DRIVING REAL FAST and SNEAKY INFILTRATION OF LIBRARIES and ZOMBIE ATTACKS and WITTY BANTER and all that fun stuff. And a lot of stuff about music, which I personally sometimes find a bit weird to deal with in books because my imagination fails me, but in this case I now really want salsa thrash to be a thing. (Is it a thing? Can someone make it so, if not?) And there is of course an Obligatory Romance, which, me being me, I believe has two main things going for it: it is blessedly straightforward (no triangles! no creepy starting-off-hating-each-other!) and the dude is not an overbearing twit. (For anyone unfamiliar with my general reactions to romances--which are divided into "wanting to punch one of the parties" and "not wanting to punch either of the parties"--that was a positive assessment.)

Oh, and the librarian character was the best, because librarians are the best. Except for sometimes when Sierra's friends are the best, because they are all full of hilarious one-liners.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

I finally caught up with Mark Oshiro in reading Discworld, which means I just finished rereading Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids. I didn’t remember much of what happened in this one, except that it was parodying Ancient Egypt, and the parody Egypt country was called Djelibeybi, which is the best name ever, except that I think at the time I first read it, it was easy for me to cater to any cravings for Jelly Babies since they sold them at my local Stop & Shop at the time. I should see if they have any at Fort Point Market. I really like Jelly Babies.

Anyway.

Djelibeybi is an old kingdom, and a kingdom proud of its history. Its extremely well-preserved history. Honestly, at this point, Djelibeybi’s incessant preserving of its history is about all it's got going for it, as the elaborate funerary structures it builds for all its pharaohs have bankrupted the country, and everyone’s so in thrall to tradition that they haven’t invented anything in centuries, not even mattresses or plumbing. King Pteppicymon, a forward-thinking sort of pharaoh who hates pyramids, sends his son Pteppic off to Ankh-Morpork to become an assassin, so that he can make some money.

When Pteppic has to come back to Djelibeybi and be king, then, he is full of all sorts of non-Djelibeybian ideas from forn parts, which leads to chaos and mayhem. It would probably have just led to plumbing and mattresses if he'd been allowed to do what he wanted, but ironically, he butts heads with his extremely traditionalist advisor Dios, who is deathly afraid that any degree of change constitutes chaos and mayhem, and the result of their antagonistic interactions result in the construction of a pyramid for King Pteppicymon that's so big it bends space and time--and that causes ACTUAL chaos and mayhem. Joke's on you, Dios.

While much of this book is a bit chaotic even by Discworld standards, it's still quite a work of art--there are layers upon layers of puns, some excellent trope subversion on the part of the handmaiden Ptraci, Pratchett's signature literalism about the power of belief, and some very clever digs at both actual and popular imaginings of ancient Egyptian history. (There are "walk like an Egyptian" jokes that I had somehow forgotten about.) It even has some heartwarming smart bits about identity worked in around all the mathematically inclined camels and quantum.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I just finished reading N. K. Jemisin’s The Kingdom of Gods, the third book in her Inheritance trilogy. (As is happening more and more often these days, when I say I read it, I mostly mean that I had Mark Oshiro read it to me.)

This book has its own arc, taking place quite a while after the end of the second book, but it also serves wraps up the overarching storylines and themes in the trilogy as a whole, which is essentially the story of the second era of the Three. The narrator in this third volume is Sieh, who has appeared in the first two books as a trickster god and the god of childhood, and is the oldest and most powerful of the godlings (the minor gods who are the children of the Three).

Sieh, it turns out, is powerfully lonely. He is envious of the Three, even after their centuries of fighting one another, and he yearns for a love as complete as theirs, and is kind of a brat to everyone else about it. He meets and befriends two young Arameri siblings, a blonde white girl named Shahar and a brown boy named Deka who are nevertheless twins, and then everything goes completely bonkers. The three of them accidentally blow up part of Sky, Sieh spends eight years in a coma in Nahadoth’s belly and wakes up turned partly mortal and aging, a previously unknown godling of revenge is stalking Sieh over some secret that Sieh has no idea what the hell it could possibly be, and somebody is slowly but steadily killing off the entire Arameri family with magical poisoned masks and, apparently, has been for generations. Also maybe the Apocalypse is happening? This book isn’t about “saving the world” in any kind of middling, metaphorical “keep our country/civilization more or less the way it was” kind of way; the stakes in The Kingdom of Gods come down to whether or not they can prevent the bad guy from unmaking the universe. I don’t want to give too much plot away because there’s massive game-changing curveballs every chapter or two (which has been pretty much par for the course in this trilogy—I don’t know how she does it!).

The characterization is great—Sieh, while basically a total brat, is a humorous and entertaining narrator, one you can often sympathize with even when he’s not being particularly likeable (or, like, having his pet necklace planet murder people). The last vestiges of the Arameri are very, very strange people, some of them just starting to learn about introspection and compromise and paying attention to other people for the first time in millennia. Shahar is determined to be good but sometimes has a pretty vague concept of what that means, as she is being groomed to be the new head of the Arameri family. Deka is sent off to scrivener school and basically uses that time to level up until he is the most ridiculously magically souped-up human ever, at which point he is both adorable and goddamn scary. Their mom is… hard to describe. There’s a whole slate of memorable secondary characters, including Ahad, the guy who was Nahadoth’s day-self in his captivity but is now a separate entity who is basically a godling but doesn’t know his nature; Glee Shoth, Itempas and Oree’s fiercely no-nonsense daughter; Hymn, an impoverished local girl who Sieh kind of befriends but who finds him largely to be a problem; and Usein Darr, bosstastic new ruler of Darr who is leading the revolt against Arameri rule. There are also a ton of awesome cameos by Yeine, Nahadoth, and Itempas, which range from funny to cute to heartbreaking.

One of the more unique aspects of this book, which can be a little jarring sometimes but which overall I think works, is the passage of time. Sieh manages to skip years at a time, sometimes just because nothing happened, sometimes because he’s asleep or unconscious or recuperating inside Nahadoth or some other weird shit. The variety in the lifespans of the characters is huge, so skipping months or years or decades has a much larger effect on Sieh’s relationships with some characters than with others. Oree Shoth is apparently still around nearly a century after her story takes place. The time jumps really illustrate how much this trilogy is the story of AN ENTIRE ERA, not just an entire era in human history but an entire era in the universe’s history, and in the history of the gods. And these eras are begun and ended through the god-sized and god-powered versions of ordinary family drama stuff—love and loneliness and jealousy and spite and judginess and marriage and sex and children and kindness and loyalty and people being assholes to each other. Also murder, sometimes. It’s epic in the way that ancient mythologies are epic, in the period where humans had started to conceive of something bigger than just the god of this tree or that spring, but before we’d come up with something quite as all-encompassingly boring as monotheism. A universe where there are beings who can unmake it because they’ve spent eons stewing in the resentment of Daddy didn’t hug me enough is a universe with the capacity for real drama, and Jemisin, having gone and created such a world, certainly doesn’t stint on the drama. None of it feels cheap or soapy, either (although I think soapiness gets a bad rap, but that’s for another time); it’s really engaging and obviously the end of the universe is quite serious business.

I very much intend to pick up the Dreamblood duology at some point; I don’t know what it’s about but supposedly it’s even weirder than this series. Which should be fun!
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Back in the fall I read N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms along with Mark Oshiro over at Mark Reads, and it was so good that it was super difficult to read it at such a slow pace. It is still difficult, but I am a little more used to it, so I got off-track fewer times when reading its sequel, The Broken Kingdoms.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms seemed to wrap up as a complete story pretty well, so I thought I had a pretty decent idea of picking out what was the thing being set up for the next novel: Itempas’ punishment to wander the world as a human until he learned how to love. I am pleased to say I was right! Other than that, though, I was not in the least able to foresee a damn thing about this novel. It was continually surprising in awesome ways.

This story has a different viewpoint character than the last one, which I’ve decided is something I really love in series. Our protagonist is a young artist named Oree, who sells arty things to tourists in the shadow of the great tree that Yeine magicked up at the end of the last book. Oree is Maroneh, meaning she is descended from the survivors of a tribe of people whose entire continent was destroyed by Nahadoth in the God’s War. Oree is also blind, although she can see magic.

One day, Oree finds a dude asleep in her muck bin, and she takes him into feed and clean him. He ends up staying for a while. He is a rather strange dude, as he never talks, he periodically kills himself and then comes back to life with no trouble, and he also glows for a few minutes every day as the sun comes up. Since he never tells Oree his name, she starts calling him Shiny. Shiny is, obviously to the reader, a crankily mortal Itempas, but Oree doesn’t know this as the Arameri have covered up any public knowledge of Itempas’ punishment.

What the Arameri have not been able to cover up is that Nahadoth and the Enefadeh are free, Yeine exists as a goddess, and a bunch more minor gods/children of gods, called “godlings,” have popped up everywhere. When the book opens, Oree has recently broken up with a godling called Madding, who is the god of obligations.

The plot here really kicks into high gear when it is discovered that someone is killing godlings and removing their hearts. Oree gets initially drawn into this for three reasons: one, she discovered one of the bodies. Two, Madding and all his friends are, predictably, angry and worried. Three, Shiny is so spectacularly upset at this that he actually talks. Unfortunately, a bunch of priests of Itempas show up, and, being snotty assholes, make everything worse, resulting in everybody getting on the Order of Itempas’ Most Wanted list, and Oree discovering that in addition to being able to see magic, she can also paint magical portals! This is an awesome power that I wish I had so that I could teleport places and not spend two hours of every workday in the car. Unfortunately, it is also a dangerous power, particularly when you accidentally put priestly policemen halfway through the portals and then they close. OOPS. This brings Oree to the attention of a creepy-ass cult called the New Lights, which is sort of a splinter faction of the Order of Itempas, and they have a dastardly plot to use demon blood to kill the Nightlord. “Demon” is the term used for any offspring of gods and mortal lovers, and they were supposedly exterminated when it was discovered that their blood kills gods. The New Lights, in addition to being creepy theocidal murderers, are largely really scary because they are super culty and are absolutely entitled as all hell. They are the kind of people who are like “You will like us and join us willingly! We will keep you imprisoned by force until you understand what nice and right people we are” but who cannot stop being mean snotty condescending assbags for even ten seconds. It doesn’t even occur to them to even try, they just feel entitled for Oree to like them personally without them being at all nice to her. People like that drive me up the fucking wall, and N. K. Jemisin does a creepily good job of making me hate the New Lights A LOT in a very short span of time. They are THE WORST. Then they get even worse. I don’t really want to talk about how much the worst they are, partly because I will get angry and partly because we’re into the part of the story where Jemisin drops giant plot twist bombs every chapter or so, so everything is spoilers.

It’s hard to pick out one thing as a particular strength for this book because Jemisin is just such a masterful storyteller. She’s got an incisive eye for the nuances of power; in this book the focus is a bit less on race and more on religious tribalism and disability, but she’s got the same gift for going right to the heart of complicated social justice matters—stuff usually talked about with a whole host of useful but often academic specialized terminology—using everyday, effective, and often humorous language. Her pacing and characterization are very tight, and I find her plots nearly impossible to predict. Overall, I just find her writing really engaging; her viewpoint characters have very relatable and human internal narrations even when the stories are literally about finding out that they are not human or turning into non-humans. Even the romances with god dudes who are complete assholes (and yeah, both Nahadoth and Itempas are pretty much giant assholes) doesn’t bother me as much as it usually does because they’re written with a lot of understanding and very little mooning about. (Not that mooning about is always terrible in romance but it’s the sort of thing that’s hard to follow when you’ve got no idea What On Earth Does She See In Him.)

Oh, and some of the godlings are awesome and some are terrifying and some are terrifyingly awesome (GIANT TEETH LADY I AM LOOKING AT YOU) (AND THEN HIDING IN TERROR WHY DID I LOOK AT YOU WHY); there needs to be a Neil Gaiman Award for Fabulous Creepy Mythic Creatures in Fiction just so that N. K. Jemisin can win it.

I cannot wait for “The Kingdom of Gods.”
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Over at Mark Reads, Mark has just finished up reading N K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, a copy of which I had picked up at Readercon over the summer. Since I had the book but hadn’t begun reading it yet when Mark announced it as his next project, I tried to read it along with Mark, at the glacial pace of two or three chapters per week.

It turns out, I am not good at reading on that kind of a schedule. Sometimes I would accidentally read ahead; other times I’d forget to read a chapter on time. But the book was good enough that I kept coming back to it no matter how many times I screwed up the reading schedule, and now I have finished it.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is about a woman named Yeine, the young leader of a small “barbarian” country called Darr. Yeine’s mother, Kinneth, was once the heir to of the Arameri, the ruling family of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms—functionally, the Arameri rule the world. Kinneth was disowned for marrying Yeine’s father. Now Kinneth is dead, and Yeine is summoned to the Arameri city of Sky—an entire city elevated on a pillar, so it literally sits in the sky—by her grandfather. Here she is told she is now one of his three heirs—the others being his niece and nephew, Scimina and Relad—and that the three of them are now in competition to see who will rule next.

The story, however, is not entirely about the competition. (In fact, I think the competition is really the weakest part of the book—I’m not really sure how it works? It’s never clear what the criteria are for determining a winner…) The book is largely about Yeine trying to figure out the circumstances of her mother’s death and to learn more about who her mother was when she was an Arameri. Yeine also turns out to be unwittingly involved in a plot by the Enefadeh to get free. The Enefadeh are really the main plot in the story—they are gods that have been enslaved in corporeal form and given to the Arameri as weapons.

Currently, the universe is functionally monotheistic—only one god is in power, Itempas, also known as the Skyfather, who is the god of order and light and stability and all that sort of thing. However, once, there had been three ruling gods—Itempas, Nahadoth the Nightlord, and Lady Enefa, the goddess of life and death and transience and all that cool stuff. Itempas murdered Enefa and enslaved the Nightlord, along with all of the lesser gods, and gave them to the Arameri family, who had been the most loyal priests of Itempas. Itempas and the Arameri have run the world in a brutally orderly fashion ever since. (And I mean BRUTAL. The Arameri are basically what you’d get if Nazis were a royal family.)

The gods are some of the most fleshed-out characters in the book, besides Yeine (and, in a weird way, Kinneth, even though she’s dead the whole time). Yeine develops a weird sort of romance with Nahadoth, although it takes her much longer to develop any sort of civil communication with Naha, Nahadoth’s daytime self (who is basically a different person. And kind of a creeper). The other god we see the most of is Sieh, the god of childhood, who is the son of Enefa and Nahadoth, and is actually the oldest of the second generation of gods. Sieh is adorable, most of the time, and apparently it takes effort and energy for him to remain childlike—he grows up if he’s too worn out. The other main gods that we see around Sky are Kurue, the goddess of wisdom, who is really quite obnoxiously cranky and stuck-up, and Zhakkarn, the goddess of battle. Enefa has… some cameos, as well.

Notable humans in Sky include T’vril, who is basically the head servant, and who becomes one of Yeine’s few actual friends, and Viraine, the scrivener (basically a magician—scriveners perform magic by writing in the gods’ language), who is manipulative and skeezy, but who turns out to have a big role in Kinneth’s backstory. Scimina and Relad are really fairly minor characters—Scimina is prideful and sadistic in the extreme, and Relad is a sad drunk, and that’s largely it.

Apart from my not really getting the competition plot, I liked this book a lot, largely because I like thing that are surprising and relentlessly political. Issues of race, economics, and power feature very, very heavily, and there is some interesting gender stuff in that Darr is a traditionally matriarchal society (Sky, interestingly, seems to be fairly egalitarian; murderous fuckwittery appears to be considered an appropriate pastime for all genders, provided it is enacted upon people poorer or browner than oneself). A lot of it is very heavy, but I managed to outsource most of my feelings of readerly torment to Mark, who emotes better than  I do anyway. Now I have to get a hold of The Broken Kingdoms; I’m already a day behind…
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I just finished reading Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless and I have so much I want to say about it I don’t know where to start.

I bought this book right after Readercon, as Catherynne Valente had been there and I had met her and she was lovely and I figured I should read her adult novels, as the only thing of hers I’d read was The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, which has really stuck with me, and the more I think about it the more impressed I am with the way that it seems to be familiar and strange at the same time, both for children and adults, a simultaneously traditional and modern fairy tale. When trying to decide which adult book to buy, I settled on Deathless, which promised to be a retelling of an old Russian folktale about Marya Morevna, a character I am minimally familiar with due to her appearance in the Tatterhood and Other Tales anthologies I was obsessed with when I was wee. Also the title and cover seemed specifically crafted to get my attention, because I am predictable.

The story, in short, is about a Russian girl named Marya Morevna, who runs off with and marries Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life, who can really be surprisingly evil considering he’s the god of life. Also surprisingly creepy! His magical land of Buyan is a place where all things are living, meaning that the walls are made of living skin and hair and the fountains spurt blood and aaaaaaggghhh, but I am getting ahead of myself. Maria finds out that she is basically the latest in the Koschei-and-his-wife story, which usually involves him abducting a girl named Yelena, who then eventually runs off with a hot but dumb dude named Ivan and steals Koschei’s death. But not permanently, because folktales and fairy stories never permanently end.

Marya’s version of the story begins around the beginning of the Communist revolution and takes us through about World War II, and there is a lot of Soviet history and culture featured prominently in the book. Some of it is funny, such as the various folktale creatures that take up Party allegiance, and some of it is harrowing, like when Marya runs off back home to Leningrad with Ivan, and is trapped there through the Siege of Leningrad in the early 1940s, the deadliest siege in history.

In addition to being extremely well-researched in terms of history, Catherynne Valente really blew me away with her use of language, which is something I don’t say very often (I generally think in modern books I should be engaged with the story and possibly exploring ideas about [insert themes relating to humanity here], not counting metaphors), but this book does some really rich, multi-layered, poetic things with language without getting dense. She makes ample use of old fairy-tale-telling conventions, particularly repetition/mirroring and things happening in threes. Marya has three older sisters, and every time something happens with the sisters—whether it’s the sisters getting married, or Marya going to visit them, or her sisters’ husbands appearing to Ivan as birds—it is broken into three scenes, one for each sister, from oldest to youngest, and the scenes all play out with the same structure and most of the same language, with very specific details changed. Each of the sisters marries a bird who turns into a man who represents the Russian ideal of the year they were married. There is probably some symbolic stuff that I missed since I know little about birds, but I learned a bit about the evolution of the Russian ideal man. Baba Yaga—now known as Comrade Yaga, except when she thinks that’s too familiar—famously sends Marya on three quests, the last of which involves Marya having to ride Yaga’s mortar and pestle. The scene where Marya gets in the mortar—written from the mortar’s point of view, preceded by a scene where Marya makes her preparations—is one of the most delightfully weird scenes I’ve read in anything in a long time; I was so delighted, in fact, that I read the scene three times and showed it to somebody else before I could continue reading.

Other bits that stuck with me included: Madame Lebedeva’s speech on makeup, the Communist house-imp committee (a natural occurrence, given the Communist practice of moving multiple families into one house), Naganya the rifle imp, the dragon that does paperwork for Stalin because he can kill more people that way, and—for me, the most perfect encapsulation of what this book does that makes it so awesome—the introduction to the village of Yaichka.

I admit I was reading so fast that I missed the first obvious clues about what was going on Yaichka, when all of Marya and Koschei’s neighbors were being described. I twigged on to who the neighbors were at the third set of neighbors, who are the last Russian royal family. The citizens of Yaichka are known only by their first names and patronymics, no surnames; the bell only rang in my fat head when I saw that the youngest daughter of the third family was Anastasia and their son was sickly and named Alexei. Then I went and started the chapter over, with their neighbors Vladimir Ilyich and his wife Nadya Konstantinova, and their two little sons, Josef and Leon, and their description of how everything in Vladimir’s household is equally distributed, and how he has a gift for convincing people of strange ideas, and how little Josef tends to smash things up without really “getting it” about whatever problem his parents are trying to solve… and then I realized who this family was and it all made sense and was also beautiful and metaphorical. The second neighbor I couldn’t recognize so I Googled the names it gave and hoped the first result would be the right one, and I think it was, because it seemed to make sense when I reread the passage. (The second neighbor was a famous Russian military commander I had never heard of, and his passage described how precise and orderly his house was, and how he and his daughters defended Yaichka from the wolves howling in the woods.)

The only thing I didn’t really get about this book was some of the discussion about marriage, which is fairly significant, since the book is enormously about marriage. But I have never been married, and all discussion of marriage is alien-sounding and uncomfortable for me on a visceral level. So all I can say about the treatment of marriage in this book is that it is very dramatic. She does mention that to outsiders it looks incomprehensible, and that I can agree with.

This book definitely left me wanting to do a great deal of research about Russia and Russian folklore, and then come back and read it again. Alas, I probably won’t, as I have about ten other Catherynne Valente books I have to read.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
As you may have heard, particularly if you are anywhere near Boston, Neil Gaiman has a new book out, called The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This book is kind of a big deal.

Since I am eternally behind the times, I have been reading The Graveyard Book instead. This was published five years ago. I picked up a beautiful but sadly unsigned copy at Porter Square Books, because I have all the willpower of a sloth wish to support independent bookstores instead of chucking the entirety of my disposable income at Amazon.

I got the one with this sexy, Gothy cover:


*pets*

Ahem. Anyway. The Graveyard Book is essentially a retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which I have not read, because I win at being an English major. (I have read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. And “White Men’s Burden,” which, um.) Except, since it is a Neil Gaiman book, it has ghosts instead of animals.

The protagonist of our story is Nobody Owens, known as Bod, whose entire family is murdered when he is a toddler. The baby survives by wandering into the nearby graveyard, where he is adopted by some ghosts and given the Freedom of the Graveyard. In addition to ghost parents, he also gets a Guardian, a mysterious being named Silas who is neither living nor dead, and who can leave the graveyard in order to get Bod food and other stuff he needs, what with not being a ghost himself. Most of the book is pretty episodic, which makes sense since it based on a short story collection. The main plotline, however, has to do with Bod growing up, and, of course, with finding out who killed his family and why, and stopping him from finishing the job. (The man is still planning on finding the baby that got away and killing him. But he is prepared to wait.) (He is kind of a sick fuck. There are reasons for this.)

One of the main strengths in the book is the same thing that is one of the main strengths in pretty much all of Neil Gaiman’s books, namely, awesome creepy supernatural creatures. The ghouls are both scary and adorable, with hilarious names like “the Bishop of Bath and Wells” and “the 33rd President of the United States” (NOT Harry S. Truman. Just the 33rd President of the United States). There’s also a very, very, very old entity, that may be a single being or may be a group, which guards the very oldest pagan tomb under the graveyard, known as the Sleer. The Sleer is hard to describe without giving stuff away, but be assured that they are very creepy and very important to the plot, and also kind of cute and sad? Poor Sleer, stuck guarding an empty tomb for centuries. They must be so bored.

There are also illustrations, because Neil Gaiman books are fancy like that.

I highly recommend this book, not like anybody needs me to recommend it, since we all already know that Neil Gaiman books are generally pretty awesome. I laughed, I cried, I got tingly-crawly feelings on my skin, although some of those turned out to be carpenter ants actually crawling on me. (And this is after I put down two different kinds of ant bait. Le sigh.) I really should have read it five years ago.
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
In the absence of there being a third Faeries of Dreamdark novel, I read the first book of Laini Taylor's new series, Daughter of Smoke and Bone. It was super good.

First of all, and most dangerously, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is conspiring with numerous other things in my life right now to make me want to get a tattoo. But I am scared to, so mostly likely I will keep dying my hair funny colors and getting things pierced instead. But man, tattoos always seem like much better ideas in stories than they do when your aunts are complaining about how much it costs to get them removed.

*herm*

Anyway.

This book is, at its heart, a romance, by which I actually do mean a love story this time rather than a knightly adventure or whatever, although it certainly has a bit of that too. It is one of the star-crossedest of star-crossed love stories I have read in a very long time, where, at various points, the lovers are (a) on opposite sides of a thousand-years-long war, (b) living in different worlds, and (c) on opposite sides of being alive or dead.

Our protagonist in this story is Karou, an art student in Prague, because Prague is mysterious and sexy. Karou has blue hair and lots of tattoos and draws a lot. Her best friend is named Zuzana, who is tiny and sarcastic and generally awesome. When Karou is not arting around Prague having awesomely awesome banter with Zuzana, she runs errands for her foster father. Her foster father's name is Brimstone. He is a chimaera, which basically means he is a wacky amalgam of beast and human parts, with horns. Her "errands" usually mean running around the world acquiring teeth. Karou doesn't know what the teeth are for. Brimstone has a nifty portal system where the door of his office can open onto any of a number of doors all around the world, kind of like Howl's castle.

One day, mysteriously beautiful people with wings burn handprints into all of the doors, and they stop working. Enter the seraphim, and our main love interest dude seraph, Akiva. Akiva is a soldier, like pretty much all the seraphim, because basically all the seraphim and the chimaera have been doing for a thousand years is warring with each other. Karou learns all this after Akiva starts mooning around after her being all intrigued about her hawtness why a human girl is mixed up with the chimaerae, and they get in a fight but he doesn't kill her because he reminds her of his dead girlfriend from fifty years ago who had been a chimaera and therefore they had been star-crossed and tragic and she died. Then they hang out on romantic cathedral rooftops in Prague and stuff, and learn things about Karou's past and the war between the seraphim and the chimaerae and what Brimstone actually uses all those creepy teeth for, and Karou hatches a cunning plan to get to the other world where the seraphim and chimaerae live, now that all Brimstone's portals have stopped working.

As far as preternaturally hunky nonhuman boyfriends who occasionally watch people sleep like creepers and also spend a lot of time feeling bad about what terrible monsters they are go, Akiva barely annoys me at all. In fact, I actually like him! He has good reason to feel all bad about himself and make sadfaces about what a stoic relentless killer he has turned out to be, since grief can do terrible warping things to people, even people who are not trained to be soldiers from when they are five, and the plot is very twisty and allows for him to genuinely be terribly mistaken about things, so there is none of this self-indulgent Edward Cullen-esque angst-for-angst's-sake business. Just fucked-upness. Serious, serious fucked-upness. Which makes for a much better story. Also, Akiva's awkward attempts at humor are actually funny.

This book is lush--Gothic, beautifully descriptive, sometimes poetic, sometimes hilariously casual (like every time Zuzana shows up). The funny bits and the ethereal bits and the big damn crazy bits all weave together into a colorful, otherworldly story that is exactly the sort of thing I want to be able to write someday but don't think I'll be able to pull off. I will be eagerly awaiting the sequel, Days of Blood and Starlight.
bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
So, when you were kids, did any of you read any of the Color Fairy Book anthologies, edited by Andrew Lang, and supposedly also his wife but she didn't get any credit because Victorians?

This week I finished rereading The Orange Fairy Book and it was just as charming, pat, and ridiculous as I remembered. While the tales are rather cleaned up (at least three versions of Cinderella and none of them have people cutting bits of their feet off), they are still a lot of fun, and the illustrations are gorgeous. There are dozens of tales in each book, even though the books aren't very long, because some of the selections are so short.

The most impressive thing about this series is how global its reach it; The Orange Fairy Book features tales from all sorts of cultures instead of just the usual French, English and German ones that US kids tend to hear about--this edition features several Berber fairy stories and ends with a handful of charming Lapp tales about ogres. The stories all have citations at the ends, so you can get a sense of where the Langs did their research--some are from anthologies of specific culture's myths; others are culled from anthropology journals or acquired by direct interview.

Since there are so many unconnected stories in this volume I find I have little else to say about the book as a whole, except that it has left me with a newfound appreciation for Finnish ogre stories. SO AWESOME.
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
So, after getting myself all caught up on Merlin via Netflix last month while I was all super busy, I decided to continue with the King Arthur thing, and picked up a copy of T.H. White's The Once and Future King, since I had run across a small excerpt in one of the Prentice Hall Lit books I did some projects on at work (and in return, I was gifted with the entire set of them! Yay!).

This book starts off very silly, with "the Wart"'s "eddication" under Merlyn, which seems to consist predominantly of getting turned into animals, except the time he and Kay go on adventures with Robin Hood. The tone of the whole thing is kind of like having the story told to you at a club by a slightly tipsy nineteenth-century British gentleman who thinks you have never heard of the Middle Ages before, by which I mean is is charmingly silly, sometimes casually racist and sexist in that cheerful sort of way that passed for being very progressive a hundred years ago, and full of extremely dated references drawing parallels between Arthur's Gramarye and "modern" Britain (and when I say extremely dated, I mean extremely dated--there are references to a bunch of famous cricket players I've never heard of). He also employs the delightfully out-of-date traditions of phonetically writing out everybody's accents and wandering off into treatises on Natural Philosophy, putting the feel of the book squarely fifty years before it was written (it was written between 1938 and 1941, apparently) at the latest, the exception being some of Merlyn's more anachronistic statements (Merlyn is "born backwards in time" in this one, and is played as an extremely comic character--a curmudgeonly absent-minded professor type who keeps saying things about evolution and Victorian fox-hunting that nobody else understands.)

The later bits of the story turn from comedy into melodrama, telling of Arthur's seduction by Morgause and the feud with the Orkney clan, and the insanely long and convoluted love affair between Guenever and Lancelot, and Mordred's revenge on Arthur and how he manages to turn everyone against each other and basically screw everything up. The darkest one of these is the story of Lancelot, which involves not one but two instances of the "bed trick," which is a terrible euphemism for "rape by fraud as a literary device". After the second time, Lancelot goes mad, and since this is the Middle Ages and everyone is stupid (although, sadly, there are a lot of people who are still this stupid), everyone is all like "What's his deal? Why did he go mad? Does it run in the family?" as if it were surprising that someone might go mad after being raped twice. Being a self-loathing sort, after Lancelot stops being mad, he ends up living for several years with Elaine and helping to raise their insufferably holy child, who later becomes the Sir Galahad who finds the Holy Grail. Eventually, however, he moves back to Camelot and continues to have a tortured love square with Guenever, Arthur, and God, for the next thirty or so years.

My favorite character in the lot is probably King Pellinore, who spends most of his life questing after the Questing Beast, with whom he has an odd sort of bond, due it being his destiny to quest after her and her destiny to be quested after by Pellinores forever, and the quest is apparently supposed to never end, so when he catches her it generally means something is wrong and they have to sort it out. There is a rather hilarious subplot in which Pellinore stops questing because he is in love, and Sir Grummore and Sir Palomides dress up as the Questing Beast to try and get him to chase them and stop moping, and then the actual Questing Beast shows up, and thinks they are her mate, and then everyone is lovesick and King Pellinore says "What?" a lot.

Overall, I quite enjoyed it! It has definitely stoked my interest in reading every version of the Arthur legends I can get my hands on.
bloodygranuaile: (nosferatu)
In honor of Halloween, I decided that this October I would reread Dracula. Yes, it took me six weeks. Shut up, I've been busy.

Anyway, a few months back I picked up a copy of the edition of Dracula that was illustrated by Edward Gorey. It has a black fabric binding with embossed silver letters and gorgeous thick ivory-colored pages and a red ribbon bookmarks and a gorgeous slightly spiky font and squeeeeeeee. I say these things because they are why I bought the book, since I already have two other editions of Dracula.

This particular edition of Dracula starts off with a slightly cranky critical commentary by someone who is way too serious to be handling Gothic novels, complaining that some people think Dracula is trashy, and this is clearly stupid because Dracula is A Great Work Of Literature, See, It Has Multiple Viewpoints! And it is true that Dracula is well-researched and is fairly tightly constructed for a Victorian novel and the Wilkie-Collins-esque "case file" format is well put together (which can be hard) and all that other stuff. However, it does not follow from these that Dracula is not a hilariously cranky piece of conservative whining about evil foreigners corrupting our good God-fearing English women and making them slutty, and that it is frequently highly sensationalized and mawkishly sentimental, and that Doctor Van Helsing's strange syntax doesn't make him sound like Yoda, as [livejournal.com profile] cleolinda has astutely observed. I have already linked to Kate Beaton's fabulous take on the book.

That said, I actually do love the book, and I actually do like Mina, despite the "women's role is submissive helpmate" aspect of her "all I want in the world is to do helpful chores for all these wonderful men!!" thing, because (a) I do relate to and approve of the drive to develop skills and knowledge and be productive, and (b) most of her devoted helpfulness involves extensively documenting and typing up things, and I can appreciate that, over a hundred years ago, typing and secretarial work were actually new and progressive and exciting directions for women. (And even though it is now 2011, I kind of want to learn shorthand and own a typewriter anyway, just because.) Also Mina is cleverer than most female characters in Victorian novels, although in typical Victorian fashion, every time she figures something out about where Dracula is and what he's going to do next, Van Helsing or somebody praises her for "having a man's brain."

The biggest thing that struck me about this reread is the differences between Stoker's presentation of Dracula and the pop-cultural squabblings over Real Vampire myths. Eddie Izzard's famous "What the fuck's a low-powered vampire?" in his Horror Movies sketch castigates the Coppola version for having Dracula walking around in the daylight rather than crumbling to dust; however, so does Stoker--the crumbling-to-dust thing was made up by whoever wrote the script for Nosferatu. I also generally tend to think of old myths as spreading vampirism by bite only and that the "human drinking vampire blood" thing is the domain of modern stories that can't have entire villages turning into vampires; however, Stoker kind of uses... both. I had kind of forgotten about Dracula getting younger, too. Although you almost never see that one used anymore.

Anyway, next up I need to read something that is not a reread and perhaps that will not take me forever and a day to do.
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
...which made me lol because I am a nerd and know the original meaning of "Pandemonium."

When I cat-sitted (cat-sat?) for my Dad's cousin and her husband last week, I borrowed Dan Brown's Angels and Demons from them. I had read The Da Vinci Code several years ago and had vaguely intended on getting around to reading this one since about then.

Angels and Demons was definitely one of those books that I both enjoyed but also spent a fair amount of time laughing at. I also had that kind of feeling like I get reading Twilight where I start thinking that I could probably get published a lot faster if I stopped taking my writing seriously. (I certainly know enough useless historical and linguistic trivia I could string together into a breathless action-movie-paced riddle plot!)

I don't think Angels and Demons is supposed to be a comedy, although I'm pretty sure the witty one-liners are supposed to be funny; there are a number of lines that sort of have “Look at me, I am a witty one-liner!” hung on them in big neon signs, but in this sort of book you don't mind because the damn thing is an action puzzler about the Illuminati.

There is some odd vaguely science-fictiony stuff going on in here, too (not super science fictiony, but I think still technically science fiction because we do not actually have large antimatter bombs yet, or at least I hope we don't), which ends up working better than you'd think with the whole background of the Church and ancient secret brotherhoods from the Renaissance and symbology and ambigrams and gruesome murders and all that stuff. The plot starts off with the Pope dying (WAS HE MURDERED?!?!) and a scientist-who-was-also-a-priest also dying (THIS ONE WAS DEFINITELY MURDERED). The scientist is mutilated, branded with the sign of the Illuminati, and a can of antimatter is stolen from his lab. Out of the lab, the antimatter is functionally a time bomb, because the canister only has enough batteries to keep the vaccuum going for 24 hours (or something like that), at which point the antimatter will come in contact with the matter of the canister and vaporize everything within a half mile. The action of the entire novel takes place over those twenty-four hours, with Robert Langdon, our Action Hero Academic (and the main character in The Da Vinci Code), and Vittoria Vetra, the dead scientist-priest's very attractive (of course) scientist daughter, running all over the Vatican after the Illuminati, trying to find the can of antimatter and chase the Illuminati assassin who is killing off the four best cardinals, one every hour, at the four ancient Altars of Science, part of some ancient secret Illuminati map to the ancient secret Illuminati meeting place. This involves lots of unraveling of clues that apparently only super genius scientists were supposed to be able to figure out in the 1500s, but I guess science has changed so much then that now only history nerds and symbologists still know any of these “scientific” clues and actual scientists are mostly like “WTF dirt is not an ELEMENT” and also there is a lot of hanging out in the super secret Vatican library vaults reading things that are conveniently in English. (The handwave for having all of this super secret Illuminati communication in English so that the American audience for the book doesn't get confused is actually a pretty good one. Langdon basically claims that the Church avoided learning English for a long time because it is a skanky ho of an ugly-ass hybrid language that was spoken by barbarians, freethinkers and libruls, ergo perfect for hiding things from the Vatican. I think I need to go fact-check that claim at some point.)

There are also a lot of people having various sorts of Deep Thoughts about the nature of the relationship between science and religion, and it was interesting in that Dan Brown never quite seemed to come down definitively on one side or the other, because every time the plot seemed to show up who was the Good Guys and who was the Bad Guys, it ended up getting turned all upside-down ten pages later. Which I quite liked, actually. The book does a fairly good job of showing a multitude of ways in which people can wind up being varying degrees “for” and “against” religion and science, kind of depending on how they grew up with it (so the daughter of the scientist priest thinks that they sort of fulfill two different functions of satisfying people's desires to know things, the priest who was almost killed by a bomb but miraculously survived in a Church thinks that technological advancement is destructive and the Church is magic, and the scientist who is crippled because he got sick as a kid and his parents were too faith-healer-y religious nutjobs to let the doctor actually treat him thinks science is awesome and religion just causes pain and suffering). All ways of arriving at these various mindsets are all treated relatively sympathetically, although certain persons do end up being portrayed as still flat wrong. On the other hand, all this discussion of religion and science meant I had to listen to the camerlengo repeat all the half-assed myths and justifications about God allowing suffering and actual learning things not allowing any room for wonder that theists who can't carry a thought to completion think are somehow full explanations of things. (For example, the analogy of God allowing suffering to the analogy of a parent allowing their child to do something stupid and skin their knee or whatever because that's how you grow up. The reason some degree of “tough love” and not protecting your child from everything in the world as long as you can is necessary is because whatever you do, they WILL grow up and you will NOT be able to protect them from everything in the world indefinitely, so in your time as a parent you basically need to prepare them for not having you around all the time anymore and sending them out into the big scary “real world.” However, if God is omnipotent, then that means that God controls the big scary “real world” too. God's never going to send you out to fend for yourself in a part of the universe where He can't reach you because He is old and living in a nursing home somewhere, or because He is only one person and can't take care of you, your siblings, His spouse, His own aging parents, and Himself all at once. But making someone “grow up” so that they can deal with bad things that are entirely avoidable and which you are throwing at them just to give them the “opportunity” to deal with them isn't omnibenevolence; it's pure Donner Party conservatism.) (Also, if you think scientists have no sense of wonder, you 've clearly never talked to any scientists; even the douchey ones have a pretty well-developed sense of science being awesome (for the real meaning of awesome, not like a hot dog).)

Rehashes of the science-versus-religion wibbling aside, most of this book is pure fun brain candy, even the scholarly bits. We get lessons in Freemason symbolism on the US dollar, admire some pretty ambigrams, run around to lots and lots of churches, and hate on the Swiss Guard for being pompous and rigid. There are fight scenes that are freaking hilarious to read because they are so obviously intended to be filmed, and Our Hero ends up trapped in ancient sarcophagi with really ancient dead people, almost drowning in a Bernini fountain, getting shot at, fighting an assassin of the ancient order of the Hassassin (for realz) with a lead bar, hanging out in hermetically sealed vaults in ancient libraries, and looking at lots of maps. (Libraries and maps are key to any good puzzler adventure story.) One of the maps plot points kind of made me want to punch Langdon in the head repeatedly, but perhaps this is because I read too many terrible genre books (although they also did basically this same trick in the Sherlock Holmes movie, and that is where I remembered it from?). But basically, there are four Illuminati Altars of Science around Rome, and if you find all of them they will lead you to the secret Illumnati meeting place. I found it obvious from “four places that lead you to a fifth” that this will involve four places making a cross shape and the fifth will be at the intersection, particularly considering how much religion has to do with the plot. Langdon, for some reason, spends like half an hour looking at the map between finding places three and four going “A triangle? No, there's one more place. If it's [this church], it doesn't make a square? WHY DOESN'T IT MAKE A SQUARE?! It makes... a kite? A diamond? Whyyyyy? What IS it? I don't get it!” and eventually realizes it's a cross, then spends another half an hour wondering over the ingenious simplicity of it. (Does anyone else find it really messes with their suspension of disbelief if the author has a character spend too much time fawning over the ingeniousness of the author's own plot points?) I'm glad there weren't any secret sciencey clues involving the first handful of prime numbers, because I read a book that used that trick like two weeks ago, and so I probably would have put my head through a wall waiting six pages for Robert and Science Genius Vittoria to figure it out.

There is a Secret Biological Parent twist at the end, too, but it is not about the person you'd expect it to be about, so it actually is surprising.

I think Brown did a better job with the Obligatory Romance in this one than he did in The Da Vinci Code. It helps that Vittoria is not as whiny and annoying as Sophie and she frequently does stuff, although she is occasionally somewhat weirdly fetishized for wearing shorts, but I guess that fits when you're hanging out in the Vatican. Anyway, she doesn't suck, and I suppose introducing how Mediterranean-ly attractive an' sensual an' exotic she is relatively early in the story makes the ending seem less pasted on, even though otherwise their chemistry is relatively minimal due to having most of their time spent running around solving riddles and trying to save cardinals and get the Swiss Guard to cooperate, and not really having much time to hang or have characterization outside of helpful memory flashbacks that give them clues. (I am not actually complaining about any of this. I don't actually want to read a romance between Robert and Vittoria; I want them to solve puzzles and find the assassin and save the Vatican from an antimatter bomb.) (Actually, when there is characterization, I ended up sitting there scanning it for Things That Can Be Turned Into Actual Plot Points Later On to stop myself from not caring.)

Rating: four and a half adrenaline shots

bloodygranuaile: (Default)

This week I finished a book that had been sitting in my TBR pile for a whopping total of eleven years.

In 2000 I was given a copy of Marie Trevelyan's Arthurian Legends as a prize when I won the Marion J. Carpenter Award for Excellence in Social Studies, which I was pretty excited about at the time, although now I am like “Man, I had forgotten that when you're little they call it 'social studies,'” and I think in 2000 that would have been the end of sixth grade, and I was... twelve? Anyway, I never quite got around to reading the whole book, and I had totally forgotten why when I picked it up earlier this week after watching Camelot and laughing about it. I remembered the language looked a little denser than I was probably quite prepared for at twelve, although I couldn't remember why I didn't then just read it when I was reading, like, The Silmarillion and stuff two and three years later.

The reason is that I only ever picked up the book when I was somehow engaging with some other sort of adaptation or spinoff of the Arthurian legend cycle, like when I went to see Spamalot, and decided that I needed to go read a more basic account of the “canon” stories that Spamalot or whatever else was based on, perhaps because I was missing the jokes. And despite the title, this book is not a collection of King Arthur stories! So then my interest would wane.

What this book is, is a history of the mythology of Wales, and about a third is dedicated to historical Arthurian research, and the rest is dedicated to the history and legends of all these other Welsh heroes that I'd never heard of. I have recently become more aware of the existence of Wales as a separate cultural entity from “it's in Great Britain”, so I decided to keep reading. I really don't think whoever gave this book to me when I was in sixth grade had read it. The book was originally written in 1895, so the narrative voice is in that quaintly insufferable style of Victorian historians, but at least 60% of the book consists of quotations from other sources. Any of these sources written after the Battle of Hastings have not been translated, which means that there's a fair amount of Middle English that is modern enough that someone a bit familiar with Middle English can read it but old enough that it's still technically considered a different language for a reason, and is basically not that sixth-grader friendly, even for a hugely nerdy one like me. Also, Welsh names amuse me, but they are a mouthful. So a pretty good chunk of this book is all written like “And then Abergwygwygwygwygwyd, tho hee was butt younge, did lede a grete armie agaynst the Saxons, aund hee did nott onlie win a grete uictorye, butt he gaue thee Saxons such a Thoro Kickynge of thee Hinde-Quarteres, thatt hee was appelled thenceforth as Aberfwydfwydfwydgwyw, or Afydfydfwywywywywywywy, in the Brittish tongue, or Gluteus Kickius* in Latin, which means 'hee who hath giuen thee Saxons whatt forr,' aund each year ther is a grete feest in his honour at Cargwydgyllyllyllwll.”

Being now much more fluent in multiple out-of-date Englishes, I really liked this book this time around, and I learned a lot about ancient and medieval Wales, and all of their heroes whose names I can neither remember nor pronounce except for Owain Tewdwr, whose name I only remember because he was the founder of the Tudor dynasty. I kept trying to remember if any of the legends or place-names were mentioned in the Dark is Rising series I read earlier this year, but I was never entirely sure. There were a lot of pretty amusing stories about saints and bards and a warrior-poet named Merlyn who was probably not the same Merlyn as Merlyn the Seer, but has some pretty good stories about him all the same, mostly involving going mad. There were a couple King Arthur myth tidbits in there that I'd never heard of before, such as Merlyn the Seer's backstory, which apparently involves finding some dragons that an earlier Welsh hero had buried, so that was pretty badass. I still think I could have gotten more about of this story if I were reading it in front of a giant dry-erase map of Wales that I could have written on to keep it all straight, but alas, even if I had a giant dry-erase map of Wales, I read the whole book on the train.

Also, I am now afflicted with a perverse desire to learn Welsh, because I was just that impressed with how little I could make head or tale of a word of it.

Overall I would strongly recommend this book if you are at all interested in Welsh history and mythology (and the history of Welsh mythology), but I would caution against it if you just want to read a bunch of Arthurian Legends. Familiarity with reading Middle English might help too.

As a parting gift, here is a Cranky Wizard Face:

Merlin is trying not to fart magic or something

 

*Yes, I know there are no K's in Latin, but it's not Latin I'm trying to make fun of here.

bloodygranuaile: (Default)
Have spent this weekend watching two very, very, very different takes on the King Arthur legend.

I watched the first two episodes of Starz' new show Camelot, which is being billed as "the King Arthur legend for adults," which I guessed was TV-speak for "We made it as brutal as it probably was originally, but with many more awkwardly lengthy sex scenes because we are a premium channel." It appears I am fluent in TV-speak because this is exactly what it was.

The sets and costuming are gorgeous, as is most of the cast. King Arthur is played by the guy who played Anthony in the Tim Burton version of Sweeney Todd, which fits quite well with the show's very... modern characterization of Arthur as basically being an irresponsible pretty boy who has to grow up really fast when the plot lands on him. Eva Green is a beautifully bitchy and witchy Morgan le Fay, although I think her eyeliner might not be super historically accurate. Merlin, for some reason, is not an old wizard dude, but instead is Joseph Feinnes, being ridiculously badass.

The show seems to stay more or less close to the plotlines of the legends, or at least what I remember of them (I am not as well-versed in Arthurian stuff as I should be), although the whole "Sword in the Stone" thing is taken up to eleven by having the sword stuck in a rock at the top of a gigantic waterfall. It is very epic, and very pretty, although a bit cheesy and overdone at times. Kind of like the whole rest of the show.

I will, of course, have to see how the rest of the show plays out before I can come to any sort of serious conclusions on it. For the moment, I like it enough to keep watching, even though I will probably collapse under the weight of following this and The Borgias and Game of Thrones all at the same time. There will be so much pseudo-medieval costume drama ridiculosity and terrible sex that I will go mad. Mad, I tell you!

I also started watching the first season of the BBC's The Adventures of Merlin. God help me, this show is so doofy and adorable. Merlin and Arthur and Morgana and Guenevere are all awkward teenagers, and Anthony Stewart Head is awesome as Uther Pendragon, bizarre combination of legendary British king Uther Pendragon and the obligatory Close-Minded Adult Who Doesn't Believe Those Silly Kids No Matter How Many Times They Save The World. For some reason there is an awkward budding romance between Merlin and Gwen, although there also seems to be some degree of weird subtext between every combination of the four of them, except Morgana and Merlin. They seem like they could totally just be platonic best buddies.

I was inordinately amused by the sets, which are very clearly made out of very modern concrete and cinderblock, and by the terrible CGI. The costumes are decent, though, although they do not quite reduce me to weebling "I WANTS ALL THE DRESSES" like the Camelot ones.

In addition to Merlin being an awkward teenager, he is also Prince Arthur's manservant. Morgana isn't evil (yet), and is King Uther's ward instead of being related to Arthur. Gwen is Morgana's maid, and the daughter of Camelot's blacksmith, and has a weird habit of accidentally sort of insulting Merlin and then putting her foot in her mouth even further when she tries to fix it (I am hoping this particular running gag doesn't go on forever; I could see it getting old).

The plots all seem to revolve around magical things happening, and King Uther's hardline anti-magic stance getting in the way, and the court physician being wise and telling Merlin not to do anything stupid (Merlin is also apprenticed to the court physician, to secretly study magic). Then Merlin does something stupid, Gaius (the physician) berates him for it, and then he and Arthur and sometimes Morgana and Gwen team up and miraculously save the day, without Uther finding out that Merlin used magic to do it. At some point, Merlin also goes down to the dungeon and asks the Dragon what to do, and the Dragon says something about his destiny, and Merlin goes "BUT THIS CAN'T BE MY DESTINY I'M CONFUSED", and the Dragon flies away on its chain. I am hoping it might get a little less formulaically episodic as the show goes on, but we will see.

I now find myself really wanting to rewatch that old TV miniseries Merlin that came out in 1998, but it is not on DVD yet. Maybe I can find it online somewhere.

Tonight: The Borgias premieres! This is gonna be fun.
bloodygranuaile: (wall wander)

On Liz’ recommendation, I finally got around to reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, which I ~mysteriously~ found in my basement a few years ago and had been vaguely intending on reading ever since. It is a big mysterious mystery where these books came from, since I literally just found the boxed set sitting in the basement one day and nobody has any idea where they came from. (It is likely that someone gave them to my mom and she forgot about it, but it is more fun to say that it is mysterious than that we sometimes forget about stuff.)

The Dark Is Rising Sequence (according to the box, it is a Sequence, rather than a Series or Quartet) consists of four books, all of which follow a young boy named Will Stanton. Will is an Old One, despite only being eleven, because he is the last of a group of immortals called the Old Ones, who can travel through time and have all sorts of magic powers and whose job it is to stop the Dark (the supreme force of Evil in the universe) from defeating the Light (you get the idea) and taking over the world and doing that which the Side of Evil in Epic Fantasy Epics always like to do.

The first book, The Dark Is Rising, covers little Will’s awakening as an Old One on his eleventh birthday, when he gets a letter from Hogwarts meets another Old One named Merriman and starts being taken out of Time and learns gramarye (“knowing,” i.e. “how to use magic,” and I’m pretty sure it shares a root with “grammar”), and is given his first quest, which is to unite six Signs from where they are hidden in different places and times around England. The six Signs all together make up one of the four Things of Power, which the Old Ones will need to defeat the Dark when they have their final rising in the fourth book, because more MacGuffins means more fun for everyone. The very formal, very dramatic, very epic-fantasy-book-ful nature of the scenes involving the Dark and time travel and the Old Ones are mitigated by the adorable family scenes, in which Will and his parents and his eight brothers and sisters are all wholesome rural English farm people (although his dad is actually a jeweler) who bicker and eat and drink a lot of tea and are just so adorable and British. The story takes place between Will’s birthday on Midwinter’s Day and goes through the twelve days of Christmas, when the Dark is most able to wield their power and try to disrupt Will’s quest, and bury England under a Snowpocalypse kind of like this year. Can Will find all six MacGuffins and join them into a single MacGuffin and save his family and temporarily defeat Lord Voldemort the Dark Rider?

Greenwitch takes place the following summer in a picturesque little fishing village in Cornwall. Simon, Jane and Barney Drew had discovered a golden grail there the summer before, and it has just been stolen out of the National Museum. With the help of their Great-Uncle Merry who is actually Will’s master Merriman, and Will Stanton, and a picturesque cast of Cornwallian (Cornwellian?) characters including a gouty captain and a dog, they will have to defeat an array of weird characters of the Dark to recover the grail and find the manuscript that decodes the engravings on it, which one of them had thrown into the ocean the year before. This all gets a little difficult when the ancient ceremony of the Greenwitch is held, where the locals build a giant witch out of trees and rocks and offer it to the sea as a sacrifice. The Greenwitch claims the manuscript, and the Light and Dark both want to convince her to give it up, but the Greenwitch belongs neither to the Light nor the Dark, since apparently good and evil are really low down on the list of supreme powers in the universe. High Magic is higher, and so is Wild Magic, which is what the Greenwitch and the ocean have.

In the third book, The Grey King, we move to Wales, which is EVEN MORE picturesque and rural and adorable than Buckinghamshire or Cornwall. The book features some handy scenes in which Bran, an albino boy with a ~mysterious past~, teaches Will how to pronounce Welsh place-names, which was quite useful even if it didn’t move the plot forward for an entire half chapter. In this book, Will has to acquire a lost golden harp (Thing of Power #3), so that he can wake six Sleepers and banish the Grey King and vanquish evil foxes and some other stuff, and Bran can learn about his mysterious past. There are also a lot of altercations with a nasty sheep farmer named Caradog Pritchard, who wants to shoot everybody’s dogs. We learn a lot about Welsh history and mythology, including some odd takes on the King Arthur legends. Everyone drinks a lot of tea, and there are a LOT of sheep.

The fourth and final book is Silver on the Tree, which brings us back to Wales. This time, Simon, Jane and Barney Drew are on holiday in Wales, and so is Will, and of course Bran lives there. The five children and Merriman make up “the Six,” which means they all have important parts to play when the Light wields the four Things of Power to stop the Dark from winning their final Rising. First they have to get the fourth Thing, which is a crystal sword, which made me laugh so hard I almost died. (Maybe a crystal sword was less cheesy when these books were written thirty-five years ago. When did crystals get overdone to the point of being always silly?) Bran’s mysterious past is extremely important in this plot, and there are hints of a childlike attraction between him and Jane that doesn’t really go anywhere. This book is even heavier on all sorts of old British Isles history and mythology that I’d never heard of, all about medieval Welsh uprisings and King Arthur and glass towers and things. I felt like the grand climax of the Dark’s final attempt at Rising was a little strained, what with the really complicated choreography of fourteen hundred MacGuffins (now including a tree and a very specific bunch of flowers) and destinies (way more than the allotted Six) and too many myths all showing up at once. But it was a really good ride getting there.

The series as a whole is an odd mix of epic and adorable, and somehow the flavor of it kind of reminds me of Monica Furlong’s Wise Child, which I read several hundred times as a child. It’s got that whole creepy rural-Celtic-Britain mythos going on, which always has a particular feel, and which I really can’t find the proper words for. The Dark is Rising Sequence clearly shares a lot of tropes with The Lord of the Rings, but somehow comes off as a lot darker, despite being written for a much younger audience. It might just be the contrast between the main plot and all the adorable sheep-farming scenes, though.

Like many British novels, this series induced me to drink several dozen cups of tea while I was reading it.

NOTE: Amazon tells me there are actually FIVE books in this series, WHAT IS THIS I MUST FIND IT AND READ IT.

NOTE #2: The post title is not from this series; it is something a Nac Mac Feegle says (more or less) in one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books.

bloodygranuaile: (Default)

 Terry Deary's Horrible Histories series was all the rage when I was in elementary school way back in the nineties, a period which should probably have its own Horrible History book written up soon. A quick Google informs me that the series is still going strong, sparing me the need to gripe about Kids These Days. It also appears I have a lot of catching up to do! Despite being a decade out of its target market (at least), these books retain the same appeal they had when I was in fifth grade—and not just out of nostalgia, either. They mix corny jokes and cartoons with historical facts, focusing on the gory, unusual, and gross. Since history is so full of gory, unusual and gross things, the books make a fairly solid general history of each period they cover. The series makes a big point of being “The history grown-ups don’t want children to know,” although it is actually quite child-friendly, omitting the age-inappropriate aspects of the stories they recount. The books also include hands-on projects for the reader to try out, such as games and recipes. In short, they are fun.

 The title of The Awesome Egyptians initially had me worriedit sounded like it might be light on horribleness. Luckily, I was wrong. While it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Egyptians were indeed awesome, Deary finds plenty of nasty tidbits to entertain the reader. A fair chunk of the book dwells on ancient Egyptian social issues, particularly class and gender, because they were terrible. We learn about the lives of peasants and the first recorded labor strike; the incestuous line of succession and the complicated mess of rituals that made up the woman-king Hatshepsut’s gender presentation. Much of the book is, of course, about death and mummies and grave-robbing, these being the paramount concerns of both children who like disgusting things and the actual Ancient Egyptians. The book is weakest when covering the subjects all “Ancient Egypt for children” materials cover—a brief roster of gods, a simplified hieroglyphic alphabet—but this is a small portion of the book. Luckily, many more pages are dedicated to the unusual lives and deaths of important Egyptians and Egyptologists, including such colorful events as King Cheops losing his mother's mummy, Queen Ankhesenamun being forced to marry her own grandfather, and the spate of mysterious deaths following the opening of King Tut’s tomb. The Legend of Isis and Osiris is slightly sanitized, of course—Deary claims that Isis found all of Osiris’ body parts, and neglects to tell us that the purpose of this particular legend was to explain what made the Nile Valley fertile. But there’s still more than enough weirdness left to entertain even the least history-inclined child, and the book leaves the reader where any decent ancient history book should leave him or her—with an appreciation, even awe, of the great ancient civilizations, but grateful to be living now instead.

 I reread The Groovy Greeks next, which I recall reading so many times as a wee geek that my copy of it fell apart. I thought I knew a thing or two about the Greeks, back then. I was wrong, of course, and this book—like all books on Greek history or Greek myths for children—suffers much from the degree of bowdlerization necessary to make it child-appropriate. As such, The Groovy Greeks is merely full of cartoon pictures of nude Greeks, references to situations in which Greeks did not wear clothes, a story about Alcibiades knocking the “naughty bits” off statues, and a few references to the Greeks having a low opinion of women. However, it remains entertaining enough to keep a wee geek interested in the Greeks until he or she is old enough to learn that the Greeks were actually more misogynistic than Representative Bobby Franklin and more homosocial than “Life at the Outpost,” and that most of their legends involve rape. But despite this lack of all the most disgusting bits of Greek history and myth, and the undeniably pro-Greek tone of the book (mostly established by frequent use of the word “groovy”), it’s still a Horrible History, because history is messed up. There’s death, and fighting, and death, and human sacrifices, and death. There’s a story about eating babies, and a story about attempted infanticide, and they are not the same story because when Cronos eats his babies, they chill all healthy in his stomach until he throws them up, because whoever wrote the Greek myths was on crack or something. The moral of the story here is, basically: no matter how much you bowdlerize the Greeks, they will still be really interesting because they were that inappropriate.

 The Rotten Romans has its share of gross cultural information, but overall this volume in the series focuses heavily on individual rotten Romans. This is understandable, as there were quite a lot of them. What is also understandable, but a lot more irritating, is that the book also focuses hugely on the Roman Empire in Britain, giving extremely short shrift to the whole other, like, third of the world that they took over. I suppose this is also somewhat understandable, considering the books are written in the UK, but it gives a rather lopsided history.

The Vicious Vikings occasionally succumbs to the same Britain-centric viewpoint, but not as badly. I think my biggest issue with this one was the pages on food, which basically covered “stuff the Vikings used to eat which you might like” and “stuff the Vikings used to eat which are totally gross.” Half the stuff filed under “stuff the Vikings used to eat which are totally gross” is foods that they STILL EAT in Scandinavia today, some of which I have eaten personally. (Moose is delicious.) And I'm really not sure how they determined that young children would obviously find fish-head-and-pepper soup appetizing, but not goose. Or boar, which is basically medieval for “pork.” Overall, though, the book is a lot of fun. A lot of this is because it's just hard to make Vikings boring, but some of it is Deary's ridiculous style. (The book opens with a cartoon of a girl threatening a Jelly Baby. You can't go wrong making jokes about Jelly Babies.)

 The Measly Middle Ages beats out all but possibly the Romans for the most Horrible History in the bunch. This is unsurprising, as the Middle Ages sucked hardcore. Even Deary seems continually surprised at just how craptastic it was, and that is the point of the entire series. There’s a lot about medieval misogyny in this book (I get the feeling it is less glossed over than in The Groovy Greeks because there is less cool other stuff that makes you want to bury it and pretend everything’s okay). However, it is followed up by a few short biographies of kickass medieval ladies who I might need to go buy books on now. Gentle reader, please help me remember the following names: Jeanne de Clisson, Marcia Ordelaffi, Madame de Montfort, and Isabella of England. (Also Joan of Arc, although I already knew who she was.) This book ends on a giant downer, with Deary basically saying “The Middle Ages were full of stupidity, greed and cruelty, also some historians say they ended at the beginning of the Tudor Era but THEY WERE WRONG. IT IS STILL THE MIDDLE AGES.” Then there is a depressing cartoon about a kid doing a school paper on “Religion, war and pestilence” and his mother thinks it’s a history paper BUT SHE IS WRONG.

As such, I eagerly await the “Crappy Current Events” series. I am sure it will be both more factual and more entertaining than watching the news.

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