Tuesday, July 10, 2007

more fantasy books

We have been spending afternoons at our lake's beach recently, which gives me a couple of hours at a sitting to read, so here's another list of books I've read recently. This probably concludes my run of fantasy/sci-fi novels for now -- what is that, 14 in the last 3 weeks? My next list will probably be books I want to read for next years' homeschool...... but in the meantime....


I finished the Dark Elf Trilogy -- well, actually, I read the first one and the third one in the book. Reading the first chapter almost made me put the book back straightaway in the library pile. It was quite grotesque, with a dark elf mother giving birth to a baby and a complicated assassination plot going on at the same time. There was nothing but evil and internecine contrivances(always wanted to use that word internecine, AH, and I just checked it, and it looks like I used it correctly, which brightens my day ).

But the point of the book turns out to be that Drizzt, the dark elf, is different from his kin and his kind. It's a contrast thing. Once you realize this, the moral tone is fairly substantial. I didn't say profound. But substantial is something. The rest of the book concerns how this dark elf manages to grow up in a thoroughly wicked society, devoted to worship of the spider goddess Lolth, without becoming corrupted himself.

It was another nine year old recommendation from the Waldorf page. I am starting to wonder if the Waldorf page means the same thing as I do by "nine year old". I would be OK with my middle to high teen reading this, if he was level-headed. PG-13 style violence. Comparable in tone and depth to the LOTR movies (not the books) and the second set of Star Wars movies.

The dark elf that is marked by his appearance, exiled from his own race by his desire to act rightly --- and outcast from the "good" races because of his looks and the reputation of his race -- the idea was moving. I guess this elf Drizzt is a sidekick in another series and I can see why people wanted to read more about his background. I was curious to read more about his adventures and really hoped that he would eventually find a place in the overlands. The books were very competently written; the third one about his forays into the Overland were less grotesque and dark than the first two, and I liked it better.

Now -- the other fantasy book I read recently -- The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. What can I say.....on one hand, the writing style was very nice, at least at its best. It reminded me a bit of Mary Stewart or Madeleine L'Engle . ... intelligent and perceptive. On the other hand, the main character scored so high on the Mary Sue test that you would conclude that the author almost had to have planned it that way. This character had everything -- special powers, somewhat mysterious past, angst and unjustified self-doubt, strange (but beautiful) eyes and hair, everyone falls in love with her or is deeply affected in some way, special bond with animals (yes, horses and cats) -- it goes on and on.

The book itself was completely within the scope of a pre-teen or early teen unless the wish-fulfillment element was considered a debit -- stylized violence only, very mild romantic elements. You know throughout that the two main characters have a romantic interest in each other but there is no real progression of the romance until the very end, and it is as respectable as anything from Austen -- if Jane Austen would ever write anything about characters with golden eyes and special powers that enable them to change the world.

Drizzt, the elf, scored fairly high on the Mary Sue test too, by the way. I think this may be one of the job hazards of being a main character in a fantasy novel. You almost have to have some earth-changing powers, some dark secret in your past, some beyond-average fighting ability, etc. But there was a difference. To me the main sign of the true Mary Sue is that you get the feeling that the character is sort of a balm for the author's childhood issues. I think there is a certain type of serious, introverted, gifted child that is tempted to make childhood perceptions of his or her own abilities and trials into fodder for daydreams of grandeur, and if the child can write well enough, he or she might grow up to become a published writer. Well, perhaps you can't avoid this dream-fulfillment aspect entirely, but writers like Madeleine L'Engle seem to be more conscious of it, sublimate it and turn it into art a bit -- perhaps a lot -- more.

Last of all, I forgot to mention the Celtic Crusade series by Stephen Lawhead. I thought I would like them -- Scottish Celtic, Crusades, and Christian author all in the same package -- but I found the one I read, the Black Rood, left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Was it the subtle anti-Catholic elements combined with a sort of gnostic Christian-pagan flavor? I gather that the series based on the story premise that there was some sort of medieval Celtic Christian "cult" that purported to follow Christ but didn't consider itself associated with the Roman Church. I just did not like that at all.

This book is about a search for the "Black Rood" which is a section of the True Cross that has been captured by Muslims. It's never really clear doctrinally or plot-wise in the book WHY the artifacts surrounding Christ's death are considered important..... the first book in the series, which I didn't read, was about the quest for the Iron Lance that pierced Jesus's side (here's a review). I know what the Catholic view on this would be but it was not clear why it was important in the Celtic Crusade worldview.

There's a scene where the protaganist encounters a secret veneration of a "Black Madonna" -- who turns out to be Mary Magdalene, who is holding a child who is reputed to be Christ's child. The author doesn't remark on the cult either way, but it seems like a hint of future developments. This sort of sums up the creepy, blind feeling I got about the book as a whole -- along with a scene where a pig is being tortured. No huge and unmistakable crimson flag, but tons of little flashes of red flags that whip out of sight when you turn around to look. PG-13 level violence again.


Faith said...

It is interesting to me that you mention the Celtic 'cult'. I was just reading about this. Christianity came to Britain very early and developed largely via the monastaries. Then St. Augustine (of Kent) reintroduced the Roman variety. So there was a sense of a Christian church that had its own seperate identity from Rome. There was a council at Whitby (if I'm remembering right and I forget what year) I believe where the RC church and the Celtic church reconciled and the RC church was given authority. However, it was diplomatically bumpy and there were hard feelings for a while, so perhaps that is where the author got his inspiration.

As with anything there are different takes on Waldorf. The list you cite always struck me as being very pagan/new agey oriented. There are more traditional and conservative (for lack of a better word) followers of Waldorf who do not go overboard on the fairy tale/fantasy aspect of Waldorf. I highly recommend Donna Simmons' site. She is very sensible and I think what she writes will jive much more with your sensibilities. She is Christian in the sense that Steiner was Christian (he believed in Christ); he just mixed in some Eastern flavored stuff (reincarnation!).

Angel said...

I have never much cared for Salvatore, but haven't read his more recent books. I don't think I would let my ten year old read the one I read years ago... can't even remember the name now, and I only managed half of it. The Belgariad (from the Waldorf page), however, I both enjoyed and would hand to my 10 yo (actually, I have handed it to my 10 yo, but he is much more interested in SF than fantasy... and it is getting very hard to find suitable SF for that age group these days. I am thinking of recommending Asimov for him.)

I had to chuckle a bit at your review of The Blue Sword. I remember reading that book when I was 11. I was home sick, and there was just something about that book that drew me in - probably I could identify with the heroine a bit much at the time. I actually liked The Hero and the Crown better, which is basically a prequel to The Blue Sword. I read it at about the same age.

I checked out the Mary Sue test, too. I *thought* I had taken it before LOL. It is a funny test, and thankfully, the characters in the books I have written score low on the test. But I think you are right about fantasy in general. It is a kind of over-the-top genre -- or at least it can be -- and it can be easy to degenerate into writing characters who gaze upon their reflections in limpid pools before saving the world from dark magicians. It's a super-hero genre in many ways, although I think there are a number of writers out there who succeed in turning the tropes on their heads.

I'm wondering if you've ever read Susan Shwartz's book Shards of Empire. It's set in 10th Century Byzantium. I don't think I would recommend it to a 9 yo either (although it's been a while since I read the book), but it's an interesting historical fantasy dealing with Christendom and Judaism at that time.

lissla lissar said...

I'm sentimental about The Blue Sword. I think I also read it when I was eleven or twelve. McKinley's one of my favourite authors, and her writing and characters improve. She herself said she was a bit embarrased by the clunky bits in The Blue Sword.

I recommend Deerskin, which is a retelling of the fairy tale Donkeyskin (and is quite dark), and Spindle's End, which is a fun retake of Briar Rose.

Actually, I just got an advance reader copy of her latest, Dragonhaven, which is coming out in September. It's sitting beside me, next to the Poe's book. I'll start both tonight or tomorrow.

Red Cardigan said...

I find the problem of the "Mary Sue" in sci-fi/fantasy to be complex. Like you said, most heroes in this genre have some hidden past or dark secret or unknown power or tremendous strength, so that alone probably isn't enough for Mary Sue-dom.

I think of the sci-fi/fantasy version of the MS to be someone who's just so impossibly brave, strong, talented, clever, handsome or beautiful, wise, loyal, mysterious, intriguing etc. that he/she's a total bore. Quite a bit of sci-fi television suffers from the impossible hero syndrome, imo.

Maxime said...

Interesting to know.