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Stupid weather forecast. Also, books. - The Lyorn's Den — LiveJournal

Sun Oct. 21st, 2007

11:14 pm - Stupid weather forecast. Also, books.

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The weather forecast had prophesied mostly clouds for Saturday, and partly-sunny for Sunday, so I spent a brilliant autumn Saturday grocery shopping and riding my motorbike, and the evening bicycling all over town for the Tech and Science Open Night.

Then I went to bed early because the following day (today) I wanted to go for a hike in the hills. Only, when I awoke at 8, it was raining. I slept two more hours and it was still raining. So much for my plans for the day, and I went back to bed and slept another four hours. Only when I had breakfast, the rain ceased. In the late afternoon, some blue sky was visible through the clouds. Stupid weather forecast. It used to be that something as irrelevant as rain didn't keep me from long walks, but hiking in the flatlands in the rain is pleasant if one is dressed for the weather, in the hills it's a muddy and slippery affair.

At least I got enough sleep.

Last week I was very busy fighting entropy by putting an immense amount of energy into getting through my to-do-list, with some success.

I also read a few books.

Jo Walton: The King's Peace / The King's Name (2000/2001)

This is one story in three logical books, packaged in two physical ones. I bought and read "The King's Peace" in January and have been hunting for the second one until September, when I ordered it from the US (via amazon from powell's), waited about 5 weeks and had it finally arrive the past week, when I had already given up hope and drafted an e-mail to amazon saying that I wanted my money back.

The story is unashamed, unabashed Arthurian, with many of the characters, people and events mapping very well to a more historically than mythologically inspired take on Arthur as a warlord in post-Roman Britain. The book is not advertised as such, though. I wouldn't have bought it if it had, and when I found out, I was close to throwing it with great force, as my tolerance for stealth-Arthurian approaches zero -- I never forgave Guy Gavriel Kay for "Fionavar".

But the moment I realised what it was, the narrative voice had already captured me. Narrator of the book is Sulien, daughter of an insignificant chieftain on the coast of Tir Tanangiri. She's telling the story when she's in her nineties, looking back at how the big changes the land saw in her lifetime have come to pass -- peace, and the rule of law, the integration of the Jarn who came as conquerors to the island, and the rise of the church of the White God. Her tale, she says, is one of success, if costly success, of oaths kept, chaos averted, a kingdom built.

And that, as much as the narrator's voice, kept me reading on. Because you can set Arthurian into a more or less fantasy context, you can globally search and replace all the names, and mix up geography until I get a headache, you can even create near-perfect gender equality in your Dark Ages, and I still won't want to read about a bunch of supposedly grown-up people hunting for some mystic cup and going into all-over tragedy about who was in bed with whom. But Sulien, before we even know her as a Knight of the Round Table, promises us that there won't be a bunch of folks thinking with their pants and destroying everything they fought for. Besides, she sounds a whole lot like Gawain in "Hawk of May" by Gilian Bradshaw, my favourite Arthurian re-telling ever: No-nonsense, down-to-earth, with an eye for politics and economics, and no patience with angsting and whining. (Bradshaw, in the third book of her trilogy, "The Kingdom of Summer", even made me sympathise with the protagonists of that infernal love triangle.)

Sulien's story starts when she it seventeen and caught in the woods by a Jarnish (say Saxon) raiding party. The raiders rape her, dedicate her to their god (let's say Odin, to keep this from becoming needlessly complicated) and leave her to die. Not only doesn't she die, but she manages to get help for her village, and comes to the attention of one of the High King's cavalry captains. She gets offered a place in the cavalry and takes it gladly.

Over the years Sulien fights and wins (and occasionally loses) battles, makes friends, rises in the ranks, earns the enmity of a sorcerer or two and of some of the more fanatical of the White God's followers, and has the god she has been unwillingly dedicated to put his finger on the scales occasionally. At the end of the first (physical) book, she has to return home to take over her father's kingdom.

In the second book, a civil war breaks out for no good reason at all, and of course the sorcerer is behind it. (If you guess the name of the sorcerer, you won't be too far off.) There is some fighting, some mystic whatever, a short lecture on the nature of curses, and a whole lot of action. There are three showdowns: The battle, the mystical battle, and finally bringing the sorcerer to justice. I liked the battle a lot. The mystical battle played around a little with the conventions of Light and Dark, of Christianity and Paganism -- I haven't yet decided if I like it or if I think it too obvious. OTOH, it's Arthurian -- as with fanfic, some degree of being obvious is necessary, or it will sway too far into original fiction and the fans will complain about bait-and-switch. Bringing the sorcerer to justice was a let down for me, especially as a few characters got killed in haste for no good reason at all. Another thing I'm not too sure of are some short-self-referential hints of a multiverse of Arthurian legend that I could probably describe best in the terminology of GURPS Infinite Worlds. I'm not sure if that was necessary.

But all in all, a very enjoyable book. As a special treat, the introduction to the second book is a scholarly consideration of the "Sulien Text", its history, its authenticity, and its place in 13th century scholarship. Yepp, 13th. Because "now" is the 28th century: 2753 years since the founding of Rome (or however it's called). That made my geeky self very happy.

The one reason why Walton's books won't replace "Hawk of May" in my affection is that there is no map. I kept trying to map the story onto a map of post-Roman Britain and got vertigo for my effort. Also, without some solid geography to associate them with, a cast of hundreds seen through the eyes of a single narrator is very hard to keep track of.

The Green Man also has a review of (at least the first) book.

Rosemary Sutcliff: The Eagle of the Ninth (1954)

Keeping in with the theme of Romans and Celts, this is a solid historical adventure for teenagers. Of course, teenagers' books are tricky -- while they lack the sordidness or the insufferable romances that many novels for adults feel they have to include to be taken seriously, novels for teenagers can be disgustingly moral and pedagogic.

This one isn't. Everything you might learn from it about the Romans in Britannia, about the Mithras cult and about Celtic shamans, about life in the legions and life in the wilderness is purely coincidental. (As I'm not a historian, I cannot say how accurate it is from a modern perspective, but honestly I do not care much.)

Protagonist is Marcus, a young and penniless Roman from a military family. Ten years ago, his father, an officer in the Ninth legion, had gone MIA north of Hadrian's Wall, and the whole legion with him. Marcus vaguely hopes to find out what has happened to his father when he volunteers for service in Britain.

He has held the post of Centurion in a frontier fort for all of four months before he gets wounded in a siege and has to move in with his old and scholarly uncle. There he hears a rumour that the Eagle of the lost legion is worshipped as a tribal god by some barbarians, north even of Antonine Wall, and understands that a captured Roman Eagle might be used to rally the barbarians against the Empire. So he sets out with his friend Esca (who had been a prisoner of war and a slave before Marcus bought and freed him) to find the Eagle and bring it back home.

The greatest thing about the quest is the sense of place and time that Sutcliff conveys. Every loch and valley, every Roman town and broken-down building, every horse and pony, warrior and hunter is completely present and comes alive in very few words. I wanted to hop on the very next plane and go to Scotland, just to see the sky, and the mist rising in the valleys, and see where the stones from all the ages past still stand.

Apart from that the story is quite exiting -- while I never doubted that they would find the Eagle, I had my moments of doubt whether they would bring it home (fortunately, I do not read forewords), and if they both would survive. The timing is very good -- it starts out slow, setting the scenery, most of the quest is moderately-paced, but it continuously gathers speed towards the end, as fitting for a race or a hunt.

In the end the quest, both it's material part (the Eagle) and it's immaterial one (answers and recognition) is only partly successful. I liked that. A "ten out of ten" ending would have spoiled the book.

The characters are easy to relate to, yet they do not feel like the 20th-century transplants that plague many historical novels. Marcus is not solely driven by father-related motivations, as it is so often in novels (not to mention Hollywood movies!) -- he is also (or mostly) in it for duty and adventure. That helps him keep his cool in some situation where as a slightly jaded reader I felt another "You killed my father! Prepare to die!" moment coming up.

I have often found this book mentioned favourably on LJ and other places, and it lives up to its good, not-flashy, and (AFAIK) uncontroversial reputation. A very pleasant book, and recommended without reservations.

Terry Moore: Strangers in Paradise XIX (Comic)

The series ends with this book, and not spoiling it is nigh-impossible. The endless confusions, the lovings and leavings, come to an end. Some people die, one last undercover girl is outed (but not killed), and the survivors all more or less end up with what they want to have. (Except maybe for Freddy Femur. But the book does not go into this.)

Again, Moore strains suspension of disbelief ("she did what?"), but manages not to snap it. A satisfactory conclusion to a great series.

Stan Sakai: Usagi Yojimbo XXI -- The Mother of Mountains (Comic)

Fortunately, UY doesn't show any signs of coming to an end. This book contains a single long story, about Tomoe and her evil cousin, gold-diggers, slavers, clans manoeuvring for power and wealth, with Usagi, as usual, right in the middle of it.

I actually like the shorter UY stories better than the long ones, but I enjoy them all.

Latest News: Dumbledore was gay. via Making Light.
ETA: Fandom is all over it. Neil Gaiman has some very reasonable things to say about things the author knows about the characters. There is the expected howling and gnashing of teeth from the expected non-fandom places (mocked here).

Current Mood: okayokay


[User Picture]
Date:November 19th, 2007 03:36 am (UTC)

(peeking over from your comment chez bellatrys)

I knew I'd seen your username before-- it was when papersky linked to this Sulien review last month. In case someone else hasn't already pointed this out, she has some supplementary material on her homepage, including the map you'd wished for; she also has the full text freely available of the related book The Prize in the Game (it's about Emer, Elenn, and Conall).
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]
Date:November 19th, 2007 05:30 pm (UTC)

Re: (peeking over from your comment chez bellatrys)

The link to the map seems to be broken :-(

Still, thanks for the info -- that site is very interesting.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]
Date:November 19th, 2007 08:14 pm (UTC)

well drat, I hadn't checked the map link--

luckily, the Wayback Machine still has a saved copy from her old webpage here.
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