I asked for Colin Mackay’s Cold Night Lullaby for Christmas 2009 because of Karine Polwart’s song, ‘Waterlily’. It’s a beautiful song, and one that has been known to make me cry — based on Colin Mackay’s writing about his experiences in Bosnia, about the woman he loved, Svetlana. I couldn’t tell you about the really technical merits of the poetry right now, but the images are so vivid, searing. I doubt I can ever, ever listen to ‘Waterlily’ again without crying. Especially when I know what Colin Mackay went on to do — how he killed himself, so very, very methodically.
Reading around a little, I can see that there are some questions about geography/chronology in these poems. I wouldn’t be surprised by some fictionality, or inaccuracy due to how confusing and bewildering living through something like that can be, how destroying, but I think that Colin Mackay probably believed every word he wrote — and that’s what matters.
The Gulag Archipelago is not a book I think you can really read for pleasure. It’s heavy, heavy stuff, and it is — to the best of anyone’s ability — non-fiction. It contains a lot of stark truths about Russia — Stalin’s Russia, and after — and the conditions in the camps. We know plenty about the camps in Germany, and yet even now, decades after this book was published, I knew little about this.
I could as easily shelve it as ‘horror’ as I could ‘non-fiction’ or ‘history’.
Despite that, it’s not unrelenting. There’s hope — the very fact that I read this says there’s hope: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s been heard. And there’s a kind of dark humour, on nearly every page, in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s analysis of events and of people.
Definitely worth reading, if you can brace yourself for it. I read an abridged translation, but the author worked with the translator/abridger on it, as far as I can gather, so it could be more cohesive and easier to read than the original volumes. Even just dipping in and out of it, a chapter here and there, is better than not reading it at all.
The Empty Kingdom is quite a long way away — in time, in distance, and in the kind of story it is — from The Winter Prince. Medraut and the Arthurian characters are much less in evidence now, and Telemakos is definitely our hero, and one I enjoy completely independently from his links to the Arthurian story, which is almost unimportant by this point in the story.
Unlike The Winter Prince and The Lion Hunter, this book is less about healing and focuses more on the political intrigue. One thing I found very interesting about these books was how unpredictable I found them: I’ve read a lot of books and usually am able to predict their twists and turns. While some parts of this were easy to guess, most were not. So it’s a breath of fresh air in general, as well as an interesting and — so far as I know — new addition to the Arthurian tradition.
I can easily imagine that more might be written for this series, and I’d be interested to read it.
The Lion Hunter is less able to stand alone than the other books of this series: the story ends in a cliffhanger, which goes directly on to the last book, The Empty Kingdom, so beware of that! It does help if you have read the other books, too, but really you just need to know what happens in them, what the main characters did in previous books.
Early in this book, Telemakos is severely wounded, and part of the point of this book is his adjustment to that, his ways of dealing with it, and also his ways of dealing with the mental scars from what happened to him in The Sunbird. It’s a story of recovery, and it goes carefully with it — it’s not a magical healing, by any means.
Easy to read, like the other books, but yes, dark and even quite saddening, near the end.
I think I liked The Sunbird best of the series so far. It goes even further from Arthurian myth — the only character from the Arthurian canon is Medraut — but in the process makes an enchanting narrative. Young Telemakos is growing up and showing all signs of inheriting his father’s ability to stalk prey, but he uses his skills politically.
The story of his search for the figure called the Lazarus, and what happens to him there, are compelling. The darkness from the other stories remains here. Telemakos is a very strong character, almost unbelievably so, and yet still believably a child, too. The reactions of the other characters to what happens to him feels real and shocking, and is well-handled.
Medraut as a character develops further here, into someone one can like, or at least sympathise with a little — largely divorced from the Arthurian canon, by this point.
Again, it’s easy to read, well-written, but there are parts at which the soft-hearted will struggle.
A Coalition of Lions is quite different to The Winter Prince. The narration is straight first person, by Goewin, and it’s set after the fall of Artos’ kingdom. This one explores the role of women in this world better, and is quite empowering to Goewin, which was nice. The decision to include a non-canonical daughter for Arthur is quite a bold one, as is following her after her father’s death, and her attempts to do her best for Britain as though she were its queen.
That, and Medraut’s continued loyalty to Artos and Lleu — the fact that it is not his treachery, only an accident, that brought about the tragedy at the end of Arthur’s reign — is a pretty bold move. I don’t really believe in this version of the Arthurian myth, but it’s a breath of fresh air, a nice change.
Like the first book, A Coalition of Lions is very easy to read, and it’s not as dark. There is a bit of darkness and torture — Medraut would surely have somewhat in common with the brothers who are the coalition of lions — but it isn’t as internal to the story as in The Winter Prince.
After finishing The Winter Prince, I had to stop for a minute to think about it — do I like it? How much did I enjoy it? The style is very interesting: it seems to be straight first person narration at times, but when Medraut’s mother appears, it becomes apparent that he’s addressing the story to her. It deals with one of the issues that lie at the heart of the Arthurian mythos, often blamed for the fall of Camelot: the incest between Arthur and his sister. It works out the issues, in a way, binding Medraut to his brother, Lleu, and neutralising him, though it’s not an easy road for either of them to walk.
It also deals with the issues of abuse, a horribly powerful link between Medraut and his mother, and even between his mother and his brothers. He has to deal with the tangled feelings that come when at one moment someone will hurt you horrifically and the next comfort you, when they’ll say it’s for your own good or that you did wrong, to excuse them torturing you. Medraut’s confusion is well done: I couldn’t predict what he would do and how, I couldn’t predict whether he would go free of her at the end or not.
With the point of view it took, I suppose it’d be hard to show more of Medraut’s mother and her motivations, but I found that somewhat difficult to swallow, of everything in the book. So casually evil, toying with other people as though they’re not real… Goewin and Ginevra are positive female characters, to an extent, though the latter does very little after the opening of the novel. Goewin hints at a way she could become like Medraut’s mother, so there is a bit of a sense of circumstances making her the way she is, but still… I did want more, I wanted less senseless evil and more a sense of someone made the way she is by being wronged and so on. Turning Morgause and Morgan Le Fay and their like into evil witches is one of those ways of pathologising female power that people don’t seem to guard against.
The Winter Prince can be a quick, easy read, but there’s darkness at the heart of it — which is, I suppose, countered by the end.
A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer
Flashback Friday review from 1st April, 2013 (but unfortunately it wasn’t a joke)
As a history book, this is an interesting format and it’s reasonably engaging, though by the end I was starting to get worn down by the sheer level of detail. But what bothered me was that apparently, if you want to time travel, you’d better be male: there’s some lip service paid to actually discussing women’s role in society, with some references to the kind of work women did (mostly: make ale, I gather), and quite a lot of reference to the kind of clothes women wore, and how likely women were to be assaulted and raped, but. We hear about monks and not about nuns, about merchants and not about their wives, about farmers and not their daughters.
And don’t give me the excuse about that not being interesting to read about: nor is intricate detail about what a monk can eat on which days, for most people.
In summary: to time travel, apparently you have to be male. And only men are interesting. Slightly disappointed I paid for this book right now.
I’ve been meaning to read The Chrysalids since it was mentioned in Among Others (reading books Mori mentions hasn’t steered me wrong, so far). I’m glad I got round to it. I enjoyed Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, but I enjoyed The Chrysalids rather more: I fell in love with the way he created a whole post-apocalyptic world in just a few pages. I loved all the details of it — harsh and oppressive as it would be to live that life, it’s a fantastic read for someone interested in post-apocalyptic dystopia.
It wasn’t, really, all that new to me, the modern reader. Still, it felt like it was, somehow. It leaves one wanting more, too. The ending is open enough that goodness knows what could happen, and the reader is given plenty they have to work out for themselves.
Character-wise, I suppose it wasn’t that strong, as the only characters who stood out to me strongly were the really central ones. Most of the group, I don’t think I’ll remember their names tomorrow. David and Rosalind do have a sweetness to them, but at the same time, if I think of what marked them out as people… David’s uncle, who kills someone to keep their secret, and supports David and helps him despite his difference, he’s actually perhaps the most memorable to me, in a way.
There is, by the by, a lot of moral ambiguity.
I’ll be keeping my copy of The Chrysalids, for sure. I’ll want to come back to it.
The Decameron is obviously a hugely influential piece of literature (actually, it’s just plain huge), so it’s no wonder I’d get around to it eventually. I’m not a huge fan of Chaucer, really, but I did recognise a couple of the source texts he used in this, and I imagine that the choice of frame narrative for the Canterbury Tales might’ve been suggested to Chaucer by The Decameron. Certainly The Decameron was an influence, anyway.
The Decameron also inspired a song by one of my favourite singers, Heather Dale, ‘Up Into The Pear Tree‘, about Pyrrhus and Lydia and their trick on Lydia’s husband. It’s a lovely song, playful and quite in keeping with the tone of The Decameron.
Despite its length, The Decameron is very easy to read. It’s a collection of a hundred short stories — or perhaps a hundred and one, if you count the frame story — split into ten ‘days’ with the conceit that a group of ten young men and women meet outside Florence during the plague years, and to entertain themselves, they elect a king or queen from their number each day, who dictates a theme for the stories that they tell. The stories are quite similar at times, when they revolve around a specific theme, but overall there’s a lot of different stories, often funny, and often to do with sex. You get the impression that no women in medieval Italy (with the exception of Griselda and Zinevra) were ever faithful to their husbands!
Being a medieval work, it’s unsurprisingly not terribly good about subjects like rape or feminine strength. Sometimes it praises women to the skies and at other times blames them for what isn’t their fault, or what certainly isn’t a fault in all women. Still, it didn’t make me uncomfortable most of the time, and there are plenty of clever and strong women in the tales as well.
The Penguin translation, by G.H. McWilliam, is extremely good, in the sense of always being very readable and entertaining, rather than dry, and this edition comes with a wealth of notes on context and on each specific story. There are maps and an index, too. Even if you’re not reading this for study, it’s worth getting — perhaps especially so, because it explains things clearly no matter what your level of expertise on the subject.