Tag: Flashback Friday

Review – Doomsday Book

Posted July 29, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Doomsday Book by Connie WillisDoomsday Book, Connie Willis

Originally reviewed 11th February, 2011

It took me quite a while to read Doomsday Book. I was intrigued to find it was about Kivrin, who was mentioned in ‘Fire Watch’, but it took so, so long to get off the ground. I figured most things out ages before any of the characters did. Following sick protagonists really is no fun at all, and it’s frustrating for the same conversations to be repeated over and over again — “Where is Basingame?” (who never appears), “Did you get the fix?”, “I must speak to Gawyn”… The parts in which Kivrin’s recordings were recounted were also annoying, given that they simply repeated the action, without giving much more information.

The last thirty percent of the book, though, is pretty good. I’m not sure I’m glad I persevered, because I was seriously being bored to death, but once Kivrin’s story really got into its swing — and I don’t think that happened until nearly the end — the sense of tension and horror was catching me by the heart, and the exchanges between Father Roche and Kivrin at the end of the book made me want to cry. Some of Kivrin’s part had real power — her outburst on the corder, for example, when she swears that she won’t let the others die.

One thing that amused/bothered me in equal measure was the inclusion of a character called Gawyn, with a horse called Gringolet, who bragged and was in love, “courtly love”, with his lord’s wife. Pity that I can’t think of a story where Gawain actually commits adultery, and that Lancelot or Tristan would have been a far more appropriate reference.

I’m going to try reading more of Connie Willis’ books — To Say Nothing of the Dog looks to be next — but I’m not going to stick with them all the way through if they have the same pitfalls as this book.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Exiled from Camelot

Posted July 22, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Exiled from Camelot by Cherith BaldryExiled from Camelot, Cherith Baldry

Originally reviewed 3rd October, 2012

I can’t remember who recommended me this, but bless you, whoever you were. It was definitely useful for my dissertation, as well as an enjoyable book. Kay-wise, it has an interesting mix of portrayals — the Loholt plotline is from the Cymric material, as far as I can gather, and yet Arthur’s position in the court is very much that of the continental stories. Hmm.

You know how I said Sword at Sunset was homosocial? I think Exiled from Camelot was even more so: it’s all about the bonds between the men of the Table — strained as they are, it’s clear that one has to hope for them all coming together and sorting things out. The bond between Kay and Arthur is so intense that it really excludes any other relationship for Kay: I did like that, though at times I did find myself questioning whether Cherith Baldry thought at all about authenticity. Kay does a lot of grovelling and crying, and acting like a coward, and yet it’s all waved away by the other characters — not likely, I would think, in a culture where merely calling Lancelot a coward is an invitation to a duel…

But whatever, I suspended my disbelief. My two main problems were Brisane — oh can we be more typical, with an evil woman who was rejected by men and sold her soul for power and used her body to gain more? — and Arthur being, well, stupid. He was so easily taken in, so easily led. Headdesk.

Still, more or less carried off, though it’s likely to wear thinner the more I think about it. Ultimately, it distracted me from any such flaws when I was reading it, which is the main thing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Sword at Sunset

Posted July 15, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Sword at Sunset by Rosemary SutcliffSword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff

Originally posted 24th February, 2011

I didn’t think I was going to like Sword at Sunset as much as I typically like Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, even though it was surely combining two of my favourite things — Sutcliff’s writing and realism, and Arthurian myth. It began slowly, I think, and it was a surprising change of tone for Sutcliff — her books are mainly written for children (of any age!), but this book had decidedly adult themes, with the incest and more explicit references to sexuality than I’d expected. It’s also unusual for her in that it’s written in first person, and narrated by Arthur himself.

It also, to my surprise, had a couple of LGBT themes — a gay couple among Arthur’s men, to begin with, and then the relationship between himself and Bedwyr. There’s no Lancelot here, and Bedwyr takes that place in many ways, but with more of a shown relationship than I’ve ever found typical between Arthur and Lancelot. It brought tears to my eyes several times, especially this moment: “I could have cried out to him, as Jonathan to David, by the forbidden love names that are not used between men; I could have flung my arms around his shoulders.”

There’s nothing explicit about them, at all, but their bond has a profoundness about it, even after hurt and betrayal, that defies easy categorisation.

The relationship between Arthur and Guinevere is also an interesting one, and again one that makes no shortcuts using the existing myth, but builds up something believable alone. His relationship with her, the odd barriers between them, and the attempts to reach each other, and their love that isn’t quite enough to bridge that gap… It’s all believable.

The whole book takes some pains to be believable, emotionally, and historically. The themes, characters, etc, all seem to have some explanations for how the story could develop later… Bedwyr somewhat in the place that Lancelot takes later, Medraut almost exactly as he will be later, the moment in which Arthur realises how the badge he chooses for battle will be translated into that text which talks about him carrying the image of the Virgin Mary… And they’re all aware of how the stories will be magnified, too. It’s an interesting way to put it.

Oh, and I forgot to mention it when I first wrote this review, but I was fascinated by Gwalchmai, despite his relatively minor role. It’s odd: he isn’t related to Arthur (one of the constants of the Arthurian tradition more generally), and though he is a fighter, his main role is that of surgeon. He’s also disabled. I don’t think I’ve seen a portrayal of Gawain/Gwalchmai quite like this anywhere else.

It took me a while to get into Sword at Sunset, but it was worth trusting Rosemary Sutcliff and going with it.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Island of the Mighty

Posted July 8, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Island of the Mighty by Evangeline WaltonThe Island of the Mighty, Evangeline Walton

Originally reviewed 17th June, 2011

Island of the Mighty retells the last branch of the Mabinogion, the story of Gwydion, Arianrhod, Llew Llaw Gyffes, Blodeuwedd and Goronwy. It begins with a retelling of stealing the pigs belonging to Lord Pryderi. Gwydion uses this to provoke war, allowing his younger brother to rape the king’s footholder. This also leads to the death of Pryderi, which doesn’t endear Gwydion to the reader who has also read the retellings of the other three branches — and also to the disgracing of Arianrhod and the birth of Llew Llaw Gyffes.

The themes Evangeline Walton explored in the other books come to fruition here, as power passes more and more from women to men, even power over birth and the rearing of children. Arianrhod is not very sympathetically dealt with, I have to say: often Walton’s work suggests that the passing of women’s power is a bad thing, but Arianrhod is capricious and unkind, considered by characters and text unnatural — for the crime of not having wanted to bear a child! Blodeuwedd isn’t treated with much sympathy here, and the other women are barely characters.

It’s hard to sympathise with most of the characters here, particularly as they stir up war, steal, lie and trick each other. I still enjoyed it as a retelling and think Walton dealt well with the material, but I wish she’d been kinder to Arianrhod and Blodeuwedd, who were both unable to fit in the patriarchal society that wanted power over women’s bodies, and expected them to abide by two conflicting sets of rules.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Song of Rhiannon

Posted July 1, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Song of Rhiannon by Evangeline WaltonThe Song of Rhiannon, Evangeline Walton

Originally reviewed 1st June, 2011

The Song of Rhiannon, a retelling of the Third Branch of the Mabinogion, isn’t as powerful as The Children of Llyr, which is a relief, in a way. There’s a time of healing for the characters, as well as what they suffer during the action of the story, and there’s a happy end for them as well. It continues to follow the characters of Manawydan, Rhiannon, Pryderi and Kigva. There are actually few other characters in the story, fleshed-out or not, but the character of the Bogey made me smile quite a bit, as did his interactions with Manawydan.

Once more, Evangeline Walton brings the characters to life. I can’t remember anything in the Mabinogion about some of the elements she introduces, e.g. about Pryderi’s father, but they all seem to belong quite naturally.

If I didn’t already care about Pryderi, Rhiannon and Manawydan, though, I don’t know how much I would have loved this book. The retelling of the Second Branch is the strongest so far, and can stand alone, but this can’t, to my mind.

I have serious love for her version of Manawydan, in all his wisdom and dignity and his love for his land.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Children of Llyr

Posted June 24, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Children of Llyr by Evangeline WaltonThe Children of Llyr, Evangeline Walton

Originally reviewed 29th May, 2011

The second of Evangeline Walton’s retellings of the Four Branches of the Mabinogion, The Children of Llyr is heartwrenching. The story of Pwyll, Prince of Annwn — it’s harrowing enough at times, fearing that he’s messed everything up, that nothing will be good again… But the story of the children of Llyr is something else again, the destruction of two races, of a whole way of life.

It’s better than the first book, to my mind: it got under my skin so much, so that I could hardly bear to keep reading, but I could hardly bear to stop. I fell in love with Manawydan, especially, and ached for Branwen, for Nissyen, and even at the end for Evnissyen. Evangeline Walton really brought the tales to life, here, and made them feel vibrant and urgent and pressing. She had to add less, I think, to make the story interesting, so it’s also perhaps more true to the source.

My only complaint is the slight preachiness, near the end, where Bran the Blessed talks about governments and so on. It’s an anachronism, which the text acknowledges, and it pulled me out of it.

There’s such a sense of inevitability, of doom, of all the bright things going dull… I loved it. Much as I love the stories of the Mabinogion, my heritage, they weren’t set on fire for me until reading this.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Prince of Annwn

Posted June 17, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Prince of Annwn by Evangeline WaltonPrince of Annwn, Evangeline Walton

Originally reviewed May 28th, 2011

Prince of Annwn is the first in a series of retellings of the Four Branches of the Mabinogion. Evangeline Walton wasn’t Welsh, but nonetheless she made herself very familiar with the sources, and while she added to the story, there was nothing that I could see that wasn’t in the spirit of it. She expanded and humanised the stories of the Mabinogion, giving Pwyll more of a journey and an arc of character growth, and adding a conflict between older faiths and new ones. At times there was a bit of endorsement of the ‘Universal Spirit’ idea: “In essence all Gods are the same, and one; but few mortals have glimpsed that Untellable Glory, and no human mind may hold it.” Which, given that I’m a Unitarian Universalist, appeals to me.

Evangeline Walton’s prose is clear and easy to read, and while at times there’s a touch of the archaic about the phrasing and such, it doesn’t get ridiculous or bogged down in it, and sometimes Pwyll’s thoughts are refreshingly modern and direct. There are some beautiful passages, too. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the tetralogy.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Ready Player One

Posted June 10, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Ready Player One by Ernest ClineReady Player One, Ernest Cline

Originally reviewed 1st June, 2012

This book is an enjoyable nostalgia-fest for classic video games (and music, and literature). It misses out some stuff that I’m sure a geek of this calibre would’ve loved unless he died in the eighties (which isn’t the case), but it’s still fun. If you love gaming and the internet and the idea of a virtual reality that you can plug yourself into and live in, then you’ll probably be interested.

Of course, it is about a teenage boy, so there’s the attendant immaturity and some creep factor (hello, there is nothing noble and wonderful about looking through the girl you like’s files without her knowledge or permission to find out what she really looks like; just because someone else collected the information doesn’t make it less creepy). I liked the twist about Aech, though, and Art3mis is pretty awesome.

It did bother me that emotional impact was lacking. Poor Mrs Gilmore gets mentioned a couple of times, but the narrator doesn’t make you feel the guilt he says he’s feeling, and he skips over it easily. There are a couple of deaths in this book you should feel something about, and you… don’t. Part of that is the whole gaming-culture idea of having another life in reserve, I guess, and maybe it’s intentional that that bleeds through to real life too.

Still, it’s a fun book, and it made me want to go play Pac-Man and so on until my eyes go square, which I suspect it was meant to do.

I wouldn’t say it’s particularly YA, despite the age group of the protagonists. They have quite juvenile concerns, it’s true, but the nostalgia is not aimed at this generation’s teenagers.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Debatable Space

Posted June 3, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Debatable Space by Philip PalmerDebatable Space, Philip Palmer

Originally reviewed July 5th, 2012

Randomly selected in the library. the narrative is annoying — very fragmentary, many different narrators and time periods, rapid POV switching — and the typography makes me roll my eyes (I don’t need a page of the letters d o o o o o w n dripping down the page to get that she’s falling). The characters are universally unlikeable; the main female character egotistical and self-justifying, the main male character smug and unprincipled. There’s a lot of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. None of this is my thing.

And yet. I loved it. I gulped it down practically whole. I was on the edge of my seat. The book has an undeniable energy and joy which swept me up despite myself. It made me root for the characters despite the fact that they are all incredibly flawed. There are sciency infodumps and I do not mind. There’s a deus ex machina and it just made me whoop.

I’m sure it has other flaws, but while reading it, I couldn’t care less. That, in my view, is a good book — and I’m very glad I picked up two more books by Philip Palmer on the same whim.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Vintner’s Luck

Posted May 27, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth KnoxThe Vintner’s Luck, Elizabeth Knox

Originally reviewed 18th July, 2009

My flatmate recommended this to me with much high praise. And read my copy before I got my hands on it, and cried at it a lot. I have to confess, when I started reading it, I didn’t really get into it. The story is about a man who agrees to meet an angel (or an angel who agrees to meet a man?) at the same time every year, for one night every year. The story focuses on these meetings, so what we get are glimpses into a life. It isn’t just the meetings, but it focuses mostly on them, rather than the minutiae of daily life. As a consequence, it takes time to get to know the characters. I think it was that that kept me from getting too deeply into the story.

It actually reminds me of a line from the first page: He took a swig of the friand, tasted fruit and freshness, a flavour that turned briefly and looked back over its shoulder at the summer before last, but didn’t pause even to shade its eyes. And then: Again he tasted the wine’s quick backward look, its spice — flirtation and not love.

Not only is that a lovely thought, and it tastes nice to synaesthetic little me, but it kind of describes how I felt about the book at first.

I didn’t really know what to expect from the story. There’s a little mystery in it, about some murders that happen in the area, and then there’s the love story between the man and the angel. I found both of them compelling. There are also glimpses into heaven and hell, provided by Xas, the angel, and the intervention of Lucifer — things that really point at a greater plot, I suppose, but we see it framed in the same way as Sobran, the human, does.

The love story is the part that really captured me, I have to say. It isn’t easy, Xas holding back from it, and then Sobran becoming angry and not wanting to see Xas, and then Xas’ disappearance… There’s enough of it to catch hold of your heart, though, and when you’re reaching the end of the book, it really, really begins to hurt.

I didn’t actually cry, although it was a close thing: I was desperate to read the last twenty pages, so had to read them under my grandparents’ eagle eyes, and that wasn’t conducive to a full-on sob fest…

I really do love the last lines:

You fainted and I caught you. It was the first time I’d supported a human. You had such heavy bones. I put myself between you and gravity.

Rating: 5/5

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