Book Review: Taran Wanderer

Book Review: Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

With the Black Cauldron destroyed, Death-Lord Arawn has retreated to his own lands for the time being, and no other major threats beset the realm of Prydain.  Long peaceful days at Caer Dallben have given Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper time to think.  Taran has realized a number of things, including that he wants to be together with Eilonwy for the rest of their lives…and that he has no idea who he is.

Taran Wanderer

That’s both in the metaphorical and literal sense.  Taran has no idea who his parents were, or if he has living kin.  And his life at Caer Dallben has been more about caring for the oracular swine Hen Wen than discovering his own way of life.  What if he is of noble birth?  What if he is truly a peasant?  Can he be together with a princess if his birthright is unknown?

Dallben the enchanter is as usual not a great deal of help; he either cannot or will not tell Taran the details of the boy’s heritage.  So it is that Taran sets out with his faithful companion Gurgi to the Marshes of Morva.  There, Taran consults the three dangerous sister enchantresses, but learns he cannot pay them a price high enough to learn his own secret.  They do, however, mention that the Mirror of Llunet might give him a glimpse of his true self.

Lake Llunet, where the Mirror was last seen, is clear at the other end of the country, and the rest of the story is about Taran’s journey there.

This is the fourth of five novels in The Chronicles of Prydain, a children’s series based loosely on Welsh mythology.  (Mr. Alexander mentions in the foreword that he’s borrowed bits from other folklore as well.)  The focus is on Taran’s character development, so there’s no one overwhelming threat, but a number of smaller problems and lessons that Taran must overcome or learn from on his way to maturity.

Indeed, Taran has grown a great deal from the callow lad he was at the beginning of the series; he shows wisdom whenever he thinks about how to help others, rather than his own problems.  But he still needs to let go of the notion that he needs to be special before he can embrace his true destiny.

Not everything is hard lessons; not-quite-human Gurgi and the prevaricating bard Fflewddur Fflam provide comic relief.  But there are villains as well, the terrifying Morda, who cannot be killed by mortal means (and who is responsible for some of the mysteries in earlier books) and the greedy mercenary Dorath.  Eilowny does not appear, but is often mentioned.

The book is well-written, though some of the running character tics grow tiresome by the end.  (And the lesson at the end is obvious at the beginning if you’re at all familiar with children’s literature.)   It’s a good breather before the climactic events of the final volume, where Taran and Eilowny must take their mature roles.

I recommend the entire series, and the Disney version has its good bits as well.

Book Review: One Night in Sixes

Book Review: One Night in Sixes by Arianne “Tex” Thompson

Island Town used to be known as Sixes, when the Eadan Confederacy controlled this area.  But a decade or so back, the indigenous peoples pushed the Confederacy across the river.  Now Island Town is on the border, with only a handful of the old inhabitants providing continuity.  Like many border towns, the former Sixes is a mix of various peoples with different customs and languages, who cooperate or clash in many ways.

One Night in Sixes

Sil Halfwick knows nothing of conditions in Island Town–not even its new name.  The sickly displaced Northerner was hoping to sell some horses at the County Fair to show his business acumen and earn enough money to move back East.  That didn’t work out, so he gets the hare-brained idea to go across the border to Sixes, where horses are scarce.  He drags along mixed-race ranch hand Appaloosa Elim, who Sil is nominally in charge of, but considers himself Sil’s babysitter.

Elim has good reason to worry.  Across the border, “mules” such as himself are regarded with extreme suspicion due to the belief they carry disease. And if that wasn’t enough, certain people in Island Town have cause to be on the outlook for someone like Elim.

Sil is oblivious to all this.  He samples the local nightlife and becomes involved in high-stakes gambling.  He seems to win big, but a series of coincidences and petty cruelties result in a man being dead in the morning.  Now the two outsiders are in deep, deep trouble.  And it looks like neither Sil’s fast talking nor Elim’s steadfast endurance is going to get them out of it.

This Western-flavored fantasy is the first in the “Children of the Drought” series.  Despite many similarities, this is not Earth as we know it.  The various kinds of humans have supernatural talents, and some of the people in Sixes aren’t strictly speaking human.  The “white” people speak Ardish, which is not quite English, while the trade language is the not-exactly Spanish tongue Marin.  (There’s a glossary and list of characters in the back.  The latter is mildly spoilery.)

One of the big differences is that it’s much harder for mixed-race people to “pass”, as instead of melding features, they wind up with vitiligo-like mottled skin.  Elim has a very conspicuous eye-patch marking.

The story is told in tight third-person, with switches in viewpoint character revealing new information and making motivations clearer.  We see that much of the tragedy in the story comes from people’s biases blinding them to the good intentions or full humanity of others.

In addition to Sil and Elim, we hear the thoughts of:

Twoblood, the other mixed-race person in town.  She’s Second Man (effectively sheriff) and feels the need to be seen to enforce the law rigorously  to offset the suspicion against her because of her ancestry.

Fours, the livery owner who is not what he seems and has conflicting loyalties.  As a result, Fours has to work against his personal agenda from time to time.

Dia, the only Afriti (black person) in town.  She’s a grave  bride of the Penitent religion (roughly Catholic nun) and wants to give mercy where she can, but the wickedness in Island Town often thwarts her.

And Vuchak, a member of the a’Krah tribe (followers of Crow) who works in the local den of sin.  He’s poor-tempered, even with his partner Weisei (who’s a trifle addlepated.)  Vuchak takes his tribe’s honor very seriously, and doesn’t like compromises.

There’s quite a bit of world-building and examination of culture clash.  The book ends as several characters leave Sixes/Island Town for a long journey that will presumably be the focus of the next book, but there are indications that those who died in this book will still have an effect.

There’s some rough language, and discussion  of slavery.  (Sil claims Elim is a slave at one point, but Elim’s situation is more complicated than that.)  The fantastic racism may strike some readers as too close to real racism for comfort.

I found this book well-written and look forward to the next volume.

Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

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