Book Review: Season of Marvels: Viking Tales

Book Review: Season of Marvels: Viking Tales by Deb Houdek Rule

This is a collection of four speculative fiction short stories on the general theme of “Vikings” from the small label press Variations On a Theme.

Season of Marvels: Viking Tales

“Viking -Trojan War” is an after-action report about 8th Century Viking raiders suddenly materializing on the USC campus due to the Temporal Physics department getting a bit careless.  The narrative voice is apparently one of the college administrators, and sudden bits of informality suggest that this is the draft version of his or her report rather than the final one.  Lightly humorous.

“The Last Ship” is set in Greenland during the 15th Century, after the supply ships from Norway stopped coming.  A shepherd sings an old song from the pagan times, and one last ship arrives.  Did she call it, or was the ship doomed to begin with, and the survivor less monster than alien?

“Season of Marvels” is closer to the fantasy side.  Kieran, Irish slave of Einar the Earless, wants his freedom.  And in this Icelandic winter where marvels and dark magic are on the rise, he might be able to get it.

“Borealis”, on the other hand, is more inclined to science fiction.  An orphan boy who forms a bond with a cat (possibly psychic in nature) is drafted by a secret organization.  That organization drops him without a briefing on a planet with a Norse-like culture that’s been stagnating for centuries.   Culture shock ensues.

This last story has the most potential to be turned into a full novel, or even a series, as Brock deals with Chimaera and its mysterious goals.

They’re all decent stories, with four very different moods.  The paperback is perhaps a bit overpriced for the size, but I see the Kindle version is inexpensive, or free if you already have Kindle Unlimited.

Consider this one if you like Viking-themed stories, or as a gift for someone who does.

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: Great Historical Coincidences

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences by Pere Romanillos

“Serendipity” is the good fortune that comes when you discover something useful or interesting while you were looking for something else.  Knowing how to grasp the opportunity offered by serendipity is one of those skills that every scientist and artist should have at their disposal.  This book, originally published as ¡Menuda chiripa! Las serendipias más famosas covers many instances of serendipity, mostly in the area of science.

Great Historical Coincidences

After a lengthy introduction on the subject of serendipity and fortunate coincidences, there are 49 essays on individual discoveries divided by scientific field.  We begin with physics and Archimedes’ Principle (and the origin of “Eureka!”) and end with archaeology and the terracotta soldiers of Qin.  Many of the stories were familiar to me, such as the melting chocolate bar that revealed the existence of microwaves; while others were new to me, such as the origin of the Pap smear.

This book is heavily illustrated and the translation by Janet Foster uses language that should make this book suitable for bright junior high students on up.  (Some parents may find discussion of the biology of sex unsuitable for their kids.)  There’s some clumsy phrasing from time to time.  There’s no index or citations, but there is a bibliography to search for more information–much of it in Spanish.

This is one of those books primarily meant as a present; the treatment of each discovery is short and only covers highlights and often context is missing.  Consider it for a budding scientist or history buff, perhaps as a pair with the same author’s Great Historical Blunders.

Book Review: Ben-Hur

Book Review: Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Judah of the house of Hur is a handsome and wealthy seventeen-year old Judean, saddened by the death of his father, but still possessed of a wise mother and sweet sister.  He’s initially pleased when his Roman friend Messala returns to Jerusalem from several years being educated in Rome.  But Messala has learned the wrong lessons, sarcasm and arrogance, and blasphemes Judah’s deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.  The two young men quarrel.

Ben-Hur

Judah resolves to become a soldier, but this ambition is detoured when he accidentally drops a roof tile on the new Roman governor of Judea, Valerius Gratus.  Gratus, with the connivance of Messala, chooses to interpret this as an assassination attempt, seizes the Hur property, imprisons Judah’s relatives, and sentences Judah to the slave galleys for the rest of what is assumed to be a very short life, without an actual trial or legal conviction.

Three years later, The rowing and a certain amount of cleverness has turned young Judah into a physical marvel, and he catches the eye of a wealthy and prominent Roman admiral.  When he subsequently saves the admiral’s life (and it’s established he was never legally enslaved in the first place), that worthy adopts him as a son to learn Roman combat skills.

Some time later, Judah returns to the East, equipped for vengeance on those who wronged him, they who will learn to fear the man called “Ben-Hur.”  But maybe Judah isn’t actually the important character here.  Maybe he’s just a side story in “a tale of the Christ.”

This 1880 novel was a huge seller for former Union general Lew Wallace, who was governor of the New Mexico Territory at the time, and later became ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which allowed him to actually visit the area he’d written about.)  Indeed, it became the best-selling novel of the Nineteenth Century, and one of the most influential Christian fiction titles of all time.  You may remember the 1959 movie with Charlton Heston.

So, how does it hold up?  To be honest, it’s aged badly.  The story moves at a crawl for most of the book, with pages upon pages of excessive description.  In fairness, when this was written, the reading public didn’t have years of movies and television shows to give them instant mental pictures of the exotic localities and clothing of ancient Judea, so Mr. Wallace needed to go into details of setting and costume.

Judah Ben-Hur doesn’t even show up for the first eighty pages, as we are treated to a retelling of the Nativity which focuses on the viewpoint of Balthasar, the Egyptian wise man who eventually befriends Judah.  The first chapter is actually a very good example of scene-setting, placing us in a desert in the middle of nowhere, with a white camel that has neither bridle or reins, ridden by a man who gives it no direction at all.  When the camel stops, the man prepares a tent with places for two others.  Two white camels, similarly not guided by human hand, approach from different directions to this rendezvous in the trackless desert.  Their riders dismount, and the three men greet each other with a prayer in their three native tongues–and all of them understand each other perfectly!

The second chapter reveals one of the difficulties for the modern reader, as the characters do not so much talk to each other as declaim at each other, making the dialogue a chore to get through.  On the other hand, this is about as much characterization as we get for the Three Wise Men in any adaptation, so that’s nice to have.

The section where we meet Mary, mother of Jesus, is also interesting.  Mr. Wallace takes a vague description of King David as artistic license to portray Mary as beautiful by Nineteenth Century America standards–blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned with delicate features.  He goes into great detail about her face, her clothing, her movements and speech…and never once mentions in the narration or in dialogue that she’s nine months pregnant at the time.  There’s just suddenly a baby a couple of chapters later that she claims to be the mother of.

I should point out that despite the archaic nature of the writing, there is a good story going on here that was lifted out for the movies.  If the reader is patient, there is much to enjoy.

One plotline that didn’t make the 1959 movie is the existence of Ben-Hur’s other love interest, Iras.  She’s the daughter of Balthasar (he presumably married late in life; there’s no mention of her mother), beautiful, musically gifted, learned in poetry and capable of acting on her own initiative.  She makes a good contrast to Daddy’s girl Esther, who is more modest and self-effacing, and Iras takes an early lead in the romantic triangle.

However, Iras’ motivation is largely based on the notion that the Jewish Messiah will be an earthly king that Judah will serve, and become powerful thereby.  The notion of a spiritual savior, so dear to her father Balthasar, doesn’t appeal.  So when Jesus turns out to be more the latter than the former, Iras falls back to her other interests.

This is pretty much Bible fanfiction, so those who don’t like “God-talk” or having a Christian viewpoint forced on them are likely to dislike this book.  Some readers might see homoeroticism in certain passages, as Judah is so handsome that even other men notice, and Messala outright uses classical allusion to hint he’s attracted.

All that said, this is an important and influential book; if you’re willing to put up with its difficulties.  On the other hand, you could just watch the movies for the chariot race.

Magazine Review: High Adventure #138 Battle Stories

Magazine Review: High Adventure #138 Battle Stories edited by John P. Gunnison

By the mid-1920s, the Great War was far enough in the past for people in America to be nostalgic about it, and the pulp magazines noticed an increase of interest in stories about the war.  So they started putting out magazines dedicated to the subject, starting with War Stories in 1925.  While the majority of stories were about the ground war, stories about the pioneer pilots and dogfights were extremely popular, so they got spun off into their own aviation pulps.

Battle Stories

Most of the stories in this issue are from Battle Stories, published by Fawcett.

“The Ace of Alibis” by Raoul Whitfield:  Lieutenant “Windy” Cummings has had a series of mysterious plane problems that require him to land well before his craft would be in danger of combat.  His fellow pilots are getting suspicious, and his gunner has requested a transfer.  Windy’s new gunner is the commander, so this time he’ll need to show his steel.  Or will he?

“When Gunmen Turned Soldiers” by Arthur Guy Empey:  Two feuding gangsters find themselves drafted and assigned to the same unit.  Worse, their new sergeant, “Porky” is a man they used to abuse as a gofer.  The top sergeant spots the problem, and puts the crooks in their place, but they see their chance for revenge when the top’s son also joins the unit.   When a plan to smear the boy as a coward is only partially successful, the gangsters decide more direct action is required.

“Raw Meat” by James Perley Hughes is the one War Stories reprint, which features the war exploits of three American recruits, a cowboy, a sheepherder and a “nester” (homesteader.)   (This was diversity by 1920s standards.)  The three quarrel constantly, with the cowboy and sheepherder in particular constantly accusing each other of cowardice.  But they’re also the closest of friends, especially when defending their pets against the vile Lieutenant Skaggs.  This one features a strong streak of classism.  The battle-hardened veteran officer who’s worked his way up from the ranks is the scum of the earth, while the West Point graduates who’ve never seen battle before are honorable and wise.

“Phantom Bullets” by Harold F. Cruckshank is the tale, based loosely on real events, of a snipers’ duel between a German marksman and a Canadian First Nations soldier.  There’s a bit of period stereotyping, both negative and positive, and the old “men must beat each other up to bond” scene.  Still easily the best story in the issue.

“”Stand Fast, Contempibles” also by Harold F Cruckshank, tells the tale of the fighting retreat of the British Army across Belgium towards the beginning of the Great War.  “Contemptible” was a slur aimed at the army under General French by the Kaiser.  The men, stung to anger, took it as a nickname to throw it in his face.  The main character is an American who inherited a farm in Belgium and joins the Contempibles when the Germans invade.  The war becomes even more personal for him when he learns a German spy has murdered his son and plans to do the unthinkable to his Belgian wife.  This story emphasizes the stereotype of Germans as inhuman monsters that was strongly featured in pulp stories before World War Two made it even more acceptable.

Naturally, all of these stories have scenes of violence, generally depicted as legitimate under the circumstances.

Recommended for war story fans who don’t mind old-fashioned moral certainty–Allies good, Germans bad.

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