Thursday, June 16, 2011

Recommended Reading

Yes, I read something besides comic books, please stifle your gasps of astonishment. In fact, I read rather voraciously--what with subway trips, cigarette breaks, post-work couch sitting, and pre-heavy-eyelid bedtime, I can on average get through a book a week or more. Naturally my speed depends on the quality and ease of the book, with something like Ender's Game lasting a day or two, and a rereading of the Iliad taking up to a week and a half.

So I thought today I would subtly compliment myself (done,) brag about my intimidating intelligence (done,) make implications about how special I am as a lover of books (done,) and be charitable by sharing some of my discoveries that similar sensibilities may enjoy (coming up next.)

Arthur Rex

The last book I completed was Arthur Rex by Thomas Berger. It is an oftentimes irreverent and hilarious retelling of the classic King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Now, I'm a huge King Arthur fan. I've read Malory, which is for all intents and purposes treated as the original, or at least the first written version (I recall that Malory wrote it in jail at the end of his life.) I've read Steinbeck's translations, which are completely beautiful. And I've read T.H. White's wonderful classic, The Once and Future King, at least twice. (I even tried White's follow-up, The Book of Merlin, but it is dense and full of philosophy. And considering I knew he was sitting in an isolated Irish house, avoiding World War II and objecting to the fighting while he wrote it, I had trouble stomaching Merlin and Arthur's conversation about war.)

Berger borrows from all of these, and probably many more. A bona fide scholar as well as an Arthur fan, his retelling is full of familiar details and characters and events. However, he frequently adds his own twist to things, usually with humor. For instance, when Arthur and Merlin row out into the lake to obtain Excalibur from the Lady of the aforementioned Lake, reaching out to grasp it unbalances the boat, and they have to circle and try again. Another original addition is having Morgan Le Fey and Mordred develop a super villain team-up, plotting Arthur's downfall while constantly attempting to be more evil and conniving than each other.

Another specific narrative point is Berger's recounting of battles. Regularly, when the Knights meet in battle with an army, a single knight will take down two thousand enemies in the space of a sentence. This mimics Malory, as well as Homer really, who only elaborated on battles by explaining the results of one-on-one combat, and never giving the reader a sense of the kind of warfare actually exercised by the two armies. In doing so Berger makes light of the ridiculous, mythical nature of these stories, and at the same time manages to offset the chivalry, nobility and courage of the Knights in a way that is even more poignant.

It is a very funny, and surprisingly emotional read. Often you forget it is a modern re-interpretation, and you find yourself devouring the authentic dialect, and caring more about the proud, manic Guinevere than ever before, or reading Mordred with more interest in his unique, clever character than with disgust in his existence.

In the end this is written by a man who loves the stories of King Arthur and Camelot, who respects and honors them, and who values the unfortunately outdated morals that Arthur and his Knights held sacred above all else while showing the inevitable conflict of governing by such principles and living with basic human nature.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

This sci-fi novel by N.K. Jemisin is what I am currently reading. I believe I too found it as a recommendation from someone online, but I can't recall where exactly. As much as I love reading science fiction and/or fantasy, I am often wary of starting a new one, after multiple disappointments over the years. Often the specific fandom embraces a story or series and assures you of its worth, and then the quality of writing fails to live up to the hype.

I was given further reservations when I read the summary, and realized the main conflicts seemed to be political in nature. I realize that power struggles, and the different commentary on philosophy and humanity that they allow, can be exciting and rich in a novel, however it's not usually what I long for in my sci/fi books. Still, it had a heroine, so I thought I'd give it a chance.

After a few pages, I knew I would finish it. The writing is surprisingly swift. Jemisin has a very clear voice, and it flows through your mind a bit like water, until you start to feel as if you are anticipating the next line. The main character of Yeine is clear cut and interesting; brave, focused, far too human, and with a dangerous temper, she is an ideal narrator who introduces this new world to us brilliantly, as she is a newcomer as well. Occasionally, or actually at least once a chapter, Jemisin has a brief abrupt interlude, still from Yeine's perspective but ostensibly a future version of her, that comes off in a kind of Toni Morrison-Beloved-stream-of-consciousness-experimental-prose-chapter kind of way, which can be slightly tiresome and break your stride, but are fortunately short and sweet and doubtless have a payoff.

The political side is fortunately not as dense as I feared. Instead Yeine's struggle becomes almost reminiscent of a detective novel. In this world there were Three Gods. A god of night (or darkness and change and chaos,) a god of day (or light and order and rules) and a goddess of dawn and twilight (or birth and death and creation and transition.) At some point there was a War, and Itempas, the god of the day, won. The goddess died, and Nahadoth (the night one) and all his children (also gods) were forced into slavery. Now they live, as they have for centuries, in the capitol city of Sky, and are bound to follow orders by the ruling noble class who worship Itempas, the Arameri, biding their time until escape and freedom once again become possible.

Yeine, a child of an Arameri scandal, is brought to Sky to vie with two distant and cruel cousins for the position of heir to the Arameri throne. Instead she spends her time trying to unravel mysteries; the suspicious nature of her mother's death, the untold truths of the gods' origins and their war, and why she has become integral to their plans for freedom.

If at times bogged down by a heavy mythos that seems to keep adding layers and layers, that is often so symbolic or conceptual as to become inscrutable, the completely human thought process of Yeine always brings you back into the story. The descriptions are vivid and simple, the plot developments orderly and interesting, and the pace is fluid and self-sustaining. I'm not done yet, but I already placed a hold for the sequel at the library.

My What-to-Read-Next Pile:

-Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (The recently mentioned sequel.)

-Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (I never heard of it until Christopher Gorham/Augie mentioned it on Covert Affairs, but apparently it was quite the cult hit in the 90s.)

-Enchantment by Orson Scott Card (Been a few months since I read anything by him, and this one gets praised often.)

Any recommendations of your own to share? Let me know...always on the lookout for a good read.



  1. Various good books:
    The War With the Mein series by David Anthony Durham; the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons; Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard series; GG Kay's Fionavar Tapestry and the Hunger Games series.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations!! I love when I get good sci/fi fantasy suggestions. I just ordered most of your titles at my library, though they didn't have Hyperion in English (weird) so I'll search that out at a used book store.

    Have you read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin? That was my latest sci/fi pre-Dune. Pretty interesting:

    I also completely loved CS Lewis' sci/fi trilogy. OSC, natch (the old stuff). And my favorite fantasy of all time is Kirith Kirin by Jim Grimsley but that one's not everybody's cup of tea :-) I can't recommend it highly enough, no matter how expensive it is when you find it.

    Thanks again! And I checked out your blog--the house youre seemingly building from scratch is gorgeous! I especially like the part where you can't see any neighbors, and building a deck for the purposes of sitting outside and reading. My kinda place.