D3's Booklog

Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth - J.R.R. Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien This is the first work that showed us how Tolkien's obsessive perfectionism was a double-edged sword. On the one hand it gave us the wonderfully deep world and implied distances of [b:The Lord of the Rings|33|The Lord of the Rings (The Lord of the Rings, #1-3)|J.R.R. Tolkien|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347257199s/33.jpg|3462456]; and on the other hand it left us with a jumble of tales in various states of revision and development that had to be compiled by Tolkien's son Christopher into some form as [b:The Silmarillion|7332|The Silmarillion|J.R.R. Tolkien|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1336502583s/7332.jpg|4733799]...a jumble of tales that, if they had been finished, would have given us a truly staggering body of work. Just reading the fragment that makes up the entirety of "Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin" makes me weep for what might have been. Given the chance to expand even half of the partial tales from _The Silmarillion_ into something equating the full treatment of the LotR would have been a wonder indeed.

Even given the incomplete nature of the works herein, the reader is greatly repaid the effort of reading them even though many tantalizing questions are left unanswered. We get perhaps the only significant view of the land of Numenor in the Second Age; intriguing glimpses into the nature of the Istari, the Woodwoses, and the Palantiri; and expansions on the background of the Third Age and the events that led up to both [b:The Hobbit|5907|The Hobbit (Middle-earth Universe)|J.R.R. Tolkien|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1353852111s/5907.jpg|1540236] and the LotR.

A really amazing work and enjoyable read if you're a die-hard Tolkien fan.
Sherston's Progress - Siegfried Sassoon This third volume of Sassoon’s semi-auto-biographical yet ostensibly fictional memoirs of the Great War opens with George Sherston committed to a military mental hospital for ‘shell-shock’ due to his recently published statement against the war. Here he meets Dr. Rivers, the psychologist who is to have a lasting impact on his life, and ultimately spends much of his time golfing, reading, reliving his peace-time life by taking part in some local hunts, and talking about his “mental state” with the good doctor. Interestingly the result of Sherston’s treatment is to cause him to, if not repudiate his earlier statement against the war, at least to revise it and instil in him a deep desire to return to the front, for he “would rather be killed than survive as one who had ‘wangled’ his way through by saying that the War ought to stop.” I’m not sure how I feel about this since it was Sherston’s (and by extension Sassoon’s) rejection of the insanity of the war on behalf of other soldiers that made him such a unique ‘war hero’ and now his apparent about-turn leaves me a bit ambivalent.

Aside from the obvious opportunities for leisure that Sherston takes advantage of as part of his recuperation, his time at the hospital also gives him a chance to see other walking wounded whose mental scars are much deeper than his own. He comes to see the real cost and horror of war and he is not oblivious to the high price involved despite his renewed enthusiasm to return to the fighting. Sherston realizes that it may often be worse to be a survivor than a casualty of the guns & bombs as he witnesses men
many of whom had looked at their companions and laughed while inferno did its best to destroy them. Not then was their evil hour, but now; now, in the sweating suffocation of nightmare, in paralysis of limbs, in the stammering of dislocated speech. Worst of all, in the disintegration of those qualities through which they had been so gallant and selfless and uncomplaining—this, in the finer types of men, was the unspeakable tragedy of shell-shock
Sherston’s own version of shell-shock seems to be most intimately related to a deep nostalgia for, and desire to return to, the Front Line from which at the time he had so greatly wished to escape. He does admit, however, that his rebellious side has not been fully ‘cured’ and he is aware (at least in retrospect) of his own ambivalent attitude to the war itself:
That was how active service used to hoodwink us. Wonderful moments in the War, we called them, and told people at home that after all we wouldn't have missed it for worlds. But it was only one's youngness, really, and the fact of being in a foreign country with a fresh mind. Not because of the War, but in spite of it, we felt such zest and fulfilment, and remembered it later on with nostalgic regret, forgetting the miseries and grumblings, and how we longed for it to come to an end. Nevertheless, there I was, a living antithesis to the gloomier entries in my diary, and a physical retraction of my last year's protest against the "political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men were being sacrificed".
Thus Sherston continues to be aware of the continual failings of the war machine at the same time that he voluntarily returns to it.

After being discharged from the hospital Sherston returns to the war, though his first posting (much to his dismay) is to Palestine, not the Western Front. Here he becomes enamoured of the beauty of nature and begins to throw himself into his work as an officer with the aim of making the lives of his men easier, taking on a decidedly paternal role. Ultimately this limbo-like war experience cannot last, and his Brigade is sent to France where fresh troops are needed to fight against recent German advances. Once back in familiar territory Sherston seems almost nostalgic to be back “home” on the front line he so vividly remembered, though he does tend to sublimate both his fear of death and his feelings of inadequacy as an officer by rash acts of valour (his self-avowed moments of “knight-errantry”) when he heads out alone into No-Man’s Land. He freely admits to himself that these are prompted more by fear and ennui than by any sense of bravery. Aside from the ability to lose himself in the ‘excitement’ of action Sherston’s other greatest comfort is his ability, and opportunity, to find refuge in books. He looks at the mostly uneducated soldiers under his command with pity, for they have nothing to turn to except for the small cafes set-up by the military where they spend nearly all of their pay in order to drink away their worries. The War is not only wiping out a generation, but leaving survivors who are the victims of shell-shock and alcoholism.

As with all of the other volumes in this series of memoirs, _Sherston’s Progess_ ends rather abruptly, though it does come full circle to the beginning of the volume: hit by friendly fire Sherston is sent back home for the last time, there to once again meet up with Dr. Rivers. The war is still on-going, though we are told it will end in a matter of months, and Sherston is left contemplating both what he will do with his life from this point forward and reminiscing on what the war has made him into. All in all this series of books was an intriguing look into the life of a soldier during the first ‘Great War’ that shaped the 20th century and into the mind of a sensitive and artistic individual forced into a world of horrors and death in the name of the “greater good”.
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer - Siegfried Sassoon 3.5 – 4 stars

Reading works like this makes me wonder how the human race has survived the hugely numerous and multifarious wars, battles, skirmishes, and ‘military actions’ that it has undertaken during the relatively brief span of its existence when they constantly bring home just how truly limited the insight and abilities of the military elite to see beyond their own arses seems to be. The glamourization of war in both historical and current popular culture makes the ability of a highly trained force of soldiers under the direction of charismatic leaders to meet their objectives appear a no-brainer. When one really stops to ponder the sheer logistics involved in the organization and deployment of anything approaching the size of an army, adds to that the conflicting aims of the various political entities or opinions involved (on only one side of the conflict), and then layers in the seemingly absurd pride of place given to the egos and various personal manias of the leaders making all ‘strategic’ decisions one soon realizes that we ought to have wiped ourselves off of the globe a long time ago. The sheer pigheaded inertia of the military mindset which allows it to calmly accept the fact of attrition as a valid method to achieve success and thus throwing away thousands, if not millions, of human lives in the name of achieving ill-defined (or even explicitly well-defined) political and military objectives rather than re-think the current political position or military tactics is terrifying. Simply confining oneself to such modern military actions as the Civil War, WWI, WWII and the Vietnam War and being constantly told of the insanely costly (in human lives) fuck ups that various battles or engagements were simply due to the wrong people being given the power to lead and make tactical or strategic decisions for the wrong reasons blows my mind.

Thus we come to the continuing story of George Sherston (the semi-autobiographical stand-in for author Siegfried Sassoon) who, by this second volume of his memoirs, has graduated from a somewhat feckless and leisure loving dilettante of the upper middle class to become an old hand as a low-level officer in the Machine that is the allied force of WWI. This is not to say that Sherston feels in any way qualified for his job, for the most part he is simply trying to muddle along and look like he knows what he’s about without making any errors that are too egregious or obvious. This eminently unqualified (except by his place on the social ladder) individual assigned to lead his men in battle readily admits at one point that “I had no idea where our objective was, but the corporal informed me that we had reached it, and he seemed to know his business.” To me that statement alone stands as an utterly terrifying testimony to the situation for many of the men, both leaders and led, in the Great War. As the story opens Sherston at least has faith in both the alleged aims of the powers that are leading the war from his side as well and their ability to do so. This conviction begins to waver, however, as he sees friends and comrades drop like flies to gain (if anything) little more than a few feet of muddy ground in increasingly botched actions along the trenches of the western front. Compounding this are the sheer monotony, confusion, and uncertainty that characterize the quiet moments filling up the lengthy gaps between the terrifying chances to lose one’s life. Sherston recalls a moment typical of his front line experience:
But I can remember a pair of hands (nationality unknown) which protruded from the soaked ashen soil like the roots of a tree turned upside down; one hand seemed to be pointing at the sky with an accusing gesture. Each time I passed that place the protest of those fingers became more expressive of an appeal to God in defiance of those who made the War. Who made the War? I laughed hysterically as the thought passed through my mud-stained mind.

“Such sights must be taken for granted…” reflects Sherston, but the disturbance they cause deeper in his psyche can ultimately not be ignored.

Sherston is one of the lucky ones. Through a series of illnesses brought on by the poor conditions in the trenches and a few ‘lucky’ wounds he is able to leave the front at key times and return to ‘Merry Olde England’ when he would otherwise have likely met the bullet with his name on it as did so many of the friends and comrades he names in these memoirs. It is during these quiet moments that he is able to contrast the conditions of his strange new life with those being lived by the civilians at home. It becomes clearer & clearer to him that these civilians in England are no longer a part of Sherston’s world whether they are the well-meaning, but vacuous, supporters of the British war effort against “the Boche”, or war profiteers and ‘conscientious objectors’ living in relative comfort and ease while the cream of young men from his generation are being obliterated at a staggering rate. Indeed everyone around him (even, or perhaps especially, the commanders on the home front) seems to completely misunderstand the position of the soldiers in the trenches and Sherston is slowly forced to re-evaluate his position on the war. As with the participants in many other wars Sherston slowly becomes disassociated from his own countrymen. He is no longer a member of the society for which he is fighting, he is instead a member of
…the survivors; few among us would ever tell the truth to our friends and relations in England. We were carrying something in our heads which belonged to us alone, and to those we had left behind us in the battle.
He is a member of a much smaller community formed by violence and loss and he begins to realize that he has more in common with the enemy, a likely group of ‘poor blighters’ more akin to him and his friends, than any of these ‘allies’ at home.

Slowly Sherston comes to hate the war and all of the meaningless death and destruction it brings. As he digs further and asks more questions he comes to believe that those in charge, the people for whom he and his friends are putting their lives on the line, are pursuing not a noble war of defense in the face of tyranny, but a war of aggrandizement and acquisition. Is this worth dying for? Is it worth killing for? Sherston knows the answer to these questions that his own heart gives, though he feels keenly the futility and alienation of his position should it ever become known. Still, he begins to tentatively travel in some of the anti-war circles of his day and formulates an idea that he must do something, anything, even if it is simply to state his opposition to the horrors continuing unless the Allies’ objectives become clear and open knowledge. He is not really a member of the anti-war intelligentsia though, and even his desire to act in some way outside of the military sphere is one fraught with internal conflict. He is still simply a soldier thinking of the needs of other soldiers and while it may be true that in the eyes of the anti-war protestors
…there was no credit attached to the fact of having been at the front… for me it had been a supremely important experience. I am obliged to admit that if these anti-war enthusiasts hadn't happened to be likeable I might have secretly despised them.

In the end this second volume of his memoirs closes in media res as Sherston sends in his statement of protest (just as Sassoon himself did in reality) and awaits imprisonment as a criminal or confinement as a mentally ill invalid with the prospect that no good at all may come of his apparently futile gesture.
Supreme Power, Volume 3: High Command - J. Michael Straczynski, Gary Frank, Adam Kubert, John Dell 2.5 – 3 stars

The government ups its game against Hyperion, attempting to discredit him in the eyes of the public and attack him where they feel he is weak. They also seem not to have learned anything from the fiasco that has been their involvement in metahuman affairs up to this point and still think they can play god with inhumanly powerful pawns. Not too bright, but I’m afraid the estimate may not be too off the mark for how governments would respond to the possibility of controlling ‘easy’ power that superheroes (and villains) present.

All in all I have to say that I was a little disappointed with the lack of pay-off in this concluding volume of what I think is the first story arc of Supreme Power. So we have Hyperion coming to some important decisions about who he is and how he will relate to his adopted world at the same time that the government thinks they can use some old school methods to rein him back into the fold. He certainly leaves them with a message that they can’t ignore, but I still feel like the story didn’t move very far forward from where it began, though I guess what we didn’t get in plot we did get in world building and stage setting. Most of the other characters are still pretty peripheral at this point and merely serve to point out the different ways in which superhumans are willing to relate to their world and the ‘normal’ people it contains.

I’m curious about the ultimate end to which all of these ‘heroes’ are headed, and the fact that they’re riffs on some of the most iconic superheroes in the industry adds a level of interest, but I have to admit that having been given so little pay-off in what has amounted to 18 issues of the monthly series (which now branches off into character-specific volumes that may or may not continue the ‘main’ storyline to any great degree) is making me dubious. I will likely come back to see what’s up, but right now I think I need a bit of a palate cleanser from the ‘dark age’ of superheroes.
Supreme Power Vol. 2: Powers and Principalities - J. Michael Straczynski 3 stars

Ok, in this volume the shinola hits the fanola. Turns out alien superbeings don’t like being lied to or manipulated in the way they were raised…who knew?! Hyperion now knows that the government sponsored fiasco that he calls his childhood was all just a scam so the US of A could have a super-weapon in its back pocket. He’s not impressed. Add to that the awakening of a possibly schizophrenic super-woman who wants to help Hyperion take over the world and the fact that the government’s only other superhero, Joe ‘Doc Spectrum’ Ledger is MIA and given to comatose periods when some other force seems to be controlling him, and things do not look good for the Earth. Oh yeah, we also have an opportunistic speedster who wants to cash in on his powers with the biggest pay-cheque available and a psychopathic vigilante who wants to settle race relations his way.

Things aren’t looking good for a world with superheroes. Volume 2 of the ‘Supreme Power’ series moves on from the set-up to the beginning phases of the pay-off. Hyperion isn’t happy, but at least he hasn’t gone crazy-town-banana-pants on humanity yet…though that may change if the newly awakened Zarda has her way (let’s just say she’s a lady who doesn’t take kindly to her shopping sprees being interrupted by mere mortals). The Blur is doing endorsements like they’re going out of style until he’s reprimanded by millionaire Kyle Richmond (aka Nighthawk) for being a sell-out opportunist and is recruited to help the vigilante track down and contain a serial killer apparently augmented with super powers by a secret project within the secret project that was responsible for Hyperion and Doc Spectrum. Also, Amphibian keeps acting weird (but I guess that’s normal when you’re thrown into the ocean as a baby and somehow raise yourself). The interwoven threads of the stories are starting to come together, but this was very much a ‘middle issue’ in the series and thus leaves one wanting more. Maybe that’s a good thing…it all depends on when/if the pay-off occurs.
Supreme Power, Volume 1: Contact - J. Michael Straczynski, Gary Frank 3 – 3.5 stars

I guess you could consider J. Michael Straczynski’s _Supreme Power_ the bastard child (or perhaps grandchild) of books like Alan Moore’s [b:Watchmen|472331|Watchmen|Alan Moore|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327866860s/472331.jpg|4358649] and Frank Miller’s [b:Batman: The Dark Knight Returns|59960|Batman The Dark Knight Returns|Frank Miller|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327892039s/59960.jpg|1104159] in which the four-colour superheroes of old get a more ‘realistic’ make-over and are shown for the dangerous psychopaths they would all-too-likely be in our world. In this case we have Marvel’s Squadron Supreme coming under the deconstructive microscope. The Squadron is an interesting case even without the post-80’s Dark Age of comics lens being applied: back in the day they were Marvel’s thinly veiled version of DC’s League of Superheroes, thus Hyperion = Superman, Nighthawk = Batman, Doctor Spectrum = Green Lantern, Power Princess = Wonder Woman, etc. Also, the Squadron was brought to initial prominence (at least in my view) by Mark Gruenwald’s mid-80’s miniseries that has them trying to set-up a Utopia in their world by taking the reins of political power into their own hands. So now we have what was effectively an homage to another company’s flagship characters, who had already been used in a pre-Watchmen comment on the dangers of superheroes, turned into an even more deconstructed comment on the violence inherent in concept of the metahuman.

We start with a familiar scenario: an alien baby is put into an escape pod and sent on a trajectory that sends it to Earth where it will be met by a childless couple in their battered farm truck. Things diverge pretty significantly from the expected version from this point on. The government gets involved and what in the Golden Age of comics would have been a happy story of love creating a saviour for mankind, instead becomes a view into what happens when fear, greed, and hunger for power are allowed to raise a super-weapon under supposedly controlled conditions. Things do not turn out as anyone expected or hoped.

Suffice it to say that not only our alien baby (soon to be christened Hyperion by his handlers), but a plethora of others who are affected by the changes his ship introduced into our ecosystem begin to emerge and the world finds itself in the undesirable position of having to deal with uncontrollable people with unimaginable powers. This first volume centres on the defining moments of a handful of these: the aforementioned Mark Milton aka Hyperion around whom the story revolves and whose childhood as a government experiment lays the groundwork for everything that is to come; Joe Ledger, a military professional exposed to an alien power source that turns him into perhaps the second most powerful man on the planet; the Atlanta Blur, a mysterious and some think apocryphal speeding ghost; Amphibian, a strange aquatic human; Nighthawk, a young African-American boy who witnesses his parents murder and vows vengeance on all those responsible; and a mysterious myth that seems to live in the underground temple worshiped by a group of would-be Amazons.

I like this kind of alternate reality take on established characters since it gives the writer greater freedom than the powers-that-be at comic companies are likely to allow with their flagship properties, but the characters often still retain the resonance of their antecedents. There isn’t too much surprising here: it’s pretty much by-the-numbers deconstructionist superhero fare, but if you like that kind of thing take a look. Beware: there’s lots of violence and nudity.
Gotham Central, Vol. 1: In the Line of Duty - Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark 3 – 3.5 stars

Wouldn’t it be great to be a cop in Gotham City? I mean the Bat would pretty much take down anything serious leaving you more time with your coffee and doughnuts, right? Well, as this comic series from Ed Brubaker shows: not so much. It appears that Bats is a whacko-magnet and given that he’s only human (despite what editorial fiat from the DC offices may pretend in the storylines they approve) that means that there are a ton of crazy psychopaths with either superpowers or the military hardware of an advanced alien civilization who have a point to prove or score to settle who mark Gotham as stop #1 on their magical mystery tour and even if the caped crusader nabs half of them before they commit too many lethal crimes it still leaves more than any three police forces can handle running rampant in the city.

This comic had a pretty cool vibe, sort of Law and Order meets the DC Universe as we follow the trials and travails of some of the cops on the beat in the city of the Bat. All of the members of the unit we are following were hand-picked by Jim Gordon, former police commissioner and good buddy of the man in black. Not all of these officers share his love for the vigilante, though, especially when the kind of crime he seems to attract means that friends and co-workers are getting terminated after they fall into situations the police academy did not prepare them for. This first story arc covers the fallout from the death of a detective who thought he was on a routine check on info from a snitch, only to fall into the hands of Mr. Freeze. Add on to that a kidnapping case going nowhere and an arsonist displaying the costume and arsenal of Batman’s old foe “the Firebug” and things are getting difficult for the cops at Gotham Central.

I enjoyed this comic and thought it was probably one of the more effective ones I’ve read when it comes to displaying the ways in which having a costumed superhero in something approaching our world might not be such an awesome thing. By centring not so much on Joe Schmoe in the street who may be able to avoid much interaction with any of the craziness of the metahuman world and thus retain his sense of hero-worship, but on the cops who can’t help but deal with events and people they are in no way trained or equipped to handle it gave an interesting perspective to things. In some ways it could be considered similar to Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers, but I have to admit that _Gotham Central_ seems to approach the issues from a much more realistic perspective. All in all a good read and, at least from my perspective, something that covered new ground which is not what I generally expect from DC comics.
The Rise of Ransom City - Felix Gilman Felix Gilman is good. He’s definitely a writer on my watch-list (not in a sociopathic way of course), and there’s something about his writing that I find both enjoyable and satisfying. I generally lump him in with those writers I consider “prose stylists” though he’s not showy in any way, rather he just seems to know how to effectively turn a phrase. He also writes fairly dense (or at least long) texts, but they never seem to be weighed down by their size; things move along at the pace they need to move at, whether that be faster or slower at any given point, and they reach their destination in ways that satisfy. Finally his characters have complexity and their own voices and never come across as dull or flat.

_The Rise of Ransom City_ is a sequel-of-sorts to the thoroughly excellent [b:The Half-Made World|8198773|The Half-Made World|Felix Gilman|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1312035395s/8198773.jpg|13045676]. It shares the same genre-bending alternate weird-weird west world of its predecessor as well as several key characters. The most important of these is our narrator and ‘hero’ ‘Professor’ Harry Ransom, Lightbringer, etc., etc., discoverer of the Ransom Process, creator of the Ransom System of Exercises, businessman, inventor, and visionary extraordinaire. To call Harry a con-man would be unfair, to call him a scientist would be inaccurate, to call him an inveterate dreamer would probably be just about right. The set-up for the novel is that it is a cobbling together of letters and drafts from Ransom himself by the editorial hand of one Elmer Merrial Carson, a raconteur, journalist, novelist and sort of Mark Twain figure in Gilman’s world. Readers of Gilman’s previous forays into the world of the Unmade West will not be surprised by the self-aggrandizing picture that Ransom paints of himself, though his earnest intention to tell the truth (albeit a truth coloured by his own perceptions and beliefs) is genuine. We follow Ransom as he details his obscure childhood in a small backwater town, his early interactions with the Line, and hints at the seemingly fortuitous discovery of what would eventually lead to his development of ‘the Process’. His early travels with the enigmatic Mr. Carver into the further reaches of the West in search of investors not only allow him to cross paths with John Creedmoor and Liv Alverhuysen (the main characters of the former novel), but also begin to lead Ransom into situations that will inevitably ensnare him in the more important events of the wider world and eventually draw upon him the unwanted attentions of both the Line and the Gun.

Throughout Ransom’s tale two mysteries prove to loom large (sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly): what exactly is the nature and purpose of ‘the Process’, and where, if anywhere, is the dreamed-for utopia Ransom hopes to create (the titular Ransom City)? In addition to this the origins and mysteries of the eldritch forces that embody both the Line and the Gun are also speculated upon (though never revealed), and with one possible exception the Folk remain the ambiguous and off-stage presence they have always been. In many ways the book leaves us with even more questions about Gilman’s world than we started with; really one could say that the book is composed primarily of enigmas and mysteries wrapped in the ambiguous words of an unreliable narrator. True to the traditions of this narrative mode we are not always told what we want to hear, and even those things we are told must be taken with a grain of salt. Digressions are frequent and mysteries are only revealed (if they ever are) slowly and almost by accident. This might be frustrating for some readers, but once you get a handle on who Harry Ransom really is sifting through his words does not become an onerous task. He also proves able to provide a valuable, if somewhat skewed, perspective on the events and people he comes across. Harry certainly grows as a character and his experiences and trials prompt his idealism to shift from the purely selfish & naïve to something more analogous to a philanthropic & hopeful melancholy.

I don’t think there’s much else I can say without spoiling the story…this book really is all about the journey and the little reveals that each new horizon presents to both Ransom and the reader. I still liked [b:The Half-Made World|8198773|The Half-Made World|Felix Gilman|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1312035395s/8198773.jpg|13045676] better and I hope any further forays Gilman makes into this world reveal a bit more than they obscure, but all-in-all I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who loves well-written fantasy that involves complex characters in an intriguingly unique world.
The Hound of the Baskervilles  - Christopher Frayling,  Arthur Conan Doyle _The Hound of the Baskervilles_ is probably one of the more famous cases of Sherlock Holmes and is also one of only four novel-length treatments of the cases of the great detective. It’s a solid story and is perhaps primarily of interest in the apparently supernatural element which lies at the heart of the case. Indeed this element of the tale, along with its ultimate resolution, is very interesting when viewed in the light of Doyle’s subsequent conversion to spiritualism and when looked at from this angle the numerous comments in the story about the credulous peasants who give credence to the supernatural gain a somewhat ironic lustre.

I do think, however, that the story was far from the strongest of Doyle’s outings with his most famous creation. Its main failing lies primarily in the fact that the real draw of all of these stories is largely absent for the bulk of it: Sherlock Holmes himself. I wonder whether Conan Doyle was trying to keep his distance from the creation whose popularity he had begun to view with a growing ambivalence? As it is we do have the opportunity to see Watson acting on his own as Holmes’ agent which is of some interest, but I’m afraid that he doesn’t hold a candle to his confederate as a fully compelling character study. Stolid and not without resources as an investigator he may be, but there really is no substitute to the biting commentary and unique perspective of Holmes himself.

I will avoid giving much of a plot outline, since it’s probably either already known or not desired due to the possibility of spoilers in the case. Suffice it to say that an apparently insoluble death leads our intrepid team to the foggy moors of England’s West Country where they not only hope to solve one death, but also to prevent another. Doyle goes all out in peppering the trail with utterly ambiguous clues and numerous strands and false leads until things can be brought to their ultimate and satisfying conclusion. I did learn one interesting tidbit: apparently as far as Dr. Watson is concerned it's ok to let an insane psychopath go free as long as he will leave England and only be a burden and a danger to the people of South America. Nice one, doc.
Exit Kingdom - Alden Bell 3.5 stars

Ok, first of all what the hell is up with that cover? In what world is Moses Todd supposed to look like a refugee from a paranormal romance series airing on the CW? Not in mine, that’s for sure.

Alright, now that that’s off my chest we can continue. What we have here is the sequel/prequel to Bell’s initial foray into the zombie apocalypse [b:The Reapers Are the Angels|8051458|The Reapers Are the Angels (Reapers, #1)|Alden Bell|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1317066698s/8051458.jpg|12707063]. This time around we follow former secondary characters Moses Todd and his brother in their rambles across a ravaged America prior to their meeting with Temple from the first book. As I implied in my review of Reapers Moses was really more of an antagonist to Temple than a villain, so seeing him fleshed out further here didn’t come across as either: a) a betrayal of the character’s nature or b) a picture of a completely unsympathetic anti-hero. Bell was even able to make Moses’ brother Abraham, not much more than a vile snake in the first book, at least have explanations for his character and behaviour that made sense and turned him into something more approximating a human being. In addition to these two characters, and a varied assortment of post-apocalyptic survivor misfits in supporting roles, we have the new character of ‘The Vestal’ something of a throw-back to Temple in that she is a strong female able to take care of herself, though different in that she is no warrior, but rather one who deploys the more traditional feminine charms in her defense along with a unique condition that makes her survival in zombie-world easier than it is for most.

Once again we have a road-trip/quest (I wonder whether other types of story are possible/interesting in the zombie apocalypse context?) with the delivery of a person somewhere as the end goal. This time it is up to the brothers Todd to deliver the Vestal to an enclave of civilization in Colorado in order for the powers that be to find out what makes her tick. Once again we have a detailed meditation on the character of the shattered landscape of America with a view to the kind of individuals that are able to thrive, or at least endure, as survivors in a blighted world. It’s interesting to see brought into even sharper focus that fact that the walking dead aren't even the biggest problem for this world. They are almost laughable in the ease with which they can be avoided (unless you're caught off-guard or cornered by sheer numbers), and as usual it is the humans who survive from whom there is the most to fear. Bell has an interesting way, yet again, of ruminating on the fact that the zombies aren’t really evil, perhaps they aren’t even an unholy plague, they’re just another set of obstacles in life that one either contends with or is consumed by (literally in this case). Once again we have the lilting Southern Gothic voice that tinges the text with biblical and oratorical significance and that is very pleasant to read.

There’s a lot of “once agains” there, and they’re not completely meant to be derogatory. The story is a good one and I enjoy Bell’s writing enough that I don’t mind “more of the same” in this world. I’m not sure if Moses is as successful a central character as Temple was though, and I think I preferred his much more ambiguous characterization in the first novel. It’s interesting to once again see someone who actually fits in better in this wasted world than he ever did before the fall, though unlike Temple he was not born into the apocalypse and thus can have moments of regret for what has been lost, at least on the personal if not the societal level. The search for purpose is a theme that looms large in both books, though even the attaining of purpose isn’t always enough to keep one sane. In Moses we see a man driven by two things: the need to protect his corrupt brother from the lawful retribution of the world at large, and the need to follow a personal code to the exclusion of all else, even good sense or happiness. Without the code Moses is just a drifter prey to illusions brought on by emotion and desire, though he doesn’t seem to appreciate that he may have built his purpose on illusions of his own.

All in all I liked the tale and if you’re a fan of the zombie apocalypse you should like this one. Bell mixes some philosophical musings and lyrical prose in with his blood-spattered gore and harsh violence so there’s more than just an edge of your seat adventure to be gotten from the book. I don’t think it’s quite as successful as the first volume, though I’m not quite sure why. Still, a truly enjoyable read when all is said and done.
The Reapers Are the Angels - Alden Bell 3.5 – 4 stars

Well, I gotta say I didn't expect that ending.

_The Reapers are the Angels_ is my first foray into the très au courant genre of zombie apocalypse. It was a fortunate choice and I can only hope I enjoy other forays into the genre as much. One thing I can say is that it’s definitely a real page-turner . The story of Temple, the young bad-ass action-grrl born into a world after the rise of the undead, is compelling and engrossing and has definitely got velocity. Temple herself is interesting, a strangely positive girl despite the darkness of her past and the violence of both her world and her deeper character. She's a strange oxymoron, an optimist who seethes under the surface with supressed rage. I suppose she could be seen as yet another product of the Buffy/Katniss/whatever-action-grrl-of-the-moment template, but I thought she generally came across as being much more real than that stereotype would imply. She may be a warrior princess of sorts, but Temple has a certain naïve charm that sets her apart and she rarely goes looking for trouble, though of course it often finds her. Temple is also interesting in that she was born into the world of the apocalypse, so the status quo doesn’t disturb her in the same way as it does the survivors from the old time. She doesn’t see the world as a punishment and a curse, but rather as a gift. She sees the hand of God in everything and even the fact of the shambling dead is a miracle when you look at it from the right angle. It’s an interesting perspective however off-the-wall it might seem.

The other major element of the novel is its prose. The southern twang that nearly drips off the page is a joy to read and makes the novel seem, on the one hand, very literary. Yet there was another element to it that kept breaking through in the back of my mind and which occasionally broke the spell of the prose itself: this is also a novel that very much reads as though it were written with the cinematic version strongly in mind. At times it is almost like a movie treatment for the soon-to-be-produced vehicle starring the next Jennifer Lawrence as Temple (maybe Chloe Moretz? She’s young enough and certainly her stint as Hitgirl in ‘Kickass’ gives her some of the required experience in extreme violence). This isn’t exactly a bad thing, I guess, and the author is welcome to any income he can derive from his work, but it was a little distracting sometimes to think “ah yes, I can just see the dollar signs in the author’s eyes as he wrote this scene just for the big screen.” Unfair of me maybe, I don’t know, but it was a feeling I definitely got from time to time while reading. That said, this is still a great novel to read and it’s simply filled with the poetic palaver of the South so mellifluous to Northern ears.

Aside from being both a quest road-trip and the story of a young girl (who’s really more of an adult in all but the most literal temporal sense) coping with her past as she faces her future it is also, as others have pointed out, definitely a story about the American landscape. It’s a blasted and decayed landscape, but one where the character of its past still shines through in what remains. Ironically it seems to be those who are most willing to let go of this geographical memory that are most likely to succeed in this new world as opposed to the hopeless dreamers trying to claw their way back to the world of civilization and who pretend that their little enclaves of the old world are anything other than a fantasy.

I’ll conclude by saying that Alden Bell also did a great job of building up his characters and even those who had little more than a walk-on were generally interesting and unique. A shout-out has to go to Moses Todd one of the better villains (or perhaps I really ought to call him an antagonist) I’ve come across in awhile. He’s nearly as compelling as Temple and seeing the two of them together was nearly always a treat. I’m surprised to see this listed as book one in a series, but I’m willing to go along with Bell in his further forays across the twisted landscape of undead America.

Also posted at Shelf Inflicted
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights - John Steinbeck Is it wrong that this was the first book by Steinbeck that I’ve read? Certainly it is the kind of book one probably wouldn’t have even expected this author to have written. Known for his brooding meditations on the harsh life of the American experience in the mid-20th century, a translation/re-working of Malory’s stories about King Arthur and his knights certainly don’t seem like an obvious fit for Steinbeck. Reading through the letters written by the author himself in the appendix to this volume, however, makes it abundantly clear that the project was one that was near and dear to the author’s heart, into which he poured a significant amount of time & effort, and which he himself saw as possibly filling the role of crowning achievement of his work. I will here go on record with many other reviewers on Goodreads and state that it is a real shame that, for some unknown reason, Steinbeck never finished his work on this, though even the fragment he left us with is a significant work and one of the better treatments of the Matter of Britain I’ve read.

I must first admit that I found myself becoming slightly bored with the first third or so of the text. True to his words in the introduction Steinbeck hews very closely to his source text, Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, and generally follows his plan of “leaving out nothing and adding nothing…since in no sense do I wish to rewrite Malory …” in the first four tales: Merlin, The Knight with the Two Swords, The Wedding of King Arthur, and The Death of Merlin. I generally have little use for ‘translations’ of Malory since I don’t really see the point; the Middle English he uses isn’t really that difficult for a modern reader to approach and I generally find that ‘modernizing’ the language simply takes the reader a further step from the text without adding anything of use. Happily for us Steinbeck seems to have taken advice from his editors to heart and in the subsequent tales really starts making the material his own while still staying true to the spirit of Malory. Indeed, from the very first sentence of Morgan le Fay one can see Steinbeck breaking new ground and not simply aping his master. From here on we are treated to a really excellent interpretation of the tales that seeks to investigate the psychology of these figures from myth without reducing them to little more than modern people in medieval drag or diminishing the epic scope of the tales.

Arthur largely remains the peripheral figure he generally has to be for these tales, the enigmatic centre around which all of the other characters revolve and from whom they draw their glory. Despite this Steinbeck does attempt to invest the tragic king with some elements of individuality and provides one or two tantalizing glimpses of the man underneath the myth. We see the king’s early dissatisfaction with the trials of kingship and disappointment in the need to fight rebellion:
Soon after this, Arthur, wearied with campaigns and governing and sick of the dark, deep-walled rooms of castles, ordered his pavilion set up in a green meadow outside the walls where he might rest and recover his strength in the quiet and the sweet air.
We see his growth in wisdom as a leader of men:
Then Arthur learned, as all leaders are astonished to learn, that peace, not war, is the destroyer of men; tranquillity rather than danger is the mother of cowardice, and not need but plenty brings apprehension and unease. Finally he found that the longed-for peace, so bitterly achieved, created more bitterness than ever did the anguish of achieving it.
Indeed it is this very discontent that prompts Arthur and Guinevere, in Steinbeck’s version of the tales, to ‘trick’ Lancelot into setting an example for the other knights by adopting the lifestyle of the quest, an action that will prove to be both the greatest glory and the greatest sorrow of Arthur’s court. Throughout the work are strewn nuggets of wisdom, often coming from the mouth of Merlin in the earlier stories, and Steinbeck uses these tales of chivalry as an opportunity to meditate on the human condition. Thus we have:
”Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory.”
”You cannot know a venture from its beginning,” Merlin said. “Greatness is born little. Do not dishonor your feast by ignoring what comes to it. Such is the law of quest.”

I found myself noticing things here that I had missed or glossed over from my initial reading of Malory such as the incongruous nature of the various enchantresses generally known to be “the damsels of the Lady of the Lake and schooled in wonders.” They range from the damsel who gave to Arthur his enchanted sword Excalibur (the same maiden killed by Sir Balin for ostensibly having had his own mother burned at the stake) to the Lady Nyneve, the bane of Merlin who, despite her role in deceiving the besotted old enchanter, stealing his knowledge, and leaving him buried alive is not portrayed as evil. She does this act to gain power, but learns that with great power comes great responsibility. In the end she seems to take on Merlin’s role as protector of the realm, though in a somewhat lessened capacity, and gets her own reward for being true to the lonely path of power that accepts responsibility: the love of the good knight Pelleas. Finally there are also the four queens (including Morgan le Fay) who capture Lancelot and put him to the test with their illusory blandishments. They may or may not be members of this same circle of enchantresses, but they equally represent part of the same intriguing puzzle: just what are they? Members of a school for magic? A group of proto-feminists looking for a way to power in a man's world? Something of both or neither? Some seem to be evil, working deeds of mischance and violence, others good, though often they are no less violent in this world of martial law and divine retribution. Perhaps it’s most appropriate to say that the true test comes in that some work for their own selfish interests while others work for the common good.

It was also refreshing to see the varied characterization of the questing knights (and their three fascinating ladies) in the tale Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt. Indeed, the entire section provides Steinbeck with interesting character studies, not to mention much fodder for his social and personal concerns. Marhalt rocks and it was very nice to see a knight of Arthur’s court so clear-headed and competent without vainglory…a rare thing. He is a man with both skill and self-knowledge, the quintessential man of experience, and it’s a bit sad to know that his fate in the cycle is to be killed by that jack-ass Tristan (though Steinbeck does not himself tell this episode). The training of young Ewain (in many ways the opposite of Marhalt) by his own Lady was equally wonderful and showed how far Steinbeck had come: much of this tale seems to have been created by Steinbeck himself and yet it in no way felt like he was departing from the spirit of Malory specifically or the Arthurian tales in general.

The final entry The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake shows Steinbeck truly coming into his own. It becomes obvious here (and is confirmed by statements made by Steinbeck in the letters found in the appendix) that Lancelot was the true centre of Steinbeck’s tale and was the character through whom he hoped to develop the real through-line of his thoughts on the Arthurian corpus. Lancelot gave the author everything he needed to work through the concepts of human fallibility mixed with nearly superhuman stature. The entire theme of the greatest good often leading to the greatest evil could play out in full measure with all of its varied nuances with Lancelot. From the description of his life as a young boy, hearing Merlin’s prophecy regarding his future peerless knighthood and subsequent desire to fulfill it, to the discontent of a man who has honed himself to perfection and is looking for it in an imperfect and jaded world we really begin to get a glimmer of the power Lancelot held as a character for Steinbeck and the heights the author might have achieved had he finished his work. Alas such was not to be and we are thus left with only a fragment of what might have been so much more. Still a fragment is far preferable to nothing at all.

I can’t close without adding that the letters in the appendix were an unexpectedly intriguing look into the mind of both Steinbeck the man and Steinbeck the writer. His complete love for the Arthurian material (and especially his deeply felt personal connection to Malory as a writer)and single-minded devotion to his research came as something of a surprise to me and it was equally fascinating to get a glimpse of his personal ruminations on the writing process. In addition to these writerly concerns we get to see Steinbeck the man wrestling with his own fears and feelings of inadequacy in a work which he thought “should be the best work of my life and the most satisfying” and which he even felt contained “the best prose [he had] ever written.”
A Hero of Our Time - Paul Foote, Mikhail Lermontov The shade of Byron, or perhaps more accurately of the Byronic hero (that petulant and brooding vampiric pretty boy that has fascinated us since the days of the famous celebrity-poet), looms large, though in a decidedly ironic fashion, in Lermontov’s _A Hero of Our Time_. The titular ‘hero’ Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, seen both from the outside and from within, displays from every angle the nearly perfect vision of the ‘tragic’ Byronic douche bag. From his ability to sway any woman with little more than a glance from his deep, sorrowful, mesmeric eyes and a healthy dose of the cold shoulder, to his barely suppressed glee at the ease with which he can manipulate the feelings and actions of those he sees as his inferiors (everyone really) with little more than a bon mot or roll of the eyes, and his long internal monologues bemoaning the tragic fate that has unfairly made him a pariah in the eyes of the world Pechorin is an exemplar of the Byronic template. Presented as several linked stories, starting out with a frame narrative that lets us see Pechorin from the outside which then moves to the personal journal of the man himself, the stories of Pechorin’s life as relayed by Lermontov are dripping with bitterness and irony.

There is a playful, maybe even precious, level of self-awareness in this novel as Lermontov gleefully fills his protagonist with all of the foibles and features of the self-loving (and loathing) Byronic hero. Pechorin is also often used as a mouthpiece for the social and intellectual issues of the day that Lermontov wants to bring front and centre. At times he displays an almost post-modern regret for the lost innocence of mankind and his earlier beliefs:
…And we, their miserable descendants, roaming over the earth, without faith, without pride, without enjoyment, and without terror – except that involuntary awe which makes the heart shrink at the thought of the inevitable end – we are no longer capable of great sacrifices…because we know the impossibility of such happiness…[and] we pass from doubt to doubt…
At others he spouts typically romantic paens to the grandeur of nature, the tininess of mankind and the greatness of his own spirit destined to be crushed by life and fate.

Ultimately when considering this novel it’s important to realize that, true to its title, it’s all about Pechorin . Whether considering the first part of the novel in which he is viewed with an almost hero-worshipping fascination by the old soldier Maksim Maksimych who relays his reminiscences to our unnamed narrator, or we read the words of the man himself in his private journals, Pechorin truly is (in his own mind at least) a hero of his time. It’s fair to say that Pechorin is a keen observer of the faults and weaknesses of others, however he pairs this with delusions of self-awareness that are monumental in their erroneousness. Indeed Lermontov playfully has his hero allude (sneeringly of course) to the manner in which an adversary acts as though his “aim is to make himself the hero of a novel. He has so often endeavoured to convince others that he is being created not for this world and doomed to certain mysterious sufferings…” This statement, once you get to know Pechorin, displays Lermontov’s liberal use of irony which is nearly dripping from the page. Of course Pechorin is also a model roué whose motto comes out as he reflects on the type of women he has been able to seduce and destroy: “I must confess that, in fact, I do not love women who possess strength of character. What business have they with such a thing?” Everything and everyone is a tool to be used, most especially to divert him and relieve his soul from its monumental ennui and dissatisfaction with daily life. He is a man whose philosophy seems to hearken back to the teaching of Machiavelli and perhaps even looks forward to those to come of Nietszche:
…ambition is nothing more nor less than a thirst for power, and my chief pleasure is to make everything that surrounds me subject to my will. To arouse the feeling of love, devotion and awe towards oneself – is not that the first sign, and the greatest triumph, of power?
After having lived this philosophy to the full and having destroyed, or nearly destroyed, the lives of numerous ‘friends’ and ‘lovers’ and things finally start to go sour Pechorin even has the audacity to wonder “Why do they all hate me?” There but for the grace of God.

I enjoyed this novel, primarily for its delicious irony, and was shocked to find that upon its release it was apparently taken as an honest tribute to the Byronic rake, so much so in fact that the author felt obliged to spell things out in a preface to the second edition. In it the author described the reading public of Russia as “like a simple-minded person from the country who, chancing to hear a conversation between two diplomatists belonging to hostile courts, comes away with the conviction that each of them has been deceiving his Government in the interest of a most affectionate private friendship”. Meow. I guess irony wasn’t in vogue then, since so far as I was concerned you couldn’t miss it. Sadly it might be said that Pechorin is as much a hero of our time as he was in his own.
The Praise Singer - Mary Renault 3.5 – 4 stars

Mary Renault’s _The Praise Singer_ is another highly enjoyable visit to the world of ancient Greece. This time we have left the heroic age of her consummate Theseus series (The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea) and entered the early classical period of Athens during the reigns of the tyrant Pisistratos and his heirs as seen through the eyes of the poet Simonides. This turns out to be something of a golden age for Athens and the arts, at least according to Simonides, which lies precariously on the edge of political upheaval and, ultimately, the coming storm of the Graeco-Persian war.

Simonides, the ugly but gifted child of a wealthy landowner on the small and severe island of Keos, tells us the story of his life as he grows from a provincial outcast into a shining star in the cultural centre of the Ionian world. He is an amiable narrator, seemingly unafraid to tell the truth as he sees it, and embodies almost equal parts perceptive insight and naïve simplicity. Given that this is a first-person narrative we obviously see the events of Simonides’ world through his eyes and thus the events that make up his life are central to the story, and yet I also had the sense that however much his life may be the focus of the tale and even be a not insignificant part of the cultural centre of his world, he is still much more of an observer than a participant in what we see. What I mean by that is that while Simonides was in no way a grey or lifeless character I still felt as though it was his world, and not the character himself, that took centre stage in the story. Simonides is also never a mystery to the reader, but I think that is because he is presented as a very straightforward man, a plain-speaking one whose position on any subject is able to be known without needing to ask. This simplicity of character means that there are times that the significance of events, and especially the nuances of personalities, can be overlooked by him until he sees them in a new light after events have fallen out in an unexpected way. The fact that the story is told as a memoir by Simonides as he looks back from old age on the various events of his life lends itself nicely to this nuance of his personality. As is perhaps likely to be the case with any tale set in ancient Greece the story is something of a tragedy, but it is not so much a personal tragedy for an individual brought on by hubris (though that does certainly play a part in things, as it must) as it is a tragedy for a people and a way of life subject to the vicissitudes of time and fortune.

Renault explores many themes in this novel: the unfairness of a human nature which by default castigates ugliness and praises beauty; meditations on the nature and purpose of art as well as its abuses; the precarious nature of human society and the seemingly small, and even personal, incidents that can lead to the downfall of an entire culture; and the serenity that can be found in remaining true to oneself and one’s principles. Aside from these themes the story is worth reading simply to enjoy Renault’s fluid mastery of her prose and her vivid depiction of a long-gone world. I will admit to having enjoyed the Theseus books more, I think that was at least partially because the shading between the natural and the supernatural was still very ambiguous in those and the mythical was coinciding with the historical in a fascinating way, whereas here we are in a much more ‘modern’ and almost purely historical setting where, if the gods are not exactly disbelieved in, they are certainly treated with much more complacency. I sometimes felt as though Simonides’ point of view was occasionally a little too restrictive, though I can’t really count that as a fault since it was really an expression of effective character building and was also inherent in the format Renault chose for her tale; really this was more a case of my own desires not always coinciding with the author’s purpose.

All in all, though, this was an excellent tale that immerses the reader into a specific era of the Hellenic world with vivid characters and a quick, fluid pace. Definitely recommended to lovers of well-written historical fiction and the world of ancient Greece.

Lavondyss: Journey to an Unknown Region

Lavondyss: Journey to an Unknown Region - Robert Holdstock 2.5 - 3 stars (downgraded from a previous 5)

I am not quite sure where my previous 5-star rating for this book came from. I love Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, but on this re-read I found the second book of the Mythago cycle to be a sl-o-o-o-w burn which unfortunately never really seemed to ignite. I may simply not have been in the mood for this book at this time, but I think it’s more than that. There are significant pacing issues that drag the book down and Holdstock’s desire to both go deeper into the meaning of Ryhope Wood and also maintain an air of mystery and the unknown for as long as possible seem to work against each other.

Instead of being a direct sequel to [b:Mythago Wood|8890494|Mythago Wood (Mythago Wood 1)|Robert Holdstock|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1282064852s/8890494.jpg|121534] we are told the story of Tallis Keeton, the half-sister of a secondary character from the first book (Harry Keeton), who seems to have been marked in some way by the magical wood that swallowed the Huxley family years before. Eventually we also come to meet Edward Wynne-Jones, the former collaborator of George Huxley who was also tangentially mentioned in the first volume, but no resolution to the stories of Christian and Stephen Huxley is to be found. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but I don’t think Tallis was a strong enough character to support the book (at least not the ponderous first half of it) and ultimately I think that the book Holdstock gives us ends up being all build-up with relatively little pay-off. There doesn’t even seem to be any real action until more than half-way through the book and even then calling it ‘action’ is a bit of a misnomer. Granted Holdstock is writing a more cerebral take on fantasy (literally so since the wood itself, the main magical element of the tales, is all about the manifestation of the myth-images from our collective unconscious), but much of what we are told is not new for any reader coming to the story from volume one and the story of Tallis’ childhood spent under the ever increasing sway of the wood starts to drag as Holdstock dwells on far too much detail with significant repetition. Alas Holdstock seemed to be trying to structure the story as though it was a mystery with a gradual (and I mean *very* gradual) build-up of tension and parsing out of knowledge. Unfortunately a lot of the mystery just wasn’t present for me (perhaps because I was a re-reader, but also I think because if you’ve read the first volume you *know* what the wood is about so a lot of the mysterious elements and slow build seemed highly unnecessary). In the end I think that half the time spent showing us Tallis’ childhood could have been cut/reduced without any reduction in the facts learned.

In a nutshell we witness the birth and first years of Harry Keeton’s half-sister Tallis who grows up on a farm located near the mysterious Ryhope Wood under the shadow of Harry’s strange disappearance when she was only four years old. Having read the first book we know where it is that Harry went, but Tallis only slowly comes to understand this as she is apparently taken under the wing of tutelary mythagos and ‘trained’ by them to become something of an avatar for the forces of the wood (or at least for some of them, the eldritch presences spawned by the wood apparently always being in conflict). This then spins out into a tale of tragic love, divided allegiances, and the quest for the mythical Heart of the Wood, where all of the characters hope that their desires will be granted and questions answered. Of course it’s not as easy as that and the true nature of the wood’s heart, which mirrors the deepest and darkest levels of the human psyche, may be much more perilous than anyone imagines.

One other thing that really bugged me, but that turned out to be more of a nit-pick in the long run, was the characterization of Tallis’ parents. It revolved around their utter powerlessness in the face of Tallis’ growing strangeness and apparent inability to do anything at all resembling a responsible parental action. This is an ever-present danger when using very young characters as your heroes, especially when you are not writing a YA novel. In a YA story I might be more willing to accept that the genre itself demands that the young child-hero Tallis have parents who are little more than feckless spectators whose useless obstructions are easily overcome. In a novel meant for adults, however, I would generally expect a somewhat more responsible, and conceivably effective (or at least proactive), response from her parents. Instead we see them apparently accept the changes and behaviour in her that, seen from the outside and with the lens of any ‘normal’ parent, would seem to be a descent into psychosis and mental illness without interfering in her ‘adventures’ and it rang particularly false. Given the fact that her father had already lost one child to Ryhope is it really likely that he will sit idly by while his daughter also seems to come under the sway of the wood with little more than a feeble complaints and disagreements? Granted that her father’s father was known to have a strange relationship with the wood and perhaps her family is thus more inclined to accept it as something other than mental illness, but I still had my suspension of disbelief strongly strained (perhaps due to the fact that I am now a parent) by the thought that any parent would let their child freely fall into the strange behaviours that the wood prompts in Tallis with little more than a concerned look and occasional ‘disagreements’.

So a fair amount of disappointment for me on this re-read, though I will readily admit that Holdstock still manages to work with his mythic material in an effective and fascinating way. The resolution to the story is as ambiguous and circular as was the one from the first volume…I haven’t yet read further in the Mythago cycle (and must admit to being less inclined to now), but I hope that Holdstock managed to overcome his desire to keep spinning out the mystery and supplied some real answers, or at least resolutions, to the still hanging threads of the story of Ryhope Wood.
The Bull from the Sea - Mary Renault, Julie Doughty 4.5 stars

Mary Renault’s _The Bull from the Sea_ takes up where [b:The King Must Die|93941|The King Must Die (Theseus, #1)|Mary Renault|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1359387376s/93941.jpg|2758229] left off and continues the legendary story of Theseus and his kingship of Attica. There are some differences between this volume and its predecessor, most notably in the fact that the scope of this tale is much broader. Whereas the first volume concentrated primarily on Theseus’ youth and time in the bull ring of Crete and covered the time involved in a fair amount of detail, this volume is much more a précis of many events, covering a much wider range of time. Important events and periods are singled out, however, and expanded upon with more than enough detail to satisfy. I never had the sense that the tale was in any way rushed or incomplete and the broader scope perhaps allowed for a more elegiac tone to the novel, which is appropriate given the ending to Theseus’ tale. This is a memoir giving the wider story of Theseus’ kingship and deeds after the defining moment of his youth has passed.

Even though this memoir comes from the hand (voice?) of Theseus himself and is often told very much in overview I was impressed with the way in which secondary characters came to life. For example with only a chapter seen from Theseus’ POV and the things he is able to glean from implication we learn a lot about the entire youth and development of his son Hippolytos. Theseus’ great friend Pirithoos, his wives Hippolyta and Phaedra and his other son Akama are also all very well depicted even when painted with minimal brush strokes.

Another thing that struck me with Renault’s Theseus saga (and this volume in particular) was the deft way in which many other legends and tales from ancient Greece were woven into the fabric of his tale without taking anything from the tale being told, but also without detracting from their own importance. These include the legend of the famous bard Orpheus, the tragedy of the king Oedipus, the existence of the Centaurs and the apparently contradictory traditions of both their training of the heirs of kings and almost bestial gluttony and lust, the tale of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, and even echoes of the coming Trojan War in a cameo by the young hero Achilles. As with [b:The King Must Die|93941|The King Must Die (Theseus, #1)|Mary Renault|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1359387376s/93941.jpg|2758229] Renault is able to retain the mythic stature of these stories while making them much more ‘realistic’.

For all of the many events that make up the career of Theseus Renault tells a tight tale, woven deftly with nary a thread left astray. We very much see him here as Theseus the King (as opposed to Theseus the wandering hero, though the latter is never wholly absent from his nature or actions) and we see him constantly trying to live according to the guiding principle of his life, learned in first trials of his youth: “To stand for the people before the gods, that is kingship. Power by itself is the bronze without the gold.” Despite the fact that he is a heroic figure whose deeds may often seem larger than life he is also a man whose ultimate tragedy is born of the foibles of his own human nature. In the end Theseus comes to learn, perhaps too late, that all of his choices and actions, along with the fate he has willingly embraced, have a price: “Fate and will, will and fate, like earth and sky bringing forth the grain together; and which the bread tastes of, no man knows.” The taste may be bitter at the end, but the sweet was no less great and is ultimately not erased by his tale’s conclusion.

Highly recommended.

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