Read my new Bleeding of Genres piece over at AE. The traditions of the Homeric epic and Grimm tale continue. The all-important world-building of modern speculative fictioneers depends on such narratives, since no culture is without its tales of legend.
These are the opening chapters of Helene Wecker’s literary debut, and they’re doozies. Perhaps the most famous beast of Jewish folklore is paired with a creature right out of the Arabian Nights. And they’re re-imagined as developed, human-like characters. It’s an unusual combination, to say the least.
Read my review at the Free Press.
Any James Clavell or Harold Lamb fans out there? I have an essay up on AE, on the relationship between historical fiction and certain works and sub-genres with SF (alternate history is something I didn’t even get into). It’s entitled “Bleeding of Genres: Historical Fiction and SF“, and just possibly, if inspiration strikes, I’ll write more on the topic of cross-genre influences in the future.
Sleeping Hedgehog, like most art and culture mags everywhere, has been talking about the best of 2012 (with most of the entries running New Year’s Day). I wouldn’t say there were a lot of huge stand-outs this year. What’s perhaps interesting is that a lot of my reading did not come from the usual suspects, or perhaps even that I may not even have any current usual suspects. I did say, and I’ll quote:
As far as brand-new works go, 2012 saw worthy follow-ups to a couple of individuals with very strong debuts in previous years. I’ve quite enjoyed both Hannu Rajaniemi’s and Howard Andrew Jones’ series continuations. But I’d have to give the nod to Jones for best new title for Bones of the Old Ones.
But as good as my best new book of the year was, it didn’t manage to surpass its predecessor, The Desert of Souls, in my mind, which was all the stronger for coming completely out of nowhere from an author I hadn’t previously heard of. In other words, it’s tougher when there are already high expectations of you.
So that’s new titles, of which, despite my myriad review gigs, I haven’t read that many this year. Most of my reviews at AE, for example, were re-releases of Canadian-written SF originally published as much as a decade ago. What of the “new to me” stuff? I’ll quote myself again;
Best new old title? I’ve read a lot of back-listed material that has seen new editions this year. This has included one of the all-time fantasy classics, T.H. White’s Arthurian work,The Once and Future King, which has to take the prize. Runner-up: Robert Charles Wilson’s excellent 2001 novel, The Chronoliths, was a happy discovery.
Besides several from Wilson, this was also the year I discovered (via my editor at AE) Geoff Ryman (whose short stories I soon realized I had read and enjoyed previously). I also finally got around to reading Peter Watts, though only in the last few days of the calendar year (the catalyst being an upcoming essay for AE, which will probably be this month since I’ve already handed in my first draft).
And we can’t forget the non-fiction, of which I’ve ready plenty, but I won’t single anything out at the moment. I’ll do another round-up of my Library Journal science reviews in another month or so, as I’ve already written a couple since the last posting.
Film: I wasn’t really thinking of this, but someone did ask me recently. After a moment’s thought, I cited The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises as my favourites this year. And I think I’ll stick with that gut, on-the-spot assessment.
Novels with fantasy settings breaking the Anglo-Saxon mould (like, say, Lian Hearn’s feudal Japan-inspired Otori series), are a rare pleasure if they’re done well. And Howard Andrew Jones’ ancient Arabian adventure series fits the bill.
My full review ran today in the Winnipeg Free Press.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to be BBC Miniseries: At nearly 1000 pages, Susanna Clarke’s faux-Victorian alternate-history fantasy novel required a certain degree of stamina. Not everyone is willing to read the equivalent of a full-length novel while waiting for the story to get properly started, so a series might be quite nice for those who gave up before page 250.
The Hobbit In-Flight Safety Video: I want to fly New Zealand.
Sharknado!: Enough said, indeed.
Commodity Fantasy: “It’s important that such a work leave the reader a little unhappy, a little dissatisfied, a little edgy — and anxious to snatch up the next volume in the hope that it will provide the experience that the last book failed to. The more like a pack of cigarettes (if you’ve never smoked, trust me — cigarettes temporarily ease the craving but they never quite satisfy it) a commodity fantasy is, the more successful it will be.”
Hobbit coins worth thousands to become legal tender in New Zealand: From the fictional land that brought you all manner of magic rings, only some of which are evil, this lovely new set of commemorative coins.
It is the Future, Here is Your Jetpack: The lack of jetpacks in the twenty-first century is officially something we can no longer complain about. People will probably still whine about the lack of flying cars, however.
My dog: the paradox (an Oatmeal comic): “My dog does not fear automobiles, garbage trucks, or airplanes . . . but he is terrified of hair dryers.”
Ada Lovelace, Throughout the Ages: Did you miss Ada Lovelace day?
How to Protect Yourself Against Supernatural Creatures (Dinosaur Comics): “Rather than punishing bad behaviour, reinforce your lycanthropes desirable behaviour at the moment it happens with a click and a treat.”
“With a few exceptions, the sixteen stories in this collection exemplify well-grounded, character-driven fiction. While some of the stories fall squarely within the realm of speculative fiction, others could wear labels such as ‘slipstream’ or ‘magical realism’ just as comfortably.”
Read my full review of Geoff Ryman’s excellent story collection at AESciFi.
“I will tell you something else, King, which may be a surprise for you. It will not happen for hundreds of years, but both of us are to come back. Do you know what is going to be written on your tombstone? Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus. Do you remember your Latin? It means, the once and future king.” -Merlin, in The Queen of Air and Darkness
I’m going to make a (I think) reasonable assumption here, that the reader is aware of basic Arthurian legend. Guinevere, Lancelot, Mordred, Morgause, and Morgan Le Fay. The Round Table, Holy Grail, and the sword called Excalibur. There will be some spoilers, some universal to the legend, perhaps one or two little ones specific to this particular book. If this concerns you, read no further.
T.H. White’s four-volume take on the Arthurian cycle draws heavily on the late-fifteenth century epic, Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory. This in turn brought together in one place the myriad legends, songs, and poems, both French and English, about the mythical king and his knights. But in the half century and change since its publication, White’s tetralogy has almost certainly been the more widely read, if not amongst scholars of medieval literature.
The first part, originally published as a stand-alone novel, even inspired a feature-length animated film from Disney: The Sword in the Stone. It’s a natural fit. Though relatively lighthearted compared to later books, Arthurian legend is so deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of Western society, even young children certainly must pick up on the fact that great things are in store for the young Wart. Certainly that self-proclaimed nigromancer, the white-bearded Merlin, would not take such an interest in his tutouring otherwise.
The Once and Future King is certainly more readable (and several hundred pages shorter) than Malory’s tome (or so I suspect, not having read that work myself), but it’s not an abridged version, a children’s version, or an update with modern language. It’s an entirely new work of Arthurian fantasy, implicitly based on Le Morte d’Arthur as all such works must be, but even within the constraints of retelling this old story, somehow managing to tell a different one.
The titles themselves are revealing. The publisher gave Malory’s work as a whole the same title as the final section. To him (and to White, nearly five centuries later), the ultimate narrative arc was the slow playing out of Arthur’s inevitable tragedy. Themes of sin, doom, and fate pervade the work. Questions of morality, the right to rule, the possibility of change, are given short shrift.
But if Malory’s story was all about the ending, White’s was all about continuing on. The book’s closing chapter drops the curtains before Arthur strides out to his final battle, and the reader is reminded of Merlin’s promise. One day, returning perhaps from beyond the vail of Avalon, Arthur will rejoin the world and be king once again.
The Once and Future King is about the important lessons Arthur learned in his boyhood, and worked hard all his life to put into effect. It’s about how the world was different for his having lived in it. It’s about how, whether he comes back bodily or not, the spirit of Arthur is in all the good parts of humanity and governship today.
The morality in Le Morte is, at times, contradictory, ambiguous, or altogether absent. But White makes the assumption that there is a reason this man is special, beyond finding a magical sword and winning all his battles. He became king for a reason: to make things better. Consequently, he is far more interested in how Arthur strives to achieve this (and how, even today, we strive to achieve it) than in enemies slain or heads chopped off.
Despite this comparative optimism, White doesn’t shy away from the gruesome facts of the barbaric Britain in which his story is set. He avoids detail but states plainly that such things occur. He thoroughly demonstrates the point that might does not, and cannot make right. Simultaneously, he makes clear that finding a better way is an uphill battle. The world can get better. But it is a slow and painful process. Even for wizards, legendary kings, and the best knights the world has ever seen. Every single one of them, you see, is merely human.
The Once and Future King remains today, as the day it was first published, one of the very best works of fantasy ever written. An absolute must-have for any fantasist, literati, or parent. And the Ace hardcover is absolutely lovely.
Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2012) The Green Man Review