Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Conquering Family

Book number 6 is The Conquering Family by Thomas B. Costain.

So a little history... I know more about English history than I do the history of my own country, sad to say. I suppose this is due to 1) my obsession with Arthurian legends 2) my interest in Shakespeare 3) the fact that I have a degree in English literature. There are certain points in English history I know better than others (such as the Saxon invasions, The War of the Roses, Elizabethan England and Victorian England),  but English history is something I've long been generally interested in.

So when George R. R. Martin listed a series of books written by a Canadian (from Brantford no less, the city my parents now call home) as a source for the Song of Ice and Fire books, well I had to read them. The fact that they're about the Plantagenet kings as a whole, and not just the War of the Roses was even better, it would allow me to examine other events and I'm not as familiar with.

So the Conquering Family begins with the quick introduction of the founder of the House of Plantagenet, Geoffrey V of Anjou, who married Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England. On the death of Henry I, there was civil war (something that will be increasingly common as we go through the Plantagenet rulers), until their son, Henry II takes the throne. With Henry II's marriage to the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine, we have the first true Plantagenet ruler and the head of Angevin Empire, which spanned most of the British Isles and a good chunk of France. Henry's reign is coloured by his campaigns in France, and by his extremely volatile family. His boys (with their mother's backing) rebelled against their father a few times, with the eventual promise to first born Henry the Young King that he would inherit England, while his other younger brothers would inherit various French duchies. Upon the death of Henrys II and Henry the Young King, the crown went to Richard I, Richard the Lion-heart, whom was popular and well loved, and yet barely set foot in the realm he ruled, preferring to use it as a bank to raid so he could embark on his calling, the Crusade to the Holy Land. Honestly, for how little time Richard spent in England, and the way he seemed intent to beggar it really made me wonder why he still has such a golden reputation. Maybe that's because he was followed by his odious brother John I, the same King John who figures in the legends of Robin Hood, and ended up losing the Angevin Empire his father and brothers had carved out and defended, as well as so pissed off his nobles that they created this little document called the Magna Carta and forced him to sign it. John was a pretty lousy king.

Costain's writing style is fun, whether or not his history is correct I don't really know, but he incorporates facts and gossip, and throws in details of clothing and feasts and doesn't shy away from the violence either. He paints lovely pictures of these bigger than life Kings and Queens and Archbishops and Popes and of all the petty and not so petty ways they shaped England during their time. I learned a lot and I can definitely see the influence he had on GRRM. It's quite delightful actually.

Next the line of Plantagenet rulers is Henry III, who managed to hold the throne longer than any of the other Plantagenet kings.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

On Second Thought, Let's Not Go to Camelot...

Book #4 is The Camelot Papers by Peter David

It was through comic books (of course) that I was first introduced to Peter David. And these days, his X-Factor is one of the few comics I'm still reading. Over the years, I've branched out and read a fair amount of his prose too, most of which I've also reviewed here.

Peter had a stroke at the end of last year. He's recovering nicely (yay!), but of course, his health insurance doesn't cover everything, so when the call went out to buy some of his books in order to help him out, I immediately did so. Which brings us to The Camelot Papers.

Written in the form of a diary (and with a framing device that these are 'authentic' writings that were discovered and are now being studied) authored by Viviana, a name often ascribed to the Lady of the Lake in the Legends. Not so much here.

Viviana is a slave, sold into servitude by her debt-ridden father, she ends up at Camelot, working in the kitchens, until her intelligence is noticed by... pretty much everyone and she becomes a lady-in-waiting to the new Queen, Guinevere.

Peter plays about with the structure and characters of Camelot quite a bit here, and still (mostly) makes it fit the overall Legends. His Arthur is a dimwitted, too tenderhearted, yet extremely likable doofus. Guinevere is a headstrong tomboy. She and Morgan are sisters (and yes, Morgan is still half-sister to Arthur as well. Mordred is an incredibly intelligent (and creepy) albino child. And Lancelot is a big, French jerk (sigh). And Galahad is a completely fabricated knight of Viviana's invention.

In his other Arthurian books, Peter gets very political-allegory like, and he does so again here. He uses the time-honoured attack on Guinevere and Igraine by Meleagrance as a (not at all) veiled allegory for the Iraq war. Which is fine in and of itself, but I'm not entirely sure what the point was. Yes, Arthur (and the kingdom) lose it's innocence over this, but working in a framework of tales where the characters were often and always at war, it's hard to really feel that this was any worse than anything else Arthur has done in the tales (can you say Childslayer?), so for me, the ill-found war against Meleagrance and his WMD's (yes, that acronym is actually employed) didn't really hit home for me.

That said though, I did enjoy the characterizations and seeing things unfold through Vivana's eyes and interpretations. So yes, I liked this book even if this Lancelot was a jerk :)

Begin again

First post of 2013!

I've been busy reading, but I didn't do a post for the first five books yet as four of them are in a series and I wanted to talk about them all together. So...

Books 1, 2, 3 and 5 are:
A Shadow in Summer
A Betrayal in Winter
An Autumn War
The Price of Spring
by Daniel Abraham

There's a lot going on these books; 'magic' and courtly politics, family dynamics and war. We're introduced to our main character, Otah Machi as a young boy. He's been sent away by his family to learn to be a poet, a man who will control the power of an andat, which is basically the magic of the country of the Khaiem, and this is a magic no other country in the world possesses. The cities of the Khaiem rely on the Andat; in Saraykhet, the main commerce is cotton, and the andat Seedless takes the seeds from the cotton instantly, meaning Saraykhet can turn it's cotton around faster than anywhere else in the world. Machi's andat is Stone-Made-Soft, and so is home to vast, intricate mines. But there is a darker half to the benevolence of andats, Seedless can also end unwanted pregnancies, and Stone-Made-Soft could level mountains. With power like that, the other countries, including war-like expansionist Galt, have left the cities of the Khaiem alone for centuries, fearing that the andat would be turned on them if they ever invaded.

But I get ahead of myself. It is as a child that Otah makes a decision that will contribute to the breaking of the world many times over; after a moment of cruelty to an even younger boy, Otah then attempts to make amends for the cruelty and tells the younger boy basically the 'secret' to succeeding at the school. And so the younger boy, Maati, is selected to be a poet, and in the scheme of things, this ends up being not the best decision.

Abraham is not shy about doing drastic things and I always admire that in a good fantasy story. I wasn't being hyperbolic when I said that he breaks his world numerous times and in different ways and all are a kick in the gut. He also advances the timeline between books significantly, which is also great because yes, things don't always move at breakneck speed but instead take time to root and be planned and fester before shit happens.

These books are very melancholy, but it's a beautiful, terrible melancholy that makes them highly enjoyable.