I wanted to like this book more than I did, though that's not to say that I didn't enjoy it. I thought it evoked the early 70's folk rock era very welI wanted to like this book more than I did, though that's not to say that I didn't enjoy it. I thought it evoked the early 70's folk rock era very well (I couldn't help but play my copy of Jethro Tull's 'Songs from the Wood' several times while I was reading it) and the story itself, with the interweaving of a magical summer retreat melded with a slowly encroaching supernatural element, was well done overall, but I think I was just expecting a bit more given the relatively gushing praise here on GR.
The book itself purports to be the reminiscences of the former band members of Windhollow Faire in the form of documentary interviews as their sophomore, and final, album Wylding Hall enjoys a resurgence in popularity. The music itself was ahead of its time and the album is universally acknowledged as a lost masterpiece, though just as enticing is the still unsolved mystery of the lead singer's disappearance on the fateful summer retreat that produced the album. This format allows Hand to not only give different perspectives on the events being related, but also lets her keep much hidden without the mystery appearing too contrived.
Perhaps there was just a little *too* much left hidden for my tastes. That's not to say that I want more concrete answers on what actually happened to Julian Blake that summer, the open ended nature of the mystery worked well. I think what I really wanted was for the supernatural menace at the heart of the mystery to play a larger part in the story. Just a few more inexplicable occurrences or perhaps a more pervasive build-up of the supernatural menace surrounding Julian would have gone a long way for me.
The supernatural moments that did exist in the story were suitably creepy and Hand's reconstruction of something resembling a post-hippie commune centering around music, drugs and sex made for a satisfyingly immersive read, but I just wish there had been a bit more eldritch horror mixed in with my sex, drugs, and folk 'n roll.
Hrolf Kraki’s Saga has been one that I’ve loved for a long time, though this is my first time reading the actual Icelandic saga itself. My first introHrolf Kraki’s Saga has been one that I’ve loved for a long time, though this is my first time reading the actual Icelandic saga itself. My first introduction to the tale of the legendary Danish king was in the fantasy novelisation done by Poul Anderson, a version which I still love to this day and that is undoubtedly my favourite re-telling. The saga itself is classed as a ‘fornaldarsaga’ or legendary saga. These sagas differ from the perhaps more well know family sagas in that they tend to take place in the distant past long before the discovery and settlement of Iceland and often include more mythological or magical elements.
The story itself is very Arthurian (or perhaps the story of Arthur is very Hrolf-ian) and revolves around the rise and ultimate tragic fall of the legendary King Hrolf Kraki. As with almost all sagas we begin at least a generation before the main events and follow the adventures of Hrolf’s (and other characters’) forebears, witnessing the ways in which their actions and decisions will help lead to the fated conclusion woven by the Norns. Betrayal, slaughter, and incest characterize this section as Hrolf’s father Helgi and uncle Hroar attempt to regain the kingdom wrongfully taken from them by their own uncle Frodi and they become embroiled in the usual complications of saga life. Hrolf eventually succeeds his father as the King of Denmark and ushers in a golden age of prosperity and valour, subjugating nearly all of the northern kings under his benevolent (though unyielding) rule.
Hrolf himself comes into the action almost off-stage and (again like Arthur) is often something of a background figure in his own saga. As with Arthur one of the things that makes Hrolf’s kingdom such an exceptional one is the presence of a great number of peerless warriors that flock to his banner as champions. Amongst these are Svipdag, the Odinic son of a freeholder; Bodvar Bjarki, the magically touched warrior without equal who shares more than a few similarities with Tolkien’s Bjorn the skinchanger; and Hjalti the Magnanimous, an intriguing figure who literally encompasses the trope “from zero to hero” when he is taken under Bjarki’s wing.
The saga narrative is not surprisingly somewhat episodic in makeup as each of these heroes has their tale told and we witness both their origins and the paths that lead them to Hrolf’s royal seat at Hleidargard. These are all great stories that have everything you could want from a mythical saga: magic and prophecy, battles with berserkers and trolls, the appearance of gods in disguise, and the pre-eminence of honour and valour. Once Hrolf’s ‘round table’ has been filled, however, we know that the end is not far away no matter how great his current victories. The tragic mistakes made by his forebears, and his own unwitting insult to Odin, will lead Hrolf to the last glorious battle in which he will die (once more, like Arthur, due to the machinations of a close relative), though his memory will remain as a bright remembrance amongst his people.
This saga is very enjoyable, and is a relatively short read. If you’re at all interested in Norse mythology, sagas in general, or the roots of some of modern fantasy’s tropes and ideas then this is a great place to start. It seems obvious that various elements of the story had a direct influence on Tolkien and the saga also shares close connections in both story and characters with other medieval works, chief amongst them the poems Beowulf and Widsith. The edition I read, translated and edited by Jesse Byock, has some excellent prefatory material on the Skjoldung dynasty (of which Hrolf was a part), Berserkers, and the Saga’s relationship to other medieval sources, as well as notes and genealogies than can help fill in any blanks in your knowledge of the world of the sagas. That being said I’d still highly recommend reading Poul Andersons’ version as well if you want something that stays true to all of the elements of the tale, but fleshes out many of the characters and storylines in very satisfying ways....more
When Robert van Gulik found an old copy of some gong’an stories (Chinese fiction in which a government magistrate solves mysteries) in an old3.5 stars
When Robert van Gulik found an old copy of some gong’an stories (Chinese fiction in which a government magistrate solves mysteries) in an old shop in Tokyo detailing the adventures on one Judge Dee (loosely based on the real personage Di Renjie who was a statesman in the Tang dynasty) he decided first to translate them (as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee) and then to create his own fictional works based on the character within the genre. Thus was born the Judge Dee series of historical mysteries.
This volume is the first in chronological order and shows us a young-ish Judge Dee (in his early thirties) fresh out of finishing his exams for entrance into the bureaucracy and eager to get to his first posting as a magistrate in the provinces. Unlike some of his friends, who prefer the easier and more comfortable life allowed by remaining a government secretary in the capital, Dee is a man who hungers for experiences of the ‘real’ world after a lifetime of study and purely theoretical pursuits. He especially wants to dive into the realm of criminal prosecution and get his hands dirty by working on some actual cases. Little does Judge Dee know that his wish will all-too soon become a stark reality.
While travelling on the road to his placement at Peng-lai, a small coastal town in the middle of nowhere (as his former colleagues were all-too eager to point out), Judge Dee already finds himself running into the ‘real’ world in the form of two highwaymen who accost him, demanding his horses and valuables. Dee had made himself a pretty target by eschewing the military escort he was offered and instead choosing to travel only with his old servant Hoong. One can’t accuse Dee of wishing for things he can’t handle however, for he embraces the challenge with gusto, promptly drawing his family sword Rain Dragon and challenging the two surprised criminals to a duel. In the end Dee not only proves his mettle, but so impresses the highwaymen with his actions that they eventually offer their services as body guards and assistants. It turns out to be a happy circumstance for Dee as he is soon going to need all the help he can get in unravelling the mysteries at his new posting.
In short order Dee finds that his new magistracy is in something of an uproar, an eventuality he was not completely unprepared for as he knew that his predecessor had been murdered, but added to this complication are tales of hauntings, the strange disappearances of several local personages, and new murders that give Dee more real mysteries to solve than he had perhaps expected. Even Dee’s enthusiasm will be tested by the tangled webs of misinformation and intrigue that surround him and he will come to rely on Hoong and his two new assistants Chiao Tai and Ma Joong in his efforts to untangle the mysteries.
I’ll let you discover the remaining details for yourself, but suffice it to say this book is a lot of fun and covers everything from sword fights and floating brothels, to hauntings and Buddhist monasteries (both active and abandoned). Throw in a possible were-tiger, some marital complications, and a bad poet who likes to overindulge in alcohol and you have the makings for an entertaining immersion into the world of ancient China as envisaged by van Gulik. (Though it takes place ostensibly in the Tang dynasty of the 7th century many of the cultural details of the story reflect more ‘modern’ Ming dynasty characteristics, an anachronism apparently common to the gong’an genre.) If you like mysteries and historical fiction I think this book is a good choice. I find that I am often not a fan when writers try to combine these two genres as many of the mystery elements seems far too anachronistic for my tastes, but somehow this did not bother me at all as I followed the adventures of Judge Dee. Perhaps this was simply because I don’t have a plethora of knowledge about either Tang or Ming dynasty China, or perhaps these conventions sit better in these eras than they do (in my opinion at least) in others. Recommended....more
High 3.5 stars (I was very close to giving it a 4, but something just held me back)
This is a gosh-darn compelling read. It wasn’t one of those books IHigh 3.5 stars (I was very close to giving it a 4, but something just held me back)
This is a gosh-darn compelling read. It wasn’t one of those books I found myself hankering to get back to after I’d set it down, but once I did pick it up again it just sucked me in and the narrative pulled me right along with it until I had to put it down again. Hawkins has a lot of imaginative stuff going on here and the characters are compelling (if not always likable), so I would definitely say that this was a very good book if not perhaps a great one. It is equal parts horror and fantasy, thus leading to the tag line “Neil Gaiman meets Joe Hill”. Given that the main story revolves around a bickering pantheon-like ‘family’ of people whose abilities and powers give them the air of gods, coupled with the fact that they were raised under horrific circumstances by a being known only as ‘Father’ whose acts of abuse with the aim of ‘teaching’ led to excessive physical and mental cruelty and the comparison seems apt. Let me re-iterate: there’s a lot of blood and gore in this book, involving cruelty to both people and animals, so keep that in mind when picking it up.
The story begins in medias res as our main character Carolyn is seen trudging down a highway, covered in blood with a knife concealed in the small of her back. Things get weirder and more gruesome from here. It appears that Father has gone missing, and given that he was a god-like being apparently responsible not only for keeping the world running in its proper order, but also for keeping several malign powers at bay, this disappearance is somewhat concerning to his ‘children’ however much they may have hated the wretched old man. Add to that the fact that he was the guardian of the ‘library’, a storehouse of the massive arcane knowledge he had amassed over the eons of his existence, and the threat to his remaining protégés is very real. To top off the scenario with a bright red cherry, something is barring the way to the library for the twelve young librarians (each a master of one of the old man’s ‘catalogs’, covering everything from medicine and languages to possible futures and war & death) and they are in a race against the clock to figure out who, or what, has done away with Father and kept his successors apart from their greatest source of power.
I liked the numerous literary references Hawkins made in his work with nods to everything from Lovecraft (‘natch) and conventional mythologies to more uncommon influences such as William Hope Hodgson. In this regard I was mildly reminded of The High House by James Stoddard (though with fewer direct references/analogues and a hell of a lot more violence). Hawkins also did a good job of keeping me on my toes as a reader with the central mystery which lies at the heart of the story and, while it didn’t keep me fooled until the last minute, was still well done and compelling. As noted above many of the characters are ‘unsympathetic’ (to say the least) and are probably more accurately described as loathsome or repugnant, but even the worst of them have their moments that give them humanity and let you see the understandable foundation of their darkness.
I did have a few small issues here and there: sometimes events seemed to come together a little too conveniently (though admittedly that is part of the structure of the plot), and while the tensions and threats from within the group of librarians were well done, I think some of the outside threats against which they were apparently fighting seemed more hypothetical than actual. These are fairly small quibbles though and are more than made-up for by the well-drawn characters (even those we only get to glimpse from the surface) whose depictions effectively illustrate the true price of power (as well as its effect on those to whom it is given). Add to that a plot that moves at an excellent pace and you’ve got a compelling (man, I'm saying that a lot in this review, aren't I?) read that I’d recommend to anyone not put off by violence or fantasy tinged with horror....more