The Earthsea Quartet contains the first four of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea novels (I believe there are five now, plus a collection of short stories). EaThe Earthsea Quartet contains the first four of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea novels (I believe there are five now, plus a collection of short stories). Earthsea is a large archipelago of islands, some of which are inhabited by dragons, but most of which are inhabited by humans. It's a fairly well-realised world which never gets bogged down in unnecessary details, unlike many other fantasy series. LeGuin sticks to basics, both in terms of world-building and in terms of style. Her writing is sparse and detached, which suits the philosophical themes she addresses. It is also nearly sexless, which gives the stories collected in this book a lovely archaic and Tolkienesque ring.
Apart from its detached tone, what most sets The Earthsea Quartet apart from other fantasy series is its concept of magic, which involves knowing the true names of things -- the names things were given back when they were first created, many of which are now forgotten. In LeGuin's universe, the way to power is to know lots of true names, be they of people, dragons or inanimate objects. So people who can divine true names, like the intrepid hero of the Earthsea Quartet, Ged, are potentially very powerful indeed.
Not that Ged cares about power. All he cares about is keeping Earthsea a safe place to be, which basically means preventing other wizards from using too much magic. You see, the central conceit of the Earthsea novels is not that it's cool to know magic and use it as often as possible, as in, say, the Harry Potter books. In Earthsea, the wise wizard uses his powers sparingly, so as not to upset the world's equilibrium. The general idea seems to be that the more magic you use, the more you'll end up disturbing the natural equilibrium, with potentially disastrous consequences. Thus, while great feats of magic are occasionally performed in the books (usually to vanquish those who willingly upset the equilibrium), they are few and far between, and not nearly as prominent as they are in other fantasy series. Ultimately, LeGuin says, the wizard's challenge is not to become powerful, but rather to understand the nature of things and act upon this knowledge in a manner which will help keep the world a safe place to be.
LeGuin has an interesting take on evil. In the first three books of the series (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore), she doesn't really go in for great villains, but leaves her evil forces largely unspecified. Her evil is a nameless and faceless force whose ancient power can be felt but not readily understood. I like that; it adds a touch of mystery and otherworldly dread to the books which appeals to me. The fourth book, Tehanu, which was written much later than the preceding three books and is markedly different in both style and substance, does put a human face on evil, and moreover has a setting which will be more familiar to earthly readers than the settings of the earlier books. I'm sure some readers will appreciate this attempt at greater humanity and recognisability, but to me it constitutes a loss of the mythical quality and otherworldliness that make the first three books so special. It doesn't help, either, that the fourth book has a strong feminist slant, in the negative sense of that word. Apparently, Tehanu is considered a bit of a feminist classic in some quarters, but personally, I think it suffers badly from its men-deprecating stance. I much prefer the ideology-free earlier books, which I'd rate at four stars, five stars and three and a half stars, respectively.
If you can only read one book in the series, pick The Tombs of Atuan, which pits the hero, Ged, against a young priestess who doesn't really understand the powers she is serving. It's an excellent story, set largely in an underground labyrinth, which adds a tangible touch of claustrophobia to the proceedings. A life-and-death power struggle in a dark place from which there is no escape -- what's not to like?
More in-depth reviews of the individual books can be found here:
Did you know they had lotteries back in the late eighteenth century? And did you know that lottery tickets cost so much back then that not-so-wealthyDid you know they had lotteries back in the late eighteenth century? And did you know that lottery tickets cost so much back then that not-so-wealthy people had to sell a cow in order to be able to afford a ticket? Neither did I, until I read Maria Edgeworth's 'The Lottery', a short story published as a booklet in the Phoenix 60p series.
Edgeworth, of course, was a contemporary and favourite author of Jane Austen's, who commended Edgeworth's Belinda in Northanger Abbey and sent the Irish-born author a (presumably autographed) copy of Emma upon its publication. Being an Austen fan, I naturally had to check out Edgeworth, whose Castle Rackrent, The Absentee and Belinda are considered minor classics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
'The Lottery' is about a likeable couple, Maurice and Ellen Robinson, who are talked into buying a lottery ticket by Mrs Dolly, Maurice's live-in aunt, and really do have to sell a cow to do so. Much to their surprise, they win five thousand pounds. Ellen wishes to save the money and go on living as they always have, but Maurice and Dolly spend lavishly. Needless to say, it doesn't end well. This is, after all, a morality tale, and a fairly unsubtle one at that.
I have to say I was surprised at the tone of the story, which seems incredibly modern for something that was written in 1799. Sure, five thousand pounds isn't the fortune it once was, and rich people are more likely to have fancy cars than horse-drawn carriages these days, but other than that, the story doesn't seem to have dated at all. Both the language and the subject matter are entirely recognisable to us, denizens of the twenty-first century, give or take a few 'prays' and 'forsooths'. And of course the moral (don't gamble!) is as pertinent today as it was two centuries ago.
'The Lottery' is a straightforward story, well told but not a great masterpiece. There is some fine comedy at the expense of Mrs Dolly, who likes her brandy, but like many eighteenth-century stories, 'The Lottery' is slightly too moralistic and self-righteous for its own good. Still, it's a perfectly agreeable introduction to Maria Edgeworth's work, and having read it, I look forward to reading her more famous books....more
Are there countries in the world which are more likely to produce depressing literature than others? If so, Russia must be pretty much top of the listAre there countries in the world which are more likely to produce depressing literature than others? If so, Russia must be pretty much top of the list. I have yet to read a Russian novel which ends well for all the protagonists. I can only think of a few in which things end well for even a few of the protagonists. And Dostoyevsky of course loves his tragedies. The Idiot is one of them. While it's not as tragic as, say, Crime and Punishment, nearly all of its protagonists come to a sticky end, and as always, they meet plenty of drama and intrigue on their way there. And it's all classical Russian drama and intrigue, which is to say it's full of passion, obsession, sudden mood swings, tantrums and hysterical fits. In short, The Idiot is a book full of histrionics, but I love it, because for one thing, there's something grand about all those huge emotions, and for another, Dostoyevsky is such a good writer that he gets away with making his characters behave like Greek gods. Every time I read a book of his, I come away wishing he had written his own version of Greek mythology. I'm sure it would have been an astonishing read.
As for the book at hand, it's a book about society -- more specifically, about a modern society that is so corrupt and materialistic that a good man simply cannot survive in it. In The Idiot, that good man is Prince Lyov Nikolayevitch Myshkin, who has spent most of his life in a Swiss hospital because of his epileptic fits, and now returns to the country of his youth. Although many people call him an idiot, Myshkin is not actually stupid; he is just innocent and naïve, and likely to forgive those who have trespassed against him as he is sure they meant no harm. Needless to say, there are those who dismiss him as an inconsequential figure or try to take advantage of him, but he also wins over a lot of people with his innate goodness and refusal to think ill of others. He's a Christ-like figure, but was Christ allowed to live in the society he lived in? He wasn't, and neither, sadly enough, is Myshkin, one of Dostoyevsky's more likeable protagonists. Because Russia, to which Dostoyevsky devotes some choice paragraphs, is too jaded for people like him -- too corrupt and too, well, Russian.
But The Idiot is not just a novel about a corrupt society. Ultimately (and this is probably why I like it so much) it's about love. About the different ways in which people love each other. About loving out of pity. About loving against reason. About mad, obsessive, possessive love. About angry love. About humiliating love. About corrupting love and the fear of love. About the things people do for love, the mistakes they make in the name of love, and the love they simply fail to notice because their eyes are directed elsewhere. At the heart of the book is a fascinating love triangle (or is it a quadrangle? or even a pentagon?), which makes it incredibly romantic despite all the ugly stuff that is going on at the same time. It doesn't have a happy-ever-after ending, but there's something terrifically grand and romantic about the ways in which the various lovers end, and I like that. It's realism with a dose of Romanticism with a capital R, and it works.
As always, Dostoyevsky's characterisation is superb. His naïve hero is pitched against a fabulous cast of sophisticated nobles, desperate wannabes, highly strung concubines, passionate schoolgirls, mad stalkers, dramatic nihilists, and so on. Many of the characters are larger than life, yet you somehow believe them, because let's face it, Russia is the kind place that could spawn these people, isn't it? By and large, the characters are well drawn, and if many of them are either unsympathetic or a tad capricious, so be it. There is enough passion, grandstanding and back-stabbing going on between them to keep things interesting, and plenty of twisted love, too.
The only thing I dislike about Dostoyevsky (and the one reason why I'm not giving The Idiot five stars) is his tendency to go off on tangents just when something exciting is about to happen. In The Idiot, he relates the events of an evening, tells us that the hero will have a secret and obviously important meeting with the girl he loves in the morning, and then, rather than relating the events of the next morning in the next chapter, proceeds to spend four chapters (some sixty pages altogether) telling the reader what happens at the Prince's house late at night, none of which has anything to do with the upcoming meeting with the girl. I'm sure I'm not the only reader who felt cheated there. Other than the tangents, though, Dostoyevsky is a superb writer, and The Idiot is as fine an example of classic Russian literature as you're likely to find anywhere (provided you like long dialogue and slightly mad characters). I'd give it 4.5 stars if I could, but in the absence of half stars, four will have to do.
(And for those of you who care about translations: I read the Bantam version by Constance Garnett and was quite happy with it.)...more
A few years ago, Mark Haddon had a global hit on his hands with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book written from the perspectiveA few years ago, Mark Haddon had a global hit on his hands with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book written from the perspective of an autistic teenage boy. While I enjoyed The Curious Incident, I found it somewhat overrated, mostly because I didn't buy the teenage protagonist. Now Matthew Kneale (who wrote one of my favourite books of the last few years, English Passengers) has a shot at writing a book from a child's point of view, and as far as I'm concerned, he does a better job of it than Haddon.
When We Were Romans tells the story of Lawrence, a nine-year-old English boy whose father may or may not have committed heinous crimes against his family. When the story opens, Lawrence's mother, convinced that her ex-husband is stalking her, packs her two children into her little car and drives all the way to Rome, where she was happy before she got married. In Rome, Lawrence, his Mum, his little sister Jemima and his hamster stay with a succession of his mother's friends, and gradually a story emerges that is rather different from what it seems at first. It's a well-observed and well-told tale that seems mildly underwhelming at first but steadily works its way to a dramatic climax. The ending feels a little rushed, but it's still a reasonably powerful story that gets under your skin and stays with you for a bit.
When We Were Romans once again showcases Kneale's tremendous talent for inhabiting different characters. In English Passengers, he told his story from about twenty vastly different perspectives and largely got away with it. In When We Were Romans he sticks to one point of view, but it's a tricky one -- a child's. Kneale does a great job describing the journey through Lawrence's mind. His Lawrence is a creative and precocious child who is just a little too young to understand the world around him but nevertheless feels tremendously responsible and tries to look after his increasingly confused mother as best he can. Lawrence has many endearing traits, such as comparing everyone he meets to an animal and lapsing into little asides on outer space and Roman emperors. He's not too good to be true, though. Like all children, he has whims and tantrums. He nags, whines, envies his little sister and often feels unfairly treated, all in ways which ring very true to me. At times, Kneale goes a tad too far in his attempts to make Lawrence a credible child narrator (his erratic spelling and syntax are a bit much for my taste; I'm convinced a child as intelligent as Lawrence wouldn't spell one word in three different ways within one paragraph), but still, he comes up with a convincing child's point of view. More so than Haddon, whose Christopher was, in my opinion, far too self-conscious for his own good.
When We Were Romans isn't as ambitious and impressive as English Passengers, but it's more proof that Kneale really knows how to get into his characters' heads. Those who like good characterisation, the child's perspective and original family drama will love it....more