For the first half of the book, I was very confused. Is this non-fiction? It's written almost like a biography. But it's not. But it doesn't read likeFor the first half of the book, I was very confused. Is this non-fiction? It's written almost like a biography. But it's not. But it doesn't read like fiction. At all. What am I reading??
Needless to say, while this was a fantastically written novel and I was very drawn into the story of the Opium Eater and his daughter, I was also very keenly aware that, while this is supposed to be historical fiction, the lines between fiction and history were very tenuous, indeed. And maybe it's because of these blurred lines that it's been touted as one of these year's best works.
Did that distract? Sometimes. Especially when Morrell would start a sentence with "Back in the 1850s...." He had a tendency to be didactic, almost to a fault. Then again, it was these little immersive lessons in Victorian culture that gave so much of the authenticity and flavor to the novel. I will say, however, that the use of third person omniscient, while common in most nineteenth century writing, sometimes served to pull me out of the time period because the narrator's voice was so strong and so obviously of this time period.
Nevertheless, this was a really good read. Taut and thrilling, with wonderful character development, it was certainly a fun ride. And, as Morrell points out, the real-life DeQuincey was the father of a host of things we take for granted these days (e.g., coining the term "subconscious" long before Freud, serving as inspiration to both Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, thereby setting the path for the modern mystery and detective extraordinaire, etc.).
Definitely a solid four stars. If I hadn't been distracted by the ever present feeling of today, I'd have given it five stars....more
This was a great story...if only I didn't have to wait until getting to 80% of the way in to figure out where this story was going!
So here's the thinThis was a great story...if only I didn't have to wait until getting to 80% of the way in to figure out where this story was going!
So here's the thing. I didn't hate the book. I actually liked it, especially the last 20% of the story. That part had my attention. That part was really good and hit all the right spots. But why did I have to slog through 80% (470+ pages) to get to the good stuff? And here's the thing: I don't mind a lot of set-up; I don't mind a ton of exposition. I don't mind if the author takes their time to really create their world and set the characters just so. In the right hands, this could've been a well-crafted, intelligent, poignant 4-star read. But it wasn't. It wasn't set-up properly. I think I'm being generous giving it 2-stars, since I was constantly barraged with inanities (toilet paper shortages in 2055 being one of them along with a variety of one-dimensional characters in both the 1320s and the future).
It was such a great concept: we now have the technology to time travel. We understand the physics behind it. Let's send a historian back to the 1300s! But oops, something goes wrong (we don't know what) and the historian is stuck in the middle of the plague. And back in the future, they're trying to get her back.
As a concept, it would've worked as either a character study or a sci/fi story. And on both levels, to a certain degree, it did. During the last 20% of the book. Which is much too late. There was so much else (ummm...80% worth) that made it tedious and...unreadable...that I was tempted at least half a dozen times to put it down and say "I give up." (Anyone who's read my reviews in the past will know that no, I don't do that sort of thing, much to the detriment of my own mental health...I will stick with it to the bitter end, especially if I've paid for the book.)
So what didn't I like about it?
Well, to start off with, why would anyone write a time travel story and then create a world where the most technologically advanced thing that's been invented (other than time travel, of course) is a video phone. A video phone that doesn't record messages (where, oh where, has voicemail gone? There were answering machines in the 90s!). There are no cell phones. There are no personal computers. The concept of e-mail is non-existent. So is internet research. Oh, and everything was on paper! People wrote things left and right, on paper!
Many things we take for granted these days seem to be unavailable in 2055. Which is bizarre. I grew up in the 80s. I was in college in the 90s. I had a computer in my teens; I saw my first cell phone in 1992. I was e-mailing in the late 80s. Surely it isn't a huge stretch of the imagination to extrapolate the tech that was available and say "65 years later, this is what we would have."
Well that was point one. Point two is sort of related. Say you're writing a novel in the 1990s about the future (e.g., 2055), why would England--Oxford, to be specific--in 2055 be very much like 1960s England? Either a) the author wasn't very technologically savvy about the tech available in the 1990s, b) the author wasn't very speculative about the tech that would be possible/available 60+ years in the future, or c) the author just lacked the requisite amount of imagination required to write sci/fi.
(c) doesn't suit me as the answer since Connie Willis is a six-time Nebula award winner. She's also won the Hugo awards. Two of the biggest sci/fi awards out there. So it has to be (a) or (b). Oh, and I thought it absolutely laughable that Oxford in 2055 was so puritanical that having a boy, in college, kissing a girl in the hallway, was enough to send the adults into apoplexy! Kissing! In 1320, sure. But 2055? In college? Just didn't make sense.
And point three. (view spoiler)[This is what was in 80% of the story: Character complaints in 2055: a) There's something wrong, Badri says before he falls sick. (5% of the story) b) We're going to have a toilet paper problem. c) They've quarantined Oxford! There's a flu virus! You must shut down the time travel device! d) What do you mean, Badri's got the flu? He said "There's something wrong!" Someone figure out what went wrong! (10% of the story) e) Where will I put these bell ringers? Oh, and we're running low on toilet paper. f) Ugh, why are they playing so much Christmas music? (Um, could it be because it's Christmas time?) g) Didn't anyone hear that Badri said there was something wrong?! I know he's in a coma, but wake him up! (20% of the story) h) The bell ringers won't shut up! They're going to sue Oxford! They need ring bells elsewhere! i) Have you heard we're running low on toilet paper?! j) The phones are on the fritz. I can't see who I'm talking to. Oh no! However will I know what's happening? (25% of the story) k) OMG, we're running low on eggs and bacon! But don't worry, we have tons of brussel sprouts! l) There's a plague! It's the flu! No, it's virus! It's the viral plague flu! Oh, no, no one's had a cold in decades! Ack! Achoo! m) Badri, I know you've just woken up and you're sick and delusional, but what went wrong? Tell me! What went wrong?!? (30% of the story) n) Brussel sprouts?! Really? That's all we've got? And biscuits? o) Oh dear, we're running low on butter! What are we to do?!?!? (40% of the story) p) Kissing?!? Off to your room with you young man! q) I don't know what to do. The bell ringers want a room to practice in, and I have to ration the toilet paper! (50% of the story) r) Excuse me, I know you're sick, but have you been around any ducks or geese lately? No? How about within the last 8 days? Yes, I know there's a flu virus epidemic. Yes, I know we're running low on toilet paper. s) The phones are down!! I can't even get a dial tone! Now I can't see or talk to people! (People today say "What's a dial tone???) t) Oh no, one of the bell ringers has collapsed during practice! The horror! We can't continue this song! What are we to do?!? u) Brussel sprouts. That's all we have, is brussel sprouts. BRUSSEL SPROUTS!!! v) I managed to save some squares of toilet paper... (60% of the story) w) We MUST get to the net! We can't close the time machine down! x) What do you mean, we've been digging up graves from the 1300s? (70% of the story) y) Wait, viruses can last a looooooooooooooooooooong time. In the grave. Oh, and btw, we're out of toilet paper. z) Why won't the crazy old lady stop reading me Bible verses about pestilence and plague? How is this helping me, when I'm sick with the flu? aa) We're out of toilet paper!!! Aaaagggghhhh!!! ab) Aaaagggghhhh, brussel sprouts! Again! On Christmas!! And New Years. And during the Slaughter of the Innocents! Noooooo!!
Character complaints in the 1300s: a) That priest is an idiot. He doesn't know what he's doing. b) That guy has a pock-marked face. He must be a cutthroat! (Ho, cutthroat island!) c) You are an idiot! The plague is your fault! d) Oof! Get away from me, cow. I can't milk you. e) Stupid rat. I can't let you go free. You will infect everyone with your fleas. f) Stop staring at me, rat. You're much too intelligent looking! g) Oh, the horror! The priest forgot the words in Mass! h) Oh no! What a scary looking man! He must be the cutthroat! i) The priest is an idiot. He put the candles in the wrong place! j) Wait, the priest is the scary, scarred man? k) Get away from me, cow. I said I can't milk you right now! Don't you see people are falling ill all around us?! l) Wait, I'm confused. The scary scarred man is a cutthroat? m) Why is the maid always sleeping or running away? Well, that's it! The plague is her fault! n) I'm very confused. The priest sounded so kind while I was delirious and trying to recover from a virus. How can he be a cutthroat? o) I've been mistaken. The priest is very kind. He's just got a scarred scary face. p) Whine, whine, whine...whine, whine, whine. q) Moooooooooo...someone milk me. Please. My udders are sooooo full! r) Ugh, stupid cow! Get away from me! There's plague all around! I need to take care of all these dying people! *sob* *sob* s) Now I've got all the kids calling the priest a cutthroat. t) The priest is so sweet. I think I'm kinda falling for him. Even though he does look like a cutthroat... u) The priest is an idiot! He pinched the candle flames. The plague has to be his fault! v) Dang it cow! Get. Out. Of. My. Way! I can't milk you right now!! w) Mooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!! Mooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!! x) And it goes on and on, in much of the same vein... (hide spoiler)]
What I did like: the Middle English. It brought tears to my eyes. (This is good.)
Ummm...what else did I like?
The donkey. The cow. Blackie the puppy. The intelligent, innocent rat. Colin.
I am convinced that Colin is the hero of the story, despite what the author would have me believe.
So...reading this has been an experience. I can definitely say that this story was an interesting ride, one I am likely never to go on again. And sorry, Connie Willis, but I will not be reading the other four books in the series. I think I've had my fill. I don't think I can handle being on pins and needles, waiting and worrying over whether there will be another tp shortage in the 2060s. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Well, I would love to say I enjoyed this book, and I did, in the beginning. It was very well-written, and Mercedes Lackey certainly did her part in peWell, I would love to say I enjoyed this book, and I did, in the beginning. It was very well-written, and Mercedes Lackey certainly did her part in performing a cursory overview of the old ways, including adding parts from the Mabinogion and the Welsh triads, and even a bit from Gildas' De Excidio and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Brittaniae. She did a good job in providing a very broad strokes overview of the Arthurian legend, and from a very different perspective. I also appreciated the fact that she tried to keep the story very much a Welsh/Briton one, without a lot of continental (i.e., French or German) overtones, which is, admittedly, hard to do with an Arthurian work. When I started, I couldn't wait to have some free time so I could get back to the book, and that hasn't happened to me since reading Bernard Cornwell's Warlord trilogy a decade ago.
The first two parts of Gwenhyfar ("Princess" and "Warrior") were captivating and I found myself thinking that out of all the Arthurian novels I'd read, I've finally found a Gwenhyfar that I actually liked, from the beginning. Partway through Warrior however, something happened: Lancelot showed up (or in this book's case, Lancelin) and what had started out as a narrative about a strong, independent female, one who thought for herself and fought for herself, devolved into another Guenevere-Arthur-Lancelot triangle.
Don't get me wrong. I concentrated on Arthurian lit in grad school. I get it: you can't have a story about Gwen without going there, short of leaving Lancelot out of the story (which is entirely possible by the way, since Lancelot is a medieval French construct and was never part of the original Welsh/Briton Arthurian mythos). And if handled properly, a Lancelot-Gwen pairing wouldn't be all that bad. But if you're going to go there, I wish authors would try a little harder not to make it quite so obvious or quite so...saccharine. And I think that's what frustrated me about this: Mercedes Lackey spent 2/3 of the book building up her vision of a strong, self-aware, self-sufficient Gwen, who literally transformed herself into her name, the White Spirit. How independent, how gifted, how capable and wise she was, and how much she lusted after her own freedom and being able to do what she wanted to, on her own terms, while staying true to her duty as a daughter, a sister, a warrior and a follower of the old ways. And yet, when all was said and done, when she first laid eyes on Lance, something changed her. Maybe that was always the point: love changes you enough to make you do things, even things that you would have thought were anathema, at one point in your life. And if that really were the case, then Lackey succeeded. The problem is, I don't buy it. And this could just be me being obstinate, but I don't buy it specifically because she spent over 200 pages convincing me of how strong a woman Gwen was and that all the sacrifices she made to become who she was, was so that she could be an independent, respected woman in a man's world. While she had her weaknesses and insecurities like everyone else, it just seemed so very out of character for her to turn into a googly-eyed, love-struck shadow of herself. It was too jarring, for me (others may strongly disagree and that's okay!).
And I also understand that this was Gwen's story; it wasn't another story about Arthur. But there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in Lackey's work, that would even make you want to know -- much less like -- Arthur. Oh, he was always there, in the background, as a person of interest, someone far away yet indirectly connected with everything else going on in the main narrative. You couldn't forget about him and you knew that at some point, he would be brought in and would be an integral part of the main story. And this finally happened in the third part, but again, he was written as if he were on a pedestal; someone who glamored others to see him as a shining example, but someone also out of reach, cold, very two-dimensional, given only to duty. Part of me wishes that she had written him in such a way that would have made him more alive, someone who was flawed, imperfect, with redeeming qualities, so that you could see what was so great about him and why, nearly 1600 years later, people are still writing about him, about his wife, about his deeds, and positing over why he's such a larger-than-life figure, if he even ever existed.
After all, the Arthurian literary corpus spans over a thousand years, and has roots not only in Great Britain but on the continent as well. From the medieval period onwards, each generation that produced Arthurian literature had a specific reason for generating a new version of the legend. In each of these adaptations, the character of Arthur himself changed, depending on what the author intended, or, more than likely, on what the author’s patron had in mind for the retelling. The literary Arthur has appeared in many guises: he is dux bellorum, defender of sub-Roman Britain against the Anglo-Saxon invaders; he is the Celtic warrior-chief, warden of the oppressed and challenger to tyranny; he is the laudable king who tries to maintain a cohesive British identity as well as a coherent political unit; he has been assumed as one of a group of dark age tyrannical leaders; he is the high-spirited and playful adventurer surrounded by his closest friends; he is the cuckolded husband; and he is also the ineffectual roi fainéant who sat alone in his castle, awaiting the return of his knights-errant.
I felt that Lackey's Arthur could have been a fraction of any one of these, and it disappointed me that he wasn't. Still, I understand this novel was about Gwen and not him, so I've made my peace with this. :-)
Finally, what turned me off the most: while I appreciate that Lackey spent a lot of time researching and sifting through so much Arthurian lore -- Celtic myths, British legends, the Mabinogi, the Welsh Triads, sections of the De Excidio and the HRB -- as well as touching on the uneasy relationship between the early Christian Church and followers of the Old Religion, and somehow incorporating chunks of all of these into her work, in a very large way it was all too much. Less is certainly more, especially in this case, and in trying to stuff a 400-page novel with too much Arthuriana can be off-putting to both new and experienced followers of Arthur. It may have worked if she had decided on a 3- or 4-book series, where she would have had the time and space to nurse each bit and see it bloom into a fully idealized narrative construct. But with one book? It was too much.
Anachronisms notwithstanding (oh, and there were so many...the presence of Gildas alone made my ears waggle, but I'm not going there), it would have made more narrative sense to have chosen one or two main myths and tied those in with the pseudohistorical aspects. For instance, she could have chosen between telling the tale of the Three Gwenhyfars or the False Gwenhyfar, but not both. Similarly, she could have chosen from among the various Gwenhyfar abduction stories, but not all of them. The Arthurian canon is a large one, spanning over 1500 years of works in both the oral and written tradition. There's so much good stuff to choose from that it may be hard to pick and choose just one; it may be hard to fight the urge to not include everything. The problem is, when you make a concerted decision to add >a lot or too much, then the story suffers because it becomes diluted and it weakens what could have been a very strong, very tight work of fiction.
As I was first reading the novel, I was almost sure I was going to give it a 4 or 5. As I got towards the middle of the 2nd part, I dropped it down to a 3 or 4. When I read the 3rd part, I dropped it down to a 2 (and I must say, around midnight last night, I was thinking "Strongly feeling a 1 right now..."). Still, there was so much I liked about it in the beginning and in general that in the end, I decided on giving this 3 stars. It wasn't all bad even though it could have been much better, but in the end, it was one I enjoyed more than other Arthurian retellings I've read recently....more
I was very torn with this book. There were parts where the characterization of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji were so real, that it made me realI was very torn with this book. There were parts where the characterization of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji were so real, that it made me really love the writing, the author, the narrative as a whole. The corollary to that, of course, is that there were other parts that Barnes brought forward -- whether fictionalized or true to life -- that made me question why anyone would've even cared about either of these men. It's always a slippery slope with historical fiction, where authenticity -- be it of character, of place, or even of motive -- eventually comes into question. And it certainly came through in this work.
Doyle, obviously the more popular of the titular characters, was well-drawn and much of what Barnes wrote about him could be substantiated through numerous literary and historical sources. Of Edalji, there's significantly less out there, and a majority of what is available centers around the case that brought Arthur and George together. There isn't that much about the man himself, which is a shame.
Still, I found that there was something so abstruse with both men that really made me not care for either character in the end. I thought the novel was fabulous in the beginning, going back and forth between child Arthur and child George, comparing and contrasting, in binary fashion, the similarities between the two boys in spite of the differences in attitude, in bearing, in race and class. But as they grew older, Barnes' characterization brought out the Jeckyll and Hyde in both men, where the gentleman was neither as courteous nor as honorable as could be expected in those times, and the monster took different forms other than the horrific. For Barnes as an author, whose thesis at the end came down to a verdict of "on the one hand vs. an on the other hand", his handling of the dichotomy between (and through) Arthur and George was not as successful, in my opinion.
Maybe in today's society, George would've been characterized as a very high functioning autistic or maybe someone with Asperger's syndrome instead of the aloof, distant and excessively logical man that was portrayed in the book. Maybe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle really was as egotistical, as pretentious or as autocratic as he was characterized. Either way, as the men -- and the characters grew older -- I sympathized less and less with each one.
While the mystery, the court case, and the eventual verdict was captivating enough and kept me reading, Barnes' (and Doyle's) dry and relentless forays into spiritism and George's lack of connection with the world ultimately put me off. It was a really good story, but I felt that the execution fell a bit flat....more