My last couple of forays into non-fiction historical writing have been kind of disappointing three-star affairs. This book, however – whether i...more 4 Stars
My last couple of forays into non-fiction historical writing have been kind of disappointing three-star affairs. This book, however – whether it’s the more academic tone or simply the subject matter – I really enjoyed. First published in the 70′s it probably contains some disputed or out-of-date ideas and evidence by now, but it was one of (if not ‘the’) first academic texts to thoroughly examine women’s roles in Ancient Greece and Rome. So, as a woman who is interested in Ancient Greek and Rome, and who gets irritated with 50% of the worlds population being treated as unimportant – and sometimes even completely ignored – by history textbooks*, I had to read.
And it’s a very interesting read. Perhaps a little dry in places but I preferred that to an overly informal tone and I have read plenty much, much, drier – so I think this book probably got the balance about right for me. It’s well footnoted (always a plus, even if I don’t read every citation I like to know they are they in case I ever do want to check out the original source) but, most of all, the subject matter is really interesting. The book examines female roles from Ancient Greece – predominantly Athens as that’s where most of the literature and archaeological evidence comes from, but also Sparta and other city states which were generally lot more favourable towards women’s rights than ‘the birthplace of democracy’ was. From the more passive roles in Classical Greece it then moves through the Hellenistic period towards ancient Rome, where women, although second-class citizens, were considerably more free and even gasp allowed out of the house! It's political correctness gone mad, I tell you!
As someone who is more interested with Ancient Greek literature and legends than the ins and outs of city state politics (and who is less interested in Rome than Greece), I found the early chapters; discussing the iconography and roles of Greek Goddesses, the portrayal of women in Homer, and the way women were depicted in Classical tragedy and comedy, more interesting and more accessible than some of the chapters based more on the historical facts. But that’s a personal preference, and I do think Pomeroy gives enough context in this book that you don’t have to be an expert on the politics of ancient Athens or Rome to understand it.
Although the blurb asks many questions, Pomeroy avoids giving too many answers in the book. The evidence, both literary and archaeological, is sparse and fragmentary for anything to do with how the less privileged classes of Greeks and Romans lived. The literary evidence is almost entirely written by educated men and most histories of the period and analysis of the archaeological evidence has been done by men too. So often, rather than give a definitive answer, Pomeroy will promote a number of theories that both she and others have come up with. The only one of these I really couldn’t stand was when she mentions the Freudian Psychoanalytical approach to examine why male Greek playwrights wrote abut women in the way they did. I guess it was the 70s, but many Freudian ideas are now no longer regarded as sound in actual psychology so they need to start getting the fuck out of disciplines like History already. While there’s nothing, in theory, wrong with psychoanalysis and examining how a person’s childhood shapes the person they become, straight up Freudian psychoanalysis is full of all sorts of misogyny and bollocks and just needs to die. Also it's an approach that really works a lot better when you actually know something about the person's childhood and can use that to interpret how it informed their writing. If all you have is the writing, then you're just making shit up to fit your own theory - and that's just bad history.
Over all, though, a very interesting and informative book. A lot of the Greek stuff I was at least passingly familiar with from A level Classics and First-Year Ancient History modules, but there were several ways of looking and interpreting things (such as the case for female primogeniture in Homer and the Troy myth) that somehow I’d missed myself and had never been mentioned by my teachers, so that was really interesting for me in a really geeky way. Also I know shamefully little about Roman history beyond the bits everyone knows: ‘gladiators!’ ‘The occupation of Britain!’ ‘Baths!’ ‘Pompey!” and ‘Ripping off the Greek Gods, changing their names and stealing their myths!’ – so the chapters on Roman society were really informative for me as well. And I am glad (though not at all surprised) to see that Roman women weren’t treated quite so badly as the poor old Athenians were. Seriously, Athens was a shit place to live if you were a girl.
From the look of Amazon, most of Pomeroy’s works now seem to be out of print or really expensive, which is a shame. But if I ever spot one going cheap in a second-hand bookshop I will probably pick it up. I thought this was a very well written book that got the balance right between not patronising those familiar with the time frame and not alienating those who weren’t. Also, if anyone here is taking GCSE or AS/A level Classic Civs, I would really recommend reading the chapters on Homer and the Greek tragedies. I kind of wish I had.
* The introduction here contains the ridiculous examples of ancient history books where the word ‘women’ was not included in the indexes, and a book on Ancient Greece that stated the only two unenfranchised classes were ‘resident aliens’ and ‘slaves’, conveniently forgetting that no women of any social class in Greece were enfranchised either. But I'm sure the writers weren't actually misogynists - they just momentarily forgot that women existed, that's all! And then so did their proof-readers, editors, and publishers. And that's almost worse.(less)
Originally published as Not After Midnight, this collections brings together five atmospheric short stories by Daphne...moreCrossposted/tweaked from my blog.
Originally published as Not After Midnight, this collections brings together five atmospheric short stories by Daphne du Maurier. They’re a bit of an odd bunch – a mix of the supernatural and the mundane. Some of them embrace the ‘unknown’ with psychics, pagan worship, and life after death, while others seem to be building you up towards that only to tear it away by having the explanation something completely grounded in reality. Whether you find this second-guessing rewarding or frustrating, though, is probably personal preference. One theme that runs through all the stories, however, is the idea of taking the protagonist away from their home and putting them into an unfamiliar environment, where the setting itself serves to increase the sense of suspense and the character’s own alienation. It’s a collection of stories about how people react and adjust when taken out of their comfort zone and thrown into creepy situations they have very little control over. And it has to be said, most characters don’t do so well…
The first story in the collection, Don’t Look Now tells the story of a married couple holidaying in Venice as they attempt to get over the death of their young daughter and repair their own relationship. It is by the most famous story in this collection, having been made into a classic horror film in 1973 with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Now I haven’t yet seen the film but my big sister has, and I still remember how freaked out by it she was when she came back from her friend’s sleepover and told me about it. With that in mind and my dad’s explanation of the storyline and constant ‘this reminds me of Don’t Look Now‘ and ‘watch out for little girls in raincoats!’ whenever we ended up wandering round Venetian backstreets and canals at night on family holidays (which happens surprisingly often actually), I had been building this expectation for years that the book must be something truly atmospheric and full of suspense. It wasn’t. I did my best to make it so – I read it while I was in Venice, in the evening, on a poorly lit bench in a small square off a load of little backalleys that I had to wander back through to get to my hostel – and it still didn’t evoke the slightest sense of unease. Maybe I did it wrong, maybe if I had read it at home with only my imagination and memories of Venice I’d have found it creepier. And there’s also the fact I had the plot spoilt for me by hearing about the film – which actually changes a few key details in ways that actually improve it. In the book the explantion for John’s obsession with the little girl in the raincoat is never really that satisfactory and the psychic old women just seem random, disconnected and kind of silly – the film’s decision to make the raincoat girl resemble the dead daughter would have done a lot to improve the sense of suspense and unease both about the supernatural elements and the character’s mental health and just well...make the whole story a bit less random. The ending though, the ending I actually liked in all it’s silly, unintentional hilarity. I’ve seen other reviews claim that du Maurier does a great job of building up suspense only to fail with sudden endings – it’s a criticism I actually agree with in many cases, but in this story I think there was the opposite problem. The ending, though silly, would have worked really well if the build up of suspense had been better done in the main body. As it was, the story just seemed to have too much of John and Laura going out for diner and days out and having rather dull marital disagreements and not enough taking advantage of the creepy setting to explore the grief of losing a child.
The second story, however, does suffer from the sudden ending negating the atmospheric tension of everything that came before, and in a pretty bad way. Not After Midnight tells the story of a ‘lonely teacher’ who goes on holiday to Crete to get some painting done and ends up involved with the mysterious American couple over in one of the other holiday homes. I’d actually take issue with the back cover (and Wikipedia’s) description of the main character as ‘lonely’ – he doesn’t seem lonely to me, he seems like someone who likes being alone to get on with his own thing and doesn’t actually want to be bothered – especially by constantly drunk, boorish Americans. Surely nobody who’s ever experienced being next to one of them on holiday can blame him for that? The loneliness is there, certainly, but it’s something that he develops afterwards and as a result of his holiday and that’s actually pretty important – he wasn’t particularly damaged before the events of the story. To miss that is almost to miss the point. But onto the story… I liked the build up of atmosphere and suspense here a whole lot better than I did in Don’t Look Now. Where it fell down though was the ending, which was frankly pretty rubbish. It felt way too sudden, rushed and dropped in there without any explanation purely for ‘shock factor’. I had to go back and spend a few minutes trying to piece how it all fitted together with the rest of the story – and not in the fun ‘oooooh, I get that now!’ way but the ‘that really should have been a little clearer, and I still don’t get why she said that if what was going on was actually this...’ way. Just a little longer drawing out the ending and making sure the pieces all fitted together a bit more neatly would really have improved this one, because the actual story, though hardly ‘serious literature’ wasn’t that bad.
A Border-Line Case was much more solidly written and probably, if I was being completely objective, the best of the bunch. I can’t rate it too highly though because it uses several tropes that I’m frankly a bit bored with. And, though I was surprised with the twist in the middle, I saw the end ‘twist’ coming a mile off. The heroine of this story is aspiring actress, Shelagh, travels to Ireland to visit Nick, an estranged old friend of her father's, because of an off-hand remark her dad made shortly before his death about wanting to make up. Of course Ireland and England don’t have the best of relations in the 1970s so Shelagh, a little out of her depth, uses her actress skills to disguise her identity. And…well…she must be a damned good actress because the lies she makes up are totally transparent bullshit to anyone simply reading them on the page. People buy (or pretend to buy) them though and she eventually gets ushered in to meet Nick on his mysterious island of mysteriousness where he is surrounded by young men and likes digging up iron age burial sites and not reporting them to trained archaeologists to make proper surveys of (yes, that is something that bugs me in real life, proper archeological surveys are important damnit!). We get some wonderfully 1970s PC ‘oh my god, he might be a homo‘ thoughts from Shelagh as she tries to puzzle out the reason for Nick’s reclusiveness which made me laugh a little. Which was good, as her other thoughts made me want to bash her head in for being a fucking idiot with no ‘creep creep, stay away from this person’ sense of self preservation. She’s only 19, I know, but really; everything about the situation says ‘run for the fucking hills’. A solidly written story, though. Definitely the most consistently well written of the first three stories, but I found neither main character relatable, likable, or particularly believable, enough for me to enjoy it very much. The ‘twist’, though possibly relatively shocking in the 70s, was pretty predictable and, by now, majorly overdone. I’ll give it the fact it has a good title than can be interpreted in a number of ways though – that was pretty clever.
And now my favourite, The Way of the Cross, and I’ll admit this is probably because I have a bit of a fascination with Jerusalem. This story has a far larger cast of characters - a whole tour group of pilgrims - all given about equal attention. The story kicks off with poor Rev. Edward Babcock, a relatively young, urban cleric away on his own holiday, having to step in, last-minute, to be a tour guide for a group of snobby village parishioners he doesn’t know. It takes a while to get into it and I have to admit to being frustrated by du Maurier’s use of the whole ‘young attractive women cannot resist dreadful, boorish, middle-aged men’ theme. It just drives me batty, these men (and I include Mr. De Winter from Rebecca here as well) are so absolutely dire. I don’t know why anyone, regardless of age, would ever fancy them ever. There were enough characters, however, that if one storyline bothered me it was quickly moved away from to feature somebody elses. The basic plot is quite a simple one – all the characters get separated from each other, overhear unpleasant truths and gossip about themselves, and have an absolutely horrible time – mostly in karmic and amusing ways. There’s a sense at the end though that maybe, just maybe, they learn something from their experience and emerge better people for having visited the Holy City. Given the limited page and large number of characters it’s all a bit superficial, but it’s not bad. I actually liked the ‘annoying’ know-it-all kid, who has a great time approaching Jerusalem’s depiction in the bible and the reality of the present city as an archeological problem, rather than desperately seeking spiritual guidance or forgiveness. Questioning whether an important historic site really is where, or as old as, the tourist board claims it is, is something me and my dad often do on holiday and I appreciated the fact that somebody was culturally aware and respectful of the other religions that also live and worship in Jerusalem . A fairly simple, quite formulaic little story, with rather two-dimensional characters. But the prose did by far the best job in this book of evoking a strong sense of location.
The last story, The Breakthrough, is probably an acquired taste. It’s pretty much an unpfront science-fiction/supernatural crossover. Our ‘hero’, Steven the computer guy, is moved to some arse-end-of-nowhere government research facility run by a nutter who the whole scientific community mocks and peopled by about two equally secretive underlings. The machines are all called Charon 1, 2 or 3 so if you know your Greek mythology it’s no surprise what the ‘secret’ aim of the research is. It’s…I dunno. It’s not bad but it isn’t an especially original idea and the execution feels incredibly dated… There’s state of the art giant talking computers, hypnotism, ‘idiots’ (not my wording!) possessing untapped potential abilities to move things around with their emotions, a dog obedience-trained to the point of brainwashing, twins that have a special bond that continues even after one dies… it’s as if du Maurier’s throwing in absolutely everything she can think of - and it’s only a forty page story! It’s just too much, too crowded, everything's competing for attention and it only really serves to undermine the actual themes and questions the plot is trying to raise. Maybe if I was more of sci-fi fan than a gothic/supernatural/suspense person, I would find this more to my taste but it just felt…inelegant I suppose. Unpolished. Not really thought through.
Overall an interesting collection. Although I didn’t rate all the stories too highly, I found something to enjoy about all of them and I don’t regret spending time reading this. Yeah, it’s not the best and not quite my thing but it was interesting at least. My main problem wasn’t that the stories weren’t good, but that I got very frustrated that a lot of it could just be so much better if only it had been more vigorously edited and reworked. Both Don’t Look Now and Not After Midnight had the potential to be a hell of a lot better than they actually were.(less)
Read a while ago. Crossposting original review from my blog
Fairy tales again…I promise I do read other things though!
Actually it’s a collection of sho...moreRead a while ago. Crossposting original review from my blog
Fairy tales again…I promise I do read other things though!
Actually it’s a collection of short stories based on fairy tales. Some stray closer to simple retellings than others (The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon) but they’re all original works rather than just an update of Grimm/Perrault.
I haven’t read much Angela Carter before – just Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales, which she compiled rather than wrote herself – but I had heard a lot about this collection from friends who studied it at school or university, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. In the end I loved it. Not all stories quite hit the note for me – The Erl-King was probably my least favourite – but each had such an interesting idea behind it, or style of writing, and I could see what Carter was aiming for that it didn’t cause me to feel I should deduct a star. And even if some stories were superior to others they all worked together as a complete collection very well. Almost every story contained a female character that subverted the traditional ‘fairy tale female’ role in some way, however subtle, and was a theme of female sexuality running through all of them that united the collection just as much as the fact that they are all based on folklore and fairytale.
Of course this isn’t for everyone. In fact it’s what put a few of my friends off the stories – that there was so much sex and focus on sexuality, virginity and menstruation in something that was meant to be a ‘fairy tale’. But as someone who frequently finds myself objecting to passive female roles in both fairy tales, novels, and TV and film I found myself really enjoying this book, even if parts of it did seem a bit heavy handed. I also tend to agree with Carter in that these things are there in the original stories if you just look and think for a few moments, she’s just highlighted them and given the women a bit more agency. So for me it didn’t seem like it was ‘ruining my favourite childhood stories’ at all, but merely offering a different perspective on them.
The book opens with the title story, The Bloody Chamber, by far the longest story of the collection and quite possibly my favourite. Based on the tale of Bluebeard, its plot sticks very closely to that of the original, but is told in first person from the perspective of Bluebeard’s latest wife and updated to mid 20th century France. Instead of being an anonymous woman in a fairy tale the unnamed narrator becomes a real person, easier to relate to – a young woman not forced into but willingly marrying a much older man she feels nothing for, and is a little intimidated by, in return for his money. I have to admit this characterisation did not endear me to her at first but being able to read her thoughts, why she had done it, how she had had to rebel against her more sensible mother, and the slow realisation of what the marriage actually entails helped me to feel for her as a person who had made an understandable, if very unfortunate, decision. By telling it through the teenage bride’s eyes Carter highlights the more subtle everyday horrors that are there but very much brushed over in the original – the terror of a young girl getting married, the fear of her wedding night, anxiety about disappointing her more experienced husband, the realisation she’s trapped in a relationship with someone she doesn’t want to be with, having sex with a man she’s scared of and repulsed by, enjoying sex with a man she’s scared of and repulsed by, the irrational jealousy of a man’s previous partners and inferiority complex that comes with that. It’s all very relatable, even though I haven’t exactly been there myself. The discovery of the ‘bloody chamber’ itself is just the culmination of a growing sense of unease and ‘wrongness’ about the husband that has been building up from the beginning. As well as bringing out these overlooked themes I also prefer Carter’s ending to the original. It’s arguably still a bit of a deus ex machina but it is a better foreshadowed one.
The next two stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride are both based on the story of Beauty and the Beast. Mr Lyon again stays pretty close to the original in terms of plot only updating it to an era of motorcars, while Tiger’s Bride is more of a subversion. Of the two I preferred The Tiger’s Bride, perhaps because it didn’t feel quite so familiar. The ‘Beauty’ character’s father being a compulsive gambler who loses their fortune, drags her through Europe, and finally gambles her away to ‘la Bestia’ was a refreshing twist on the kindly old man of most versions, struck by misfortune through no fault of his own. Again this story is told in first person by the heroine but she’s a much more feisty character than the narrator of The Bloody Chamber and reacts in quite different ways to their broadly similar situation, quietly refusing to be dominated by the men in her life and offering no compromises to them until they compromise themselves.
Puss-in-Boots is a very different story in many ways from the rest. It’s a comedy for one, not as gothic in tone as the other tales, and the female character stays fairly firmly on the sidelines. It’s told rather brilliantly through the eyes of Puss in Boots, which makes for great lines such as ‘I went about my ablutions, tonguing my arsehole with the impeccable hygienic integrity of cats’ and tells the story of the trickster cat trying to secure the beautiful, married, woman his whoremongering master has fallen for. It’s a humorous, very bawdy, little story that doesn’t require thinking too seriously for.
The Erl-King and The Snow Child I’m honestly still not sure about. I know what Carter was trying to do with The Erl-King and I actually really like the concept but, for whatever reason, I found this story a lot harder than the others to get sucked into and enjoy. I think it’s one I might have to give a reread at some later date to get full enjoyment from it. Meanwhile The Snow Child is such a short and odd little vignette writing up my thoughts could only spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it – but it’s the story most of my friends studying this book had the most trouble with and I can see why.
The Lady in the House of Love then plays off vampire mythology rather than fairy tales, telling the story of Dracula’s lonely descendent stuck in her crumbling mansion unable to see the light of day, and the arrival of a bicycling soldier there on the eve of the First World War. It’s the most original of the stories and, I think, a beautiful example of vampire fiction – haunting, lonely, and gothic. Possibly not what one would really expect in a book that’s meant to be based on fairy tales, but as a lover of gothic literature as well I wasn’t complaining. It was one of the highlights of the book for me and I think would stand up well in any compilation of vampire short stories as well (in fact I spotted several people here recommending it for consideration as one of the best works of vampire literature since Dracula).
And from vampires to werewolves, the last three stories all play off Little Red Riding Hood and similar stories. The first, The Werewolf is again so short saying much at all would spoil it so I’ll content myself with saying that I liked it, but that the story seemed very familiar – though that could easily be the result of pop-culture osmosis, (this book being published in 1979 and having a fairly big impact) I think I’ve read almost identical stories in collections of folklore. The Company of Wolves is more strongly linked to the familiar Red Riding Hood tale, with the girl being lured from the path by the ‘wolf’ who beats her to her grandmother’s house. To be honest though I’ve heard so many interpretations and retellings going ‘Red Riding Hood’s really just about sex – didn’t you know? The Red Hood totally symbolises menstruation’ that I just don’t particularly care for hearing it again. Angela Carter was probably one of the first to do so and it’s possibly this story that has influenced so many others to bang on about it though so I will cut her some slack. It’s a very well written piece but for me the standout part was the first third or so, before it gets to the Red Riding Hood narrative, and is just giving lots and lots of lovely folklore-and-mythology-like anecdotes about wolves and werewolves and the stories of people who have been turned into wolves.
Wolf-Alice is the final story based, apparently, on a version of the Red Riding Hood tale I’m not familiar with, tells the story of a feral child raised by wolves. ‘Rescued’ after her adoptive mother is shot dead she goes first to a convent, where they despair at her wild ways, and then sent off as a servant for the mysterious Duke – who has no reflection and likes to cannibalise the corpses from graveyards. I had a bit of trouble trying to work out what exactly the Duke was meant to be – a pre-Dracula type vampire or werewolf perhaps, when the two were more similar and a lot less romantic, or possibly a ghoul. But in the end it doesn’t really matter – whatever he is he’s lost enough humanity that he no longer has a reflection and humanity itself is disgusted and fearful of him. The story’s not really about him anyway (I just found him fascinating) but a coming of age story for Wolf-Alice who, raised by wolves, has no understanding of either time or puberty but has to grow up and develop from a wild dog-like child into a young woman, with only her own reflection in the Dukes mirror to guide her. It’s a powerful little story, but for me not quite as good as The Bloody Chamber or The Lady of the House of Love.
Although I didn’t love every individual story in this book I think it is a great collection, well worthy of five stars, and one I am sure I will be returning to frequently when I want a short and familiar read. The sex and feminism probably isn’t for everyone, I’m ready to allow that, but I quite like a bit of intelligent feminism in my literature, especially if it’s challenging the predominantly passive role of women in fairy tales and giving them back a bit of a voice. The narrator in The Bloody Chamber may do almost exactly the same thing as she does in the traditional stories, but here there’s a sense of her being a fully realised person, not a generic woman who does what she does because women are all fundamentally the same. (less)
I’ve spoken about my love of all things Arthurian before, so I was really expecting to enjoy this book. All the ingredi...moreCrossposted from my blog
I’ve spoken about my love of all things Arthurian before, so I was really expecting to enjoy this book. All the ingredients are there – it’s centered on a character I normally like, on events that are often just skated over as prologue, and grounded in more unique ‘realistic’ Dark Age Britain than the typical ‘castles and knights’ setting. It was also pretty popular back in its day. Alas, I learn, yet again, that popularity often has little to do with quality. It’s not that I actively dislike the book – it’s solidly in ‘ok’ territory – but I can’t really think of anything I liked about it either. There were a lot of neat ideas but, like every character in this novel, they were never developed.
It’s told, first-person, from Merlin’s perspective as an old man looking back on his life. However, the first few pages of the prologue, where Merlin describes how his memory works as an old man ‘the recent past is misted while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly coloured’ is the last time the narrator sounds the age he is meant to be. When describing his childhood, he sounds like neither a child or an old man looking back on events – his voice simply narrates things, as they happened, with very little passion or personality, even when describing his strongest feelings. It’s all a bit too measured and distanced so that, despite being the narrator, I never felt remotely drawn to him or that I had any sort of grip on his personality. Since Merlin was both the narrator and the only character that seemed intended as more than a bunch of familiar stereotypes, this was a pretty big problem.
The story chugs away pretty slowly and, because I wasn’t enamoured with the narration, at times it felt a bit like wading through treacle. Even when things did happen, though, I didn’t feel particularly excited. Everything had a tendency to happen to the characters, rather than the characters doing things for themselves. Even declaring war seemed to be just a natural course of events rather than a proactive decision made by a person. This lack of agency was only enhanced by Merlin’s magic – which rather unsatisfactorily seemed to consist of knowing what to do and that he would get out ok. As he says himself ‘I am a spirit, a word, a thing of air and darkness, and I can no more help what I am doing than a reed can help the wind of god blowing through it’. Which means that, since Merlin never once tries to stray from this path or do anything for himself without ‘the wind of god’, that there’s really no tension, and that anything Merlin does achieve isn’t something that can really be attributed to his character but to the undefined ‘god’. It robs Merlin of the moral ambiguity he should have and makes him a dumb, uninteresting, tool instead of a great, cunning and complex character. Throughout the later sections of the book when Merlin’s reputation had grown far and wide, all I could think of was ‘why? He’s done nothing for himself yet’. If his personality had been more complex, this wouldn’t be a problem, but his personality was simply ‘I am the breath of god’ and never got any further than that.
And if you don’t like Merlin there’s really no one to relate to or care about in this book. His servants Cadal and Cerdic are both quite likable – but almost completely interchangeable. His teachers Galapas and Belasius have quite different methods and attitudes, but don’t get meaty enough roles for this to even be an interesting contrast. Ambrosius is wise and patient, Uther is rash, petty and impulsive. Every female is either a saint, ‘slut’, or nursemaid. The simplistic style of both the narration and the characterisation actually left me stunned when, in the last half I discovered through repeated casual use of the word ‘slut’ and one boob-groping almost-sex scene that this wasn’t written as a children’s book. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that makes it unsuitable for most kids (I would probably have really enjoyed this book about 15 years ago) but it’s a pretty stong indicator it wasn’t meant to be aimed at them. Which left me naturally wondering who exactly it was aimed at, because it really doesn’t read like a book aimed at adults either.
Eventually, the author’s note at the back of the book clued me in – people who enjoy the Arthur myth. Well, I love the King Arthur myth and it didn’t work for me. When Merlin visits the well outside Galapas’ cave I wasn’t thinking ‘oh, that’s a really clever reference to a line in Monmouth’ or when Belasius becomes Merlin’s tutor I wasn’t going ‘Ah, the romanised name of a character who got mentioned in an offhand remark in Monmouth’. Was I hell, I was hoping that they would be interesting and relevant characters and events in this book, the one I was actually reading. I’ve got nothing against these little references, actually I really like them usually, but if they take up that much page-time they need to serve a narrative purpose too. As it is there was a huge section of ‘part II’ that dealt with Merlin discovering that Belasius was a druid – and that’s not even a spoiler because literally nothing developed out of this multi-chapter waste of time and it was hardly mentioned again. The only purpose, seemingly, was to fit in the names of a couple of characters from Monmouth – one who did reappear towards the end, but in such a totally minor role that he may as well have been introduced to the reader then.
Despite all that I wouldn’t say it’s a bad book. Most of it would make an alright children’s novel and the only thing I really took offense to was the casual misogyny and the way in which every single female character was portrayed. And yes, part of this is the setting but I don’t think that’s an excuse – A Song of Ice and Fire has an even more misogynist setting with an even more pervasive rape culture, but it still manages to have strong female characters and to indicate that there is something deeply wrong and unpleasant with the anti-female attitudes of the societies it portrays. Merlin, however, despite hearing that his mother was beaten almost into miscarriage for getting pregnant outside marriage, despite observing the way she was treated, even despite learning later exactly how long his mother had known his father, still goes about throwing words like ‘slut’ around to describe a serving girl in a relationship with her master and then has the audacity to complain that she left him to fend for himself when her master leaves the house. This on the same page as he’s mooning over a totally transparently non-celibate nun. Only Niniane and Ygraine escape with anything remotely resembling complex characterisation – and even then it’s all about their love lives.
All in all a disappointing book on a huge number of levels for me. But I wouldn’t tell other people not to read it. I can see why people might like it but it simply didn’t work for me. As a retelling of Merlin’s early life I guess the ideas are quite interesting, as a story in its own right it’s simply dull. The elements are all there, but they’ve been stuck together with plasticine.
I’m half tempted to read the rest of the series anyway, just to see how Stewart handles King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but there are so many other books out there that I know I’ll enjoy, that I probably won’t bother.(less)