I’d been wanting to read You Die When You Die for a while. The mean-looking barbarian type on the cover, armed with axe and shield, and the book’s titI’d been wanting to read You Die When You Die for a while. The mean-looking barbarian type on the cover, armed with axe and shield, and the book’s title scrawled beneath him in blood red… I mean, what's not to like?
It’s a good title too, You Die When You Die. That’s a title I can invest in. It speaks of hardship, and blood, and death. Everything a good fantasy novel needs.
The only hesitation I had was due to an earlier book I'd read by the author, Angus Watson. I know it wasn't bad because I finished it, and with my reading time so limited I have no qualms DNF’ing a book if I'm just not feeling it. But nor can I really remember it, nor did I continue the series. So I was hesitant. But with a package like that, it was only a matter of time before I caved. Here's the blurb:
You die when you die…
You can't change your fate - so throw yourself into battle, because you'll either end the day a hero or drinking mead in the halls of the gods. That's what Finn's people believe.
But Finn wants to live. When his settlement is massacred by a hostile nation, Finn plus several friends and rivals must make their escape across a brutal, unfamiliar landscape, and to survive,
Finn will fight harder than he's ever fought before.
The story takes place in an alternate world with a fantastical twist. The descendants of a Viking colony known as Hardwork, somewhere in South America, find themselves isolated and carefully policed by the local indigenous tribes. The Hardworkers are restricted to a small area, but in return receive food and supplies from the local tribes.
As a result of living in this bubble, the Hardworkers have become lazy, dull, and complacent, though a few of their number still follow the old training, forming a small fighting unit of limited ability.
Everything is fine in this world until the Empress of the ruling tribe, the Calnians, has a prophetic dream in which pale-skinned foreigners destroy the world. Overcome with dread, she sends out an order for all tribes to kill any of the foreigners on sight.
A small force of Calnians attacks Hardwork, massacring most of the residents. The empress then orders her best fighters - the Owsla, a group of female warriors with superhuman powers - to track and kill the survivors, who themselves set off on a perilous journey to a promised land of apparent safety.
What follows is a fun, fast-paced, action adventure, with a bit of a cat-and-mouse-style chase along the way. Some of the more memorable scenes include a close encounter with a tornado and a battle involving bears.
The book does have some issues, at least for me, and they're probably the same ones I had with that first Angus Watson novel I read.
The story is told through multiple POV characters, from both sides of the conflict. I enjoy that style of storytelling, but I didn't find many of this bunch particularly endearing or memorable. There was Erik the Angry and Sassa I could get behind, and I enjoyed the scenes with Wulf the Fat, but I'd be hard pressed to say I was overly concerned about what happened to anyone else. Given the size of the cast, that's a bit of a problem.
The writing is good, but I found a few too many modern words and phrases that would throw me out of the story. That's obviously a stylistic choice; it didn’t work for me, but it might for others.
Likewise the humour. The characters try their best to get a laugh and some of the characters find themselves in funny situations, but quite often the humour felt forced, as though it was trying too hard. Given that a fair amount of dark action takes place in this story, from brutal deaths to torture, I understand that the humour is there to lighten the mood, but it pushed that a little too far in my opinion. Some of the jokes, whether funny or not, made the book feel like a parody, as though everything was written tongue-in-cheek and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Some people will like that, but I prefer my fantasy to be one thing or the other. If You Die When You Die kept some of the humour but took itself a bit more seriously, I’m sure I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
That said, I actually did enjoy the ride for the most part. The fast paced, action-driven plot kept me reading on, and, despite my reservations about some of the characters, I was interested in finding out how their stories ended. That some of those stories didn’t end here means I may even continue with the journey of the Hardworkers through the second and third books in the West Of West series.
Like one of those Hollywood blockbusters with all the special effects, if you don’t go into You Die When You Die expecting too much, maybe settle in with a box of popcorn, there's enough here to find yourself enjoying the experience.
Some of my earliest memories of fantasy are taken straight from Jason and The Argonauts and Clash of the Titans (the Who doesn’t love Greek Mythology?
Some of my earliest memories of fantasy are taken straight from Jason and The Argonauts and Clash of the Titans (the original, not the god-awful remake). The stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen obviously played a big part in that, as, before the days of CGI, there was something terrifyingly awesome about that fight scene with the skeletons. More than anything though, it’s the stories themselves.
Considering they came into being thousands of years ago, the legends of Zeus and his fellow gods, of Jason and Perseus, of Medusa and the golden fleece, have echoed down through the ages, inspiring countless retellings and re-imaginings. Mythos, by Stephen Fry, is just the latest of these efforts, as he tries to capture the stories of Greek mythology for a modern audience.
Throughout the book, Mr Fry keeps things light and respectful, telling each story in a way that entertains, amuses, and informs. It’s clear he loves the subject matter himself, and it’s difficult not to be swept away by the sheer joy that permeates the work throughout.
Mythos is broken into two parts. The first, “The Beginning”, tells the story of the birth of the gods. Beginning with Gaia (Mother Earth) and Ouranos (Father Sky), the story follows the line of the gods down to Cronos and the Titans, and finally on to Zeus and his siblings, who go on to form the council of gods known as the Olympians.
The second part, “The Toys of Zeus”, begins with the story of Prometheus. He was the titan who created humans and gave them the gift of fire, a gift forbidden by Zeus and stolen from Mount Olympus. The stories go on to detail other unwise crossings of the gods by foolish mortals, including the likes of Psyche and Arachne, Phaeton and Cadmus, Echo and Narcissus, and culminating in the story of Midas.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have heard some of these stories and you’ll recognise the names of some of the characters, but many more will be new to you. Either way, Stephen Fry makes them all feel fresh and accessible.
The fact that some of the more famous names are missing – Heracles, Jason, and Perseus for example – simply shows what a wealth of material exists in Greek mythology. I expect these missing legends are told in the follow up book, Heroes, and I’ll definitely be picking that up at some point.
My one complaint would be that some of the stories feel a little too light. I’d have loved to see some of them given more time, with the characters more fleshed out, but I guess that’s probably missing the point to some degree. Mythos offers a window on an ancient world and shines a light on the belief system that powered it. In doing so, Stephen Fry is able to show just how human and flawed the Olympian gods were, and, in most cases, how foolish the mortals were to find themselves on their wrong side.
While it may lack the punch of a more focused novel, fans of ancient mythology - especially the sort ingrained in western DNA - will find Mythos an enjoyable, informative read. The fact it was written by Stephen Fry is an added bonus, with his wit and charm adding an extra flavour to the writing.
Better still, if you’ve ever listened to the Harry Potter audio books, you’ll know Stephen Fry makes for a superb narrator, and it's safe to say he loses none of those skills while narrating his own work - so I recommend the audio version too....more