What I Read August 2019

Two books a month. That is the most I can apparently manage now. I really wanted to make better use of my summer, but I didn’t read nearly as much as I intended to. I have hopes that, even with school starting and a lot of things on my plate, I can finish 3 or 4 books in September. None of them will be all that long, but they will be finished.

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

John Steinbeck

This is Steinbeck’s unfinished translation/adaptation of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. The stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are always fun. It hurts that this is unfinished, so there was no opportunity for Steinbeck to really establish a through line. As it stands, it is a loosely connected collection of short adventures featuring a handful of Arthurian characters, with some attempts to turn it into a cohesive story. I really enjoyed reading it. The only thing I was really able to draw out of it, or at least only new thing, was a harsh look at how these stories treat women. Spoiler alert: it’s not great. The most baffling tale in this regard is the story of Sir Pelleas. That story was one of the fully new to me stories in this book. Sir Pelleas is a great knight, but the woman he loves, Ettarde, spurns his advances. He then starts to essentially stalk her. There really isn’t any other way to interpret his actions. Then Gawain shows up and tries to help Pelleas by faking Pelleas’s death. This doesn’t work, and Gawain sleeps with Ettarde. Pelleas finds out and Gawain flees. Then Nimue/Nyneve shows up, falls in love with Pelleas and curses Ettarde. The story seems to think Ettarde was the villain, but I do not understand how.

Still, for the most part these are very entertaining stories. Reading this makes me want to track down other version of the King Arthur stories, or maybe just read The Once and Future King again.

The Briar King

Greg Keyes

I bought this on a whim at a used book store, and it sat on my shelf for more than two years. I had not heard anything about this series or its author going in. The Briar King was a pleasant surprise. The book follows some scattered viewpoints in a world that appears to be the landing place of the colonists who disappeared from Roanoke. That note doesn’t seem to play into anything but the set up, so far. One thread follows Aspar, a holter who is hunting the greffyn, a kind of poisonous mystical beast. On the way, he saves another protagonist, Steven the aspiring monk. While Aspar spends the whole book either chasing or being chased, Steven uncovers some plots in the monastery where he begins his study. Then there is the central kingdom. King William, is not an especially good king, though he appears to try hard. One difficulty he has had to deal with is his lack of an heir. He has several daughters and one son who is mentally challenged. To start the book he amends the succession laws to place his daughters in the line of succession. His siblings, especially his brother the chancellor, help him with ruling the county, even as there are threats on the lives of his wife and children.

All these stories, and a couple more, all blend together into an opening book in a series that is much like the usual opening book in a fantasy series. It teaches the reader the rules and the situation, just as it clearly is ready to knock it all down. The whole book makes it clear that this is a world on the cusp of great change, the only question is whether that will be a positive or negative change. The book doesn’t quite give the reader enough for some moments to land, though the lack of context also makes some of its mysteries work a little better. The Briar King is just kind of a quintessential fantasy starter book. It won’t convert many new fans, but for fantasy readers it is a fine genre exercise. I guess I’ll track down the rest of the series before too long.

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