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.

What I Read July 2018

I read two books again in July. I’d hoped the summer would free my time up some, but it really hasn’t. I might manage more in August than July, but I wouldn’t bet on such a proposition.

Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated

Whit Stillman

This is the adaptation of Stillman’s movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan, which is included in this volume. The books sets itself up as a rebuttal, written by a relative of Lady Susan’s, to the Jane Austen story. It takes spins things to show that Lady Susan was good and thoughtful person subjected to gossip and innuendos from the stuck up De Courcy family. It is hilarious. The fictional author does his best to make Lady Susan look good, but it is clear who and what she is. The more interesting revelations about are about that fictional author, whose pathetic state are eventually revealed. It is mostly just an amusing supplement to the excellent movie. Speaking of which, if you haven’t seen Love and Friendship, you should really do so. The book sparkles with the same wit as the movie, as well as echoing its re-framing of Lady Susan from the villain she is in the original book.

Master and Fool

JV Jones

The final book in Jones’ trilogy with the most generic of all possible titles: ‘The Book of Words.’ This kind of feels like Jones didn’t really leave the character’s where she needed them at the end of the last book, so a lot has to happen at the start of this one to get things in place for the main thrust of the story. I feels a little forced, but it is mostly enjoyable, even if things don’t really link up as well as they might have. Mostly, I liked this book. While it is an ending, it doesn’t really feel like a final book. It leaves most of the characters in place for what could have been (maybe have been, I haven’t read any of Jones’ other work) more adventures.

I do have problems with the book. For one, it takes the female lead out of the picture pretty early on and gives her nothing to do for the bulk of the book. She isn’t exactly sidelined, but she doesn’t have anything to do other than to wait for the other characters to come back and save her. Another problem is how much time the book spends with the corrupt, plotting priest whose name I forget. He is a menacing yet comical character, but his machinations never really amount to anything. Other than providing updates on the rest of the world, he only really matters to about two chapters. Why is he there so much? He constantly feels like he is laying the groundwork for something that never materializes. All the pages wasted on that priest kind of highlight how rushed the rest of the story is. The book is enjoyable and fine, but it could have been better. I would read more by JV Jones, though.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Review

This has become a surprisingly hard review to write.  I can’t think if a time when my personal opinion of a film was more divergent from relatively object measures of its quality.  Because I kind of loved King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but I also think it is mostly a bad movie.  It has proven somewhat difficult to untangle my feelings toward.  

This is not a case like John Carter or Guy Ritchie’s previous movie, The Man from UNCLE; those were movies that, though they bombed, I thought and still think are excellent films.  King Arthur is undeniably kind of a mess.  Its different parts don’t mix together well and some of its biggest moments fall completely flat.  But I still greatly enjoyed watching.

Charlie Hunnam stars as Arthur, who grew up in a brothel after his uncle, King Vortigern, overthrew and killed his father using black magic.  Growing up in the brothel, Arthur has become a streetwise hustler and grifter.  He learned to fight thanks to the local, Medieval Londinium Kung Fu master and he knows which wheels to grease to keep things running smoothly.  That is until the sword in the stone is found and the prophecy of the born king triggers unrest in the kingdom.  Arthur is forced to take up the sword and fulfill his destiny as King.

There are two movies at war in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.  There is a ponderous fantasy epic in the vein of Willow or Hercules or, if you squint, Lord of the Rings.  Then there is the Guy Ritchie crime movie, him doing his low level criminals getting in over their heads sort of movie like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  These two separate kinds of movies never successfully combine. Neither one subsumes the other, either.  When Jude Law is the focus, it is the most serious sort of fantasy movie.  When it turns to Hunnam and his ragtag knights, it goes full Ritchie.  I like both kinds of movies here, and I enjoyed the juxtaposition. There are a few scenes that mix the two, the highlight being a quest to the completely undefined “dark realm” that is done almost entirely to loud music and quick cuts.  It is barely comprehensible, but that is the point. It is a strange, revelatory adventure in an unknown place.  It is purposefully disorienting. And since there is little drama in wondering if the title character will survive a mid-movie adventure, it is gotten through with quickly.  Unfortunately, the two different movies can’t be bridged at the end, when it should all come together.

The best parts are the one that lean into Ritchie’s filmmaking idiosyncrasies.  The bits with Arthur telling a story or laying a plan that are accompanied by shots of how things are exactly like he says/are the exact opposite of how he says. It is the same kind of fun stuff that made Snatch such a delight.  It is hard to ramp that up to a more traditional epic showdown, which this movie has and it is a big letdown.  

As much as I enjoyed this movie, which was a lot, I could never shake the feeling that things just weren’t working.  The movie skips over things, sometimes to streamline not particularly interesting yet necessary plot points, sometimes it makes things appear to happen out of nowhere.  The situation that leads to Arthur’s rise is never really shown, just assumed.

In the end, what matters to me is that I enjoyed this movie. I caters directly to my tastes.  I enjoy every ingredient found in this movie’s recipe, even if the end result is less than the sum of its parts.


What I Read in June

June was a slow month, both because I finished a few books just at the end of May and because I spent a lot of time reading really long Wheel of Time books. I did manage to finish one non-WoT book in the month, though, so it gets a small entry.

Lord of Chaos

Robert Jordan

Reread post forthcoming.

The New World

Michael Stackpole

I read the first two volumes of this trilogy when they were brand new, but due to lack of funds I passed on the final volume. Now I went back to finish the series, but my memories of the first two have faded somewhat since I read them five or so years ago. Still, most of the frustrations and strengths came back to me as I read this.

Stackpole must be credited for creating a genuinely interesting world. In the world of this series, if one does something with enough skill and training it can become magic (more or less). Magic in any cases comes from an intense focus and can greatly affect the surrounding world. There is less a focus on the usual medieval time period of fantasy, instead taking place in something more akin to the times of Columbus, with characters off discovering and mapping new continents.

The writing, in this volume at least, is somewhat mechanical. It gets the job done, but there is little personality in the writing. There are also some plot oddities that didn’t agree with me. It seems too neat at times. The paths that some of the characters must walk seemed arbitrary to me, though that might have had something to do with my vague memories of parts one and two.

It is a good enough conclusion to a highly original series that differentiates itself from the fantasy standards, but not always in good ways. The New World is a flawed, sometimes clunky epic that delivers action and invention on a scale greater than most.

Crown of Swords

Robert Jordan

Reread post forthcoming.