Review: Balcony of Fog

Balcony of Fog, Rick Shapero. Half Moon Bay, CA: TooFar Media, 2020.

Summary: In a post-nuclear world, a laborer and a fugitive from a vengeful lover inhabiting a thunderhead meet up, transform to cloud-beings and eventually engage in a climactic battle.

Arden is a toiler in a post-nuclear war of toilers and overlords. He builds and repairs sluices channeling the water from ever present storms. He dreams of more, sailing away on the Mariod, named after a woman who sacrificed herself for him. After a beating from an overlord, he slips away to his boat and encounters a woman who seems to descend out of the sky. Estra is escaping an angry thunderhead driven by her former lover Ingis.

Of course they instantly fall into love and into the sack. Then when their escape plan is frustrated, Estra leads Arden into a transformation allowing him to ascend to the clouds. Arden finds himself transformed into a cloudlike figure capable of riding the clouds. For a while, it seems an idyllic life of incredible beauty. They immerse each other in Vats, cleansing them of bad memories and traumas, Spindles that draw out their wishes, and a pond of which they write their most private thoughts, which are transformed into cranes. Then there is love, where they merge their “motes,” their whole being into each other.

Of course it can’t last. Ingishead driven by a jealous and powerful lover relentlessly pursues them. At one point, Ingishead abducts Estra, with Arden relentlessly pursuing and ultimately rescuing her back. But Arden knows that any victory is temporary until Ingishead is defeated. Even as Arden builds Ardenhead, consuming lesser clouds and learning to wield lightning, there is also an inner conflict. What is Ingis to Estra? Why did she become his lover in the first place? How much of her heart did he still hold?

On one level, the story is about the lead-up to a climactic battle. It is also a study of the corrupting effects of power, which we see at work on Ingis. But will power and jealousy win over love with Arden? Will he become another Ingis.

Meanwhile, the structures of power on earth continue. A vengeful strike at one point seems emotionally cathartic but systemically unsatisfying. The Vats, The Spindles, and the cranes are interesting devices for the emotional healing and self-healing these abused characters need, yet self-revelation carries its own dangers.

There is some interesting world-building and ideas about self-knowledge mixed with what seem to me adolescent fantasy and pettishness. I think a gifted writer could have created a story of greater subtlety. As it stands, it is just OK. I can’t help but wonder if the immersive component of this project, pairing an app with this book, led to writing that does not stand on its own but is driven by the companion technology. Whatever is the case, I’d pass on this one.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Orsinian Tales

Orsinian Tales, Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Library of America, 2016 (originally published in 1976).

Summary: A collection of eleven short stories set in the fictional eastern European country of Orsinia taking place between 1150 and 1965.

This is a lesser-known collection of Ursula K. Le Guin short stories published after her Earth-Sea books, where I first encountered Le Guin many years ago. These are set in an imaginary country, not in another world, but in Eastern Europe in the fictional country of Orsinia. The eleven stories span a period between 1150 and 1965, although not in chronological order.

The first story, The Fountains, suggests the basic theme running through these stories. An Orsinian scientist comes to Paris for a science conference, and takes the opportunity to escape and view the Fountains of Versailles, only to return once more to his hotel and the surveillance of the secret police. This and the other stories chronicle the efforts of people to exert their own freedom against the restrictive circumstances of their lives. A military man excels in his career only to realize he’d sacrificed what and who he’d loved forty years earlier in The Lady of Moge. A clerk with a family longs to be a musician, and despite counsel, determines to keep working on a large composition that will take him years to finish and may not provide any economic benefit. Others seek work that will help them move beyond survival, or love that seems out of reach. In The House, a divorcee comes back to her first husband to re-establish a broken relationship.

The stories pieced together trace the history of this country from a feudal power to an eastern bloc country. Many of the stories portray what seems a relatively dismal life of eking out an existence under some kind of authoritarian regime. The sense of this all was trying to find some glimpse of happiness in a life that is hard and then you die. Characters seem to seek the transcendent in a world where this doesn’t exist.

No doubt these are finely crafted tales. But the disconnected character of the stories, the jumbled chronology, and the bleak outlook of the stories failed to capture my interest. Remembering the Earth-Sea books, The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness, I anticipated more. I didn’t find it here.

Review: The Black Coast

The Black Coast (The God-King Chronicles #1), Mike Brooks. New York: Solaris, 2021.

Summary: Former enemies seek refuge with the people of Black Keep against a backdrop of political infighting, intrigue around the succession of the God-King, and the rise of a sinister power.

The sight of the ships stirred alarm among the Naridans living in Black Keep. Decimated by plague and remember the last visit of the Tjakorsha raiders, they prepare for a desperate fight. Then leaders of the Tjakorsha come ahead under a flag of parley. Lord Asrel and his sons Darel and Daimon come to meet them. Saana Sattistutar, the woman warrior leading the clan doesn’t propose surrender, but rather peaceful co-existence of their two peoples. Asrel breaks the truce of the parley in striking out against the Tjalkorsha. Slaughter and a war resulting in the likely defeat of the Naridans is averted by Daimon, Asrel’s adopted son, who takes charge, imprisoning his brother and father.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book, the first in The God-King Chronicles, are the encounter of these two peoples, two cultures with two differing religions, two differing moral codes. The Tjakorsha have men and women who only mate with each other. The Naridans have six shades of gender between any two of which sex is acceptable. Yet Narida is patriarchal while Tjakorsha’s women lead and fight alongside men. Are their differences too great for co-existence to be possible.

Daimon and Saana try to work out their differences, against a backdrop of other events that could change their world. Conspirators from Black Creek send an emissary to report on the blasphemous alliance of the two peoples, with the objects of bringing a force of Naridans who could end up wiping out both peoples, except for the conspirators. Then their are the concerns of the family of the God-King. Natan, the current God-King loves men, and has no successor. His sister is far more Machiavellian than he, recognizing the threat of the Splinter King, and acts to remove it while a rich young man becomes romantically involved with the thief who had picked his pocket. The most sinister of all is the demonic tyrant, The Golden, who subjected all the Tjakorsha except for Saana’s clan, who fled. His lieutenant, Rikkut is sent with a large force after her, another threat to Saana’s people and those of the Black Keep.

This book caught me by surprise. It started out with Natan and Tila which was kind of ho-hum until the scene shifts to the confrontation of those of the Black Keep and the Tjakorsha. For a while it was hard to keep all the different characters and plotlines straight, and then it started making sense and I found myself getting more and more drawn into the world Brooks was building. Then there are the war dragons and the kraiks, sea monsters that threaten every voyage! The cultures, the creatures, the characters, and the plot all come together to make this a page-turner. Even secondary characters like Darel or Saana’s daughter Zhanna are interesting and play crucial roles.

Dang, another series to follow! But this looks to be a good one.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Fantasy Literature of England

The Fantasy Literature of England, Colin Manlove. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2020 (first published in 1999).

Summary: A study focusing on and surveying the fantasy literature of England, distinguishing it from that of other countries, identifying six types, and discussing a tremendous variety of writers.

For most of us, when we hear of English fantasy, we think of J.R.R. Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis, or Charles Williams. If we think further, we might include Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne and George MacDonald (actually Scottish). Also, we tend not to think of English fantasy having a particular character. This book opens up our bibliography of English authors far beyond the few I’ve mentioned. And the author maintains that there is a particular character to English fantasy distinguishing it from other countries.

To begin, Manlove defines fantasy as “a fiction involving the supernatural or impossible,” fitting what he sees as an English preoccupation with the supernatural. Beyond this simple definition, Manlove identifies six types that define the structure of the book, one chapter on each. First of all, there is second world fantasy, the outstanding example of which is The Lord of the Rings. Metaphysical fantasy involves the presence of the supernatural. Charles Williams novels are a good example. The third type is emotive fantasy is characterized as works that evoke feelings from wonder to horror, from Kenneth Grahame to M.R. James (who wrote ghost stories). Comic fantasy involves “parody, satire, nonsense or play. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels is a recent example. The fifth follows, subversive fantasy, reflects the rise of postmodernism and the fixities of reason, morality, or reality. Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor is an example of this type. Children’s fantasy is his last type. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll or Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

For each type, Manlove surveys the literature from its earliest examples to the most contemporary (in his case, the late 1990’s). He explores both themes under each type and offers brief descriptions of a number of the works. With many authors, there is overlap, and they will turn up in the discussion of several types. This can be dizzying at times, keeping track of the various authors and themes. I was unfamiliar with many of the works, which I think would help in following the discussion.

Manlove draws together the threads of these different types and summarizes the distinctives of English fantasy. His first conclusion is the sheer diversity of material, a fact not appreciated by many readers including this one. There is an expansiveness to this literature, an emphasis on the social circle (the fellowship of the ring), a general inclination away from ambiguity, the conquest of chaos by order, and an ultimately conservative character.

There are several things I wish the author would have done. Some subheadings in chapters might have made following the thread of his discussion easier amid the avalanche of authors discussed. While authors are listed in the text and index, a bibliography of authors, perhaps by the types would be very useful to readers. Finally, the book could no doubt use an updating, for Harry Potter alone!

Nevertheless, I came away with a number of new ideas for authors to explore. I appreciated the distinctions of type, and Manlove opened my eyes to the national character of fantasy literature. This is a good resource both for scholars and readers of fantasy literature wanting to go deeper in reading the literature of England.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Last Unicorn

the last unicorn

The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle. New York: Roc, 1968.

Summary: A quest in which the last unicorn embarks on a quest to find her lost kin, eventually join by Schmendrick the Magician, and Molly Grue, a quest involving a confrontation with the Red Bull, and a grim king.

I was never much for unicorns, but then read a recommendation of this book. Peter Beagle takes us on a classic quest that introduced me to unicorn lore, and transformed a second-rate magician and a serving woman.

The unicorn has not heard of any of its kind for a long time, an absence that makes the joys of her forest inadequate. She embarks on a quest for her kin but is captured by Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival. Traveling with the Carnival was a second rate magician, who’d failed his training and could do little more than parlor tricks and sleight of hand, though he had learned all the spells, if he could but remember them. Schmendrick recognizes that the unicorn is no illusion and helps her get free, not by spells but by a little pick-pocketing of keys, and joins her quest.

In the next phase of the journey, they are fallen upon by would-be Robin Hoods, led by Captain Cully. The unicorn escapes, eventually Schmendrick gets free, in part by summoning the real Robin Hood, the first indication he is capable of real magic. He finds Molly Grue standing before the unicorn, both enrapt, and infuriated that it had taken this long for the unicorn to show up in her life. That’s Molly–unfiltered!

The questers learn that whatever happened to the unicorns has to do with the Red Bull, who lives at the base of King Haggard’s castle and periodically roams to round up any remaining unicorns. And so it comes for the last unicorn. The unicorn neither dies nor finds the others. There is yet more story involving a transformation into a woman, a journey through Hagstown, that sad village beneath the castle, a stay in the castle, and a love affair with a prince. But the bull awaits, and only the last unicorn in her true form has any chance of liberating the other unicorns.

The unicorn represents what is really real, and for those who truly see her, they become real as well. The magician discovers what it is to yield to the true magic rather than summon it with spells. Molly departs the would-be “merry men” for a real quest. The prince becomes a hero in his quest for the heart of Amalthea, the unicorn in human form.

But for all this there is the seemingly unconquerable Red Bull and the question of whatever became of the other unicorns. If you haven’t read the story, you will need to go on your own quest! One distinction of Beagle’s writing: you won’t be wandering for a thousand pages. This one finishes in under 300.

Review: The Poppy War

the poppy war

The Poppy WarR. F. Kuang. New York: Harper Collins, 2018.

Summary: First of a fantasy trilogy, focuses on an orphan woman, Rin, who escapes from her village by testing into a military academy, overcomes prejudice, only to discover disturbing powers that reveal her true identity, thrusting her into life-changing choices as war breaks out between Nikan and the Federation.

Rin is an orphan in a remote village of the country of Nikan, facing an undesirable marriage match. She determines to take and pass the test to win a place at Sinegard, the country’s military academy. She ends up achieving the highest place, only to find she is an outsider among the children of the country’s warlords and other elite families. Nezha, son of a warlord, despises her, even as she becomes his principal rival. Prevented from training in martial arts, she finds a mentor, Jiang, who trains her in older ways. In an annual match, she defeats Nezha, but awakens a fire within that only with the help of Jiang she comes to understand.

She becomes his only apprentice in Lore, learning to commune with the sixty four gods of their pantheon. She learns her “fire” is connected with the god of fire, the Phoenix, but Jiang discourages her from seeking the power, which he believes will destroy her. Her training ends when war breaks out anew between Nikan and the Federation. When the Federation is on the verge of taking Sinegard, and Nezha, who has become a friend, is severely wounded, Rin summons the fire, destroying her enemies and barely avoiding destroying everything.

When other surviving students of Sinegard are assigned to different divisions, Rin is assigned to a different group, the Cike, a group of crazy, powerful misfits, all able to summon the power of a different god, led by Altan, an incredible fighter Rin had admired and felt drawn to. Altan is, so it is thought, the one remaining Speerly, of a race obliterated in the Second Poppy War when betrayed into the hands of the Federation.

As she works with Altan, and is frustrated in her ability to summon her power, she comes more and more to face the question of whether to fully surrender to the god, which likely would lead to the destruction of her personality. As the war goes badly, descending into genocide and betrayals, Rin comes to understand her own identity, to the choice she must make, and the terrible consequences that could follow.

The fantasy world created by R.F. Kuang, a doctoral student in Modern Chinese studies creates a world similar to a Chinese, east Asian context, with threatening island nations and another power, Hesperia, that sounds like the U.S. It is also a world of shamans, of opium and psychedelic use, sometimes to attain transcendence, more often to feed and fail to satisfy addiction. There is brutality–rape, genocide, and gruesome deaths. Prospective readers will need to consider whether such content is appropriate for them.

Even with her petulance, we are drawn to the fierce resolve of Rin, her journey of self-discovery, and the choices she must make, a choice between the wisdom of Jiang, and the quest for power of Altan. As conditions worsen, we wonder whether Rin and her people will be able to stop the relentless Federation, perhaps aided by the apparent betrayals and flight of the Nikan Empress. The intensity of the book continues to grow from the rivalries of the academy to the desperation of the fight. It was one of those books you wanted to read whenever you had the chance.

The second book, The Dragon Republic will be out in the summer of 2019. I’ll be looking for it.

 

Review: The Eye of the World

the eye of the world

The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time #1), Robert Jordan. New York: TOR Books, 1990.

Summary: Following an attack of trollocs and a Myrdraal on Emonds Field, Rand and two friends, joined by several others, flee when they realize that they are the object of the attack, and somehow at the center of a web of destiny that may either thwart or aid the rise of the Dark Power.

Rand and his two friends Mat and Perrin, along with Egwene, the innkeeper’s daughter seem ordinary youth in a remote village, Emonds Field. Egwene is apprenticed to Nynaeve, the Wisdom (a kind of healer) of the village. The greatest excitement comes at Bel Tine, a feast at which Thom Merrilin, a gleeman or storyteller arrives. All this changes when it turns out that a strange, dark figure (Myrdraal) each of the boys sees leads a fist of trollocs to invade the village. Tam, Rand’s father is nearly killed and bequeaths his heron-mark blade sword to Rand. A regal woman, Moiraine heals Tam, and then helps the young men see that they were the object of the attack, and one or all are at the center of a web of destiny in a battle against good and evil. To save Emonds Field from further attack, they must flee and make their way to Tar Valon, where Moiraine is part of an order of Aes Sedai, women who have been trained to channel the One Power to resist the Dark Power as well as to “gentle” men who cannot wield the power without becoming insane.

This results in a desperate flight by the boys and Egwene, Thom, Moiraine, and her warder Lanb, pursued physically and even in dreams by the powers of evil. Nynaeve, concerned for her villagers, tracks them and joins the company. Mat is compromised and nearly lost when he steals a dagger from a hoard in an abandoned city. The party is separated, and except for Thom eventually make it to Caemlyn, where they are reunited. Thom, who was with Mat and Rand, sacrifices himself so they can escape, although there is a question of whether he really died. It is here that Moiraine understands the true threat of evil to the Eye of the World, a pool thus far untouched by evil, and Rand understands that he is at “the heart of it all” a ta’veren or a person around which the Wheel of Time weaves surrounding life threads, forming a Web of Destiny. The company, joined by Loial, an Ogier, pursue desperate ways through the Blight to confront evil, and for Rand, to confront his destiny.

Jordan’s work has been likened to The Lord of the Rings. Except in sheer length of the fourteen volume series, I do not think he surpasses him, and there are elements that are at least parallel to, if not derivative of, Tolkien–a remote people, ordinary figures caught up in a great conflict, a company, dark riders, a desperate flight and quest against the rising of a Dark Power who threatens the world.

That said, Jordan has also created a richly textured world with a history, a unique vision of time, and a seemingly different way of thinking about power that seems more eastern than western. Light and dark seem two sides of the same coin. It turns out that only women who have been trained can wield the One Power as a force of Light. Men are turned insane by it or to instruments of the Dark Power, something that will become an issue for Rand. Time symbolized by the Wheel with an intertwined snake swallowing its own tail brings past, present and future together and weaves a fate for individuals. Instead of “God works in mysterious ways” it is “The wheel weaves as the wheel wills,” which is repeated near to the point of becoming tedious. As in real life, forces of good often are at cross purposes–different orders of Aes Sedai, the Children of Light, and the various kingdoms, all at some point becoming threats to the quest as much as the Dark Power.

Jordan creates strong female characters. Aes Sedai Moraine leads the party and wields great power. Nynaeve the Wisdom and even Egwene have their own power, Moiraine seeing them as Aes Sedai in training. Caemlyn is ruled by a strong queen, Morgase, to be succeeded one day by her daughter Elayne. I can’t think of an evil female character in this volume. Not so with the men, such as Padan Fain, the evil peddler and Dark Friend. Yet there are both strong and delightful male characters from some of the innkeepers to Thom, the gleeman, who lays down his life and most of all Lan, the warder, descended from kings (one thinks often of Aragorn).

So the question is, will I go on? I can say that I will not be binge-reading the series. Yet the writing held my attention, and I find myself caring about what will happen to Rand and the others. I wonder if the Dark Power will be defeated and I’m curious why it takes fourteen books. It is clear that Jordan’s plots take many twists and turns, only some of which resolved in this book. I wonder how patient I would be with this over such an extended series.

Some friends have told me that the middle books do seem to get bogged down at times. I’d be curious what others think. Was it a slog, or did you not want it to end? Did you read straight through or read another volume periodically? Did you finish the series or give up? As you can tell, I haven’t made up my mind. This was a great summer read. Maybe that’s what I’ll do, except that this would take until 2031. Wheel of Time fans, I need some encouragement here…

Robert Jordan, A Tolkien Successor?

Robert_Jordan

Robert Jordan, by Jeanne Collins, [CC BY 3.0] via Wikipedia

I fell in love with the Lord of the Rings trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien as a college student and have read it several times since. I have always wondered, could this ever be matched? Recently, I’ve begun reading Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, the first of a fourteen part series known as The Wheel of Time. (The last three volumes of this series were completed posthumously from Jordan’s notes and his completed first and last scenes.) The series is on the Great American Reads list of 100 great books or series, which is how I learned of it. I’m only 120 pages into the first book so I cannot yet compare the two works, except to say that Jordan has also created a world, an epic conflict between good and evil with a Dark Lord, a boy-hero, a woman counterpart to Gandalf, Moiraine, and the equivalent of orcs, trollocs. I don’t know whether I will make it through–each book is over 600 pages, 3 million words in all.

All this made me curious about who Robert Jordan was. It turns out that “Robert Jordan” was the pen name of James Oliver Rigney, Jr. He used several pen names for different works, all playing off his initials (note J and R, and J.O.R. of Jordan). He was born in Charleston, South Carolina October 17, 1948. He served as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bronze Star. After serving, he completed a B.S. in physics and worked as a nuclear engineer. A blood clot from a fall that was nearly fatal turned him toward a career as a writer when he reportedly threw a book across the room he was reading in the hospital, shouting, “I can do better.”

Writing as Reagan O’Neal, he completed a series of historical fiction novels centered around the Fallon Family in the early 1980’s, at a time when similar novels by John Jakes were popular. He tried his hand at a western, Cheyenne Raiders, under the name Jackson O’Reilly. It was at this time that Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian was turned into an Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster. Writing for the first time as Robert Jordan, he wrote seven more Conan books beginning with Conan the Invincible.

Following this, he turned his hand to creating The Wheel of Time series, which he originally envisioned as six books. The first, which I am reading, he published in 1990. Ten more volumes were written by 2005. Michael Livingston, in a Tor.com article, compares Tolkien and Jordan, considering their war experiences, as well as the fantasy worlds the two men created and reaches this verdict:

“James Rigney was not the first heir to the Tolkien legacy—and by no means will he be the last to follow him—but he might just be the most complete interpreter of that legacy. Rooted in mythology and history, founded in philosophy and spirituality, forged of war and the American experience, his Wheel of Time has easily earned its place alongside the British master fantasist. Even more, given the academic status Tolkien’s work has managed to achieve, the work of Robert Jordan has earned its place on any list of turn-of-the-millennium literature, whether the majority of critics like it or not.”

All of his books were edited by his wife Harriet, an editor with Tor Books. In early 2006 he announced his illness, amyloidosis, on his blog. It is a rare blood disease that causes a thickening of the heart walls, weakening the heart. He was optimistic about beating it, undergoing a form of chemotherapy. He wrote:

“Don’t get too upset, guys. Worse comes to worst, I will finish A Memory of Light, so the main story arc, at least, will be completed. And frankly, as I said, I intend to beat this thing. Anything can be beaten with the right attitude, and my attitude is, I have too many books to write yet for me to just lie down. Don’t have time for it. Besides, I promised Harriet I’d be around for our 50th, and that means another 25 years from this month right there. Can’t break a promise to Harriet, now can I?”

He hoped to finish what he saw as his final volume. He was able to write the beginning and end and outline and compile notes for the book. A Tor video recounts the decision during his last weeks to entrust the completion of the series to fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson. As it turned out, the final volume turned into three more books, the last of which was completed in 2013.

James O. Rigney, Jr. died on September 16, 2007. The post on his blog site the next day reads:

“It is with great sadness that I tell you that the Dragon is gone. RJ left us today at 2:45 PM. He fought a valiant fight against this most horrid disease. In the end, he left peacefully and in no pain. In the years he had fought this, he taught me much about living and about facing death. He never waivered in his faith, nor questioned our God’s timing. I could not possibly be more proud of anyone. I am eternally grateful for the time that I had with him on this earth and look forward to our reunion, though as I told him this afternoon, not yet. I love you bubba.

Our beloved Harriet was at his side through the entire fight and to the end. The last words from his mouth were to tell her that he loved her.

Thank each and everyone of you for your prayers and support through this ordeal. He knew you were there. Harriet reminded him today that she was very proud of the many lives he had touched through his work. We’ve all felt the love that you’ve been sending my brother/cousin. Please keep it coming as our Harriet could use the support.”

Rigney described himself as a “high church Episcopalian” and his funeral service took place at St James Church in Goosecreek, South Carolina. He is buried in the churchyard. It is interesting that his work combines both Christian and eastern religious influences–a view of time that is cyclical and yet a universe of good and evil (Shai’tan=Satan).

Obviously, I’m not in a position to make the comparison with Tolkien yet. What is apparent is that Jordan created a powerful epic fantasy world. At very least, it is the best selling fantasy series since Lord of the Rings, selling over 80 million copies. Sony Pictures is adapting it for television. I have at least two friends who have completed the series, so there is hope. I’ll keep you posted. For now, I’m enjoying getting immersed in his world.

Review: The Greater Trumps

The Greater Trumps

The Greater TrumpsCharles Williams. New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1932).

Summary: An legacy of a singular pack of tarot cards that correspond to images of the Greater Trumps arranged in a dance on a platform of gold in the retreat of a gypsy master drives his grandson to risk love and life to uncover the powers of the cards.

Charles Williams is known as one of the members of the Inklings who wrote supernatural fantasy thrillers. Lesser known was his interest in the occult arts, particularly through the influence of A. E. Waite and his Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. This work reflects some of those interests, centered around the Tarot.

Lothair Coningsby, an English civil servant of undistinguished refinement, inherits a small legacy from a friend including various packs of cards. Among them is a most unusual early set of Tarot cards representing the Greater Trumps, a suit of twenty-two cards. As it happens, his daughter Nancy is deeply in love with Henry Lee, a descendant of Gypsies, whose grandfather, Aaron is a master who has devoted his life to the studies of occult mysteries. In his home is an inner sanctum with a gold table on which the figures of the Greater Trumps are arranged in the dance. When Henry sees the cards he realizes that they are the exact visual counterparts of the statues on his grandfather’s table. To bring the cards together with the statues would be to unleash great power, and great insights into the mysteries of the universe.

Henry explains their powers to Nancy:

“It’s said that the shuffling of the cards is the earth, and the pattering of the cards is the rain, and the beating of the cards is the wind, and the pointing of the cards is the fire. That’s of the four suits. But the Greater Trumps, it’s said, are the meaning of all process and the measure of the everlasting dance.”

There is only one problem. Coningsby will not part with the cards. So Henry and his grandfather invite the Coningsbys to spend the Christmas holidays. This includes not only Lothair and Nancy, but also Sybil, the most spiritually centered, who seems to have a mystical communion with the world about her, and brother Ralph, a young man who lives in a common-sense, practical world. Coningsby reluctantly brings the cards and permits them to be tested in the presence of the figures, which come to life in a glorious dance. When Coningsby continues to withhold the cards, Henry determines to “borrow” the cards, and use them to whip up a super cyclonic snow storm to strand Lothair, out for his Christmas walk, and bring about his death.

He succeeds in whipping up the storm, but Nancy catches him in the act, disrupting his efforts, but also the power to end the storm. Lothair is saved when Sybil braves the storm, and with the help of Henry’s half-crazed Aunt Joanna, brings him back to the house. But this is only a temporary respite as the unleashed powers behind the snow storm threaten the destruction of the house, and all those in it.

Is there a power greater than that unleashed by the cards? When arcane knowledge cannot save, is there anything else that can? Nancy, Sybil, and even Lothair and Henry choose in different ways to lay down their lives. Will they succeed, and what will happen to them in the process? What will happen to crazed Joanna, and will she find the lost child?

Like William’s other works, seemingly unremarkable people in an ordinary English village and manor house become caught up supernatural events reflecting unleashed spiritual powers in a sequence of fantastic and sometimes bizarre events (like the gold cloud). Christians who have reservations reading about the “occult” may decide this work is not for them. Yet what Williams portrays is both the perils of the pursuit of spiritual power and hidden knowledge, and the greater power of love.

Review: The Book of the Dun Cow

Dun CowThe Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. San Francisco, Harper Collins, 2003 (25th Anniversary Edition).

Summary: This modern animal fable portrays a conflict between the beasts of the Earth with Wyrm of the underworld and his evil surrogates, and the heroism of a rooster, a dog, and the other beasts.

“Marooooned”. This modern-day animal fable (first published in 1978) begins with this mournful and persisting cry from Mundo Cani Dog who, against the will of Lord of the Coop Chauntecleer, finds refuge with the hens of the coop and an array of other beasts from Ebenezer Rat to Lord Russell the Fox to John Wesley Weasel and the mysterious Dun Cow who appears at crucial turns in the fable. Chauntecleer brings order to this world, crowing the hours summoning the beasts to work and blessing them at night.

Gradually the character of this lordly rooster emerges as he takes on the Rat who is eating the hens’ eggs, and later as he rescues the children of Wee Widow Mouse and finds and rescues the Beautiful Pertolote, a mysterious refugee hen of sorts. Love blooms between these two, and marriage and chicks, even though she refuses to speak of the terror from which she has fled.

What the beasts of the earth do not realize is that they are also the Lord’s keepers, who keep the evil Wyrm from escaping the underworld to reek havoc on the cosmos. But Wyrm finds a vehicle for its evil intent in an old impotent rooster of another brood, Senex, who against nature lays an egg which hatches into the wicked Cockatrice who kills his father and breeds hordes of basilisks, venomous serpents who devastate the land.

In the spring, the horror comes south to the land of Chantecleer, who mobilizes the beasts (including the ants) to meet the horde of basilisks, who crows them to battle, and comes face to face with the Cockatrice and then the deeper evil of Wyrm. The climax of the story involves Chauntecleer, the mysterious Dun Cow, and the surprising Mundo Cani Dog.

The tale explores the question of how a seemingly ordinary figure rises to extraordinary heroism answering a call that seems to come from both within and above.We also see a tale of the conflict of good and evil, in which the beasts, who are in fact the keepers of the earth, must forsake the ordinary loves of daily life for extraordinary peril to preserve the order of the universe. It is a tale that has been told in various forms from early English Beowulf to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The genius of Wangerin is to create a kind of “animal farm” without humans where the animals are characterized by foibles, nobility and self-sacrifice, unlike Orwell’s brutal world.

Despite the fact that this book was a National Book Award winner, I passed it up for many years until one of the students I work with recommended it (thanks Katherine!). This is one of those books I wish I had read sooner, and might well read again because of the depths in this seemingly simple story that need more than one reading to explore. Like the stories of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, children and youth may enjoy this story as well as adults. Only time will tell but this is one of those books that could become a timeless classic. The only question in our highly urbanized, technological society, is whether children (or adults) will understand a story with roosters, dogs, weasels, and a mysterious dun cow. One can only hope…