Thursday, August 18, 2016

King Arthur Sucks.

I wrote a review of The Greenstone Grail by Amanda Hemingway, in which I applauded the book for being the first Arthurian adaptation I had read that I didn't despise. I mean, how could I? Despite the book's other problems, it had aliens riding motherfucking dragons!!! Aliens! Dragons! Parallel universes! 

After reading my review, one of my friends asked me why I hate Arthurian legend so much. 

Well. 

Perhaps one of the reasons I liked The Greenstone Grail's take on the Holy Grail myth was because it was so different. Most Arthurian adaptations fall along the same lines. It's the same damn story told almost the same damn way all the time. But The Greenstone Grail took place in modern times, borrowing from the Holy Grail and Arthurian myths without making it so central to the plot that there was no room for other stuff like imagination. 

Say whatever else you want about this book (and believe me, I did), it had imagination. Its main character can dimension-walk in dreams. The Grail itself is an alien artifact created on another planet and locked up on Earth for safekeeping. Magic is a real thing but has significant drawbacks. Magic and science have advanced so far in the alternate universe that they're basically the same thing. Also, aliens riding motherfucking dragons, holy shit. My inner 12-year-old is peeing herself with excitement. 


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That was such a stark change from every other ho-hum fantasy adaptation of Merlin or Arthur and the Holy Grail that it was a relief. 

However, boring adaptations aren't the only reason I hate the Arthurian legends. I just hate Arthur and the entire mythos, period. 

Fuck this guy.

See, most adaptations (that I've seen) glorify the mythos instead of critiquing it. Sort of like how Percy Jackson is the diluted, kid-friendly version of Greek myth without all the incest, murder, rape, and cannibalism. But that makes sense because PJ is for kids. Teen and adult adaptations of the Arthurian legend play all the horrible aspects of the mythos totally straight -- with no serious thought or critique. More boring rise-of-a-hero stories. Blah.

In that vein, most of the stories surrounding King Arthur focus on two characters: Arthur himself, or Merlin. Because, duh, it's called Arthurian myth, and duh, Merlin is a cool guy who does magic and stuff. 

Except that Merlin is a huge asshole in the original stories, trying to raise a shitty little brat (Arthur) into a king. Merlin disguised Arthur's father with magic, allowing him to trick Arthur's mother into believing he was her husband. He raped her, killed her husband, disinherited her daughters, and took the kingdom. All with Merlin's help. 

Merlin is a dick, and I'm tired of reading about him. And frankly, there's only so much you can write about these characters before they stop being interesting. 

Hey, did I mention that there are African and Middle Eastern knights of the Round Table as well? That you probably don't know about because Arthurian legend has been whitewashed and used to glorify Britain's past, white people, and Christians? Sir Morien is a fucking PRINCE, OK? He goes on an epic quest for his father and gets the dude to acknowledge him as his son. Somebody write me a book about that guy.

This guy.

And the supposed villains of Arthurian legend -- namely, Morgana and Mordred 
-- tend to have legitimate grievances against Arthur and Camelot. At the very least, their stories are more interesting by default because they've been adapted less often. Because they aren't so easily shoehorned into the traditional hero's journey narrative the way Arthur's story is, they tend to just get used as villains in that heroic narrative. 
 

In some legends, Morgana is Arthur's ally, a powerful healer and enchantress. The character is at least partially based on a goddess. She's Arthur's half-sister and ally -- at least until he throws her by the wayside after he becomes king. From her perspective, Arthur is a bastard conceived by the man who raped her mother and killed her father, and the only reason she can't be queen is because society is sexist.

Every story that upholds Arthur and Merlin as heroes and Morgana as a villain does a little more to justify a) the rape of Arthur's mother b) the disenfranchisement of women and c) Machiavellian ideals. All while glorifying the supposed "heroic" ideals of chivalry and the Arthurian mythos. 

And then there's Mordred. 

The first Arthurian adaptation I read was I Am Mordred by Nancy Springer. It's an extremely depressing book about Mordred's life -- how he tries to fight his fate his whole life before giving in and becoming the villain that everyone wants him to be. That book is probably what started me off hating King Arthur and all associated legends. 

Even when he's the hero his book cover is terrifying.
Mordred is the son/nephew of Arthur and his half-sister, Morgause. He becomes a knight of Camelot, and eventually reveals that Lancelot is fucking Queen Guinevere. Arthur, great guy that he is, tries to burn his wife at the stake. Lancelot saves her and they escape.

The story gets decidedly Oedipal when Mordred marries his stepmother and lays claim to Arthur's crown. He leads a bunch of other dissatisfied people against Camelot, meets Arthur on the field, and is beginning negotiations when their men attack each other. Mordred and Arthur end up killing each other. 

Apparently this is all foretold because Merlin prophesied some things. Among them being a) Guinevere would destroy Arthur's kingdom, b) he shouldn't sleep with that one hot chick, and c) his son would kill him. Arthur, who never fucking listens to Merlin, a) marries Guinevere, b) bangs a chick who turns out to be his sister, and c) fathers his son-nephew who leads the rebellion that kills him.

Hell, the only reason Mordred even exists in the first place is because Arthur cheats on his wife with his sister. Mordred has no agency in the story; he's a tool by which Arthur learns a deadly lesson. The mythos is all about how Arthur's unkingly behavior and infidelity come back to bite him in the ass. 

And yet -- and yet -- every single fucking Arthur story glorifies Merlin and Arthur. 

Arthur is not some perfect guy. The myths and medieval romances are about a flawed king of an opulent court, macho displays that often come back to haunt people, a code of honor that leaves little room for mercy, and flawed characters -- from whom we're supposed to learn lessons. We are supposed to look up to their good qualities and deplore their bad qualities.

Also, it's the 21st fucking century and I have yet to see an Arthurian adaptation that puts Morgana as a heroine. Even a tragic heroine. Mordred has an adaptation or two where he's painted as the tragic hero or the tragic, well-intentioned villain. Time for Morgana to get in on that. I've read and seen adaptations starring Morgan le Fay, but even the more sympathetic ones are villain origin stories. At best, she's a manipulator; at worst, she's an evil, power-hungry shrew who doesn't know her place.

Some of that may be blamed on religious tensions. Morgana, a witch who is possibly based on a goddess, is a pagan throwback. In the earlier legends, she's Arthur's ally; later, when Christianity was spreading, she becomes a villain. To some extent, the stories have to vilify her because not only is she a powerful woman, she's a powerful pagan woman-witch-enchantress-goddess person. 

But again: 21ST CENTURY, PEOPLE.

Back to The Greenstone Grail. In that story, the Grandir -- the mysterious ruler of worlds -- is a sort of Arthur/Merlin combination. He's a magician and a puppetmaster like Merlin, but a flawed ruler like Arthur. He is the good guy, but his methods are questionable. He sleeps with his sister, like Arthur. The sister-wife, Halme, becomes a major character and a force for good.

I'm a little more excited by The Greenstone Grail than other Arthurian fiction because if the characters line up to their Arthurian counterparts, then our protagonist Nathan is probably the Mordred figure. And it would be kinda nice to see an adaptation where Mordred is the hero rather than the villain.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Diverse Reads: Cast a Blue Shadow by P.L. Gaus (Audiobook review)

Since I drive a lot, I've been listening to more and more audiobooks that I get from the local library. Cast a Blue Shadow by P.L. Gaus is the latest. 


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Summary

In Ohio Amish country, Juliet Favor, the rich benefactor of the local college, is found murdered after hosting a party -- and everyone there has a motive. Including her two children, who are about to be cut off from her massive inheritance. A witness may hold the key to solving the investigation, though. Martha, whose family left the Amish when they converted to Mennonite, is dating Favor's son. The sheriff believes she may have seen something, but she is so traumatized she can't speak. Is she protecting someone? Or did she commit the crime herself? 

4 stars, woohoo!!!

It was a bit of a struggle to choose between 3 and 4 stars. However, the plot was so well executed, the mystery so interesting, and the characters and setting so well-planned that I found myself borrowing one of the prequels to listen to next. Since it was the fourth in the series and I didn't read the first three, I perhaps took a little longer to get into it than I normally would. 4 stars it is!


Review

I liked Cast a Blue Shadow because it felt fresh and original while still incorporating some of the hallmarks of the closed-door mystery. All the guests at the Favor mansion had some intriguing backstory and motive to kill Juliet Favor. There was her independent daughter, who is about to get cut off for being a lesbian; her daughter's girlfriend; her loser son and his girlfriend Martha; the board and all the professors; her lover; the butler...In many ways, it's a classic mystery setup. Agatha Christie would approve.

The sheriff Robertson and his friend Professor Brandon were at the center of the story. Brandon is the main character. He has ties to the Amish community as well as a close connection to the witness/suspect Martha, who is his TA at the college. 

On Martha

Martha was an intriguing character. When she begins the novel, we get the sense that all is not right with her. She seems depressed, and she acts ashamed of her Amish roots. She has nightmares, is failing at school, and sees a psychiatrist but can't remember her childhood. 

Later, we learn that Martha was abused as a child by a neighbor and had to give up a baby she had at 14. This was partly why her family converted from Amish to conservative Mennonite. As a child, Martha became silent in reaction to her abuse. Now, she falls silent again. A big part of the book is her attempting to work through her childhood trauma so that she can testify. 


The title of the book, and Martha's story, are based on this quote.

The killer vs. the antagonist

While the killer was, well, the killer, they weren't necessarily the antagonist. The antagonist, surprisingly, was Sheriff Robertson. Brandon deliberately hides facts from him because he knows Robertson will just alienate and traumatize the already-traumatized witness. 

Robertson has a disturbing lack of compassion for who he tramples over on his quest for justice. His lack of regard for the physical and mental health of a witness is disgusting. Since he's already decided Martha is the killer, he's willing to treat her like shit in order to prove it. 

The contrast between the softie professor and the hard-nosed sheriff makes for good conflict and entertaining characters. 

Diversity

I picked this book for a "diverse reads" review for two reasons: two major characters, Martha and Robertson, suffer from mental illness. The book casts their struggles in a compassionate light. Cast a Blue Shadow also portrays members of a minority American faith: the Amish, and all the related splinter groups.

At one point, a Mennonite pastor gives an illuminating summary of various different denominations of Amish and Mennonite, and what each one believes. He wryly concludes that it would take a trained anthropologist years to sort out the differences, and even then they'd probably get it wrong. This book doesn't claim to speak for all Amish people, but it does its best to represent the diversity of a little-understood faith. The Amish and Mennonite characters experience discrimination based on faith, but they also have strong convictions and defend their way of life. 


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However, not all the characters look on the sect with approval. Martha's family leaving the old order Amish is lauded by everyone as a good thing, to the point that the book heavily implies the Amish community was allowing the abuse to continue or somehow protecting her abuser, even if only through silence. Characters claim that the Amish aren't backwards, but Martha's love interest cites "backward" Amish life as his reason for wanting to convert. Only then will Martha will accept him. 

Overall, whether the book's portrayal of Amish life is positive or negative, fair or prejudiced, is unclear. Suffice it to say that there are a number of different characters with different opinions on the subject. 

On abortion

A weird way this manifests is how characters talk about whether Martha should get an abortion or not. Her mentor thinks she should get an abortion so that she can focus on college and improving her mental health. Her love interest wants to raise the baby with her. Her psychiatrist believes an abortion would actually be more traumatic. 


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Doctor Carson has worked with Martha since she was a young girl. For some reason, the idea of recovering from childhood sexual abuse while pregnant and then as a new mother is portrayed as the less traumatic option. The potential for PPD never gets a mention. She'd also have to give up college, where she has friends and does the art that she loves, until she's better and the baby is older. I guess we have to accept that as her doctor, Carson knows Martha better than we do. But Martha, voiceless for the majority of the book, doesn't get the chance to express an opinion until the very end.

More egregiously, the fact that Martha previously had a traumatic birth at a young age -- where she nearly died and then had to give the child up for adoption -- is treated like a side note. I mean, that's kind of huge, right? Surely a pregnancy now, again with an absent father, would raise some of those issues for her? Is it even physically safe for her to have a child? 

For fuck's sake, this character nearly died in childbirth at 14. The trauma of that birth -- physical and mental -- is never even a consideration for characters written by an author eager to push some kind of anti-abortion message.

I suppose that with Martha's conservative culture, getting an abortion could be traumatic. But that is never cited as a reason. The anti-abortion viewpoint felt forced. There are ways it could have been handled well, but Gaus didn't do them.

Audiobook review: George Newburn

Of all the audiobooks I've read lately, this performance was one of the best. If not the best. It was a male reader, but he did this thing with the female "voices" that set them subtly apart without trying too hard to make his voice high or "girly." His expression, characterization, the way he differentiated the characters even in pages of tagless dialogue -- everything was perfect. 5 stars to the audio part of the book.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Book Review: The Greenstone Grail by Amanda Hemingway

With about 10 whole dollars left in my checking account, I picked out two fantasy novels under $5 on Nook. The Greenstone Grail was one of them. 

Let me just start out by saying that I have no idea what to think of this book. 



I've spent the last week trying to think of what to say for this review, so...here goes, I guess. I'm going to rate it 3 stars because it was interesting enough to keep my attention, but it confused me, and I probably won't return to the book. Maybe the sequels. 

3 stars! Yay...


Summary

Chased by dark shadows to a quiet English village, single mom Annie finds unexpected shelter in the home of the unflappable local historian who seems to have been around forever. Her son Nathan grows up there, sheltered by people and beings who, unbeknownst to him, have marked him for a great destiny. When he discovers the legendary Grimthorn Grail in the woods, he sets off a chain of events that ripples across universes. 

King Arthur

Congratulations to The Greenstone Grail for being the sole King Arthur adaptation I've read that I didn't despise. I loathe the Arthurian mythos. 


But this was a sort of...sci-fi fantasy set in modern times adaptation of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. The premise is that magic in a parallel universe has become poisoned and is gradually destroying all life in that universe. Only the Grail, the Sword, and the Crown can create a Great Spell to save that universe, but they were split up to protect them until the time is right. 

The Grail, locally known as the Grimthorn Grail or the Greenstone Grail, is hidden on Earth to protect it from radicals in the alternate universe. Legends have sprouted up around it over time, including the Holy Grail legend. Meanwhile, several earthly factions desire the Grail as well as the aliens. 

Yes, there are aliens. Aliens who ride dragons. They're actually pretty well done. 

I assume that the cover designs of the various editions are trying to "sell" the Grail legend, since it is called the Sangreal Trilogy. But this book has aliens riding dragons. OK, so they're flying lizard things called "xaurians" but still, basically dragons. Why the hell would you not include a dragon on your cover?

(Source) Slap a title on this and I would read it in a heartbeat.

Genre? I don't even know

Science fantasy or just "Arthurian adaptation" is probably the best label for this. I can live with that, although it doesn't quite seem to do the book justice. 

But who the hell is the target audience? There are kid and adult viewpoint characters. The tone feels decidedly middle grade...until you get to a random "fuck" dropped halfway through the novel. Writing style, characterization, relationships, even plot all seemed geared towards younger readers...until they aren't. The tone and style are inconsistent. 

Which may be fine for an adult reader. Personally I love MG fiction, but I prefer to read MG written specifically for kids rather than a book for adults which feels like it's been dumbed down in parts just in case kids happen to read it. And if you want to know whether you can recommend The Greenstone Grail to a kid -- if it's even intended for kids, or what -- I have no idea.

I couldn't help thinking to myself, "Diana Wynne Jones did it better." She also has a series featuring a schoolboy who can dimension-walk in his sleep, but her books strike that balance of being for kids as well as adults. While maintaining consistency of tone and style, and without speaking down to the reader. (While also managing to write an Asia-based fantasy culture that isn't super offensive...more on that in a second.)


Dragons, meet aliens.

So, like I said, dragons. 

Have another dragon, just because. (source)
Nathan can travel to different worlds and universes in dreams. Often, dream sequences are a serious pain to read (and write) but Nathan's dreams are done skilfully and fall naturally into the wider narrative. 

The parallel universe is also neat, even though we get glimpses rather than long looks. The aliens are humanoid, with slightly altered features from those of Earth. They have to wear masks because the sun has been polluted and light will burn them. What with the deadly sun, immortal aliens, and a chalice full of blood at the center of the plot, the whole thing takes on a vampiric flair. 

The book definitely left me wanting to know more about the Grandir -- the mysterious puppetmaster controlling the various worlds in two universes. He has some sort of grand plan to save his universe, but we don't know what that is. He has a paramour, Halme, who is also his sister (I know, gross -- but this is an Arthurian adaptation). 

Halme is portrayed as this Helen of Troy type of beauty, a very passive person who is tired of her immortal existence. In a twist, she takes unexpected agency and becomes hugely important in the end of the book -- while her mysterious brother/lover remains in the shadows. 

Frustrations

I really wanted to love this book, OK? It had dragons.

But in addition to all the problems outlined above, I had further reservations. Nathan is first introduced as a mixed-race white and Indian Asian kid, with dark skin and hair. However, we soon learn that his conception was supernatural. So much for representation; he was fathered in a different universe. A universe where, we later learn, all the aliens look vaguely Asian. 

The book goes on about how advanced their society is and how beautiful Halme is, and how the aliens look a bit like certain Asian ethnic groups on Earth. And then, completely oblivious, the author refers to "Orientals" when describing what Nathan looks like. 


Pictured: fan art of the MG novel you should be reading instead of this one. The Lives of Christopher Chant.  Check it out.
The Greenstone Grail leaves a maddening number of loose ends. Forget audience and genre -- I still don't know what the fuck even happened at the end. What was that resolution? What next? What the hell is going on? Who are the bad guys, even? Someone please tell me. I am going to read the damn sequel just to find out, which I suppose is a plus for the author. 


The one thing I absolutely, 100% loved

This book had a girl with an abusive father...and she didn't forgive him.

I could have done cartwheels. I could have cheered. Pretty sure I did a small victory fist when she called for help after the guy started beating on her mom. You go, kid!

And when Nathan tries to give her the old "He's still your dad" line, she sharply reprimands him. When someone dies suspiciously and her father has a motive, she doesn't try to protect him. You get the sense that she probably wants a decent father and is depressed about the relationship. But she hates her abusive father and makes that 100% clear.

Seriously, what the fuck is it with authors who feel the need to spin the Hallmark-channel-approved "character must forgive an abuser or if not, reconcile themselves to loving them anyway BECAUSE FAMILY IS EVERTHING" bullshit into their narratives? Like, no? Why must characters always let toxic people back into their lives just so the author can get that feel-good resolution? Why can't people realize that writing narratives where "you have to love them/forgive them because they're family" could do actual harm to an abused kid reading one of those books?

Hazel from Greenstone Grail is a rare and much-needed exception.

3 stars. Do I like it? Do I hate it? I still have no idea. I'm so annoyed I need to read the sequel just to figure out what is going on with this book. And series. And everything. Ugh.