The Chronicles of Prydain

chronicles of prydain

I’ve been checking for Lloyd Alexander’s books nearly every time I go into Pioneer Book, and I finally found them— a full box set in almost perfect condition. I was so excited. So I added it to the box. (What? It was a good sale. We bought a lot of books. I don’t have a problem.)

Most people are probably familiar with this series through the Disney movie The Black Cauldron, which I’ve actually never seen before. I was introduced to the series in elementary school, when I got to pick a free book for my birthday. In the box, I saw a glossy picture with fantasy cover art depicting an evil, antlered, skull-faced warrior on horseback. I thought it looked incredible. So I picked another book, because I didn’t want my teacher to know I was interested in it. (I don’t know what my problem was. Apparently, I was a really self-conscious kid.)

Anyway, after a few years and a little more self-confidence, I saw the same cover art somewhere and convinced my parents to buy me the book. It was the first in the series, called The Book of Three. The Book of Three was a wonderful adventure, and led me immediately to the rest of the series: The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and the series finale, The High King.

As a series overall, I highly recommend it. If you want a book-by-book recommendation, I would say that you should definitely start at the beginning. If you like The Book of Three, it’s worth reading more. If you start halfway through the series, though, you won’t understand everything. And whatever you do, don’t start with Taran Wanderer. That book is… wandery. It’s my least favorite.

The series gets a little more preachy and pedantic as you go, with the first two being sheer adventure and the last few being a little more “wise.” (That’s probably why The High King won the Newbery medal. It’s the most “instructional” of them, so I can understand a board of literary folks thinking it would be best for kids.) But even still, it’s worth reading them all. No matter your age. ♦

prydain

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Magic or Madness

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I picked up a copy of Magic or Madness, by Justine Larbalestier, while I was in high school. I think I probably just liked the cover art at the time, but it turned out to be a good read. Having just re-read it, I still think it’s a good read.

Magic or Madness is a story about an Australian girl named Reason, so named because her grandma believed so fervently in magic that she did terrible things. Reason’s mother, Serafina, ran away and became a firm defender of all things logic and no things magic. Magic isn’t real, she taught Reason, but evil Grandma Esmeralda thinks it is—so we need to stay away from her.

Long and short of it is, magic is real. And once Reason figures that out, she has to figure out just how crazy each member of her family is. Grandma Esmeralda is certainly not trustworthy. But maybe a little more trustworthy than Serafina made her out to be. But, of course, Serafina can’t be trusted either, because she doesn’t realize that magic is a real thing. Also because she’s in a loony bin. There’s that, too.

Complicating things, Reason goes out the back door in Sydney, Australia one day and finds herself smack-dab in the middle of New York City, freezing her butt off, with no way home. And someone’s following her.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I don’t own the sequel yet. And I need to get a few more books off my TBR shelf before I dare make that purchase. But if you like fantasy, or just want to learn a little more about Australia or America (depending where you live currently), pick it up. It’s great reading. ♦

The Water Mirror

I picked up this book in Junior High or High School. I don’t know. A long time ago. And I haven’t read it since, but I remember thinking I should read it again—I remember thinking, “That was a great book! I want to buy the sequel!” ….and not finding the sequel in Barnes and Noble. And since it was a new book at the time, the used bookstore was not an option.

Turns out, this book was written in German—which might be why it was harder to find? I don’t know. Anyways. I digress. The Water Mirror, by Kai Meyer:

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Isn’t this cover art beautiful? Isn’t that mermaid creepy?

This book is great. If you’ve read The Golden Compass series by Philip Pullman, this has a similar feel to it. It’s a little more…watery, though. As in, the mood is a little different, because The Golden Compass has a lot of running around in London and the Arctic, while this entire book is set in Venice. But Meyer has the same style of writing, where he takes a real place, a real time, and then seriously screws with history and the way science works generally. Also there are live stone lions. And creepy mermaids. And messengers from Hell, which is a real geographical location.

Another similarity between Meyer and Pullman is that neither of them tell you any more than you need to know. I can tell that Meyer has a lot of history and politics in his head, and I still don’t know what’s going on—because the main character, Merle, still doesn’t know what’s going on. He explains just enough, then gets back to the story. And he’s good at telling a story.

The only thing I don’t like about this book is that it leaves you needing to read the sequels. But now I have an excuse to buy myself a Christmas present, right?

If you like fantasy—and especially if you like fantasy with a very real-life emphasis—pick it up. It’s good. ♦

Silver On the Tree

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This is rare, folks – but I’m pretty sure the series finale was my least favorite part of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising.

The series overall gets a two enthusiastic thumbs up. Loved it. It was great fantasy, great children’s adventure, well-written, almost poetry in an action-movie plot line. It was great. But the thing is, it just got progressively weirder.

Over Sea, Under Stone: A great children’s adventure, with a splash of magic.

The Dark Is Rising: Magic-based children’s adventure.

Greenwitch: Magical, a little weird, but definitely worth the ride.

The Grey King: This is getting weirder, but I trust Cooper. She’ll pull it all together in the end. (And she does.)

Silver On the Tree: Wait – did I take drugs? What is happening? I feel like I just waded through a literary drug trip, and then ended with the good guys winning predictably, and then about two paragraphs of preaching about how human beings need to solve their own problems from here on out. And then all the main characters forget it ever happened, so we might as well be back at the beginning. Ugh.

I realizing I’m being really polarizing here. It wasn’t all bad. It’s just that the other ones were so good, and then this happened. I just didn’t see it coming. I was reading a fantasy series, and then I got blindsided by surrealism. Or maybe it all makes perfect sense, and I just don’t understand enough English and Welsh mythology to get the obvious literary references in here. Maybe someone in the UK is reading this, thinking, “Stupid American. She missed the whole point!”

Sadly, though, I did miss the whole point. If you’re a good reader, it’s worth the time to finish the series – but if you can’t burn through the book in a few hours, I wouldn’t recommend it. ♦

The Grey King

the grey king

Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence continues (after Greenwitch) with The Grey King, possibly the most confusing but also inexplicably well-constructed book in the series so far. While this book has had less to explain than any of the other books (since I’ve been reading this series for about four books now), it still manages to have bafflingly new elements to it.

Welsh, for example. I don’t know who invented this language, but I’m really glad Cooper decided to sneak in a pronunciation guide of sorts within the first few chapters.

Memory loss – Will Stanton spends the first few chapters unaware that he’s an Old One, due to a rather nasty bout of hepatitis that left him with some amnesia. So for a bit, he’s just wandering around Wales, wondering why he has these silly rhymes beating about in his head.

An albino boy with a mysterious past, a mystical dog, and an arch-nemesis.

Oh, and a cameo from King Arthur. Also, hints that Merlin and Merriman Lyon might just be the same person. (But can we be sure?)

As Will goes traipsing around Wales with his new friend Bran, he has to find a magical golden harp that will help the Light in the final battle against the Dark. And he has to find it in a specific place that he hasn’t figured out, and it has to be on Halloween. Also, the Grey King, an ancient spirit who lives in the hills of Wales, is pretty determined that Will not get said harp. Apparently, the Grey King is a lord of the Dark. Who knew?

Most of these books, you spend some time wondering what’s going on, guess fairly well who the bad guy is, and get a few surprises. This one, you can guess fairly well who the bad guy is, and spend most of the book trying to figure out who exactly the good guys are. And by that, I mean you know who the good guys are, you’re just trying to figure out who they are, really. And sometimes even they don’t know. So it’s the most confusing so far to read, but the most impressive when it all somehow makes some sense and all the loose ends are tied up in the last few chapters.

Overall, I was impressed with the writing and story. I was even more impressed with the characters and their complexity, and now I just keep thinking how much I need to learn about British mythology and folklore. Apparently, I don’t know diddly-squat. ♦

Greenwitch

Greenwitch

Greenwitch is my next book in The Dark Is Rising sequence, by Susan Cooper. It was a fast read, and an engaging one – so it only took a matter of a day or two.

Greenwitch is a wonderful fantasy that makes you want to go traveling through Cornwall. This book combines the Drew siblings from Over Sea, Under Stone with Will Stanton from The Dark Is Rising, throws them together, and pits them against the forces of evil in a search for whoever it was who stole the Holy Grail from the museum the Drews left it in. Aided – and haunted – by the Greenwitch, a traditional offering to the sea made of hawthorn branches, the group fights off a shadowy painter and races to get the decoding manuscript that will tell them the secrets written on the grail.

I give it a 5/5, and move on to The Grey King. ♦

Beowulf

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I found out only recently that my dad used to tell me stories from Beowulf when I was a kid. Like, three. He told a three-year-old about Beowulf ripping the arm off of a monster. I don’t remember these stories, so either I was tougher than I make myself out to be, or I just blocked out the memories. Either way, I turned out functional, right?

I recently found a Perma-Bound version of Beowulf at a thrift store for only a dollar, and I bought it on the spot. And read it over the next two days or so. I was surprised – I had always grown up hearing, in and out of English class, that Beowulf was the oldest English poem we had, that it was this great epic poem, yadda yadda yadda… I assumed it would take me months to finish. But it turned out to be around 150 pages in all, in fairly readable verse. It was an easy read.

My copy was translated by Burton Raffel, by the way. It was extremely readable, and beautifully poetic. Check out a few lines about setting King Shild’s funeral boat afloat:

“High up over his head they flew
His shining banner, then sadly let
The water pull at the ship, watched it
Slowly sliding to where neither rulers
Nor heroes nor anyone can say whose hands
Opened to take that motionless cargo.”

That’s good poetry! Anyways. I cheated (?) and skipped the introduction and afterward, which were chock-full of the kind of details about translation, rhyme, rhythm, and meter from all those English classes that had me convinced that this was going to be a ridiculously hard read. But the story itself is a good adventure full of monsters, dragons, and derring-do. And it only took a few hours to read, in total. ♦