Friday 28 October 2016

Greek gods, fantasy and fairy tales rule this week

The Philosopher Kings By Jo Walton Tor (2015) €22.50 HHHII

I am giving this three stars instead of two because it redeemed itself at the very last. A disappointing sequel to Walton's The Just City, hopefully this is merely suffering from second-instalment-in-a-trilogy syndrome.

Seriously: remember Return of the Jedi? I rest my case. Hopefully, because the world that Walton had wrought in the previous novel - a world of gods and goddesses, time travel and philosophy, self-determined robots and ancient mythology - is so compelling and the ethical questions that spring up were delightfully brain-teasing, it would be a shame if it didn't end on a flourish.

Twenty years before the events of this novel, in an effort to teach the god Apollo a few lessons about humanity and to answer the fervent prayers of some of her adherents, the goddess Athene decided to create a city based entirely on the thesis put forward by Plato's Republic.

Gathering souls from across time and space, and basically kidnapping a bunch of ten-year-olds, also from across time and space, she added modern technology and a slew of worker-robots to build, from the ground up, the perfect philosophical city in which all the ills of mankind are banished via Socratic dialogue and the pursuit of excellence.

Excellence plays a big part in this novel, not the least of which through the character of Arete, demi-god daughter of Apollo and his wife Simmea.

Arete is the only daughter of Apollo and her name literally means excellence, and the theme of excellence is invoked so often that I gave in to the temptation to search its usage in my Kindle version and the word occurred 109 times. Is this an act of distrust on the part of the author, that we might fail to get her message?

Is it an attempt to replicate the sort of incantatory invoking-of-theme that is common in ancient Greek literature? It began to feel insulting very early on, and became rather tedious towards the end.

The plot primarily involved Apollo's desire to revenge the death of Simmea, an action which opens the novel, so no spoiler there. The narrative engine is driven via the undertaking of the first voyage of people of the Republic beyond their borders, and the desire for Arete to become a goddess-in-full, an option that is open to all children of Greek gods.

As we tooled along, I couldn't put my finger on what was missing: the Socratic dialogues that had played such an energising part of the first novel, here were flat and dull; Apollo was grieving and his voice was not as entertaining as it had been previously (heartless, I know, but given what we know about the heartlessness of the Greek pantheon, I'm not apologising) - it wasn't until the very end that I understood what the problem was: the lack of the magical energy that had infused The Just City was suddenly back, in the person of Athene and one other god.

Once she was back on the scene, it was like a shot of adrenaline into the veins of the story - and then it was over, and I was both delighted by the unexpected turn of events, and annoyed that we were going to be left there.

I love the richness of Walton's thinking so much though, I'll be waiting for the third of this trilogy, Necessity, and hoping that whatever happens next lives up to the promise of the first, and will eradicate the frustrations of the second.

The Iliad

Homer, in a new translation by Peter Green University of California Press (2015) €22.50 HHHII

This is the result of a lifelong ambition and passion on the part Green, and his preface and introductory remarks are equally as entertaining as the story itself.

His history with the work is long, his desire to render it in his own fashion robust, and he has produced a work as close to Homer's original that it is possible to do in English.

I take this on faith, as my Greek is non-existent, and my background in the reading of Greek epics limited. What Green has also done is produced a translation meant to be read aloud, much as the original would have been orated to an audience.

It's hard to sit around your house doing this; in the spirit of the thing, I gave it try, and was thankful for the sturdiness of the walls of my apartment.

I appreciate that this is the way it ought to work, but I found it hard going on my own.

This is both beautiful and scholarly, the latter slightly intimidating and I don't consider myself an easily intimidated reader.

It may err to a degree towards the small community who make it their life's work to keep revealing the secrets of this text. Maybe I just need someone with a good, rich voice to read this to me to get its fullest value.

I bet Liam Neeson would be great at reading this out loud...

The Book of Speculation

by Erika Swyler St Martin's Press (2015) €6.50 eBook HHIII

This is a fantasy novel that goes between two time periods with a mix of magic, the circus, tarot and a family curse.

Simon's mum took her own life when he and his sister Enola were children. His father disappeared into his grief, and Simon became the head of the family, minding his sister, who eventually came to resent him, and following in the footsteps of their mother, ran off to join the circus.

With the family home literally falling down around him, and his job at the local library lost, he finds himself trying to discover if his sister is going to be the next to succumb to a melancholy so powerful it will drive her to suicide. Or is it suicide?

I found I wasn't all that bothered either way, as Simon's diffidence and Enola's rage didn't present much opportunity to care; the world of the 18th-century circus wasn't much better, as it didn't investigate that environment to any innovative degree. Hard going.

The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest

by Melanie Dickerson Thomas Nelson (2015) €14.99 HHIII

Fairy tale worlds collide in this author's first book for adults.

Odette is a Robin Hood figure, breaking the law to poach in the king's forest in order to feed the poor. Jorgen is forester whose job is to stop poaching.

When they find themselves attracted to one another, things get complicated, but naturally work out in the end.

The writing was unadorned, which made for rather dull reading and there was a slight preachiness to it (it is a Christian romance, which I didn't know when I started it).

Odette was a great character though - the rest of the novel didn't live up to her at all.

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