Gene Wolfe was (he died this year) a prolific and acknowledged American fantasy writer. His short stories (I have one anthology, but it’s still waiting its turn), and novels have many admirers, among them Le Guin, Gaiman and Ellison. His signature? Unreliable narrators, selling you their version of very complicated stories. It’s not his invention, but I have to agree I really have to pay attention when reading Wolfe, not to get totally lost. I find it impossible not to get lost a bit 😉
My first encounter with Wolfe, though, was when I read his Soldier of the Mist, a novel (part of a trilogy, but I only have volumes one and two, the third part was published years later) about a young Greek mercenary who, after suffering a head wound, is only able to remember event of a current day. Not knowing who he is and pretty little about the world around him, he couldn’t be a reliable narrator if he tried to 😉 Fantasy element is added when he discovers he’s able to communicate with gods and other supernatural beings. I liked it, but couldn’t find any of Wolfe’s other works. A few years later, The Book of the New Sun was recommended to me, and these tomes I devoured with great taste. Story of Severian, young (Wolfe’s heroes do have a few things in common, and not only their youth 😉 ) torturer (!) exiled for showing mercy – and wondering the dying Earth of far future. Quite soon after that I ordered a cheap, used copy of The Wizard Knight, for when I have a fancy to read more Wolfe. I finally read it earlier this year and with a great pleasure, although with a feeling it’s mostly more of the same.
Author: Giles Kristian
I will start with an honest admission, as befits a review of the retelling of Arthurian mythos. Arthurian myths are very important to me – as are Greek and Norse, Slavic and Celtic, Sumerian and Egyptian myths, which all together form a still incredibly significant foundation of European culture. And within the wide realm of Arthurian myths, rooted in Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which in itself was a reworking of earlier tales, I have pledged my allegiance to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. I don’t care it’s misogynist. I don’t mind that parts of it are not on par with the rest (I’m looking at you, The Book of Merlyn!). I fully believe it’s the most beautiful and heartfelt retelling of the Arthurian mythos, full of passion – and compassion – and understanding of human nature.
And so I approached Kristian’s recent retelling, Lancelot, with no small amount of trepidation. Armed with a glowing recommendation from Aaron at the Swords and Spectres I hastened to read it, but remembering our previous differences of opinion, O gentle friend, I remained wary. And indeed, it took me some time to warm up to this reimagined Lancelot, from his difficult, heart-breaking childhood to his equally troubled adolescent years on Karrek Loos yn Koos, the island of Lady Nimue. For Kristian spins the story in the one direction that had been relatively less explored before – Lancelot’s past. We see him as a child cruelly and early bereft of childhood, only barely escaping the fate of his family – with an angry hunting bird and a promise of revenge as his sole possessions. We see him as a wild teenager, stubborn and prideful, separate from others and self-unaware to the point of naivety. We see him grow, and learn, and as we do, we begin to see the promise in him, the seed of the future first knight of Britain and the leader of men. We see him triumphant, we see him defeated, but to the end unbroken. What we see most clearly, however, is the unwavering love and loyalty that had become a staple of this paradoxical knight – and in this, Kristian’s retelling is as faithful to the spirit of Arthurian myths as it only could be.
One of the first of Tim Powers’ books, it bears all the marks of what later became his unique style. It will come as no surprise then that The Drawing of the Dark is a crazy, fast-paced story full of magic, inexplicable occurrences and concurrences, tackling themes as disparate as metaphysical rebirth, production of beer, detailed instructions of what to do with a dead hunchback, a band of Vikings marooned on Donau canals, and a close loving look at mythology – this time strictly Western European.
The Drawing of the Dark is set in the year 1529, mostly in Vienna, at the height of Turkish invasion. The dominant part of the plot centers around a Vienna-based Zimmerman Inn, a former Christian cloister built on a Roman fort’s ruins, raised on even older Celtic brewery ruins, now a well known pub and hotel producing its own, highly valued beer. The owner of the Inn, a very old, black-clad man calling himself Aurelianus, hires in Venice a battered, middle-aged Irishman, a veteran of many battlefields, a grizzled drunkard named Brian Duffy. Another BD, you may notice, if you’ve read The Anubis Gates ;). Duffy’s journey south is fraught with bizarre events and near-death experiences, from the materializing of a Bacchus tavern somewhere on the streets of Trieste, through the assistance of mythical creatures on Duffy’s passage through the Alps, to a sudden attack of winged monsters on the shores of an Alpine lake. If I am allowed to say one thing about Powers’ undeniable love of Alps, I’d say it’s pretty damn impressive. The description of the mountain views is powerful and poignant – it seems that Powers really has a streak of Romanticism hidden somewhere deep inside.
Another novel belonging, if not wholly, to the Arthurian subgenre of fantasy. When published, it created a lot of noise – not only for its qualities, but the very fact that Ishiguro, respected literary fiction author, crossed borders of genre fiction and wrote a fantasy novel. The discussion that followed already inspired one post here, I liked what Ishiguro had to say about fantasy and his genuine interest in our world, so I decided to read his book.
It definitely is a novel – a story of 345 pages, and fantasy – with echoes of King Arthur, ogres, pixies and dragon, many basic tropes of modern fantasy. One can play a game and try to catch all the Easter Eggs.
Plot is simple enough, at least in the beginning. A simple, old couple, Britons, Axl and Beatrice (!), journey to reunite with their long lost son. Their memories, and the memories of all the people in the land, are clouded by mysterious mist, collective amnesia covering, as we learn, terrible deeds done to stop the Saxon invasion on the orders of the late King Arthur. Along the way Axl and Beatrice meet a Saxon warrior, young Saxon boy, Sir Gawain – last of the knights of Arthur, and they learn of the reasons behind the mist.
Have you seen „The Sword in the Stone”? Nice Disney classic, „not much plot but great for little kids.” as an imdb reviewer noticed. I concur. It’s a nice watch, it’s deeper than most Disney movies even. But it’s just 10% of shiny stuff taken from the top of the novel that inspired it – the first part of “The Once and Future King” tetralogy by Terence Hanbury White.
A tetralogy consist of “The Sword in the Stone”, “The Queen of Air and Darkness”, “The Ill-Made Kinght” and “The Candle in the Wind”. There is also “The Book of Merlyn”, published posthumously, book that I prefer to pretend do not exist. They tell the story of king Arthur, from childhood to (spoiler alert) hist death in battle with Mordred.
The book is not for kids. There is humour and songs, just as in animated version, but it’s also slow paced, written in very demanding language and very long. I wouldn’t recommend it as a first encounter with Arturian fantasy. Start with some basic one-volume version of the story, see a movie or two, follow up with “The Winter King” by Cornwell, if you like history novels with warlords and battles, or “The Mists of Avalon”, if you are into feminist deconstruction of history and literature. But White’s retelling of the legend is the pinnacle of Arthurian fantasy. Readers already familiar with the story can fully appreciate this particular interpretation. It’s more than a very good fantasy book. It’s genuine Literary Fiction 😉