Thursday, February 22, 2018

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

If you're a fan of the Myths and Legends podcast or just a fan of mythology in general, you need to read this. Norse Mythology is Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths, such as how Thor got his hammer, the strange wedding of Freya, Loki’s children and much more. Most the stories end with a line about Ragnarok so that even though the stories are disparate, they have a sense of purpose. Everything leads to the end. Everything leads to Ragnarok.

The language here is Gaiman at his best. It rings with the timelessness of myth, with the added inclusion of wry humour. [Slight spoilers] I also liked how most of the book was in past tense, until the time of Ragnarok, where it changed to present tense which gave it a ring of prophecy.

The characters too were well-written. Thor is a great hero but he’s not the wisest. Loki is truly ambiguous, the trickster who’s allegiance is only for himself (leading to some pretty comic situations). Then there are tragic characters, like Hod, who was tricked into killing his brother and then died for it. Or Tyr, wise and self-sacrificial. There is a wide variety of gods and they are all brought to life in these stories.

If you’re a fan of mythology, you’ll want to read this take on the Norse myths. It’s wonderfully written and I actually want to listen to theaudiobookk. These tales sound like they should be told by a bard.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid

My first book for 2018’s SEA Reading Challenge is from Singapore! It’s called The Gatekeeper and it’s a fantasy novel heavily influenced by Malay culture.

Obviously heavily inspired by Singapore, the novel takes place in Manticura. It starts when the young medusa Ria experiences betrayal and in her panic, freezes an entire village of people. Since this makes her a criminal, her sister Barani and her run to the underground city of Nelroote. When the war comes, Ria becomes the Gatekeeper of the city, which is how she meets Eedric, a human with monster blood.

Despite the fantastical elements and setting, this isn’t really a fantasy novel. There is no quest for the hero, instead the novel focuses on the developing relationship between Ria and Eedric, which some thinly-veiled criticisms of race relations in Singapore. Er, I mean monster-human relations in Manticura.

What I loved about this book was the setting. It was amazing to see a world with Greek and Malay influences and I very much enjoyed the language in the novel. It’s a refreshing change from most fantasy books.

What I wasn’t too fond of was the plot. It started strong, with Ria and her sister having to go into hiding, but then it slowed down considerably. It felt like a good portion of the book was on world-building and the slowly-developing relationship between Ria and Eedric, which is a pity because I feel like the beginning promised a much more exciting read. Not to mention that it almost becomes message-fiction at times, which is a bit too heavy-handed for my tastes.

And there were a couple of things I didn’t understand. At first, I thought that Nelroote was where the monsters hid from humans, but then I saw that monsters live in Manticura too. Then I thought that perhaps these monsters were just in complete hiding, but ‘surface relatives’ are mentioned and one monster is even sent to the outside world for schooling.

In that case, what is the point of hiding? Are they even hiding, if they have enough documentation to get into schools? And if so, why did it take the authorities so long to find Ria? Those are questions that were not answered satisfactorily in the book.

Overall, I liked this book. The setting was very well-done and it had a strong start. Although I’m not a fan of the slow plot, you should consider reading this book if you’re looking for a fantasy with a twist.

P.s. The ebook isn't available yet so it's only available in paper form (according to the publisher, they don't release the ebooks until 2 to 3 years after the book is published)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

I wonder if you’ve watched the move The Black Cauldron? It’s not one of the more famous Disney movies, but I like it quite a bit. So when I found out that it was based on the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, I decided to try the first book - The Book of Three.

At the start of this book, Taran is an assistant pig-keeper to Hen Wen, Prydain’s ordinary pig. He dreams of heroic quests and adventures away from what he thinks is his humdrum and boring life. But when Hen Wen runs away, Taran leaves his life and comes into the sphere of the dreaded Horn King.

The start and the setting are both fairly traditional in terms of high-fantasy but what makes this book different are the characters. Taran may dream of being a great hero, but his companions are quick to remind him that he’s not. There’s Eilonwy, an enchantress in training who has a quick tongue and a kind heart, Fflewddur, the ex-king who can’t make it as a hard (and who has a harp who refuses to let him lie), and poor, self-pitying Gurgi.

These aren’t very noble companions, especially compared to Prince Gwydion (who’s actually a very practical person), but they are who Taran travels with for the bulk of the book and they help him to grow.

I enjoyed this a lot. It reminds me a little of The Lord of the Rings, although the humour introduced by the characters make this a much lighter read. A lot of the book is spent on introducing the characters, but the plot moved along at a good pace.

I will definitely be continuing this series and now, I really want to rewatch The Black Cauldron! Obviously the movie takes liberties with the book, but both are fun and should appeal to fans of fantasies.

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

I enjoyed An English Murder so much that I borrowed another one of Cyril Hare’s mysteries! A Tragedy at Law is supposed to be his most famous work so I was really excited to begin it.

Drawing on his legal experience (or so I’m assuming), A Tragedy at Law is a mystery that deals with the finer points of the law. Mr Justice Barber is a self-important judge who’s making his rounds on the ‘circuit’, which basically means he’s moving from town to town judging cases. It should be uneventful, but then he gets a threatening letter. That shouldn’t be a cause of worry, but a box of poisoned chocolates comes. And the threats just keep escalating from there.

Thrown into this mix are Derek Marshall, the Marshal, and Francis Pettigrew, a lawyer who is unsuccessful in profession and love (the love of his life having married Justice Barber). Can they find out what is happening?

The book uses a variety of POVs, but the dominant one is Derek. I suppose that as the ‘newbie’, he’s in a good position to wonder at (and try to understand) what’s going on, plus he’s easily convinced to help by Hilda, Justice Barber’s incredibly smart and charming wife.

Hilda, by the way, is an amazing person. You don’t normally see such strong personalities in fiction. Here’s a woman who was called to the bar and is clearly more intelligent and charming than her husband. She’s also got some fears of her own which she’s hiding and deserves all the page time she has (I would love to read about her earlier years). Sheila, the woman Derek falls in love with and the only other woman with a significant amount of attention devoted to her, seems almost dull in comparison. She seems to be more plot device than character.

That said, there is one other female character with a pretty strong presence, but she never directly appears or speaks. She’s very closely tied to Hilda, so I didn’t consider her a primary/lead character.

What I really liked about this book was its tone. There’s a wry humour that’s present throughout the book, and I enjoyed it very much. Clearly, Cyril Hare isn’t above poking fun at the pompousness his profession is sometimes filled with. The humour also fits in with the cynicism of Pettigrew, which works because Pettigrew’s the ‘detective’ of the novel.

That said, the ending of the book was a little hard to understand. There isn’t a grand denouncement like in the Christie novels, but instead, there’s a not-really-clear explanation by Pettigrew towards the end. I had to read that last chapter a couple of times before I understood it.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel, although I personally prefer An English Murder. I liked the humour present in the book and the use of Derek as the main POV character, although the ending does detract from the story a little.