Monthly Archives: July 2011

Preliminary thoughts on Hood, by Stephen R. Lawhead

I’m in the middle of reading the first of Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Raven King trilogy, Hood. It’s a slightly different take on the Robin Hood story – it’s set in Wales. This is causing me a slight amount of hesitation.

I have nothing against Wales. I think Wales is wonderful and I want to go there someday. But Robin Hood is from Nottinghamshire. Maybe South Yorkshire. And there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be.

Oh, Lawhead has a relatively persuasive argument about why the “original” Robin Hood might have been from Wales – citing the Saxon and then Norman-now-English adaptation of Arthur as a national hero as precedent. But the two cases are not entirely similar – and, to me at least, not similar enough to make it a fully logical connection.

The biggest problem I have with his argument is the assumption that the Robin Hood stories couldn’t have been original to the early 13th century. I don’t know why it’s always assumed that people of the Middle Ages weren’t original and creative thinkers, but that seems to be one of the underlying themes: the stories must come from an earlier source because there’s no way there would have been inspiration in the 13th century.

Yes, it’s true that most of what we think we know about the Robin Hood stories are later (sometimes much later) additions and interpretations. Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks have a lot to answer for. But the ballads themselves reflect quite a lot of 13th and 14th century ideas about life, authority, humour, etc – why try to dismiss them or cram them into an earlier culture?

And, even more, there’s one aspect of Lawhead’s interpretation that doesn’t help: the very name of his main character. His “Robin” is Rhi Bran, a prince of one of the Welsh “kingdoms”. I don’t know enough about Welsh history outside the English occupation to know how valid a Welsh kingdom is on its own, but it’s made pretty clear in the book that “Rhi” is a title. He is Prince Bran. The phonetic resemblance isn’t enough for me to justify turning “Rhi Bran” into Robin. Robin is, and has always been, a nickname for Robert – a name meaning “fame-bright”. Bran means “Raven”. It fits with the “raven king” idea that Lawhead has come up with. It doesn’t fit with the story he’s trying to adapt.

And it’s even more glaring when many of the other names are Welsh variants on the familiar names: Iwan = John, Merian = Marian, etc. But Robin, the main figure, has a name so different that it jars on me every time I read it.

There may be a point later in the trilogy where Bran inherits something more closely related to “Robert”, which would go a long way toward appeasing my onomastic nature. But for right now, it’s proving to be a minor hindrance in my enjoyment of the book.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I mean, it’s been recommended to me by a lot of people, including my best friend and my mother, both of whom have excellent taste in books, but the impression I’d always gotten from reviews and things was of a fairly light book. I knew I would like it; I wasn’t sure I was in the right mood for light.

And it is light, but it also isn’t. The style is fairly light – it’s an epistolary novel, so the tone is almost always that of friends chatting – but the subject matter isn’t always. It’s set post-WW2, so there’s all the dealing-with-that that you might imagine, and it revolves around the Channel Islands, which were occupied by the Germans. The basic idea (of the title, certainly) is that a group of islanders formed a literary society that, ultimately, saved their sanity during the Occupation.

The novel starts off with a writer on a book tour, who gets a letter from an islander telling her about their book club. She is, of course, instantly intrigued, and before long is corresponding with all of the members about their reading habits and their lives under the Occupation. Eventually she goes to visit, and learns even more about them and their lives.

The first half, where she’s on the book tour and just getting to know everyone through the letters, is much deeper than the second half, where she’s on Guernsey.  For various reasons, the first half of the book deals a lot with the power of reading, and the reasons that people – particularly these islanders – read the books that they do. I wish I’d had some post-its or something while I was reading it, because some of the phrasing is incredible.

The second half of the book is more of what I was expecting. It’s still quite good, of course, but it’s less about the power of reading and more a typical romance novel. Juliet (the writer) must decide whether to marry a rich American, stay in Guernsey, etc. Books are still an element, of course, but the overall theme is much more about Guernsey and the post-war recovery.

I don’t really know anything about the Channel Islands. I knew they’d been occupied during the war, but that’s about all I knew. I was fascinated to read about the conditions they’d been under while the Germans were there – one of the lesser known aspects of the war. I may have to learn more about them, after this book.

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The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath, by Jane Robins

Okay, so I knew vaguely about the Brides in the Bath – I have been to Madame Tussaud’s several times now, and I think George Smith or whatever you want to call him has been featured in the Chamber of Horrors. But I didn’t know many of the details, and a lot of the late Victorian/Edwardian murder sensations blend together in my brain. The only thing I really remembered (probably spurred by the mnemonic there) was that this guy had married women and then drowned them.

What I didn’t know about the case was the bigamy aspect. (Question: is it still bigamy when it’s multiple wives who don’t know about each other? Because he had about three wives at any given time.) He married all of these women in succession, of course, but at the same time he had another wife that he would go back to in between, and a first wife who left him and fled to Canada – but as far as I could tell never actually got a divorce, although I could be wrong about that. Somehow that was almost more disturbing to me than the actual murders: the way he seduced these women and was so charismatic – and how close he came to getting away with it.

Obviously, with a title like that, the case is not the only aspect of this book. It’s also the story of Bernard Spilsbury, a “real-life Sherlock Holmes”, who is sometimes considered the father of modern forensics. It’s not really about his personal life, but it does establish the procedures and principles of autopsies and forensic deduction.

That makes it sound drier than it is. I found the book absolutely fascinating and engrossing. Not just the true-crime bits about the murders, but the information about the forensics of it as well. Possibly the coolest part – and the most convincing to me about the crime – was the “re-enactment” that Spilsbury and his colleagues did in order to establish the means. (Is “means” the word I’m looking for there?) Basically, they used some strong swimmers (women who could handle long stretches underwater), and tested different ways to submerge them. By sharply pulling up on the women’s legs – and keeping them up – they ended up almost killing one of their volunteers, and proving to their own satisfaction the way that the crimes could have been committed.

I couldn’t put this book down. It’s so smoothly and engagingly written that I just raced through it. I do enjoy historical true-crime type stuff, and I enjoyed this one even more than The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – in part because the crime was solved, so that aspect was much more satisfying in this book. Definitely another one that I’ll be pushing on people.

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Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

After Patrick Rothfuss, I have really high standards for “epic” fantasy. GRRM has set up a series that is often seen as the current epitome of epic fantasy – with the fear that he and it, like Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time, will continue until the series inadvertently outlives the author. It made for a natural follow-up while I was still in an epic fantasy mood – and the recent series in on our to-be-watched list.

Writing-wise, it’s not nearly as captivating to me as Rothfuss was. Oh, it’s not bad – there are moments that suck you in, and the concept of the world (a land where seasons last for years) is intriguing, but it’s more about the characters than the world right now. And looking at it relatively impartially or analytically, the characters are basically just stereotypes. Stereotypes with feeling, of course, and well-crafted stereotypes, but stereotypes nonetheless. The most interesting characters so far are the ones who don’t quite fit the stereotype, or the ones that you hope don’t: Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Jon Snow.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love the Starks, as you’re supposed to, and I despise the Lannisters, as you’re supposed to. But that’s almost one of the problems: you’re so clearly supposed to. They are all painted with such broad strokes that it’s too obvious what you’re supposed to feel. I gasped with horror – out loud, even –at certain plot points (I won’t spoil them for you) and felt a smug satisfaction at others. But I also felt like hissing every time certain characters appeared and cheering for others. It’s like a melodrama.

There’s not a lot more I can say about it without spoiling things or having read the rest of the series – because, after all, it is the first in a series. It’s entirely possible that some of the things that I felt were lacking in this book (world-building, mostly) will be more fully explored in later books. I’m definitely hopeful that the Wall and the Others will be more fully explored later – they’ve been hinted at so far, and briefly met, but this book didn’t really deal with them at all. (One of the reasons that I think Jon Snow is a more interesting character is because his storyline deals less with the “game of thrones” part of the world and more with the fantasy elements.)

I don’t own the second book, and I have at least two dozen unread books around that I do own, so I am not sure when I’m going to get to the rest of the series. It probably won’t be too long, though – especially if the rest of the series is also filmed, giving me more of an impetus to read the rest.

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