The Lancelot Murders

Saturday, March 5, 2011
Fantasy/Murder mystery by J.M.C. Blair

If this book is any example, the legend of Arthur is undergoing some considerable rewriting nowadays.
The Lancelot Murders introduces us to the legendary characters with more human failings than were ever seen in the original legends:
* An increasingly disillusioned Arthur tends to drink too much.
* Guenevere, who is a non-stop schemer and plotter (mostly plotting to yank the throne out from under her estranged husband) is also shown as someone who likes her men BIG and DUMB ...
* and this leads us to Lancelot, who appears to have the I.Q. of a fig.
Blair's Merlin -- my favourite character in the book -- is very similar to the Merlin in Walt Disney's Sword in the Stone: grumpy but shrewd and somebody you wouldn't hesitate to go to with a problem.
And there is no magic -- not a smidgen -- in this version of the legend.
Blair's Merlin is a scholar and researcher, seeking to build on the knowledge of ancient civilizations, who gets increasingly annoyed when people refer to him as a great wizard or sorcerer.
I had some doubts about whether this book belonged in this blog. However, the Arthurian legend as a whole almost qualifies as a fantasy, as historians and interested laypersons have squabbled for decades over whether he really existed and if so, who was he?
So between that ... and the rather startling anomalies in the story ... I figured it fit nicely in here.
As for startling anomalies ... at the beginning of the story, Arthur is advised that a messenger has arrived carrying mail.
Then one of the commanders of the guards refers to an 'intelligence report.'
Come again? Is there some Arthurian version of the CIA here?
Also note that the commander in question is a woman.
However, the author makes no claims that this is even remotely historically accurate. A different author, Peter Telep, in the introduction to one of his books, says the Arthurian legend contains anachronisms and contradictions that are maddening to authors.
Blair takes advantage of this to give us a lightweight retelling of the legend with Merlin as a Dark Ages Sherlock. Merlin alone makes it well worth reading, but if you can get past the out-of-time oddities it's a fun read overall.

Kitty Goes to War

Friday, March 4, 2011
A series by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty Norville is the host of The Midnight Hour, a radio call-in show.
She's also an alpha werewolf.
I'd never heard of this series before I picked this up but would like to read more. This particular novel is especially intriguing because it's timely: someone is creating werewolf soldiers to fight in Afghanistan -- and some of them have gone rogue.
Now they're loose in the U.S., and Kitty wants to track them down before officials do. She hopes to 're-humanize' them. The officials just want them ... gone.
As if that's not enough, she's also being sued by a convenience store franchise owner who's ticked off that she has implied on her radio show that his chain is attracting, shall we say, occult nastiness.
If this is a standard example of the series, it's a good series with well-developed characterizations. People are not necessarily all good or all bad. Even the ultimate rogue werewolf has his reasons -- not that they excuse his behaviour. And she explains the behaviours of the other members of the rogue pack in well-informed terms of lupine behaviour: wolf packs are highly organized, and the social order is extremely important. So what happens to the pack when the alpha male disappears?
Besides the human viewpoint, Vaughn also frequently attempts to give us a wolf's-eye view of things -- the view the werewolves have after they transform.
Overall it sounds like an intriguing series and one worth following.

Rotten Relations

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Everybody knows Santa Clause, right? The jolly fat guy in the red suit who brings presents to all good little children.
But did you ever wonder what it would be like to be Santa's child?
Especially in the 20th century?
"Every year it's the same. Out all night on Christmas Eve, he flies back in the middle of Christmas Day with a massive sugar hangover, and falls into bed without a Merry Christmas to anyone."
So grumbles Santa's not-quite-thirteen-year-old son, self-nicknamed 'Sharp,' in Home for the Holidays. It's one of 15 stories in the anthology Rotten Relations, edited by Denise Little.
" ... It's worse since Dad took over the Three Kings' outfit. Months of negotiations in Mexico, conference calls from Spain at all hours, and now he insists on going out personally on Epiphany, too. Rides a burro behind the three camels. Comes home with saddle sores."
"Sharp" sounds like every other kid slouching through the early teen years since adolescence was invented -- your parents have gone from people you look up to, to the leading citizens of Dorkville. But it's done with such humour that you can't help but sympathize, even as you grin.
Among the other stories:
* the real lowdown on why Grendel killed Beowulf (father abandones pregnant girlfriend, never bothers to check up on his son, you gotta think that's gonna

come back and bite you ... in this case, literally ...),
* an intriguing retelling of Cinderella (which girl did the prin
ce really get?),
* a follow-up to Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story Young Goodman Brown -- by no less than a distant relative of Hawthorne's,
* Mirror, Mirror cleverly
combines the Snow White story with a recognizable retelling of the story of Henry VIII -- though his last wife bore little resemblance to the story's narrator;
* the story of the young Arthur, from his arrival in Sir Ector's household until
his coronation feast, told from the point of view of Sir Ector's son Kay -- and this Arthur has an edge that we don't usually see in the legends.

My favourites in this anthology were Mirror, Mirror and Cuckoo's Egg (the Arthurian tale), mainly because I've got a strong interest in both Tudor history and Arthurian legend to begin with.
But most of the stories are engaging, clever and well-written.
Of them, I found Rapunzel -- The True Story to be the most confusing. The last line reads, "The scene held for a moment before collapsing into something else, as all the scenes of life are wont to do, especially if a witch is stage-managing them." I could wish that the witch in question had stage-managed things in a more orderly fashion; I found it hard to keep track of exactly what was happening as the story progressed.
Still, given the wide array of familiar characters in unfamiliar settings, times and storylines, it's an anthology that's well worth checking out.

The Sorcerer's Academy


This is a book about a school for students with magical powers.
No, no, not that school for students with magical powers ....
This school is set in Sedona, Arizona.
The Sorcerer's Academy is an anthology of 15 stories. It leads off with the arrival at "Sorcerer U" of three students in particular: Janice Rosa Redding, from New York; Barry Silverhorse, born on a Dine reservation in Arizona, but raised by an aunt in Los Angeles after being orphaned at 6, and Matt Johnson, of Dallas, Texas (where Sedona is known as the "Land of the Wild Woowoos," because of its apparently hefty collection of "New Agers, Crystal Worshippers and Tree Huggers."
The original three students are supplemented by others in the various stories and the authors have used the opportunity to bring in an international staff and multicultural curriculum (Slavic Sorcery, Oriental Sorcery, Totem Animals of North America). There is a student who is not what she seems and a parrot who is not what it seems.
Oh, and although electronics are highly sensitive to magic and must have protective wards, renewable weekly, there is also a course called Cyber-Magic. Where do I sign up?
The students come across as very realistic: they are by turns anxious and stubborn, frightened but determined to do what needs to be done ... they occasionally blow up sections of the school and have school dances at which one student berates another for dating a vampire ... okay, so maybe those last bits aren't all that realistic ....
I could have done with a little less realism in the case of one of student. Silva (we never learn her last name), who has a massive crush on a popular singer, constantly uses "so" as an emphasizer: "He just soooooooo deserves it." "It'd have been soooooooo worth it." "I soooooooo totally understand him."
I wanted to hit her with a silence hex until she learned some new adjectives and adverbs (or any at all, since "so" is neither). That aside, however, the story is still engaging ... she has dreams about meeting her idol but why do they cause her to scream half the dorm awake -- especially when she can't recall anything even remotely unpleasant about the dreams?
And the first story ends on a note of mystery: a shadowy room, peopled -- if that is the right word -- with beings who are particularly interested in the trio in the first story. Who are they? Do they wish the students well or are they malevolent? Their interest could be read both ways.
Add to that the fact the head of the school is named David Reynard ... and Reynard the Fox was medieval Europe's trickster figure ...
I have to add that I was mildly annoyed by the introduction, a segment of which came across as both smug and jingoistic. It is, however, a small gripe, and did not at all affect my enjoyment of the stories.