Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chalice and Avalon High

One advantage to having a nursing infant is the opportunity to sneak in a chapter here and there throughout the day (and night).  One disadvantage is finding the time to write about what I've read when I can think in coherent thoughts and type with both hands!

A while back, I read several quick YA fantasies, but haven't had the time to write about them until now.  The first was Chalice, by Robin McKinley.  McKinley's Newberry award-winning Hero and the Crown was my first introduction to fantasy when I was young, and I've enjoyed the handful of other novels I've read by her.  I was actually looking for one that had been recommended to me, Spindle's End, which is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty (I think).  But it wasn't in, so I had to settle for ChaliceChalice is the story of Marisol, a common beekeeper in the Willowlands who is chosen to be Chalice (a ceremonial position that is part political and part religious).  She assumes the position in the midst of great turmoil after a disastrous accident claims the life of the former Chalice, as well as many of the local leaders, including the Master himself.  The Master's younger brother had been sent away seven years before to become a priest of Fire, but he is called back to fill the role of Master upon his brother's death.  Not quite human any longer, however, he has difficulty fulfilling his responsibilities and gaining the people's trust.  Marisol believes in him, however, and does what she can to save her people, her Master, and the very land itself from outside forces that would try to destroy it.

It was an interesting plot, but fell far short of it's potential.  Part of the problem is that Marisol is so isolated in her role as Chalice that we spend pretty much the whole novel in her head.  There is very little dialogue and even less action.  One scene that could have been a moment of high drama and tension feels shallow because Marisol misses it and has to be told about it later.  I know from her other books that McKinley can do action, so I'm not sure why she shies away from it in this novel.  There is a hint of romance, but it doesn't develop into anything worth getting worked up about.  The political intrigue was interesting, but I felt so trapped in Marisol's thoughts that it too fell flat.  Next time, I'll stick with Spindle's End.

After seeing her novels on my teenage sisters' bedside tables for years, I finally read my very first Meg Cabot story.  Cabot is probably most famous for her Princess Diaries series.  My introduction to her work was through Avalon High, an Arthurian story set in a contemporary setting.  Ellie has moved to Maryland because her parents (who are professors with specialties in Medieval times) are on sabbatical for a year.  Ellie isn't thrilled about the idea of starting a new school, but things look up immensely when she meets Will; the gorgeous quarterback who also happens to be smart, honest, upstanding, and idolized by everyone in the school.  What's surprising is that he takes notice of her, and even begins to prefer her to his beautiful cheerleader girlfriend, Jennifer.  Soon Ellie discovers that Jennifer is cheating on Will with his best friend, Lance.  Over time, more and more parallels can be seen between this little high school drama and that of Arthur's Camelot, and Ellie begins to wonder how she fits in and what she can do to stop the evil events that are destined to follow.

It was a cute little story that didn't take itself too seriously, with plenty of humor to make it light and easy to read.  But the teenage-speak got pretty old after a while, and the characters felt like they had just walked off a teen movie set.  The plot was predictable and the whole thing was really lacking in substance.  I did think the historical aspect looking at Arthurian legend was interesting, but if all of Cabot's work is like this, I'll leave it to the teenagers.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Feeding my Mary Russell obsession

Yes, I'll admit it.  I'm addicted. You're going to get tired of hearing me talk about Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series long before I get tired of reading them. It's hard to resist the allure of intelligent, complex characters in what promises to be an entertaining mystery. So while I do try to read other things, every so often I have to indulge and pick up the next few installments.

Recently I read King's The Moor.  Honestly, I didn't enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed her other Mary Russell stories.  The moor itself played such a strong role in the story that it really deserved to be the title character.  But once the intrigue of this mysterious geographic phenomenon wore off, it just left a depressing air over the whole story.  The mystery wasn't very engaging either, despite early suggestions that seemed promising.  Unlike her other novels that have little or no relation to Conan Doyle's work, The Moor visits the site of one of Sherlock Holmes' original adventures, The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Russell and Holmes are initially there to help a friend who has been disturbed recently with accounts that the infamous Hound has returned.  Their interest deepens when a man is found murdered on this same friend's property.  Eventually they discover who is responsible, and uncover a much larger deception in the process.  But I had to trudge through so much grimness in Russell's time on the moor itself that I was kind of relieved when it was over!

O Jerusalem was the next Russell novel King published, despite the story actually chronologically falling somewhere towards the end of the first Russell novel, The Beekeeper's Apprentice.  Toward the end of that story, Russell and Holmes flee to Palestine for a few months to escape an unknown enemy in England who wants both of them dead.  Their experiences there are only briefly touched on as they don't hold any real importance to that particular story.  But those few months serve as the meat for the novel, O Jerusalem.  In disguise, they join up with two dangerous Arabs -- Mahmoud and Ali -- and spend the next few months living a nomadic life as they try to uncover a terrorist plot aimed at starting another war.

As boring as I found The Moor, I found O Jerusalem, on the other hand, incredibly fascinating.  King does such a good job bringing her settings to life that I felt like I should be scratching the lice in my own hair.  The setting, the culture, the people, the history; it was full of such flavor that I was completely engulfed in the story.  Amidst the very rough lifestyle, there are moments of humor and lightness.  For instance, after suffering as a filthy nomad, and being treated with scorn and mistrust for being a woman, Russell has the opportunity to bathe and attend a dinner party where she shines as the center of all the young officers' attention, much to Holmes' irritation.  There were some delightful moments like that, and even the more painful and uncomfortable ones (of which the novel was mostly full) were still so interesting that I simply devoured it.

So naturally, I was very interested when I started reading her next novel, Justice Hall, and found that it dealt with the same characters from O Jerusalem.  Mahmoud and Ali, it turns out, aren't native Arabs.  (Holmes indicates that briefly in O Jerusalem, but it never becomes significant to that particular story.)  They are actually English noblemen who entered the service of the king decades earlier as spies in that troubled part of the world.  This story picks up almost immediately after The Moor left off, when Mary Russell is surprised to find a very different -- and more civilized -- Ali on their doorstep asking for help.  It turns out that Mahmoud -- now called Marsh -- has unexpectedly inherited his family's fortune, title, estate, etc, and has reluctantly left his Arabic life behind to do his duty.  Russell and Holmes are shocked to find their friend so changed -- and unhappily so -- and set about doing their part to uncover the mystery surrounding a supposed heir who would challenge Marsh's position, all while wrestling with the fact that doing what is best for Marsh-the-heir may be the worst possible thing for Mahmoud-the-man.  Even more intriguing, though, is the mystery surrounding the scandalous wartime execution of the original heir, Marsh's nephew Gabriel Hughenfort.  As they dig further into the past, they uncover deep family secrets dealing with the horrors of war, and the courageous and tragic end of a good and honest young man.

I felt so much compassion for the characters, even Gabriel who had already died long before this story takes place.  It was a hard, yet empathetic look at life for a soldier during WWI, full of humanity tinged with horror.  It was also an interesting twist to see the metamorphosis of Mahmoud and Ali into Marsh and Alistair.  And there were enough plot twists and action to keep things moving toward a very satisfying conclusion.  One of the best stories in the series that I've read yet, which just makes me itch to get my hands on the next one!

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Scarlet Pimpernel

When I told a friend of mine that I was reading The Scarlet Pimpernel, she clasped her hands to her face, gasped and exclaimed, "That's my most favorite book ever!  It's so romantic!"  Then she swooned.  It's a good thing I had my smelling salts handy so I could revive her.  You never know when you'll need smelling salts, by george. 

Do you remember reading about the French Revolution and Reign of Terror?  When the people rose up and starting lopping of heads of the aristocracy?  Gruesome stuff.  The Scarlet Pimpernel takes place during the Reign of Terror, around 1792, with the French aristocracy in fear of their lives.  But there is a hero who manages to smuggle families to England and save them from the guillotine's blade.  He is clever and devious and evades the authorities over and over again.  He is Batman.  I mean, he is The Scarlet Pimpernel.  The name comes from a small flower insignia he uses in his correspondence.  His identity is a mystery to all but his most trusted circle of fellow heroes.  His reputation is all the rage in England and women wear the pimpernel in their hair or sewn into their clothes in support of his actions against the brutal killings in France. 

Sir Percy Blakeney and his wife, Marguerite St. Just Blakeney are the toast of the town in England. They have the prince's ear, lead in all the latest fashions, have wealth beyond imagining, and Marguerite is considered the cleverest woman in England.  Sir Percy is dashing and handsome, but considered a bit of an idiot, no thanks to his lazy and ridiculous remarks he often makes.  He is still universally loved, but scorned by his wife.  Marguerite is frustrated with his attitude and wonders where the man she married went.  They've only been married a year, but Sir Percy's affections have waned and Marguerite lashes back by making condescending remarks.  Her only source of happiness is her brother, Armand.  He helped to raise her after their parents died and she worries about his welfare in France, their home country.  Their family was a humble one, but Marguerite married up thanks to her exquisite beauty and charm. 

Here enters the bad guy: Chauvelin, ambassador from France, fervent follower of the Republic, lopper-off-of-heads supporter.  He would do anything to find and capture the Scarlet Pimpernel.  He uses some condemning evidence against Armand to force Marguerite into helping him discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel.  Marguerite has no idea who it is, but wants to save her brother's life.  Her guilt over inadvertently playing a part in the murdering of a noble family in France torments her when she has to send a great hero into Chauvelin's cluthes.  She does what she can to send information on to Chauvelin in the desperate hope of preserving her brother. 

Where's the romance? you might be wondering.  Marguerite desperately wants her husband to love her like she still loves him.  Soon after they were married, Marguerite confessed the story of what happened with that noble family that was sent to the guillotine.  Soon after, Sir Percy wants nothing to do with her.  As the story unfolds, she becomes more desperate to be united with her husband and would even die to be by his side.  It's very old-fashioned romance, but still sweet and passionate.  Like, she doesn't dream of playing a part to save her husband, just to throw her lot in with him and perhaps die in the process.  Both Marguerite and Percy's pride prevents them from resolving their problems much earlier, but if they had, it wouldn't be as fun to read!

The tales about the Scarlet Pimpernel are fun, but it's definitely the best when we can see him in action.  The opening scene of the book shows him dressed as an old woman driving a cart, deceiving the guards at the gates of Paris.  We don't see him again until later in the book when he is in disguise once again.  Those were my favorite parts.  I wish there had been more daring-do in the book all together, but I suppose I could check out one of the many sequels Baroness Emmuska Orczy wrote.  Interesting fact: this story was originally a play, then written as a novel.  I could totally see that as I read the book.  Each chapter is set up like scenes in a play.  Marguerite hiding behind a curtain while the evil Chauvelin plots, unknowingly revealing everything; Sir Percy rebuffing Marguerite's pleas for forgiveness; the ending scene where the Scarlet Pimpernel's men are in a shack, surrounded by Chauvelin's soldiers.  It would be a great play to watch.

My only complaint is that the ending is very anti-climactic.  I expected more.  Is that my more modern sensibilities at work?  Maybe.  But there is something to be said about old fashioned romance and adventure.  Batman and Zorro should take notes.