Saturday, July 27, 2013

the crystal cave, by mary stewart

the crystal cave
by mary stewart

i've long been meaning to read stewart's five-book retelling of the arthurian legend, but i just never seemed to get around to it. after reading phil rickman's the bones of avalon, a historical mystery whose title refers to the remains of king arthur, i had just enough arthurian legend to inspire me to seek out more. the choice actually came down to stewart's series or another very well-known one by t.h. white (who also wrote at least one mystery, as i only recently found out). in the end i went with the stewart series, the one that was most readily available at my local library.

the crystal cave is merlin's (myrddin emrys) book and as it sets the stage for the legend, arthur does not appear at all. as things kick off we are presented with merlin at six years old and even at this early age he and most of those around him are aware that he's different from most boys. he's not athletic like the other kids, he prefers to keep to himself and most notably he is given to flashes of insight that he doesn't quite understand yet, except to realize that they are not normal.

it's significant at this point that merlin does not know who his father is, something he'll discover in the course of the book. he lives at the court of his grandfather, one of many minor kings who dot the british landscape in this day and age and as the years pass he nearly falls victim to various political intrigues that eventually drive him from his home land. but not before he discovers the cave mentioned in the title and the man who lives there and becomes his mentor.

as merlin leaves britain he eventually takes up with ambrosius, the high king of britain, who is laying low, building up his forces in preparation for the day when he'll return to his chaotic home land and restore order. just as notably (and perhaps more so) merlin meets the king's brother uther. while they don't quite hit it off, their destinies will be inextricably intertwined as the story progresses.

ambrosius and uther are successful in the campaigns in their home land and after a time the former dies and uther assumes the crown. he is not nearly as level-headed as his late brother and essentially risks his kingdom to have the wife of a fellow nobleman. merlin lends a hand in seeing to it that uther has his way in this, but for motives that are entirely his own and it's right about here that the first book of the saga ends.

which was quite a yarn, if i do say so myself, and i wasted no time in moving onto the second volume - the hollow hills.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

sisterhood of dune

sisterhood of dune
by brian herbert and kevin j. anderson

in hindsight i realize that it might have been best to read the first three books of the dune series before trying sisterhood of dune. that's the first three books chronologically, as they play out in the dune universe, not the first three to be written. it's a trilogy that chronicles the war between men and intelligent machines that constitutes the butlerian jihad, an era only mentioned in passing in the "proper" dune books, as i recall.

while the title sisterhood of dune suggested to me that it would be focused primarily on the bene gesserit, who play such an important role in the series, that's not entirely the case. their formative years are covered here, in a book that commences about a century after the events of the aforementioned jihad, but a number of the other groups, schools or whatever you want to call them are covered as well, including the suk medical practitioners, an early version of choam and the spacing guild, the human computers known as the mentats, and the swordmasters school.

if that wasn't enough we see a continuation, more or less, of the man vs. machine theme, as the fanatical anti-technology crusader manford torondo wreaks havoc on a number of fronts. we also are presented with a variety of sub-plots that deal with early ancestors of the atreides, the harkonnens, and the ruling corrino family. there's even a short foray to the planet which gave the series its name - arrakis aka dune - where we encounter the fremen, or as they're still known in this day and age - the freemen.

which is a pretty full plate and i've probably missed a few stray ingredients here and there. it's a reasonably entertaining look at the formative years of various entities that make up the dune universe but it's obviously pretty far removed from the world of frank herbert's original books. not surprisingly, what i found the most interesting were those all too brief segments that did actually take place on dune. the big downsides for me this time around, various characters - including torondo - who seemed just a bit too villainous and all around blackhatted to be entirely believable.

ultimately, i found sisterhood of dune reasonably diverting, but i don't see myself ever coming back around for a re-reading, something i've done countless times with the first four of the frank herbert volumes.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

paul of dune

paul of dune
by brian herbert and kevin j. anderson

if you read frank herbert's first two dune books, dune and dune messiah, then it probably didn't escape your attention that there was a significant gap between the two. at the end of the first book paul atreides and his fremen forces have defeated the emperor and claimed the planet arrakis for their own. as the second book takes up, atreides is now the emperor himself and is reluctantly presiding over a bloody jihad that has already killed billions and which he seems powerless to stop.

which is where brian herbert and kevin j. anderson's paul of dune fits into the larger picture. i haven't read any dune books for quite some time and i only read a few of this duo's books back, so i was surprised to see that they've now written about twice as many as frank herbert's original six volumes.

paul of dune essentially spins two main stories, though each contains the usual myriad of plot threads that readers of the dune series have come to expect. the main story deals with what happened during that missing decade or so between the first and second books. it's a passably interesting version and worth a look, though given what would come later in the series it seems that the authors laid it on a little thick with the new emperor's lapses into tyrannical behavior.

the other story, and the one that didn't interest me nearly as much, finds us hearkening back to the days just before dune takes place, with a variety of incidents that take place in the life of young paul atreides. not bad stuff really, but for my money the authors could have jettisoned all of it and focused primarily on that other plot strand.

having only read one or two of these ancillary volumes before and not having read any dune books at all for quite some time i couldn't help wondering if this one would hold my interest. aside from the aforementioned reservations, i'd say that it did for the most part. it didn't match up to the first four of the "real" dune books, my favorites of the lot, but for serious fans it's probably worth a look.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

the bones of avalon, by phil rickman

the bones of avalon
by phil rickman

as a general rule historical mysteries set in times prior to the victorian era haven't held much appeal for me, at least not thus far. but i'm kind of a sucker for anything with an arthurian theme (and i'd give a special nod to jack whyte's nine-volume the camulod chronicles) so i decided to branch out a bit with phil rickman's the bones of avalon.

while i wouldn't go quite so far as to say that the bones of the title, being those of king arthur, were a mcguffin, the author could probably have substituted something else entirely without affecting the story all that much. which is not to say that it was a bad story. not at all. i liked it quite a bit, with perhaps one relatively minor reservation.

that would be the personality of the main character, dr. john dee, a fictionalized recreation of a real-life character who was apparently attached to the court of queen elizabeth i. the dee of the book could be described as what passed for a scientist in his day though he could also be described as a sorcerer, conjurer, astrologer, or what have you, depending on who's doing the describing.

which, quite frankly, is not a good thing to be in england in 1560. this is a place that's fraught with a great deal of political and religious turmoil, which in dee's case, has resulted in him nearly being burnt at the stake. this goes a long way toward describing his personality, which (understandably, i guess) is suspicious and very fearful, almost bordering on paranoia. which didn't make him a particularly sympathetic or likable character in my book but the strengths of the story helped to make up for that.

which story concerns a small expedition to glastonbury, a key site in arthurian legend, mounted in hopes of recovering the bones of arthur. dee is part of the expedition, but not long after arriving another member of the party is found murdered in a way that suggests a ritual murder. dee is smitten by a local healer and undertakes a mystic vision, of sorts, with her assistance. but as the hue and cry goes up to find the murderer circumstances demand that he toughen up and take certain matters into his own hands in a way he's not accustomed to doing.

while i found myself grumbling about the languid pace of this one early on, the author kicked things up considerably later on, with the result that the last half to one-third of the book zips right by. i especially liked he how used a plot point that will seem relevant to modern-day readers, but it wouldn't be fair to go into any more detail about what exactly it was.

while i liked rickman's book it hasn't inspired me to seek out any more historical mysteries just yet. however, it did motivate me to finally take a crack at mary stewart's five-volume retelling of the arthurian legend.

francis in the haunted house - 1956

i think i can honestly say, without any reservations, that francis in the haunted house is the best movie that i've ever seen that featured a talking mule investigating a murder in a haunted house.

i don't know if there's anything else i can say but i'll certainly give it a try. for those who may not be aware, francis the talking mule was apparently quite a hit back in the fifties. "he" starred in a series of seven movies, of which this is the last of the bunch. co-star mickey rooney, the human lead here, took over for donald o'connor, who played that role in the first six films. all of which took place, it should be noted, about five years before the debut of tv's (the famous) mister ed.

if you guessed that the proceedings take a rather lighthearted tone here, well duh. after witnessing a murder early on, francis enlists the help of rooney in investigating it. which leads to complications for the latter since the police are wondering how he came to know so much about the crime. since he can't really reveal where he got his info this leads to numerous scenes (overdone a bit, if you ask me) of rooney being hauled off to the police station and given the third degree. of course, everything gets sorted out in the end.

none of which makes for great art or even a particularly engaging mystery story but what would you really expect from a movie starring a talking mule? though i will say that if you can put your brain on hold for a while there are probably worse ways to spend about an hour and a half.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

famous spoilers you might not want to read

darth vader is a horse
norman bates' mother turns out to be the stepmother of larry the cable guy's mother
buffy slays vampires
rosebud was charles foster kane's pet hippo
schindler's got some kind of list