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The High King (Book Review)

The High King, published in 1968 by Lloyd Alexander, concludes the Chronicles of Pridain. This is the story of the final conflict with Arawn, and the ultimate fates of Taran, Eilonwy, and just about everyone else that we've met along the way.

As a kid, I would have eaten this book up, so I give it generous stars as its target demographic will love it.

Although Alexander does a marvelous job of gathering up and using every character available, and using them rather well, the book feels rather hurried in many places. To me, this book returned the series to Lord of the Rings light.  Often, I felt that events proceeded rather turnkey, with one mini ex machina after another. Turn after turn, I recognized the tropes that Tolkien branded upon the mind of every fantasy writer, or perhaps every editor of every fantasy writer. Make no mistake, you have no doubt that the hero will win, only a doubt about who may or may not live until the end.

As a writer, I appreciate Alexander's use of dangling plots and dangling items. He uses these to produce his many mini ex machinas. Just about every item left unaccountable comes back into play and comes into play logically, down to the last play. If you're a writer and you want to study how to leave bits hanging for later, he's worth studying.

Myself, I reached the end and I was glad to be done. As an adult, I had no deep appetite for this series. The characters never gripped me. The events never carried me away. I just sauntered through the work, always able to keep my distance. Whatever magic that this book contained did not work on me. 

Mulch

Last month, we got 7 cubic yards of mulch dumped in the driveway. On the first weekend, I must have moved over half of it onto the blueberry beds. After that, it was a week of aches, followed by ten days of vacation. Once I got back, I moved three wheelbarrows a day, finally finishing up yesterday.

We now have a driveway again.

I'm almost done the Chronicles of Pridain. Good. Each book is pleasant enough, but I'm just getting tired of the author. I'm constantly running into factual arguments with the author. "No, it's not done that way," I tell myself. Now, whether he or I am right doesn't matter. What matters is that I keep saying, "Gah!"

Last night's passage was a fine example. The enemy attacked the castle. The defenders didn't want to get trapped in there, so they fielded their smaller army to take on their opponents. Then, their opponents got reinforcements, battered the castle door down, and burned the place down. I cannot begin telling how how full of FAIL that scenario is. The whole point of a castle (or any fortification) is that a smaller number can defend against a larger number. The most typical war scenario of the middle ages was the siege because storming a fortification was as hard. You don't spend decades building a castle if somebody can beat it in a day. The defenders made all the worst possible decisions. They deserved to get defeated. (The only series that I know gets sieges right is The Black Company. I think it's Bleak Seasons where they are dealing with a siege.)

Don't get me started on the fact that the Dark Lord started a war in the middle of winter. FAIL.

At least Alexander gets the mustering of armies right. Raising an army takes time. You have to gather up the people, then you have to march them all to one place.

Anyhow, I'm getting close to the end. All is doom. The heroes have lost. Only one last desperate measure to an unexpected victory.

Dad's Ill

Dad went into the hospital over the weekend with general icky feelings, fearing a heart attack. Fortunately it wasn't a heart attack, but he did have an aorta rather clogged, so he's off to a larger hospital to get more work done. My brother is helping Mom.

Hopefully everything ends with a "not much to report" ending.

Camping

We went camping over the weekend. This was our first camping trip in a year. We took along Joy's friend Aggie, and all had a fun time. (Although, I do think that Aggie was rather getting tired of the whole camping thing rather quickly.)

We began on Saturday by packing up the Ford Five Hundred. That trunk fit the entire camping trip in it. I must say, I was impressed at the sheer volume. With all seats occupied, that was good. We went up to Cunningham Falls for the morning and afternoon. We swam in the lake, then walked up to the falls.

Late in the afternoon, we camped over on Catoctin mountain. For the girls, the most exciting part was burning sticks in the fire. After that, it was burning marshmallows. And leaves. We mustn't forget burning leaves.

Taran Wanderer (Book Review)

The fourth book in the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, Taran Wanderer, 1967, follow the adventures of Taran, the former assistant pig-keeper. It is the Pilgrim's progress of YA fantasy, except without the pilgrims.

The tale itself is an ambling one, wandering just as much as the protagonist. Taran bumps his way through an episodic narrative, growing up along the way. Along the way, he meets many peoples, tries many jobs, and earnestly goes about his quest to discover his parentage.

While well written, the book feels empty at the end. It is as if his journey only required that it fill 50,000 words, and then should be done. Exactly how those 50k words happened didn't seem to matter much.

You can cal me a bit thick-headed for missing all the symbolism and allegory. I do that. Each episode does have it's After School Special lesson to teach, with some of them clearer than others. The fault of the story is not that is has allegory, but that you care so little about the allegory that you just don't bother thinking about it.

The Castle of Llyr (Book Review)

Lloyd Alexander published the third book in his Prydain series, The Castle of Llyr, in 1966. Eilonwy is sent away to the Castle of Llyr to learn how to be a proper lady. For her trip, her only companions are Taran and Gurgi. This is one of those books that I did not read in school and am only now reading.

To me, the book promised a wonderful comedy, for teaching Eilonwy to be a lady is rather like teaching a pig-keeper to be a prince. Alas, we weren't given a wonderful social comedy on manners vs. an intransigent princess. No, we were given an adventure tale, one where Einlonwy is kidnapped, and so rather than get more Eilonwy, we get far, far less than promised, and to that I object. And what little of her we do get gets shoved into the last few chapters. Boo.

All griping aside, the book moves along wonderfully. It's plot twists feel like twists, yanking you about rather unexpectedly, but otherwise the text is crisp, clear, and enjoyable. The fight scenes are few, which I think rather helps the story rather than harms it. The book suffer a little from, "hey, let's get the gang back together" syndrome, but fortunately, a few members of the gang got pared off, leaving us with a rather more manageable working set.

There are no Lord of the Ring -isms left. This series has fully come into its own, developing along its own way. I rather appreciate the more human-scale dilemmas that the characters face. I guess that the scale would make this a "cozy fantasy," rather than epic. 

The Black Cauldron (Book Review)

Published in 1965, The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander continues the adventures of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper. My version says that it's a "Newberry Honor Book," which I think means that it didn't quite win an award, but even being nominated is an honor. This was a book that I didn't read when I was young because I never even heard about it.

In this story, the good warriors of Prydain see that the Black Cauldron, which makes deathless warriors, but must be captured and destroyed if they are to have any chance at all. Knowing the plan ahead of time, you know that the plan will go wrong, and so it does.

Although the book still contains a few Tolkienisms, such as a black gate, many improbable meetings, and even more improbable battles, the story holds together quiet well, for the focus of the story is not on the battles, but the decisions that get our characters from point A to point B. While the first book promised a Celtic style story, but only dressed the story up in Celtic clothes, this book delivers to us a Celtic story with a wonderfully mythic feel. Yet, being a more modern story, we still have to hear about making camp and sitting guard.

Our hero Taran now has more personality, and a temper that gets him into trouble. He also has an internal intrepidness that also gets him into trouble, but for all the right reasons. Eilonwyn still has her attitude, but she is nowhere near as inscrutable, off the wall, or cutting as she was in the first book. She's trying her best to be a real character but not quite there yet. Meanwhile, our trope characters (the bard, Gurgi, Doli) continue on in their trope-centric ways, being exactly what their stereotypes make them, sometimes wonderfully so, but sometimes annoyingly so.

My inner thirteen year old would have loved it.

Age of Extinction (Film Review)

If you've seen the other Transformers films by Michael Bay, you know what you're in for. You get lots of robots, fighting, one sentence declarations, explosions, and action so extreme that the survivors will need years of psychotherapy. There's also a plot, but it just gets in the way of a good fight scene. Skip the theatre. Pull up some popcorn and beer and let the action rip.

If you can't turn your brain off enough, then this film is an ADHD plot on sugar and caffeine. Who can follow all those reversals? Who would want to follow all those reversals? The action is so extreme that implausible gives it too much credit. And even when you do follow the plot, you won't believe it in when it seems plausible. Really, your case is just hopeless. Don't watch it.

The Book of Three (Book Review)

The Book of Three is the first book in the Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. Published in 1965, the book describes the adventures of the assistant pig herder, Taran. That may sound like a useless job, but when the pig is oracular, giving answers to questions that no humans know, taking care of that pig is rather important.

I did not read the Book of Three when I was young. To me, this is a new book, so I’ll split this review into two parts: what my inner kid thought, and what the adult me thought.

My kid part says, yeah, this is cool. We'’ve got this kid who goes on an adventure, meetings unusual characters, discovers tombs, leads a band, and brings his mission to a success, if through unusual and twisty and turny means. This book contains everything that this kind of book ought to have. All in all, I would have eaten this book up multiple times as a kid.

As an adult, I found that this book contained everything that this type of book was supposed to have. By all, I mean that the writer must have had a checklist next to him. Generic kid? Check. Annoying girl? Check. Inscrutable adults teaching you inscrutable lessons by making you feel stupid? Check. The hero seems to make no decisions yet still succeeds? Check. The whole lot of them deserving to die, yet somehow come out of everything alive? Check.

To say that the book reeks of Lord of the Rings is no small assertion. Wise wizard who talks inscrutably and sounds like Gandalf? Check. Strange creature that talks like Gollum? Check. Dark Lord marching his secretly raised armies about? Check. Hero from ordinary circumstances? Check. Magic swords? Check. I can rather hear some editors saying, “We’d really like something like Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off, but for kids. Can you do that?”

I may knock the story, but I don’t knock the writing. For the most part, all the text is clear and the character come across well, except for our everyman hero who we are supposed to identify with. (Those sorts of heroes are supposed to be a bit shallow so that the maximum number of boys will identify with him.)

I give this book five stars because I think that it really works well for its target demographic. Most of my problems with the book come from me NOT being the target demographic.

Swim Team Divisionals

My daughter made the swim team divisionals. We have to be at the pool at 6:15am on Saturday to roll over with the team. Ugh for the 6:15, but yay for my daughter.

Her last few swims went well, too. She cut time on both breaststroke and freestyle, and came in first on freestyle in the B meet. (That's not an A win, but it's still a win.)

As of this point, that girl is now a better athlete than I ever was. 

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