2012 Challenges, Arthurian Legend, Book Review, Fantasy, Magic, Magical March, Mary Stewart, Mythology

Review: The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 14 


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Last Enchantment is the third book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (which later became the Arthurian Saga, with the inclusion of a fourth book, The Wicked Day).  This portion of the trilogy concerns the waning of Merlin’s power, the fulfillment of his final prophesies, and the rise of Nimue as King’s enchantress.  Like its predecessors in the trilogy, this book reinvents some of the major elements of the Merlin legend, such as Merlin’s entombment in the crystal cave, Morgause & Mordred’s lives, and Arthur’s betrayal by Gwenevere and Lancelot (Bedwyr).   


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

What this installment of the series does better than its predecessors is that it allows for growth and development of the characters.  King Arthur’s leadership style and personality are given more attention and some of the minor characters (such as Gwenevere and the lesser Kings) are also clearly drawn, though in a subtle, understated way.  The greatest achievement in this regard is with the character Merlin.  This, his final phase, is both sad and noble.  The relationship he builds with Nimue is touching and heartbreaking.  As Merlin’s early prophecies about his own demise begin to come to fruition, the reader cannot help but hope for Merlin’s success, though it would ironically prove him a failure.  


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the story.

Stewart is a good writer and satisfactory storyteller.  The book is constructed in such a way as to progress the story fluidly and rapidly, without it seeming rushed or impatient.  Most of the chapters are short, though there are lengthier portions where more time must be spent on a single subject – these choices are made consciously, however, and prove necessary to appreciating and understanding the more important aspects of the overall plot.  The only downfall for this edition of the novel is that it is littered with proofing errors.  There are multiple instances (particularly nearer to the end of the book) where words are missing or incorrect (“if” instead of “of”, for instance).  These grammar and proofreading issues should have been caught prior to publication, so it is no fault of the others and does not necessarily take away from the reading experience (except for OCD English majors such as myself). 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

How does a man of power and consequence deal with the waning of that power and stature?  How does a man of supernatural gifts grieve their loss and find a new place for himself in the mortal world?  This final installment of the Merlin trilogy deals with the rise and fall of magical and godly powers, yes, but its message resounds with the common reader just the same.  This is a story about the circle of life, one which takes us from birth and discovery of the many wondrous, seemingly inexplicable things around us, to coming of age and learning to question what we see and what we think we know; it leads us to explore the power of healthy manhood and the wisdom that comes with elder years, then forces us to confront old age and a new dependency on others.  This is a story about love and friendship, war and peace, land and spirit – it is a story about mistakes made, lessons learned, and the very personal meaning of magic.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Merlin lore, Arthurian Legend, History, Ancient British History.

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2012 Challenges, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Diana Wynne Jones, Fairy Tale, Family, Fantasy, Magic, Magical March, Middle Grade, Satire, Sibling Rivalry, Young Adult

Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

 Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 13


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Diana Wynne Jones’s Howls Moving Castle came about when a young boy asked the author to write a story about a castle that moved.  Knowing that ahead of time added an interesting element to the experience, as it was fun to see how that one small, random request morphed in Jones’s imagination and eventually came out as this very entertaining and surprisingly meaningful book.  The story is about a young woman, Sophie Hatter, who is the eldest of three sisters.  The book immediately takes on a satirical tone, simultaneously mimicking and mocking the literary fantasy (and particularly fairy tale) traditions of yore.  Sophie and her family live in the Kingdom of Ingary, where conventional fairy tale tropes are in effect facts of life.  As the eldest sister, Sophie knows she must take care of her family first – probably living to become an old maid while her sisters get to go to the balls, court dashing princes, and study the magical arts.  Things begin to change, though, when Sophie is mistaken for her sister by the Witch of the Waste. She is cursed into appearing like a haggardly old woman and she soon leaves town to find a cure, bringing her to Howl’s moving castle.  There she meets Howl’s apprentice, Michael, and learns that she has certain magical talent of her own.  She eventually helps Howl in a final show-down between good and evil (or, perhaps, bad and worse?) against the Witch of the Waste, and learns that her curse might not have been all it –or she- appeared to be.


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

Although a traditional young fantasy tale in many ways, Howl’s Moving Castle is very much about a young woman’s coming-of-age.  Just as Sophie is learning to appreciate herself – seeing herself as attractive for the first time and exchanging drab gray clothing for brighter hues, she is cursed and becomes a gnarled old woman.  Jones is exploring the nature of individuality and self-worth; only by becoming this older woman can Sophie begin to understand and appreciate who she is – a strong-willed, confident, powerful individual.  She begins to realize that she is not destined to be just “the eldest sibling” as tradition would have it.  Sophie discovers that she is in command of her own fate and that those around her, including her family and new friends, will love and respect her all the more as she embraces who she is and learns to respect herself.  The other characters in the story are equally deep, though they may appear flippant or standardized at first glance.  Wizard Howl, for instance, is an excellently drawn Byronic hero.  Seduction of young maidens is his modus operandi, so much so, in fact, that he is feared throughout the kingdom as the wizard who eats young girls’ hearts (taken literally by the people – which makes him a feared character, although in reality he is quite harmless and endearing, if not more than a bit vain).  The reader discovers through Howl’s assistant Michael, that Howl has never truly been in love with any of the women he has courted – and he knows this because Howl always looks so incredibly dashing when he goes out on the prowl.  Near to the end of the story, though, we realize poor Howl must have fallen head-over-heels for someone because, for the first time, he is totally disheveled. Ultimately, the characters are much deeper than they first appear to be; when the reader sits back and examines their purpose and their connections to other characters, the development of and sub-layers for each, but particularly the major characters, is quite striking.


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

One minor point of contention for me was that the smartness of the story did not quite seem to gel with the middle grade reading level of the prose.  It is, after all, a middle grade book – so making it readable by the prospective age group is absolutely paramount.  While I understand the primary audience is young readers, I couldn’t help but be a tiny (tiny) bit put-off by the sparse style and simple language, when the story itself is so witty and multi-layered.  Still, this is the smallest of small complaints because, in reality, Jones does what she sets out to do; she has produced a well-written, well-constructed, well-paced story for young readers, with added elements that give the book richness which older readers will enjoy and appreciate too.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of this book, for book lovers, is that it is rife with literary allusions.  Jones references a plethora of authors and stories from the fantasy canon, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and Arthurian Legend, and also from British literature, including Shakespeare and John Donne.  These little gems are delightful for those who recognize them, but also work well in the storyline in general, so young readers will appreciate their presence at face-value.  This type of sub-context, coupled with the major themes of love and destiny (Sophie is grappling with the fates, fighting to break the fairy tale mold placed on her as eldest sister, though on the surface she has seemed to resign herself to the traditional role) makes for a fascinatingly and surprisingly rich story for young (and older) readers.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Middle Grade

Interest: Fantasy, Magic, Family, Coming-of-Age, Sibling Rivalry, Love, Perception, Fairy Tale, Satire, Jealousy, Destiny.

Notable Quotes:

“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of the three.  Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”

“I assure you, my friends, I am cone sold stober.”

“I must apologize for trying to bite you so often. In the normal way, I wouldn’t dream of setting teeth in a fellow countryman.”

This book was recommended to me by Amanda.

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2012 Challenges, Arthurian Legend, Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Magic, Magical March, Mary Stewart

Review: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 11


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Crystal Cave is the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy.  She based the series on Geoffrey of Manmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) – a work of now-debunked “scholarship” from the 12th Century.  In her Author’s note, Stewart makes it quite clear that she based her story on this text because it was, to her, the most interesting – and because she was not interested in creating a work of scholarship (thus, she did not need to take Geoffrey of Manmouth’s work entirely seriously).  This is an important note and certainly asserts the credibility of the author, scholarly text or not. Ultimately, this is a story of Merlin’s boyhood – and it outlines the path he will soon take as prophet, rather than magician.  Stewart’s interpretation places all of Merlin’s power in the hands of the gods – making him simply a vessel, with no major magical ability of his own (though he is certainly clever and intelligent).  While I am a bit disappointed in the more spiritual / less mystical interpretation of the Merlin story (I much prefer the magic of T.A. Barron or Jane Yolen), I was still fascinated by tale and how Stewart interpreted the various mythological events, people, and places.  I am a great fan of Arthurian Legend and the Merlin story, and this solid, literary approach (even more literary than White’s Once and Future King, in my opinion) is an excellent addition to the lore.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The downside to Stewart’s approach with Merlin’s character is that it leaves much of the “magic” in the hands of a higher entity.  Thus, unlike the Barron or Yolen works, for example, Merlin’s character in The Crystal Cave does not spend much time training or developing in the magical arts, even though he does have a magician tutor (as well as engineering, language and other tutors).  To me, this is a disappointment because that type of learning is what I have come to expect with retellings of the Merlin tale.  Even without this element, though, the character development and dynamics throughout are so excellent, one becomes taken in and starts to appreciate the story for what it is – a more realistic, “historical” account of the man who was Merlin – and how the lore and legends might have grown exponentially over time.  Merlin’s characterization as a bastard prince, coupled with his relationships, then, with his mother (an unwed princess), his grandfather (the king) and his biological father – whom Merlin comes to discover later in the story, all make for interesting sub-plots and help to guide the story of Merlin’s development along.  The introductions of familiar characters from legend, such as Uther Pendragon, are also well realized and, though different from other interpretations, work very well in Stewart’s reimagining.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The crowning achievement for this story is without a doubt Mary Stewart’s writing style.  There are elements of this piece which hearken back to the epic poets – Virgil and Homer- and which make this story, though modern fantasy-fiction, feel like a weathered text of yore.  Simultaneously, though, the language and flow are current, making the story easy to read and easy to follow (Stewart herself explains in the Author’s note how she took great care to update town names and to limit herself linguistically: For instance, where there may have been three or four different names for one town, based on the different people who had settled the territory at the time, she would choose one name – the simplest to read, thus keeping the story moving and effective by not forcing readers to track the less important elements).  The Merlin legend is one which has been around for ages and thus which demands a certain respect in storytelling – it must be relevant, but also authentic;  it must be told in a way that is somehow reminiscent of ancient folklore, which means largely lyrical – respecting the way ancient stories were not written down, but retold again and again through song and the spoken word.  Stewart’s prose does this in a way that no other Merlin text does (at least, not since Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur).


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

In essence, this story is about a young boy who was born in a tumultuous time and who has seemingly everything stacked against him.  Myrddin Emrys is a bastard child, born without a father in a kingdom constantly threatened.  His royal status is ignored because his mother bore him out of wedlock; he is feared because of the tales his mother told about his conception (and because of certain small “talents” he has, which are misinterpreted by those around him; and he is treated with fear, disrespect, and abuse – both by his elders and by his young peers.  But it is soon discovered that Merlin is a prophet – a vessel for the gods’ (or God’s) power.  He is a seer, who foretells the future – which causes him to be simultaneously feared and revered.  Ultimately, he is a boy on a quest to find his father and to do the right things – the things he is guided to do by his conscience and by the higher powers, who are preparing him to be the tutor and caretaker for the greatest King of all Brittania.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Merlin lore, Arthurian Legend, History, Ancient British History.


Notable Quotes:

“… the gods only go with you if you put yourself in their path. And that takes courage.”

“But I have noticed this about ambitious men, or men in power, that they fear even the slightest and least likely threat to it.”

“I think there is only one. Oh, there are gods everywhere, in the hollow hills, in the wind and the sea, in the very grass we walk on and the air we breathe, and in the bloodstained shadows where men like Belasius wait for them. But I believe there must be one who is God Himself, like the great sea, and all the rest of us, small gods and men and all, like rivers, we all come to Him in the end.”

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