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July 25th, 2012


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10:32 pm - The Sword Is My Penis
In May, I tackled the classic fantasy series The Dark Is Rising Sequence (full Goodreads reviews: Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark Is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, Silver on the Tree), by Susan Cooper (as read by Alex Jennings), and, hey, it was one of the most frustrating reading experiences of my life!

In Over Sea, Under Stone, Simon, Jane, and Barnabas Drew rent an old house in Trewissick, where they find an old manuscript in the attic. A manuscript that has directions to the Grail or something! Look, it's connected to Arthurian legend somehow! And who should help them on their quest but their Great Uncle Gandalf Dumbledore Merry, who informs them that there are good forces and evil forces after the Grail (he is on the side of good...probably). Well, these scrappy kids do run into the evil forces as they try to crack the code of the manuscript in a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys-style mystery adventure. The kids are likable (especially Barnabas, the Arthurian expert), and the villains are menacing, but the goings-on are surprisingly dull for the most part. Basically, the kids go out and do something, and they come home and talk about it, like, forever. And that cycle just repeats itself over and over. Also, because the clues in the manuscript are largely visual, it was hard for me to really engage with their sense of discovery (I do much better with clever riddles and codes and things). There is some excitement now and then, but the narrative is so simple—there are zero subplots—that, in the end, it doesn't seem like all that much has happened.

But, really, as the series went on, I appreciated that first book more and more. Because The Dark Is Rising introduces us to Will fucking Stanton, who, on his eleventh birthday, discovers that he is an Old One, some sort of immortal magical being embroiled in the age-old battle between the Light and the Dark. His duty now as the Sign-Seeker is to seek the Signs! Signs of POWER! Here, have a rhyming prophecy for good measure.

Basically half the book is exposition, and I know that this book probably inspired a lot of later fantasy, but holy Jesus Christ, the worldbuilding seems so haphazard and vague. Will has poorly defined magical powers and engages in poorly defined time travel and learns about poorly defined Concepts That Only Can Be Spoken of in Capital Letters (even though it was an audiobook, I could hear the capital letters). So here are various reasons I could never get into this book no matter how hard I tried. Will is boring. After the lively and interesting Drew siblings from the last book, Will is just...incredibly dull. He has his moments, but mostly I did not care about him at all. Maybe one of his seven million brothers and sisters would have been a better protagonist. Will just accepts that he has this destiny and then sleepwalks through fulfilling it. He's the Sign-Seeker, but he doesn't actually seek the Signs. He just gets them randomly! They just come to him because they're supposed to! HOW IS THIS NARRATIVELY SATISFYING IN ANY WAY. The entire book is essentially this: the Dark attack Will, Will puts on a feeble attempt to protect himself and then another Old One saves him, maybe some Sign falls into his lap, lather, rinse, repeat. The Dark just keep attacking over and over. It's like, oh, has it been two minutes? Time for the Dark to attack again. Boy, this book is full of surprises. And, of course, who or what the Light and the Dark are never clearly explained. It's just a generic fight between good and evil.

My favorite book in the series was Greenwitch, which is a story about the Drew kids investigating a mysterious painter of the Dark and trying to recover the stolen Grail, all while getting mixed up with the titular Greenwitch. The storytelling is more focused than in the first two books, the pacing is better, Will is less annoying, the Light doesn't just keep saving the kids all the damn time, and shit gets real. The battle between the Light and the Dark is still incredibly vague, but because the focus is more on the task at hand and the Greenwitch, the vagueness doesn't detract from this story.

But then came The Grey King, another book featuring Will fucking Stanton sleepwalking through his destiny in Wales, magically fulfilling the prophecy by waking the Sleepers by playing the Golden Harp, which is a Thing of Power. Also, he must defeat the Grey King or whatever. Thankfully, there's a new character, an albino boy named Bran, with an interesting backstory. But I struggled to pay attention to the actual story, which seemed to focus way too much on sheep and dogs and less on, you know, the Grey King and magic and stuff. Cooper's pacing and narrative structure are just not my thing; characters seem to do nothing for pages and pages and then magically end up somewhere important, do something significant, and then be boring for pages and pages. There rarely seems to be any real conflict or active struggle. There was a nice "Oh, fuck!" reveal at the end, but that was the most exciting part of the book.

And then goddamn Silver on the Tree, which I felt bad for disliking because I realized silveronthetree was clearly a fan. But I just plain gave up trying to pay attention about halfway through the book. This series is not about characters doing anything. This series is about little props fulfilling a rhyming prophecy by doing what they're supposed to do without any sense of conflict or real danger. Rarely is any actual insight required; instead they just know what they're supposed to know because they're supposed to know it. And when the final battle between the Light and Dark occurs, it's...basically a bunch of mumbo-jumbo and magic bullshit.

I tried so hard, you guys! I wanted to like these books! BUT THEY ARE NOT GOOD. WHY DOES EVERYONE LOVE THEM.



I needed—needed—to really enjoy my next audiobook, so I went with Fool, by Christopher Moore, as read by Euan Morton. Moore takes my favorite Shakespeare play, King Lear, and tells it from the perspective of the Fool, here named Pocket. It's a premise with a lot of promise, but, sadly, Moore seems more interested in telling as bawdy a tale as possible. The narration and dialogue are rife with ribald references, and Pocket basically shags everyone. It's a one-joke conceit that wears thin quickly.

I did like how Moore pulled in elements from other plays (the ghost from Hamlet, the witches from Macbeth, various lines), and, despite the rampant shagging, it was interesting to watch the events of the play through Pocket's eyes and discover how the Fool could have had a role (his relationship with Cordelia is particularly inspired, especially given that the roles are often double-cast). And because the play isn't actually about the Fool, Pocket is given a mysterious backstory (that was a bit confusing to follow because I kept missing the transition to flashback). And because the Fool famously disappears from the play in Act III, the story has to diverge a bit in order to keep him in the action, and things get a bit weird. Oh, did I mention that Pocket has an idiot buddy named Drool?

Overall, Fool has its share of amusing moments and clever reinterpretations of the text (along with some original material), but its incessant focus on sex, especially in a play that doesn't actually have any in it, kept me from really getting into it. I liked it, but not nearly as much as I'd hoped to.
Current Mood: sleepysleepy
Current Music: Grouplove - Love Will Save Your Soul

(21 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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From:pica_scribit
Date:July 26th, 2012 06:33 am (UTC)
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I read The Dark Is Rising series in 2004 when I was working as a para-educator with an elementary school class who were reading the series, and I have to say I enjoyed them. I think I would have liked them a whole lot more if I had been, say, 11 or 12 the first time I read them, and into less demanding fiction. But they felt cozy and comfortable and very ... English? So maybe part of my liking of them is based on nostalgia. I was also in my first three years of Harry Potter fanaticism, so I loved finding all the parallels, even if the DIR books don't quiet achieve the same level of drama and quality. They were enjoyable and I liked them. I would probably read them again someday.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:July 26th, 2012 01:25 pm (UTC)
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I guess I don't care about how English or Welsh a book is if it's boring as shit. But I can understand nostalgia.

Whenever Mark gets around to reading them, I can be the guy who complains all the time!

Edited at 2012-07-26 01:26 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:pica_scribit
Date:July 26th, 2012 01:27 pm (UTC)
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You'll make a great curmudgeon, I'm sure.
(Deleted comment)
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From:musesfool
Date:July 26th, 2012 01:16 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I never even made it through the first book. I think maybe those are books you really need to read at 10 or 11 to love.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:July 26th, 2012 01:27 pm (UTC)
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That seems to be the prevailing sentiment, although I do have friends (see above) who read them as adults and loved them. It mystifies me, but it's true! Another friend pointed out that there's been much better children's literature written since then, so it doesn't have the impact it did back in the sixties.
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From:ashfae
Date:July 26th, 2012 03:29 pm (UTC)
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I wrote my master's dissertation partly on the Dark is Rising series, so here goes. *rolls up sleeves*

Over Sea, Under Stone I admit I never liked, even as a kid. It was a boring adventure novel, and those should not exist. Moving on.

...actually, no, I will fail to convince you, I can already see it. So instead I'll say that to my eyes the books are rich in metaphor, philosophy, and English/Welsh folklore, and I'm addicted to all of those and can read them again and again and find new subtle insights. I'm sorry you did not enjoy them, but alas, we can't all enjoy the same books, so c'est la vie!
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From:darlingviolenta
Date:July 26th, 2012 03:37 pm (UTC)
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I liked The Dark is Rising series well enough when I was elevenish (although even then I found Will insufferably boring and much preferred the books with the Drews to those without them) but I'm sure it would not hold up if I tried it again now.
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From:silveronthetree
Date:July 26th, 2012 07:22 pm (UTC)
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Awwww. Sorry you found it so frustrating. I thnk a large part of my adoration for these books is that I read them when I was about nine years old and them embedded themselves into my conciousness. They really are books of childhood and they read so much better in that context. The rest is familiarity, I reread them every year on holiday and I knew the places Susan Cooper descibed so vividly, they were places that I visited on holiday and the places where my friends lived.
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From:penmage
Date:July 27th, 2012 12:07 am (UTC)
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Yes! I don't think I would love them the same way if I hadn't read them when I was nine, and they hadn't lodged their mythology deep in my brain, but I did and they did. And even though as a critically-reading adult I can acknowledge the issues with them, I will forever and ever love them, and they will forever be some of the most vivid and atmospheric books I have ever read.

There are some moments in the sequence that will live in my mind forever as bright spots of powerful emotion and magic. I reread them once every two years or so, and they never get old for me.
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From:enchanted_sea
Date:July 26th, 2012 11:03 pm (UTC)
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Never read them myself. But I deeply wish for Rifftrax to do the movie after reading a hilarious recap of it. (Christopher Eccleston plays the rider. Who poses as a village doctor. This alone is amazing.)
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From:shamoogity
Date:July 27th, 2012 04:34 am (UTC)
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I'm so glad I'm not the only one who felt that way about The Dark is Rising! You've really put your finger on the problem: the world is really poorly drawn, and Will is so boring and basically has no agency. Disappointing.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:July 27th, 2012 04:48 am (UTC)
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Man, I hate Will fucking Stanton, Worst Hero Ever.

I'm glad other people have lovely childhood memories of this series, but, hey, it's good to dislike things once in a while, right? Proves I don't just like everything.
[User Picture]
From:finniscs
Date:July 29th, 2012 04:19 pm (UTC)

The dark is rising

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I think I loved them so much because I read them as a kid and the series was a stepping stone for me into the fantasy genre. It's been a long time since! But I do remember that Greenwitch was my favorite. These books also provided an introduction to the Arthurian legend, since which I've read every book I could find with Arthur as a character.

Have you read Bernard Cornwell's Winter King trilogy? If not, I recommend it! If you have, what did you think of those?

And I would like to thank you for your post about the Game of Thrones book, which sent me straight to the bookstore. I am almost finished with the second book, and, I just received the dvd of the HBO first season in the mail yesterday. I love the combination of medievel and zombies; a unique twist amidst knights and jousting, castle politics, dragons, and sexual escapades at court!

so, Thank You!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:July 29th, 2012 04:33 pm (UTC)

Re: The dark is rising

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Have you read Bernard Cornwell's Winter King trilogy?
I've never heard of it!

And I would like to thank you for your post about the Game of Thrones book, which sent me straight to the bookstore. I am almost finished with the second book
Me too!

I love the combination of medievel and zombies; a unique twist amidst knights and jousting, castle politics, dragons, and sexual escapades at court!
Yay! Glad my recommendation worked out.
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From:daynr
Date:July 30th, 2012 06:05 pm (UTC)
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I have never been able to finish even one Dark is Rising book bc they are SO. BORING.
(Deleted comment)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:August 1st, 2012 12:16 am (UTC)
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Yeah, it was really disappointing. I do like the way he plays with the text, but it almost ends up seeming more like a failed experiment than the brilliance it could have been. I expected to love it, but it was no Dirty Job.
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From:noybusiness
Date:August 3rd, 2012 04:25 pm (UTC)
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Huh, I had the opposite reaction. I couldn't get through Over Sea, Under Stone because it bored me, but I found all the subsequent ones very exciting.
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From:ambyr
Date:August 10th, 2012 04:18 pm (UTC)
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I love the books, but they are a bit divisive. You might enjoy Nick Lowe's classic essay The Well-Tempered Plot Device, in which he rants about "plot coupons," and specifically:

"Probably the most distinguished practitioner of collect-the-coupons plotting is Susan Cooper in those awful The Dark Is Rising books, in the course of which the hapless goodies have to run down no fewer than nine different plot tokens before they can send off to the author for the ending. I quote from the end of volume two: "Each of the Things of Power was made at a different point in Time by a different craftsman of the Light" (odd how these discussions of the plot always seem to be signalled by bursts of capitalization), "to await the day when it would be needed. There is a golden chalice, called a grail; there is the Circle of Signs" (of which there are six separate components – very busy book, that one); "there is a sword of crystal, and a harp of gold. The grail, like the Signs, is safely found. The other two we must yet achieve, other quests for other times." (Read: two more sequels.) "
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:August 10th, 2012 05:28 pm (UTC)
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Haaaa, seriously! And what the hell, they're called the THINGS OF POWER. That is the best name she could come up with. Things of Power. What the fuck.

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