Posts Tagged ‘Here Lies Arthur’

I’ve been meaning to get round to reading Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy for a while but haven’t managed to find the time recently. Work. Children. Babies. Goatee growing. You know: the things that take up your time.

But with the summer holidays coinciding with a new book, Half A King, I thought I’d start there.

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Half A King is a fantasy novel aimed at the Young Adult audience which is a difficult one to succeed with: the pace required to satisfy a modern teen male audience brought up on video games, instant gratification and the internet can be inimical to the development and depth required to create an authentic High Fantasy world.

Does this one succeed?

Not entirely, in my opinion.

Gettland is one of the kingdoms around The Shattered Sea, the world of the novel. Whilst fictional, The Shattered Sea has echoes of Norse and Viking culture and language which lends the novel both a familiarity and alienness. It’s not as ubiquitous in our culture as the Greek or Roman mythologies of the Low Fantasy Percy Jackson series; but stories of burning longboats and raiding parties are still part of most school children’s education.

The novel focuses on Yarvi, second son to the King who unexpectedly ascends the throne in the opening chapter, following the deaths of his father and older brother. The novel proceeds to follow his slightly tenuous grip on the throne in a series of adventures and set backs. At its heart, it is a coming of age book as Yarvi is forced to follow a journey into adulthood. As is typical of this genre, our unlikely hero collects unlikely allies and forged unexpected friendships to aid him on his journey.

Abercrombie maintains the pace of the novel well: Yarvi’s various exploits are episodic and at times we seemed to lurch from one incident to another. Only once or twice does Abercrombie slow things down enough to try to develop characters and their relationships. For me, it marred the book a little.

Nor was I terribly keen on the main character, Yarvi. He started engagingly enough: the youngest son, rejected because of a malformed hand, reticent and shy, forced into a role he did not desire and for which he was ill-suited. So far, so good. But he becomes an altogether less engaging character as the novel progresses and far more blood thirsty and distinctly lacking in empathy. The attempts to humanise him – through his friendships with Rulf, Jaud and Ankram and the hint of romance with the somewhat exotic navigator Sumael – did not convince me. It’s hard to give specifics without giving spoilers away but there is one point in particular when I was quite shocked by his lack of empathy.

As someone who dislikes violence, I was also mildly concerned that violence – or more precisely “steel” -was often viewed as the “answer” to almost every problem. In fact, on several occasions, we were told exactly that. I’d have liked Yarvi, having been trained for the Ministry, a scholarly and advisory role, to have been more reliant on his wits and tongue and less reliant on befriending people to fight for him.

One character I did like a lot, though, despite his fairly minor role, was Grom-gil-Gorm, a neighbouring King. His presence was quite magnetic, especially as we generally viewed him from the point-of-view of Yarvi kneeling at his feet.

There is something very much of the Game Of Thrones atmosphere in this novel: Laithlin, Yarvi’s mother, is reminiscent of Cersei Lannister; the historical-fantasy world; the inter-familial violence; the competing religions; the ambiguous characters trying to balance honour and ambition. Personally, I found Phillip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur more effective on many levels and navigating the same ocean with far more satisfying results. For my review of that book, see here.

Another blog review on this book is here.

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For some reason, I cannot read this title without intuitively reading it in Latin hic iacit Arcturus.

I attended a literacy conference this week where Philip Reeve was – for wont of a better phrase – the keynote speaker and I was lent this book as an introduction to his work as – to my total shame – I’ve never read any! I’ve been aware of Mortal Engines and intending to read it – being a definite steampunk fan – but something’s always got in my way!

So… onto hic iacit Arctururs which is obviously based on the King Arthur legend.

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Lets look at the cover above. We see a youthful face, armoured, with piercing blue eyes raised to Heaven in a saintly way. No one tells us that this face is Arthur’s but it is the assumption we make. But let’s look at it in more detail. The metaphor Reeve uses to describe Arthur is the bear: petty, violent and brutally violent. This is not the picture that decorates the cover.

So who else could it be? Gwyna the main character and narrator? Is the face sufficiently feminine rather than saintly to be a young woman? Possibly, but she is never a soldier and far more earthy than this character looks.

No, I think the picture is Peredur. A relatively minor character introduced a few chapters in and dismissed to return in the second half and become really very important! And there is a very obvious reason why this would fit with the femininity of the image.

Reeve seems to be creating a world that is closer to historical reality – with it’s hardships, horrors, tedium and petty brutality as well as beauty, stink and death. Listening to him yesterday, he described how he was inspired by John Boorman’s Excalibur and “lifted” (“stole”?) both the opening and closing scenes from it. It was lovely hearing him describe how as a teenager inspired by this film he devoured Arthurian mythology – in a remarkably similar way to the way I did myself.

Reeve sets the story deeply into the Celtic world, translating familiar names like Merlin into the more Welsh – and more authentic sounding – Myrddin; Tintagel become Din Tagel.

Myrddin is for Arthur what Alastair Campbell was for Tony Blair: Reeve shows him spinning and weaving the legends of Arthur from half-formed truths, ancient myths, lost religions and outright lies.

It is an explicitly metafictional book – a book about books – a tale of tales – a story of songs – which explores the powers of the transformative narrative word to bind and inspire, to create belief out of the air. We hear the tales we all know – Uthr transformed into the shape of his enemy to seduce Ygraine; the Lady of the Lake; Excalibur or Caliburn here; the Holy Grail – and we see the sleight-of-hand by which they were created.

And what I find amazing is that, just like Gwyna, we both recognise the lies for what they are and we are seduced by them ourselves.

There is something beautifully Shakespearean here. The gender ambiguities of Gwyna who becomes a boy, Gwyn, to be safe upon the road and the parallel story of Peredur kept safe from the army by being dressed as a girl echoes As You Like It‘s Rosalind.

I recall the series on Channel 4 not many months back called Camelot starring Joseph Fiennes as a not dissimilar Merlin – albeit one with genuine magic. In reflection, it’s such a shame they didn’t just dramatise this book which – despite the lack of raunchiness (breasts were bared nearly moment by moment and maidens defiled each episode!) – was so much more authentic, genuinely moving and just interesting.

On a separate point: Philip Reeve is fabulous! Clad in a three piece suit which my untrained eye wants to claim as gabardine and walking upright he looked like he had strode out of Dartmoor – which I guess he literally had! – where no doubt he was to return to find the footprint of a monstrous hound by his garden gate! He is, however, a truly inspirational speaker and I feel privileged to have heard him speak!