The Once and Future King

Today I am recommending The Once and Future King by T.H. White. This book is actually a collection of four books. The first being The Sword in the Stone which was turned into and animated film by Walt Disney in 1963. This first book was originally published in 1938 (Beyond the first book, I’d say this novel is not particularly for kids as war and fighting and sex and death are, for the most part, shielded from the eyes of children). The collection of all four into The Once and Future King was published in 1958.

This recommendation does come with a few reservations. I enjoyed the lengthy novel (roughly 650 pages and nearing 300,000 words) which is centered around the Arthurian tales, but I’m afraid I may have come to it with a slight case of expectations. I know, I know, it is best to remove all expectations prior to experiencing a story so as to allow yourself to form your own opinion of it. I was planning on doing just that but seemed to have caught the little bug, which flew to me upon the words of Ursula K. Le Guin and Neil Gaiman as well as others who provided blurbs or introductions to this book. People whose opinions hold weight with me.

I understand their love for the book. The wit-filled pages that recount Arthur’s education and inauguration as king to his formation of the round table and the era of chivalry and through the years beyond where if falls into ruin. The story is interesting and entertaining. Some areas drag while others are captivating. It stays true to what is known about the legends (which most of us know of but may have never really read about) and White often refers to Mallory or other sources of the Arthurian legend. I felt that White relied on the reader having previous knowledge of the legend during certain passages.

The more I think about the story the more I like it, but I was not enthralled while actively reading it. White was funny and whimsical while also covering the darker story-lines and allowing tragedy. There are no detailed descriptions of fights or battles or hardships. Many are written without providing action but do provide some detail about the aftermath. The result is no blood and gore (which is perfectly acceptable and not really essential to the story) but plenty of description about scenery and the lands of England. The story of Arthur and his knights has captivated the world for centuries. I believe his story and legend will survive for a long time and White’s telling of it will continue to entertain. After all, it is written for modern audiences and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The greatest thing about this book is its arching storyline of how England, through Arthur, was shifted from the “Might is Right” society to a more civilized land of laws. The tragedy of Arthur is in his good deeds. He transforms England into a peaceful land by channeling baser human instincts into a morally superior lifestyle. The new lifestyle is what ultimately causes the personal turmoil of the aged Arthur because he ties his own hands against saving the ones he loves.

If you are interested in, or already love, the Arthurian tales, then this book will likely be of great interest to you. If you know a little but would like to know more about these tales, then this book is a great place to start.

Happy Reading.

Book Recommendation – Good Omens

Today I am recommending Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett. The story (subtitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch) follows approximately three main characters: the angel Aziraphale, the demon Crowley, and the Anti-Christ aptly named Adam. Crowley has been tasked with ensuring the Anti-Christ is raised to accomplish what he was born to do. However, Crowley has grown quite fond of Earth and humans and decidedly isn’t 100% behind Armageddon. Neither is Aziraphale, who has also grown quite fond of Earth and humans as well. Crowley and Aziraphale have both been on Earth since its beginning and long ago came to an agreement not to prevent the other from doing their jobs. An agreement that would make them something close to friends. The result is a delightfully humorous book about the end of the world.

This book is technically the first book of fiction I’ve read by Terry Pratchett (I’ve read many of Neil Gaiman’s books). I have yet to read any of his Discworld books and have only read one collection of non-fiction that came out shortly after he passed away, but I’ve always known Terry as a fantasy-comedy writer and he does not disappoint in this collaboration.

I was recently lucky enough to see Neil Gaiman in person where he read an excerpt of this book and talked about how it was written and the agreements he made with Terry regarding the adaptation of the book into film. You can tell that Neil misses him terribly as any good friend would miss another good friend. The book came out in 1990 and has been adapted into a television series scheduled to premiere later this year, so I’m sure you will be seeing more about it in the future.

The characters of Crowley and Aziraphale were incredibly fun and, though fundamentally at opposition, they make the business of influencing humans toward good and evil extremely entertaining. They have fun and you can’t help but have fun too. Yes, there is some absurd moments, but you must have a little absurdity to have a comical Armageddon. After all, they are discussing the ineffable.

Though I am not a religious man, I am curious about the “powers that be” in the bible and the supernatural elements of the stories it contains. If you like to laugh and aren’t put off by two English guys telling a witty, rapturous story that borders on blasphemy, then you will absolutely enjoy this book. I know I did.

Happy Reading.

 

Last Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. I thought it fitting to make this the last recommendation of the year (and last of the weekly recommendations). The book is in itself a time machine as most books are. It was originally published in 1895, but holds up well in 2018. Of course, the language is a little dated but not so much to cause difficulty in reading. It may even increase your vocabulary as several words in it aren’t commonly used anymore.

It is still an entertaining book. Enough so that it has been made into movies as recently as 2002. I’m sure in 1895 this book would have been considered outlandish, entertaining, and even frightening, but today I’m afraid it would seem just another story. There is an enormous amount of science fiction today that includes time travel. However, this story is the first mention of the concept (I would be more than happy if someone proved me wrong here). It is always interesting to go back and read books like this that seem to be an integral building block to one of today’s most popular fictional subjects. As a writer, it is also interesting to read what had inspired other writers throughout the years. You begin to notice similarities the more you read whether they may be intentional or not.

Time travel has always been of interest to me because it is very hard to pull off in terms of making it believable or at least practical. There is always a chance missing a small incongruity that ends up debunking the whole concept. These are often in the form of paradoxes but sometimes can just be continuity errors. Either way, they bring in doubt which greatly weakens the story.

H.G. Wells was very clever when he wrote this story because he made it simple with no complicated processes that could easily have initiated such an error. He introduces the machine itself without diving into the technical aspects about how it works (a technique often used by Christopher Nolan in many of his films). He does so in a way that makes it simply believable. We don’t need to get to the nitty-gritty. We just want to see what happens next. Wells then has the traveler go so far into the future that no one could ever refute what happens in the story. Too many time-travel stories make the mistake of setting the future to within one or two generations which quickly dates them, such as Back to the Future. In this book, the character travels hundreds of thousands of years. The world we see through the time traveler (since that is all we know him by) is one that is, for all we know, plausible.

Through clever writing and an engaging narrative despite several dated terms and a standard Victorian structure, The Time Machine holds up for modern audiences. It is shorter at around 120 pages and broken up into 12 chapters, which allows you to break up the reading if you don’t want to read it all in one go.

Happy Reading.

Burden of Prominence

Sashi was growing tired of her reputation. Even in her self-imposed exile she was visited by a new challenger once a week, and every week she dug a new grave. Becoming the greatest swordsman, in her case swordswoman, was her dream since she was a child. She’d practiced throughout her life, defying her family’s wishes, until she achieved it. Her sword became a part of her. She could survive on her blade alone, and she has done so for the past twelve years.

The emperor’s tournament was where her dream began to sour. Her reputation as a swordswoman was vaguely known in her village, but it was enough for her nomination when the messengers came. She traveled to the capital with excitement, ready to show everyone her swordsmanship, but she was ill-prepared for what was to come. She watched the first match from the fighter’s box. She remembered trying to focus on the fight, but kept stealing glances at the emperor and his elaborate throng of guards. She imagined herself among them. A round of applause had returned her attention to the fight or rather the end of it. The winner was bowing to the emperor while the other lay dead as servants came to drag him away and clean the blood before the next fight. Sashi never looked at the emperor again.

She had entered the tournament believing it would follow the rules of sparring and not decided on fatal blows. After all, what was the purpose of a tournament of swords if only one skilled warrior remained? It was a waste. Sashi had not yet drawn her blade with the intent to kill, but she now knew she must if she were to survive.

Many of the other fighters wielded swords or axes. A few fought with weapons she had never seen before. Many wore armor of either leather or wood. Sashi wore only her grey kimono. She had brought nothing else believing only her sword was needed for these fights. She still believed this but was thankful she had forgone the more elegant kimono she considered wearing in the emperor’s presence. Her grey kimono allowed her full range of motion.

The large men in the fighter’s box believed she was lost and threw her out. She continued watching the tournament with the local peasants in the standing area until her name was called. She entered the fighting ground and was greeted with silence before laughter erupted. Her heart swiftly, as a bird’s after a long flight. The laughter died at the emperor’s gesture and her contender was announced. A large boulder of a man entered wielding a flail nearly as big as she was. One spike would be enough to end her.

The fight began. Sashi dodged the flail and delivered her first cut on the man’s waist just below his armor. It was shallow, barely drawing blood. He grunted and swung again as he turned on her. She was caught off guard and had to dive to escape being impaled. She dodged again and gained her footing. Her enemy was slow but powerful. She would need to rely on her speed and her reach to sneak beneath the man’s armor if she were to stand a chance. She had to draw out the fight and use her superior stamina to her advantage. She used her small cuts to instigate the large man into attacking. He grew tired as the seconds went by. She maintained her efforts and delivered cut after cut. Each one increased the man’s rage and efforts until he was thoroughly spent. Her final cut, though shallow, was still enough to sever the carotid artery.

She fought six more men before she was proclaimed champion in the silence of the arena. The emperor did not acknowledge her victory, and the crowds left disappointed. Sashi went back to her village with the fortune awarded to her hoping to leave the tournament behind. Then the first challenger approached. He came to the village claiming to be the brother of one of her victims int he arena. He further claimed dishonesty was the only explanation for her ability to defeat her brother. She dismissed the claim knowing the truth but accepted his challenge. She defeated him in three blows. When he failed to yield, she delivered a fourth and made his men carry his body back to be buried with his brother.

Three months passed and five more warriors challenged her. Sashi moved to the outskirts of her village where she could face the challengers without causing further trouble for her family. Her reputation spread across the country with every warrior she defeated, and more came to test her skills and prove her reputation was a deceit. Two years passed before her blade proved her reputation as genuine. Then the number of challengers increased. Each one hoping to defeat the greatest swordsman and claim the title for themselves. It was then that she moved to the island of the crescent moon in the southern sea.

Twelve years passed and countless challengers still made their way to her small island to claim their glory. She defeated every one of them. At times she felt her island held more graves than grains of sand. She was alone and surrounded by death. She was growing tired. Her dream had become her cage. Then the emperor’s messenger came.

A new tournament was to be held. As the greatest swordsman, she was expected to attend and again prove herself. She left her island for the first time in over a decade. She wore a grey kimono and brought only her wooden training sword. Her steel blade remained behind on the island where it would become its own legend.

She entered the arena to a hushed silence. No laughter followed this time. Only a deep respect and a tinge of fear filled the air. Her first opponent was eager but fear undid him as her wooden blade cracked his skull and he fell. She fought again and again without rest and without defeat. It seems the emperor had hosted the tournament with the sole purpose of usurping her reputation and grant her title to a new warrior, even if he did not prove worthy of it.

When no warriors remained, she returned to her island expecting many new challengers to approach her. A month passed without a single one. Then a year. She hoped one might come who would want to learn from her. Someone she would pass her title to. She spent the rest of her days waiting for a warrior who would best her. None ever came.

A Desire To Learn

Pyter ran through the cobblestone streets and safely into a deserted alleyway. He surveyed the path behind him to make sure he wasn’t followed then made certain he had an open route of escape should he need one. Satisfied he was alone, and would be for a time, he sat on a pile of trash and got comfortable. His bare feet were black with grime, his pants shredded from the knee down, and his shirt so threadbare any onlooker wouldn’t believe he wore one.

He could have stolen a new shirt or even a coat for the upcoming winter, and he had planned on doing so when he came upon something he treasured more than warmth and protection. He convinced himself the contents of the book in his hands now might even be able to give him everything he needed to stave off the cold better than a piece of cloth or even a house, though he had never known the luxury of shelter. The possibilities within this book were virtually endless. He just had to learn its contents. His hands traced the symbol on the spine and caressed the cover before thumbing it open to the first page.

“Where’d you find that, boy?”

Pyter fell from atop the trash heap and landed on the cool stone. His heart fired rapidly within his chest. He quickly stood and peeked around to the other side of the pile where the voice had come from. Either he didn’t notice the man when he sat down or he didn’t notice the man come sit next to him. Both options scared him because the man had evaded his keen awareness developed on the streets. He should have heard the man’s breath as soon as he entered the alley.

“Who are you?” Pyter asked.

The man’s head shifted but remained hidden beneath the leather hood. Pyter could see a peppered, thick beard hiding the man’s face.

“Just a beggar wondering what kind of book you have there, and where you happened to get it,” the man said.

“All you need to know is that I have it, right? Which you can plainly see.”

The man gave a chuckle and his whole body moved with it. Pyter could see there wasn’t much to the man, but it was more than what would be found on any beggar in this city.

“May food find you,” Pyter gave him the poor-man’s goodbye and turned to make his exit.

“Perhaps it can find you,” the man replied, and held up a whole loaf of bread. It was more than Pyter had eaten in a month and almost enough to tempt him into making a mistake, but years of fighting for scraps warned him of the easy take.

“I think I’ve got all I need. Thanks.” Pyter tapped the book and continued toward the open street. The man didn’t move. Pyter grew far enough away to turn his back on him. As he did, he froze and watched the cobblestone rise before him until it was eight, ten, twelve feet tall. He turned back to the man sitting by the trash pile, but the man still held up the bread in offering. He hadn’t moved at all.

Pyter warily returned to where the man sat and feigned interest in the bread before bolting down the alley and toward his only remaining way out. Again, the stones rose from the ground. He scanned the street for a drain but there were none. He was boxed in completely. The realization of this came upon him and he tried to calm himself. The man was obviously powerful, but he wasn’t going to give up without a fight.

The man rose slowly and removed his hood. He was bigger than he first appeared when sitting. The beard was black but with prominent streaks of white at the edges of his mouth. Vivid, clear eyes the color of an ocean in storm stared at Pyter. A hair-thin scar ran from his left ear, up his cheek, and through his left eyebrow where a few strands of hair were discolored.

“I propose a trade,” the man said, “I’ll give you the bread if you answer my question.” He was still holding the loaf out in offering.

Pyter saw the bread in his peripheral vision. He refused to break eye contact with the man, but then thought to try a sizable risk that could possibly provide the advantage. He looked away and feigned interest in the situation before prompting the man to repeat the question.

“I asked where you got that book.” The man reminded him. He remained in place with the bread offered. Pyter realized the man was also wary of their standoff, but he decided to play along.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I prefer to hear a man confess his crime before I punish him for it.”

Pyter’s senses returned to high alert. His act abandoned, he prepared for a fight. He just hoped he might still be alive after he lost this one. He prepared to use the only spell he’d been able to learn. His last resort. He muttered the words, summoning the air within the alley around him. He could see the man’s robe flutter toward him and the air obeyed his commands. The man’s eyes never left his own.

When he conjured all he could, he unleashed it down the alley in gust strong enough to send even a horse several feet into the air, but the man remained eye contact before he vanished behind a wall of flame. Fire shot skyward. The wind Pyter had created fed the fire and joined its path upward and beyond the alley. The heat grew and it grew hard to breath.

Pyter fell to his knees cutting them open, but he was too exhausted to feel the pain. He heaved air in and out and was afraid he’d pass out when the flames disappeared and air once again entered his lungs. His vision was blurred but he heard the boots of the man approach. The man picked up the book he hadn’t realized he dropped.

“Who are you?” the man asked.

“Nobody.”

“Every man has a name.”

Pyter continued to regain his breath. The exhaustion threatened his consciousness. He hoped his silence would prompt the man to leave.

“It’s no matter, I suppose, but I hate to see wasted talent. Here.” The man lifted Pyter into a sitting position and gave him the bread and a water skin. He helped Pyter eat and drink a little. The food restored some energy and Pyter finished the meal himself. The man knelt on one knee in front of him. The vivid eyes staring. Pyter found he couldn’t remain eye contact for long, so he looked at the stone beneath him.

“Pyter,” he finally said, “My name is Pyter.”

“Good. You haven’t lost the ability to trust completely.” The man stood. “Well, Pyter, how would you like to leave this behind you?” The man gestured around him before offering his hand to help Pyter up. “I can show you a place filled with these types of books. You can learn as much as you want, and even learn to forget what it means to starve.”

Pyter looked from the hand to the man’s eyes. They no longer seemed rigid, but fluid and warm and even welcoming. They were like a fire on a winter’s night. Pyter took his hand. The two stone walls receded until the alleyway was once again as it had been before their interaction. The man patted Pyter on the shoulder then offered him his robe.

“This will keep you warm until we can get you cleaned up.”

“What about you?” Pyter asked.

The man thumbed the book and winked. “I’ve got all I need, and if you pay attention, you will too.”