Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

On the advice of a coworker, I put The Hunger Games on my reading list. I noticed that the third book in the series came out not too long ago, and I thought I would give it a shot — it’s a successful series and it came with a recommendation. I’m so glad I did.  The Hunger Games is a remarkable young adult book, and I’m pleased I got the chance to read it.

Suzanne Collins wrote the book in the present tense, which is unusual. It’s not every day that a piece of fiction is written that way. It serves The Hunger Games well, telling the story of Katniss and her entry into The Hunger Games in a spectacular way. Katniss’ journey is a kinetic one — there’s a lot of movement, whether it be benign hunting or the malevolent tracking and frantic running of the actual Games, someone’s always doing something. That’s why I love the choice of present tense for the book. It captures the moment because it is the moment.

The story could be summarized on two levels. The large-scale plot is that of Panem, the capital of the what used to be the United States, and its treatment of the outlying districts it has sovereignty over. At one point in the past, the districts rebelled, but failed in their rebellion. Panem then started The Hunger Games, a competition in which one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen must fight to the death for the amusement of the people in the capital. The citizens of the capital are well-fed and happy, while those who toil in the districts live fairly austere lives.

The small-scale story is of Katniss, who volunteers to take the place of her sister when she is selected to be the female representative for District 12, one of the poorer districts. Katniss has experience with hunting, which she did with Gale, a male friend. The male representative for The Hunger Games is Peeta, a baker’s son who has been on the periphery of Katniss’ awareness for a long time. The development of their relationship through the preparation for and the events of The Hunger Games is compelling and complex. It’s been a while since I’ve encountered a relationship so well-written and heartbreaking.

If I had to pick a favorite part of The Hunger Games, it would be the dynamic between Peeta and Katniss. The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and I really want to know what’s going to happen next. There’s little an author wants more than to gain readership, but I suspect if Collins’ other work is of similar quality, a lack of readers is not something she’ll have to worry about.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton

Evangeline Walton’s books about the Isle of the Mighty are a magical read.  She based her stories on the Mabinogi, a set of myths and legends written sometime in the twelfth century, and her language use fits with the timing of the original.  She has a gift for word usage that makes her stories seem otherworldly — as, indeed, several of them are.  I liked some better than others, but they are, in all, a good set of fantastical literature.

Prince of Annwn

Prince of Annwn is probably my favorite of the four books included in the tetralogy.  In it, Pwyll, a rather boastful prince in the land of Dyved, sets out early for a hunt.  He gets separated from his companions in a wood that seems to become thicker and thicker.  All of a sudden, there’s a clearing, and Pwyll encourages his hounds to take some of the kill another man’s dogs are feeding on.  They shy away from doing so, and here’s where Pwyll should have finally realized that maybe the clearing was more than just a normal clearing.  But no.  He forces his dogs to take some of the kill, and then death shows up.

Death, whose name is Arawn, calls Pwyll out on his bad behavior.  He then admits that he set up Pwyll to arrive in the clearing without his companions, for only Pwyll can defeat Havgan, the death of the east.  Pwyll and Arawn become as brothers, and Pwyll takes on the other’s likeness in order to hide and trick Havgan and his army.  On his way he faces great obstacles, which make this story.  Some of the things Pwyll experiences in the land of the dead seem like they could come out of Stephen King, and that’s great.  There’s lots of gore and suspense, which I was surprised to find in a book with a rather flowery language.  It’s just fantastic.

The Children of Llyr

The Children of Llyr, more than the other books, is a tale of warning about change from one culture to another.  This really does weave amongst all four books, but it seems most prominent in this one.  Llyr’s children number four sons: Bran, Manawyddan, Evnissyen, and Nissyen.  He also had one daughter, Branwen.  After Llyr’s death, Bran, well-known for his strength and wisdom, receives a request from the King of Ireland — the hand of his sister as his wife.

Bran’s people didn’t do the wife thing, and so this had to be mulled over.  Unfortunately, Bran forgot to ask his brother Evnissyen to the council.  Evnissyen spends the rest of the book trying to cause problems for everyone.  For Branwen, however, her main problem was caused by her brother’s decision to let her go to Ireland.  She was abandoned by her husband and mistreated as a slave; when she managed to get word back to her brother, it sparked war.

The main moral of this story is that marriage is dangerous.  It puts women in a subordinate position to men and leaves them to their whims.  I thought the story was interesting, but not as good as the first.

The Song of Rhiannon

Here, we meet up with Pryderi, the son of Pwyll.  His true paternity is actually hidden from him, for it was Manawyddan who fathered him with Rhiannon, who was considered a hard-won consort for Pwyll.  After the war in the second book, Manawyddan went with Pryderi to his home of Dyved and, with Pryderi and his wife Kigva, made a new life.

Unfortunately, some holy stones were taken out of the land of Dyved by a rival of Pryderi’s, which caused everyone save those four to disappear from the land.  They had to leave Dyved and work to earn their keep.  Also to their bad luck, they did finer work than the other craftsmen in town, and they were constantly being forced to leave a location.  Through all this, Pryderi and Rhiannon disappear, leaving Manawyddan to wander and set up house with Kigva.  Eventually, though, the story ends happily.  I liked The Song of Rhiannon for its fairy tale leanings.  I thought it very much in the style of Grimm’s fairy tales, and that pleased me.

The Island of the Mighty

This is truly the masterpiece of the four books.  It centers upon Gwydion, the nephew of Mâth, the wisest of all druids.  He causes some mischief when he steals pigs from Pryderi, eventually killing him for them.  Mâth punishes him for it, forcing him to live as various beasts for three years.  We then get to follow Gwydion in his struggles against his sister, Arianrrhod.  He tricks her into proclaiming her virginity — which she lacks, and Mâth punishes her by causing the premature birth of two children from the seed of the man she had lain with.

While the story follows Gwydion and his rearing of his resulting nephew, Llew, it is really Arianrrhod who drives the story.  She loathes the existence of her child and places serious obstacles in his way, which Gwydion gets around using guile.  I think the moral here is that she’s a miserable woman because she took on the morals of the new way, and then when she was found out became bitter.

Overall, I really enjoyed all the books, but probably the first one the best.  If you’re in the mood for some well-written, well-researched folklore, I highly recommend The Mabinogion Tetralogy.

Rating: 4/5.

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Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

After a break, I’ve gone back to the Dresden Files.  My fiancé has nearly caught up to me (he’s on the third book in the series), so I felt the need to keep ahead of him.  What a good thing it is that he’s indirectly pushed me, because Summer Knight goes beyond the first three books in the series into creating an actual Dresden mythos, rather than being more reliant on traditional folklore to tell the tale.  I think this stretched Butcher more as an author, and the result is an engaging and eminently readable book.

The book starts off where a Dresden Files book usually starts off — with Harry in dire financial and emotional states.  Instead of being offered a well-paying job by a desperate woman, however, he gets a shock.  His faerie godmother has traded her claim over him to the Queen of Winter, Mab.  She offers to release him from all obligations to her if he performs three jobs for her.  The first she tasks him with is to clear her of the murder of the Summer Knight, the guardian of the opposing faerie court.

Not so bad, right?  Well, he is also tasked with passing a test from the White Council of Wizardry, which also involves the faerie courts.  If he isn’t able to pass the task, he’ll get turned over to the vampires (whom he started a war with in the last book).  This would not be a good thing.  No pressure, but Dresden has a lot riding on his shoulders — and the return of an old flame makes things even more complicated.

Summer Knight brings something completely new to the Dresden Files series.  We get an actual second world to explore.  There are some old characters making a return, but something feels really fresh and new about what Butcher is offering the reader.  It may be that I just haven’t read enough in the topic area, but, other than the names, I think a lot of what he delivers is out of his imagination in a different way from the other books.  It feels creative in the most basic sense — he’s making a new world for us to explore, with new characters and situations.

I really think that Summer Knight is the best of the Dresden Files books.  There’s a lot to keep track of, so it keeps the brain working.  Dresden’s path in this book is by no means predictable, and the fact that we’re taken on a wondrous trip through both Chicago and the Nevernever makes it special in a different way from the books that precede it.

Rating: 5/5.

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