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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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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

Zombies have become popular in recent years, featuring in movies, comic books, books, and television shows.  Unlike their main supernatural competitor, the vampire, the quality of works featuring the zombie tend to be (at least to me) more steady in their quality.  World War Z is no exception — it is a creative work that uses the undead in order to make the reader think about topics bigger than the individual — politics, humanity, ethics, and psychology, to name a few.  It’s a piece of fiction that fuels thinking, which makes it better than a lot of other books in the horror genre.

A friend of mine, knowing how much I like to read and how much I enjoy zombies, recommended World War Z to me a couple of months ago.  I said, “Sure, sounds like something I’d enjoy.”  So, while I was down at the library pulling books for that month, I thought I’d grab this too.  I had to think again when I found that, despite my local library system owning four copies of this book, I would have to wait.  In fact, I was fifth in line, and the queue reached a total length of twelve by the time I got my copy.  This told me something — people are reading this.

There is a zombie movement right now, it appears, and I happen to think it’s a masculine backlash to the vampire movement embodied in the Twilight series.  Vampires are, essentially, a romantic creature — it sucks on you, it broods, it’s creepy in a seductive way. Vampires are for romance novels that don’t want to be called romance novels.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing — if you’re into it, you’re into it, but it’s almost exclusively women who are buying those books, watching those movies.

Now, to the zombie.  It is as far away from sexy as possible.  It’s a killing machine, one that keeps on going, requiring significant force to stop.  There’s a lot of weapons used to take them out.  Planning is needed to avoid death by zombie.  They’re a supernatural villain geared specifically for more masculine interests.  I, for one, love the fact that zombies are big right now.  I’ve not read any vampire books in a while, but I’m definitely a bit of a tomboy when it comes to my evil creatures.  I like the apocalyptic theme most zombie stories have.

World War Z definitely has that theme.  There are countries with people having to fall back and protect themselves in castles.  Some people flee to other lands.  There are fights over resources.  Countries use the zombies as an excuse to attack other countries.  Lives change in big ways, and that’s a widespread truth.  You didn’t live through World War Z without being a different person on the other side.

Brooks sets the book up like the transcripts of in-person interviews, and I think that’s genius.  We hear from all sorts of different people, from a doctor who was one of the first to encounter the zombies to a developmentally disabled woman to a man who fought zombies underwater.  We hear all sorts of different stories, through which we are able to construct our own views on what happened.  I personally liked the fact that the book allows for some ambiguity, because I like to think that most people are good, but there’s plenty of room for someone to get the opposite view, as well.

Overall, I think that World War Z is a fantastic book.  Its appeal is not limited to those who are zombie fans, but also to those who are interested in what would happen to the world in case of catastrophic events.  Brooks gives us some possible answers and allows us to form our own.

Rating: 5/5.

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On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

On a Pale Horse

On a Pale Horse, the first in The Incarnations of Immortality series by Anthony, is an interesting mix of speculative fiction and fantasy.  The modern-day world has cars and computers, but also has magic.  Ghosts are an accepted part of society; well, you don’t mix with them, but they’re a part of the neighborhood.  Most importantly, the world is freely acknowledged to be a neutral battleground between God and Satan for the souls of the occupants.

The book starts off a little slowly, with our main character, Zane, in a magic stone shop looking for something that can rectify his financial situation.  In exchange for a money-finding stone, he agrees to use a lovestone to help out the magician behind the counter.  He gives up the woman he would have met and fallen in love with in exchange for … a rock that finds pennies.  Not exactly the treasure-seeking wonder he was hoping for.

Behind on rent with nothing to eat, Zane decides to kill himself.  All of a sudden, his door opens, Death walks through, and Zane accidentally shoots him.  Then Fate shows up, informs him that now he’s Death, puts him in the garb, and sends him on his way.  Zane, through trial and error, with a little help from Mortis, his car-cum-horse, figures out his position.  Then love gets in the way.

Luna, the daughter of a powerful and tainted magician, is offered by her father to Zane before he dies.  Luna’s father has unloaded some of his evil onto her so that he can go to Purgatory rather than Hell, not knowing that her soul can’t take it on without becoming weighted toward evil due to some behaviors of her own.  Zane is intrigued by her, and they start seeing each other.

Unfortunately, Luna is a linchpin in the fight against Satan twenty years from now, and has thus attracted his attention.  That’s when things start to get interesting.

Most of the book, other than the last seventy pages or so, are about Zane getting used to life as Death and adjusting to doing the job.  This is quite entertaining — I almost always enjoy the parts of books when a newly-initiated magical or mythical character learns about his powers.  I don’t know why.  It’s just cool.  Anthony writes it in a realistic way, having Zane mess things up that he later figures out, but he’s not a dumb character.  He doesn’t need others to inform him what to do, for the most part.

The adventure at the end is pretty good, too.  It involves a lot of thinking on Zane’s part, which is fantastic.  He’s not there for beat-’em-up action (at least, not totally); he’s there to figure a smart way out of the problems he faces.

The only issue I have with the book is that I was able to guess at the solutions to some of Zane’s conundrums before he does, but that’s not a big problem.  It doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the book, which I would guess depends more on whether someone likes the genre than about the quality of the plot and characters, which is excellent.  Overall, On a Pale Horse is a quick, clever book with an original story.  There’s not much more a reader can ask for.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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