Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

37903770

It’s as hard to have a favorite sequence of myths as it is to have a favorite style of cooking (some nights you might want Thai food, some nights sushi, other nights you crave the plain home cooking you grew up on). But if I had to declare a favorite, it would probably be for the Norse myths.

There is little dispute that Neil Gaiman is an exceptional writer with a unique imagination. His American Gods is one of the finest novels of contemporary fantasy today. It draws on myths from around the world and particularly Norse mythology in its portrayal of Odin. It now comes full circle with Mr. Gaiman going back to the source material for his book, Norse Mythology.

Drawing from the Poetic and Prose Eddas, Neil Gaiman presents a retelling of the ancient Scandinavian myths of names we know, Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya. So much of what we have now in modern culture these days retold in cinematic form. Marvel movies are pretty far removed from the source. Nothing wrong with that as the nature of myths evolve. And I must admit that while reading Norse Mythology, I kept hearing the voices of Chris Helmsworth as Thor, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and Anthony Hopkins as Odin.

It is by coincidence that this is the second book based on classical mythology I’ve read this year this year. Madeline Miller’s Circe a narrative novel told in first person full of passions and covering how one character has witnessed the great age of Greek myths. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a series of tales beginning with an introduction to the gods and creation to the twilight of the god, Ragnarok. Nevertheless,I can’t help but contrast the two in that both of these books are excellent ways to introduce students to ancient myths. Gaiman’s book, I believe is suitable for young audiences though. Ms. Miller’s book has a few more mature subjects in them.

Even though the book is suitable for minors, don’t let that fool you. It is an engrossing set of stories and told in a comfortable manner that grabs a hold of you by the hand and leads you to a storyteller’s campfire. Gaiman cut his teeth in comic books, and I can see these tales as pieces of sequential art in my mind rather than a movie. Well, except when Thor and Loki are bantering with each other. I see a Marvel movie.

Speaking of Thor and Loki, they come across as somewhat different from their cinematic counterparts. Thor while still strong and powerful also comes across as rather dim. Loki is still brilliant and charming but does not come across as pure evil. He also tends to drink too much and likes to prank the gods. Out of all the character’s he comes across is certainly the most complicated.

The book runs just under three-hundred pages and goes by quickly. It includes a cast of players, a glossary, and notes on each story. It is as if he did write this as a school book. So If you forget something you can reference it easily in the book. The writer’s notes are in the end and are short takes on the sources materials for each story told within the book. I would have preferred that Gaiman added these notes at the beginning of each story though.

One of my favorite tales is “The Treasures of the Gods,” where, through a series of tricks that started as a bad prank against Thor’s wife, the gods of Asgard acquired several great treasures, including Thor’s hammer Mjölnir. It is highly amusing and is the first of the more detailed stories once past the introduction of the main characters.

It all ends in Ragnarok, though. And even though it signals the end of the gods, it comes across as a rather beautiful sequence in the cycle of life. Certainly Neil Gaiman has a gift of prose, and since he also does the audio version, he has a gift for narration as well. Ragnarok certainly comes across as the most beautiful doomsday I’ve ever read.

As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from.

In the end, this is a very accessible book of stories tied together about gods and their often petty interactions. It’s a comfortable, dramatic, often amusing read. If you’ve not read any Neil Gaiman before then this is a good introduction to him. If you are a veteran Neil Gaiman fan, then this is a nice little entry into his bibliography. Either way, I don’t think you will regret picking this up.

Advertisements

Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

 

circe

My experience with Greek mythology was first instilled by the movies of Ray Harryhausen. I loved Jason and the Argonauts as a kid and still do to this day. I may have read some condensed little bits of Greek myth while in middle school. It was not until I attended college that I was exposed to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And although I found Homer interesting, overall I thought The Odyssey was pretty dry. Maybe it was just the translation I read.

Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe is in no way dry or boring. It takes the old myths that we are familiar with and weaves them together into a narrative that is captivating, engaging, and fresh. Reading Circe is akin to sitting is a great hall after a meal while a poet recites tales of love, passion, loss and magic. The lights are dim and a crackling fire is burning on the hearth.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, Titan god of the sun. A seemingly black sheep of the family she is exiled after showing kindness to Prometheus who was punished by Zeus for bringing fire to mortals. It is here that Circe’s story begins to take off. She is exiled to the island of Aiaia. On this island she hones her craft of herbcraft, referred to as pharmaka. To the gods it is considered witchcraft.

But even in exile she receives visitors. The first is Hermes, the messenger of the gods. He doesn’t care about her exile status and finds her fascinating. He brings her news of the outside world, of the wars of man and the petty squabbles between the gods.

We later get glimpses of Circe’s family. Her sister is Pasiphaë, wife if King Minos of Crete, and mother of the Minotaur. Her brother is Aeëtes, King of Colchis and keeper of the Golden Fleece. Through her eyes we get a unique perspective on the old myths that so many of us grew up on.

Circe is probably best remembered as the witch that Odysseus encounters and basically shacks up with for a year while returning from the Trojan Wars. And true to the spirit of her narrative, Miller presents a different perspective on the familiar tale as told by Homer.

Madeline Miller has managed to take the old and present it as something that is fresh, and told in a style that is engaging and hard to put down. The language flows smoothly and is almost conversational in ton. It’s perfect for the first person perspective that it is written in. Of special note, the audiobook, as narrated by Perdita Weeks, is exceptionally performed with nuanced storyteller like performance. It is Perdita Weeks’ first book narration and I hope to here more of her performances.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

One of the underlying themes of the novel is the perception of women in the world of the Greek myths. Miller explores that not only with Circe, but with Medea and Penelope as well who had been given short shift in most other interpretations. Jason and Odysseus are not the heroes that they have often been portrayed as and the reason why Circe changes any men that come to her island to pigs is understandable and as far as I’m concerned better than some deserved.

What Miller has done is something special and hopefully can be taught alongside Homer and Ovid in Classics courses in the future. Despite it being a retelling of stories thousands of years  old, its style is modern, and relevant. Highly Recommended.

Jade City by Fonda Lee

JadeCity

Jade City is my adult debut and it also marks my foray into epic fantasy. It came about from watching kung fu movies and thinking, “You know, I’m a long-time student of martial arts, so why can’t I punch through concrete or fly thirty feet into the air yet?” I started envisioning a society where magical jade granted special abilities to warriors with the proper training and bloodline, and the idea merged with my longstanding enthusiasm for mafia stories to become this modern gangster family saga. It’s the most intense, ambitious thing I’ve ever written, and there’s more to come.

— Fonda Lee

Some of my fond memories of growing up was watching plenty of Hong Kong martial arts films as a kid. With the advent of home video, I discovered the gangster genre, which included of course healthy doses of John Woo movies, starring his muse Chow Yun Fat. I also became fans other directors like Ringo Lam and Johnnie To. Growing up, my favorite pieces of American Cinema was and is to this day The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.

Fonda Lee and her first non-YA novel Jade City blends together so much of what I loved in movies from my youth: wuxia, heroic bloodshed, gangsters, and brotherhood. It gives us a world that is heavily influenced by Asian cinema and culture without it being an entirely Asian specific culture or country. What comes out is an original fantasy alternate world that feels like our own yet is incredibly unique and fresh.

Jade is a vaulable substance that allows certain members of society to channel magical properties that enhance strength, stamina, and reflexes. Jade users are known as Green Bones and at times their powers are almost legendary. But in reality they can only can use it properly after very long and thorough training. For the untrained the allure of jade can be seductive and even touching it can have addictive properties, instilling a lust to possess and wear it. Those that are properly trained can become strong fighters and when in single combat duels or other fights to the death, the victor will take their dead opponent’s jade, making them even more powerful.

The city of Janloon is a post “War of All Nations” city on the island of Kekon that has power divided by two ruling clans. Though on the surface, it may seem as these are criminal organizations they are responsible for keeping the peace. They are regarded as protectors of their territories and of the people who live in it. It is almost feudal. Kekon was once colonized by foreigners and goes to say that their is quite a bit of prejudice against foreigners and especially those who are half-blooded.

The Kaul Family run the No Peak Clan and they are highly regarded with its elderly and ailing patriarch, the Torch, a hero to the people. His grandson, Lan, is the current Pillar of the clan, the leader. His younger hot-headed brother, Hilo, is the Horn, the head of the troops, or fists. They maintain a steady peace in their territories. Their biggest rival, the Ayt family of the Pillar of the Mountain Clan is its biggest rival and has aspirations of total control of the city. Within this conflict is family struggles of power, how those who have it don’t want it and those with the greatest power potential is groomed for great things at a young age.

The rivalry between factions come to a head when gang war breaks out and effects the whole city. Battles rage in streets for territory and shops and restaurants are even at play for the loyalty of their proprietors. Within that war, heroes, such as they are, will sacrifice and suffer loss. Bloodshed rains down by duels of bladed weapons, talon knives, or moonblades as they are called. And what gangster epic of heroic bloodshed would be complete without gunplay?

One running theme in the book is of people having to heed a call to a duty they are reluctant to assume. Some family members find themselves in situations where they doubt their ability to lead but because of family loyalty and honor they must. Shae, the young sister of the family is reluctantly drawn back in to the family affairs after leaving for some years and even abandoning her jade. Lan must come to the grips of handling a war that he was not meant to fight since he is not considered a wartime Pillar and must earn the respect of his soldiers. Hilo will later have to assume more responsibility than he had ever wanted or asked for.

The world that Fonda Lee creates is a rich one filled with history and atmosphere. It has a unique usage of titles and honorifics for its large cast of characters. Frankly I wished there was an appendix in the book. But that richness is what makes the world so immersive as well. This book may be heavily influenced by Asian cinema, but I of course kept imagining it as a perfect venue for an anime adaptation with a jazzy soundtrack like Cowboy Bebop’s. Jade City’s world is definitely one I’d like to visit again. And since this is the first of a planned trilogy and the second book Jade War is forthcoming I will gladly plunge into this it all over again. Highly Recommended.

My Reflections on The 2018 Hugos

The Hugo awards, probably the most prestigious award of the science fiction and fantasy community were handed out on August 19th at Worldcon 76 in San Jose. Now this was the second Worldcon I had ever been to but this first one I voted on.

So when you sign up as a member of Worldcon, you are eligible to nominate and vote on the Hugos. I did not participate in the nominating process. And a good thing too. Apparently all the books I read in 2017 were not published in 2017, except for one.

When the Hugo nominations came out I was not prepared for the fact that I did not read a single one of the novels on the list, nor any of the novellas, let alone novelettes or short stories. I did manage to see all the movies nominated which were under the category of “Dramatic Presentation Long Form.” So yay for having the time to watch a bunch of nerd movies and no time to read? No? I guess not.

There was of course no way that I was going to read all the works nominated. There was even a Best Series category. So I set out the goal of reading all the novels, six in total. And maybe the novellas as they were relatively short.

Little did I know, there is such a thing as a Hugo Packet. Much like how around awards season, studios provide screener copies of their movies for review and voting thus becomes easier. Yeah, I found out about this late.

Oh, and the votes are ranked voting, so out of six nominees, you are supposed to rank your 1st place to 6th place choice for winner.

Come the night of the Hugos and the show went on. My friends Veronica Belmont and Tom Merrit lost in the Best Fancast category for their show The Sword and Laser to the Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace hosted Ditch Diggers podcast.  It’s Tom and Veronica’s first of hopefully many Hugo nominations.

Winner of the John W. Campbell Award for New Writer went to Rebecca Roanhorse. “So listen, y’all a Black and Indigenous woman just won the Campbell award,” she said to applause. Though I have not read her debut novel Trail of Lightning, I did read her short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience,” which by the way also won the Hugo award for best short story.

Winner of the Best Graphic Story went to Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood. Written by Marjorie M. Liu with art by Sana Takeda. This is the second year in a row of winning for them. It’s a really well done graphic novel series. Very mature, often graphic. But yet beautifully drawn as well. Sana Takeda also won the award for Best Professional Artist.

The winner of the Best Editor Long Form went to Sheila E. Gilbert. Now this is one of those categories that I know next to nothing about but they are responsible for editing many of our favorite novels. Here, I would probably shut down and look at my phone, then Ms. Grant closed with this statement:

I’d just like to add one more thing this year. We find ourselves living in a terrifying dystopian reality. If someone had submitted this as a novel to me, I would have turned it down as way too improbable. But if this had been a novel instead of 21st century America, I could have at least edited and improved the situation. The only way that we can all do that now is to exercise our right to vote. If you can vote in the Hugos, you can vote in the midterm elections. Vote to change the present. Vote to save the future. Go out and vote and get everyone you know to do the same. Thank you all very much.

Truly, to me the highlight of the night went to N.K. Jemisin who is the breaker of records. Not only is she the first African American woman to win the Hugo back in 2015, but she has won it three years in a row. No author has done it three years in a row. She won in 2015, thwarting the efforts of the Puppies movement. Her first win was for The Fifth Season, followed by The Obelisk Gate, and she pulled off the trifecta this year with the final book in the trilogy, The Stone Sky. Now some of those sad and rabid puppies may have cried tokenism and not earning her Hugo, Ms. Jemisin had a message for them:

And yes, there will be naysayers. I know that I am here on this stage, accepting this award, for pretty much the same reason as every previous Best Novel winner: because I worked my ass off. I have poured my pain onto paper when I could not afford therapy. I have studied works of literature that range widely and dig deeply, to learn what I could and refine my voice. I have written a Million Words of Crap and probably a Million More of Meh…But this is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers—every single mediocre insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, that when they win it it’s meritocracy but when we win it it’s “identity politics” — I get to smile at those people, and lift a massive, shining, rocket-shaped middle finger in their direction.

The full video of her speech is below:

And the full text is available here.

The Hugos are a way for us, readers to acknowledge great accomplishments. And this was a tough field to vote on. I regret not being able to vote in as many categories as I could, but I am glad I was able to participate.

For a full list of nominees and winners. The San Jose Mercury News, Newspaper for the host city has a fill list of nominees and winners here.

Until next year, Worldcon. I won’t be in Dublin, but I’ll be sure to vote again next year. And hopefully I will be reading more.