Thursday, July 26, 2012

Anderson Barron Curley LeGuin

The Pox Party
by M. T. Anderson
Recommended Ages: 14+

The full title of this 2006 National Book Award winner is The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: the Pox Party. And before you ask, there is indeed a Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves, published in 2008. Having read only a few of this author's books before this—including the campy Whales on Stilts—I wasn't expecting the emotional depth, the brutal realism, and the 18th-century prose stylings of this book.

It is a work of historical fiction set in the area around Boston in the years leading up to, and the early months of, the American Revolution. It is a hard-hitting indictment of slavery and that institution's role in the founding of our nation. It shows men and women, both black and white, ranging across the entire spectrum of attitudes about color and race, from the idealistic innocence of a continental soldier named Evidence to the reptilian cruelty of Mr. Sharpe. It portrays the period of the birth of the United States as a self-contradictory swirl of scientific discovery, social progress, mob violence, and inhuman cruelty, all driven by the self-interest of one group or another. It presents an eloquent viewpoint upon a struggle for independence driven by the sometimes paradoxical ideals of liberty and property—and the hypocrisy of a war for freedom in which slaves were forced to fight in place of their masters, often without any promise of living free afterward.

At the center of this story is a boy named Octavian, who is raised in luxury and given the finest education by the fellows of the Novanglian College of Lucidity. Taught to read the classics in Greek and Latin, to play the violin with exquisite skill, and to consider himself an exiled prince by virtue of his elegant mother, Octavian does not at first realize that he is actually a slave. His African-born mother was already the bonded property of Mr. Josiah Gitney when Octavian was born, and now the boy (as he gradually learns) is the subject of an experiment. This accounts for why his upbringing, though lavish, is often also cruelly cold and lonely. Every detail of his growth and development, from the weight of his excrement to the progress of his studies, is measured and recorded in anticipation of a scholarly essay that will, one day, prove that the black man is just as capable of learning and refinement as the white.

But then the political scene shifts. Discontent with the tax-and-spend policies of the British crown brews and bubbles. A conflict approaches, in which the colonial governor will offer slaves their freedom if they betray their masters. Slave-owners, especially in the south, have a vested interest in proving that slavery is the rightful lot of black people. And for reasons I don't have space here to explain, the Novanglian College of Lucidity needs the support of those slave-owners. And so the nature of Octavian's experiment changes. His education comes under the management of a vile man named Mr. Sharpe. The care that used to be taken to teach the boy now seems devoted to keeping him from learning. Bluntly put, the game is rigged. Octavian is to be held up as proof of the inferiority of his race.

At the same time, as Mr. Gitney grows desperate to insulate his household slaves from the unrest and rumors of rebellion, he holds a "pox party" on the pretext of inoculating his servants and guests against smallpox. The outcome, tragic for Octavian personally, leads the boy to run and join the continental army, where his adventures among the early battles of the war are narrated by a fellow soldier in the form of letters to his sister—a passage of wry satire that spares not even the kindest of well-meaning people. What isn't told in Octavian's words is pieced together from the letters of other characters, and what isn't told at all can be inferred.

Octavian's recapture, extreme punishment, and second escape—this time with the connivance of one of his good-hearted tutors—exercise the reader, especially the youthful reader, in the art of picking a tale of horror, suffering, foreboding, and thrill out of old-fashioned lingo, classical references, enigmatic gaps, subtle ironies, and delicate circumlocutions. At the same time, the story is laced with grotesque surprises, graphic depictions of violence and filth, unexpected vulgarities, unapologetic passages of a very "adult" nature. Where his adventure ultimately takes Octavian, we can only tell by reading The Kingdom on the Waves. But it promises to be a dark and perilous journey, provoking serious thought about some less-than-savory details of American history. And we can also expect it to be a deeply stirring book of great literary value, more in keeping with the author of The Game of Sunken Places than Whales on Stilts.

The Merlin Effect
by T. A. Barron
Recommended Ages: 12+

They're an unlikely research team, messing with sensors and deep-sea submersibles off a treacherous stretch of Mexican coast. First there's teenaged Kate, who seems to have tagged along just for a chance to spend time with her historian father, only to spend most of the time paddling around in a kayak while Dad searches for the wreck of a Spanish treasure ship. What this has to do with his area of expertise (proving that Merlin was a historical person) is not immediately clear, but neither is the connection to a marine biologist studying the strange, evolutionary-throwback fish of the area, or to a geologist whose interest lies in the volcanic activity beneath the ocean floor. All they seem to have in common is an interest in studying what's going on under that particular patch of sea, and growing desperation as their permit from the Mexican government nears its expiration date.

Things start to change soon after Kate encounters a whale and a whirlpool during an almost fatal evening paddle in her kayak. Suddenly the evidence her father has been looking for—an underwater photo of the sunken ship Resurreccion—gives them a reason to take the submersible to the sea bottom, directly below the whirlpool. But due to a freak accident, it is Kate who gets there first, even without any diving gear or vessel. Surprisingly, she finds dry ground at the bottom of the 3,000-foot whirlpool, and on that ground a shipwreck, and in that shipwreck a 500-year-old monk named Geoffrey who has been kept alive by the power of the Horn of Merlin. Geoffrey tells Kate the whole story about the horn, its maker Emrys, the wizard Merlin, and how they are all connected to a kingdom beneath the waves and a power to give some type of immortality. Basically, if they don't recover a group of ancient, powerful artifacts before the sorceress Nimue does so, King Arthur will never be able to return and win the final battle.

And by the way, Nimue has Kate's Dad. The life or death of the entire research team now matters more than Kate ever realized, especially now that Terry (the geologist) turns out to be such a good friend. As for who Geoffrey turns out to be... Well, I can only spoil so many surprises before a book recommendation becomes a book autopsy. And I do recommend this book to readers of all ages who think they might be interested in a tale of danger and magic, of warmth and whimsy, of sea monsters and battles and myths and merpeople. I started this book by the author of The Lost Years of Merlin expecting something Diana-Wynne-Jonesesque, like perhaps The Merlin Conspiracy. Instead I was reminded more of the Merlin lore of T. H. White—or more precisely, Disney's rendition of The Sword in the Stone. I'm disappointed that there hasn't been a sequel to this book. However, it turns out to be the third book in a series of Kate's adventures, which also include Heartlight and The Ancient One.

The Named
by Marianne Curley
Recommended Ages: 14+

Ethan is like most teenaged superheroes. He keeps his true identity secret. He maintains the illusion of being an average high school student, except in history class, which he can't help but excel. No one would suspect that he is anything but a normal boy in the normal town of Angel Falls. But like the town, the boy has something else going on below the surface.

Ethan is, in fact, a Guardian of Time—an member of the Guard—a defender of history. He regularly travels back in time to prevent agents of the Order of Chaos from re-shaping history to the taste of the evil Goddess they serve. While his body sleeps, his mind is transported to a Citadel outside the universe, where he is given gear, knowledge, a complete makeover, and a new identity to fit each mission. And then, armed with the power to create illusions and to move objects with his mind, supported by a 600-year-old sidekick named Arkarian, and trained in the arts of combat, he goes forth to battle the agents of Chaos.

Nor is Angel Falls all it appears to be. It is built over the ruins of a lost city whose walls are inscribed with a prophecy. In Ethan's time, that prophecy achieves a new level of urgency. The council that governs the Guard, and which has the power to make or break Ethan as a Guardian, begins to put unheard-of pressure on the boy. All the while, other members of both the Guard and the Order are revealed, one by one, within the city limits of Angel Falls.

The first new discovery is Isabella, the kid sister of Ethan's former best friend Matt. Though a seductive girl named Rochelle came between the buddies and destroyed their friendship, Isabella still nurses a raging crush on Ethan. Before she quite understands what is going on, Isabella has become Ethan's first Apprentice. And he has only a few weeks to prepare her for her first mission.

As Ethan and Isabella defend history in the time of England's King Richard II, and the childhood of America's second First Lady, and other key pressure-points the Lady Chaos has targeted for troublemaking, more and more people from their everyday lives are drawn into the conflict. The monster who has haunted Ethan's dreams since, at age 4, he witnessed his older sister's brutal murder, has materialized in the real world. A grudge match with evil will awaken the slumbering spirit of Ethan's father. A heroic young man will risk his future as a Guardian to do what his heart tells him to do. A fearless girl will stake her just-discovered powers of healing against the killer who has taken her brother hostage. A pair of soul-mates will find each other. A traitor will make a plea to be trusted. And a small group of heroes will do battle against seemingly impossible odds.

With this book, Australian author Marianne Curley begins a trilogy titled "The Guardians of Time," combining the turbocharged hormones of teen romance with a magical fantasy about a secret society hidden within our everyday world and defending reality as we know it. Teen and older readers who enjoy The Mortal Instruments should also like this trilogy, which continues with The Dark and The Key. The conflict is gripping; the imagery is vivid; the characters are appealing. If there's anything to complain about, it's only that the pace picks up so much towards the climax that I got a little confused; but this might be a symptom of brain cells stiffening with age. And where this book excels is precisely in how it distills the essence of youth into an adventure that could have come straight from the daydreams of a 10th-grade history buff.

The Farthest Shore
by Ursula K. LeGuin
Recommended Ages: 13+

It's a shame that it took me until now to read this book, which is as old as I am. As I write this, my fortieth birthday looms only a few weeks ahead of me, and the third novel of Earthsea rings true for me in its depiction of the wizard Ged, a.k.a. Sparrowhawk, beginning to come down off the crest of his career. After a youth full of mighty deeds and daring quests, Ged has progressed so far as to be elected Archmage of Roke, as it were the Dumbledore of his world. Whether due to this more settled way of life, or the feeling of becoming old, or perhaps the sense of the destined ends for which he has striven finally coming together, this book finds Ged restless to sail out to the limits of the island-studded world of Earthsea. And it is the arrival on Roke of a young prince named Arren, bearing the disturbing news that magic is going out of the world, that gives the Archmage the chance he needs to embark on one last quest.

But this book imbibes more than the spirit of men at the height of their power, beginning to descend toward old age. In Arren, it also drinks of youth gaining experience, of boyhood turning into manhood, of hero-worship ripening into a loving companionship concocted of equal parts compassion, trust, and self-sacrifice. When LeGuin writes of Arren "falling in love" with Ged, she does so in the same sense in which T. H. White wrote of Lancelot falling in love with Arthur. Princeling offers himself to wizard as a servant, follows him as puppy follows master, and seems ready to give up even his own destiny as a ruler of the island of Enlad.

But as the pair sail out toward the bitter end of civilization, facing a succession of horrors that bear witness to an evil will bent on destroying all life, the direction of flow changes. Increasingly it appears that the wizard will use up the last of his wizardry to secure for his companion the throne of all Earthsea. And it is not magic alone, but also the boy's strength of body and spirit to master adversity, to face death, and to fight for life both for himself and his friend—no longer "master"—that will restore the Balance that preserves the magical world of Earthsea.

I read the first two books of this series, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, almost a decade ago. At that time, I think I was discouraged from continuing the series because of the rumor that the books became increasingly tied up in Taoist mysticism and/or feminist ideology. I am glad to say these rumors do no justice to this beautiful book, which concludes what was once considered the "Earthsea Trilogy"—though there are now two more novels (written much later) and an anthology of short stories to go with it. On the other hand, I am sad to think I missed out so long on what really could be the most beautifully written book I have read this year.

In mythopoeic world-building, Ursula LeGuin is easily the equal of J. R. R. Tolkien. In economy of words—this magnificent book being a mere 259 pages long—she has no equal. In a work of fantasy that almost obliterates the boundary between prose and poetry, this book could almost be sung. And when it ends, it leaves one with a wistful feeling, as though one wished to re-enter its strange, wonderful realm and stay there a while longer. To do so, one will have to explore the later books of this series—Tehanu, The Other Wind, and Tales from Earthsea—regardless of the rumor that their author had lost her feel for Earthsea by the time she wrote them. Maybe, when magic does drain out of a world, memory can pour it back in.

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