Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dumas, Fisher, Harkness, Scott

The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas
recommended ages: 13+

Here is a book that is deeply embedded in western culture. Written in French in 1844, its influence is so widespread even in non-French-speaking countries that references, situations, and attitudes from it inform the make-believe playtime of countless American boys. And yet I would be surprised if one American in a hundred has actually read the novel, in translation or otherwise. I, for one, got by on an illustrated, abridged children's version of it when I was a boy, and later contented myself with repeated viewings of the film adaptation starring Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce. More recently, the daily cross of commuting—under which I sometimes felt as though buried at the wheel of my car—prompted me to beguile the monotonous hours by "reading" an audiobook version of the story. So, with gratitude to reader John Lee for lending his voice to so many characters, I can report that the complete, unabridged novel is most entertaining, thank you.

The story begins on the eve of Napoleon's return from his first exile on the island of Elba, the "hundred days" dramatized by so many other books I have reviewed. Into the port of Marseilles, in the south of France, sails a young merchant captain named Edmond Dantès. Promoted to command by the death of his skipper, Edmond is loved by his crew, by the merchant ship owner, by his old father, and by the fair Mercédès, a Spanish maiden who has agreed to be his wife. Alas, he is not so well-loved by the Spaniard Mondego who loves Mercédès, nor by ship's purser Danglars who envies his rise to command. These two devise a plot to frame Edmond for treasonously conspiring with the exiled Emperor, aided by the cowardly silence of Edmond's morally weak friend Caderousse and the ruthless ambition of a deputy prosecutor named Villefort, who—keen to secure his rise in career and society—would make the innocent Dantès vanish rather than see his own father exposed as a Bonapartist.

So begins Edmond's fourteen-year burial in the Château d'If, an island prison in which life is a living death, and from which death is the only escape. At least, so it is until Edmond—profiting by the death of the Abbé Faria, his next-dungeon neighbor, teacher, and friend—sews himself up inside the Abbé's body-bag and gets tossed into the Mediterranean. By one lucky chance after another, Edmond makes it to land, finds out who done him wrong, digs up the Abbé's insanely vast treasure, and begins to pass himself off as the Count of Monte Cristo (which is an uninhabited island in the Mediterranean, well suited to the needs of pirates, smugglers, and escaped prisoners hatching revenge). From there, the Count gradually re-enters society, insinuating himself into the confidences of the younger generation, including the sons and daughters of Danglars, Mondego, and Villefort. Then he unleashes an interlocking set of devilishly subtle schemes to destroy all three men in detail.

During the intervening years, Mondego has married Mercédès, fathered a son (who, notwithstanding the above-mentioned movie, is not even the tiniest bit Edmond's son), and mounted a ladder of political power based on his supposedly heroic military exploits. Long story short (hereafter "L.S.S."), Mondego blows his brains out after being exposed as a vile traitor whose daring deeds are a tissue of fiction.

Danglars, meanwhile, has shrewdly invested the money he embezzled from Edmond's former employer (whose suicide, and that of his son, the Count pays dearly to prevent). Now filthy rich, unhappily married, and father to a daughter whose probable lesbianism only troubles him to the extent that it frustrates his plans to marry her off at great advantage, Danglars enjoys a reputation as one of the leading bankers in Paris... until, L.S.S., the Count meddles with the market in just such a way as to bring his old nemesis to total ruin. (After many sorrows, Danglars eventually repents).

And finally, Villefort has become one of the most respected judges in the Parisian courts, married twice, and fathered a child by each wife. His angelic elder daughter Valentine takes care of Villefort's paralytic father, that embarrassing old Bonapartist; but his youthful second wife, anything but angelic, wants her bratty son to inherit the fortunes destined for Valentine. Taking a hint from the enigmatic Count, Mme. Villefort embarks on a career as a poisoner, exposing her husband to one scandal on top of another and almost crushing the hopes of a pair of ardent young lovers.

Besides engineering all these disasters—the last of which degenerates into a bloodbath that sickens even himself—the Count of Monte Cristo, considering himself the agent of divine retribution, leads the cunning Caderousse into temptation, with macabre results, finally becoming a witness to the man's murder by another accomplice in his program of revenge. And so, after an enormous, multi-layered study of assassination in all its flavors and forms, the Count turns aside from his gruesome mission and sails off into the sunset with a devoted Greek beauty named Haydée. And you sigh with relief, because all the bad old men (and a few younger bad people) are done in, and the promising youngsters are safe from the duels and suicides and poisonings that had threatened them, and though there is no bringing back what Edmond Dantès has lost, by George, he's got a cave full of treasure to finance whatever he goes for next...

Can't you see what generations of boys, and probably quite a few girls, see in this romance? They say revenge is a dish best served cold. It doesn't get much colder than being chilled for fourteen years in an island dungeon, years spent acquiring culture and a fortune and a richly detailed plan to make one's enemies pay with interest for what they have done. But here romance crosses the invisible line into fantasy and folklore, with a dark hero straight out of comic books, emerging like a phantom out of thin air, knowing everything about everyone, being everywhere at once, and seeming capable of superhuman feats, thanks to the combination of unlimited time to develop them, money to buy them, and cold-burning anger that can only be quenched, in the end, by the tears and prayers of a devoted mother and a grieving lover.

It's a perfect piece of entertainment, except perhaps for the Count's final caper in which he keeps young Maximilien in cruel suspense until the poor kid is all but begging to be allowed to die—and this guy, mind you, is one of his friends. But, oh well! You can't expect to be able to live a life based on revenge without going a little mad. And beholding the Count's madness is an experience in which horror blends with a vindictive sense of satisfaction, and in which suspense, mystery, conventionally youthful and innocent romantic subplots, and unconventionally grown-up and worldly ditto are all mixed up together with material culled from the "true crime" pulp fiction of Dumas' day. No, children, it wasn't altogether original; but The Count of Monte Cristo remains a great entertainment of international renown because it combines all that unoriginal material in a vivid, thrilling, all-around tour-de-force of storytelling. L.S.S.: The whole long story is worth experiencing!

by Catherine Fisher
recommended ages: 13+

This first installment in a remarkable new fantasy series acquaints us with a unique, and never fully explained, world in which futurism and archaism are strangely blended. It is a world in which human technology has advanced somewhat beyond where it is today, in which the turbulence of human progress has culminated in something called "the Years of Rage," whose violence left scars even on the moon. At that point a great leader, who seems to have been as mad as he was wise, enforced something called Protocol on everybody, returning mankind to a pretechnological, feudal era and freezing time there. While vestiges of advanced technology continue to operate in secret, everyone by law is required to keep at least the appearance of living in the Middle Ages. Science has reverted to alchemy, medicine to herblore and midwifery, and politics to the courtly intrigues surrounding the king or queen.

Next in line to be the queen is a spirited girl named Claudia, whose icy, remote father is the Warden of Incarceron. What, didn't I mention Incarceron? That's only the prison where, hundreds of years ago, all the criminal types were sent to work out their aggression in an environment governed by an all-seeing, all-powerful, artificial intelligence. Incarceron, not to put too fine a point on it, is alive. And although nobody knows what's been going on inside it for all these years, or even where it is, it is widely believed that the perfect society will have evolved within its walls by now. Actually, what dwells within Incarceron is a man-made hell of vicious gangs, superstitious villagers, bizarre landscapes, and dangerous creatures, including some animals and people who are part organic, part machine. This is only possible because Incarceron doesn't let anything go to waste. Whenever someone dies, the prison's mechanical beetles and rats carry it off & reprocess it into the next "cell-born" being who will come from, and return to, the prison that gives it life.

Among the prisoners is a young man named Finn who believes he came from outside, though everyone else laughs this off as an impossibility. Finn doesn't remember much about his life before Incarceron, but besides a few tantalizing memories of his childhood, he also has fits in which he sees visions of the future, or communicates with Sapphique, the legendary hero who is supposed to have Escaped from the prison. Escape, capital E, is a holy concept to people like Finn and his handful of friends, who together set out to follow Sapphique's footsteps, aided by a key marked with the same strange symbol as the birthmark on Finn's arm.

Claudia, meanwhile, has come into possession of a similar key, enabling the two of them to communicate with each other. Claudia thinks she knows who Finn was before he went into Incarceron, and if she's right, her marriage to the prince of the realm is only part of an evil conspiracy between her father and the Queen. But there are other conspiracies afoot, which also demand Claudia's cooperation. All she wants is to get Finn out of Incarceron and, perhaps, escape from the plans and counterplans in which she had become trapped.

All this comes together in a fascinating fantasy world full of powerful imagery, ominous mysteries, swiftly building suspense, and touching character relationships which, I expect, will continue to generate great storytelling in books to come. To-date one sequel has been published, titled Sapphique. Click here for a list of other books by the author of Snow-Walker and Darkhenge.

A Discovery of Witches
by Deborah Harkness
recommended ages: 15+
(adult & occult content advisories)

Until she wrote this book, Deborah Harkness was known for her scholarly writings on the history of science and medicine, particularly emphasizing the role of alchemy and magic in the medieval-era development of what we now know as science. Diana Bishop, the main character in A Discovery of Witches, must therefore have been based on Harkness herself. One wonders whether Diana's vampire friend Matthew (who, unlike Dracula, does very much drink wine) has anything to do with Harkness's blog Good Wine Under $20. For all you know, this might be a true story. And that would be OK, because even among love stories in which the male protagonist is a vampire, it's a much better story than Twilight.

One of the reasons for that lies in the character of Diana herself. She's not just a petulant teenaged mortal who decides she can't live without her bloodsucking boyfriend, and so lies down to die until he comes back to her. She's a natural-born witch who has been trying, albeit without 100% success, to live without magic since her parents were viciously murdered when she was a young girl. Diana divides her time between a study of ancient grimoires in Oxford's Bodleian Library and an exercise regimen designed to burn excess energy so that magic doesn't constantly fizz out of her. One day a book of alchemy finds its way into her hands, one long thought to have been lost forever. Suddenly the eyes of every witch, vampire, and demon in the neighborhood are on her.

Mind you, in Diana's world these supernatural beings are genetic offshoots of the human race. You might even know a few of them. Demons, for example, are many of the great geniuses and artistic prodigies who have at least a thin streak of madness in their personality. Vampires often use their long lifespans to acquire multiple degrees and advanced expertise in several disciplines, such as genetics, medicine, architecture, etc. Witches, like Diana's aunt and her girlfriend, tend to major in "witchcraft" (the herbs and potions kind of thing) and perhaps, at most, one or two really "magical" talents, such as flying or firestarting. But after Diana's encounter with the mysterious medieval codex that supposedly holds the secrets of all three types of creature, it gradually becomes clear that she has more than her share of talents; that she may be, in fact, crucial to the survival or extinction of all vampires, demons, and witches. And that puts her in terrible danger.

Ironically, it is a vampire named Matthew who turns out to be Diana's best hope of survival. In spite of their peoples' mutual distrust, they quickly form a bond that grows into love. But they have a lot to learn about each other, and they have a lot of dangers to go through, as such a bond between a vampire and a witch is forbidden by the Congregation that polices inter-creature relations worldwide. Some representatives of which, vampire and witch alike, will not balk even at unspeakable acts of torture and mutilation to get what they want out of Diana.

Before this story ends, Diana and Matthew form another Congregation around themselves, including equal numbers of all three branches of the creature family tree. Not one but two new lives forbidden by the interspecies accord are developing. An ancient chivalric order, begun by vampires in the era of the Christian crusades, has been reactivated. And a new story involving time travel promises to carry the "All Souls Trilogy" into even more strange, wonderful, and exciting directions. Book 2, Shadow of Night, comes out in 2012. And though the most obvious comparison based on this book will be to the Twlight series, be assured that this is a much more mature, satisfying, and intelligent adventure. I recommend the audiobook read by Jennifer Ikeda, who has a most expressive and versatile voice—not to mention a sexy one!

by Sir Walter Scott
recommended ages: 12+

Forgive me if I borrow time from this book review to indulge in my favorite passtime: whining. I had wanted to borrow an audiobook version of this classic novel from the County Library, but when a copy finally became available, I found out the first disk wouldn't play in my car's CD player. The reason was that the publisher very helpfully added a bonus track of CD-ROM data that could only be opened by a computer, and which made machines designed to play only audio CDs unable to read the disk. My friendly librarian first suggested that I listen to the book on my home computer, but when I told him that the whole point of borrowing an audio book was so that I could read while driving my car, he went the extra mile and ordered another CD-book edition for the library's holdings. I therefore got to be the first library patron in the St. Louis metropolitan area to listen to Michael Page's spirited rendering of this medievalist romance, penned in 1820 by the author of such swashbucklers as Rob Roy and The Bride of Lammermoor, which inspired an opera by Donizetti.

Scott, working often under a pseudonym because at that time there was a stigma attached to writing prose fiction, was a prolific writer who helped create the genre of historical novel, and also made a certain pride in Scottish nationality acceptable to English readers for the first time. In fact, it might even be said that Scott invented much of what is now considered traditional Scots-Gaelic culture, although he himself was a lowlander. And although his fiction would be criticized for its plot-heavy, character-light writing style, many of his books continue to provide entertainment and enchantment to this day. Owing to their slight literary merit—at least when judged against such deeply penetrating character studies as the works of Trollope, Hardy, Austen, and the Brontë sisters—they may even be regarded as pioneering works in children's fiction.

And it is true that they appeal to the imagination of children who read books, much as action-packed movies appeal to younger audiences. These are stories that have been, and will continue to be, imitated in the make-believe play of all boys and girls for whom chivalric duels, castle sieges, and forest-dwelling outlaws are a source of inspiration. But it isn't only children, or authors who write for children, who have been inspired by Scott, and by this work in particular. Consider Howard Pyle, Roger Lancelyn Green, and other authors whose compilations of Arthurian legends and Robin Hood tales, as well as original stories, owe a debt to such models as Scott's Ivanhoe. I have even seen signs of our culture's debt to Scott outside literature, including a street named Ivanhoe not far from where I live.

For all that, Ivanhoe himself—a knight in the time of King Richard the Lion-Heart—is not actually all that important a character in the book to which he gives his name. After acquitting himself heroically at a tournament given by Prince John in the earlier part of this novel, he spends most of the remainder recovering from his wounds while events swirl around him. By the final pages he is just sufficiently recovered to mount a horse and face his opponent in a climactic duel which, fortunately for him, ends without a blow being struck. In between there is much ado about the last holdouts for Saxon independence accepting the reality and permanence of the Norman conquest, and about Prince John accepting the return of his brother Richard's all-too-brief reign over England after the glory and folly of the crusades.

The prince tries to pull together an army to resist Richard's return, and the Saxons pull together a fighting body (partly made up of Robin Hood's merry men) to resist the prince's allies, and the Castle of Torquilstone sees a glorious siege, and a self-sacrificing jester pulls off a feat of folly that turns the tide, and the noble Wilfred rides to the defense of a lovely Jewess before she can be burnt by the Templars for sorcery, and suddenly between the covers of one book the English-speaking world discovers Robin Hood as we know him, develops a conscience regarding the treatment of the Jews, coins the word "freelance," and begins to expect a more realistic depiction of social conditions in its historical fiction, romance though it may be. And though the book's characters may be accused of being one-dimensional, they nevertheless have great charm, and some (such as Gurth and Wamba) actually cry out to be loved.

This is, in fact, such a successful piece of entertainment that I am resolved to read more of Scott's books. I refuse to feel guilty about pursuing what literary critics regard as lighter entertainment, suitable for children. Now and then, to be sure, I will take a dose of my medicine in the form of some novel of high literary merit. But you'll have to forgive me if, when I need to pass the dull hours of highway between home and office each day, I err on the side of enjoying myself.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Fuel for Tackiness

This past week, the lighted sign at the local ELCA Tabernacle of Tackiness has proclaimed:


That's easy to say when your church is a short walk from where I live. But what about my work place, which is 45 miles away? I would have had to start walking at 3:30 yesterday afternoon to get to work on time this morning, not counting pit stops. And then I would probably have to go straight home to change my clothes. I wonder how many pairs of shoes I would go through each month. To say nothing of feet.

Meanwhile, as travel packages go, I might have gotten here sooner via hot air balloon. And that (hot air) sounds like a means of locomotion certain churches can abundantly provide...

Friday, March 2, 2012

Tempting Tackiness

This week's lighted-sign message at the neighborhood ELCA shrine of tackiness:


Maybe that's why I feel such a deep desire to cut across the corner on which this church-sign stands. But I resist, because I like my car and don't want to wreck it, even if it means putting a stop to the tackiness. Besides, the tackiness would soon return anyway.