Friday, January 31, 2014

The Well at World's End, by William Morris

First published in 1896, and now in the public domain, The Well at World's End by William Morris has inspired countless great fantasy authors. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were students at Oxford when they became devotees of Morris's work, to name just two. I first read this book in college back in the dark ages, when Ballantine released it as a two-volume set. The original Ballantine covers are below, at the end of this post.

This fairly unknown literary treasure is now available free, as a download for your Kindle or other reading device. I got my Kindle version through the Gutenberg Project on Google--and it has reminded me of what my true roots as a reader of fantasy are. Give me the beautiful prose, the side-quests to nowhere, and wrap them in an illusion of magic, and I'm yours forever.

First, The Blurb:

The rich, interwoven tapestry of William Morris's four volume epic, "The Well at the World's End", is brought together in a handsome edition featuring the tale of Ralph of Upmeads. Literally and figuratively, this story is the wellspring that gave rise to both C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia", and J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings". Many elements of the story will be familiar to those who love these and other modern narratives of fantasy and adventure, set in a mythical world. 

Ralph of Upmeads is the fourth and youngest son of the king of a small monarchy, and the only one forbidden of his elder brothers from going in search of his fortune. He runs away, but not before his godmother gives him a necklace with a bead on it, which unerringly directs his destiny to seek out the legendary and titular well at the end of the earth. Along the way, he encounters friends and foes in an ever-changing landscape of rolling hills and barren wood, towering mountains and meandering rivers. Through them all pass roads down which many heroes since have sojourned; united in fellowship, or alone on solitary quests. 

Great and splendorous cities await, and in between, thriving towns, tiny villages, and protective farms at the edge of vast wildernesses. The further our intrepid wayfarer gets from home, the more he misses the simple pleasures of his hearth, table and bed. Many have followed in his footsteps since, both character and reader alike. 

Its language is that of another age, but its archetypical settings and denizens are the timeless stuff of once and future legend.

My Review:

Morris wrote beautifully crafted poems, and the prose in this narrative is both medieval and sumptuous. He was born in 1834 and died in 1896. He was an important figure in the emergence of socialism in Britain, founding the Socialist League in 1884, but breaking with that organization over goals and methods by the end of the decade. Famous as a designer of textiles and wallpaper prints that made the Arts and Crafts style famous, Morris devoted much of the rest of his life to the Kelmscott Press, which he founded in 1891. Kelmscott was devoted to the publishing of limited-edition, illuminated-style print books. The 1896 Kelmscott edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is considered a masterpiece of book design.

The Well at World's End is a real departure for the literature of the Victorian era, in that the morality is indicative of the free-thinking bohemian lifestyle of the famous and infamous artists of the day. William Morris was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and was a man who enjoyed an unconventional lifestyle in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, all of them celebrating musical, artistic, and literary pursuits. 

Using language with elements of the medieval tales written by Chaucer and Chr├ętien de Troyeswho were his models, Morris tells the story of Ralph of Upmeads, the fourth and youngest son of a minor king. The king is wise and his kingdom prosperous, but nevertheless his four sons are not content. The three older brothers set out, with their father’s blessing. Ralph is still young, and his father wishes him to remain at his side.

Not happy with his lot, Ralph departs without his father’s blessing. He yearns to find knightly adventure and is encouraged by a lady, Dame Katharine, to seek the Well at the World's End, a magic well which will confer a near-immortality and strengthened destiny on those who drink from it. The Dame is childless, and sees Ralph as a son; she gives him a necklace of blue and green stones with a small box of gold tied on to it, telling him to let no man take it from him, as it will be his salvation. She also gives him money for his journey.

The well lies at the edge of the sea beyond a wall of mountains called "The Wall of the World" by those on the near side of them but "The Wall of Strife" by the more peaceful and egalitarian people who live on the seaward side.

Ralph meets a mysterious Lady of the Dry Tree, the Lady of Abundance who has drunk from the well, and they become lovers. Together and separately, they face many foes and dangers including brigands, slave traders, unscrupulous rulers and treacherous fellow travelers. The lady is murdered, leaving Ralph bereft. Later, Ralph meets another lady, Ursula, and with her help and the aid of the Sage of Sweveham, an ancient hermit who has also drunk of the well, Ralph eventually attains the Well, after many more adventures.

Because the main character, Ralph, and a nameless lady become lovers with no thought of marriage, the novel was not well known in its time, until twenty years after Morris's death when it was discovered by free-thinking university students, to the dismay of their strait-laced parents.

The underlying story is strong, with many twists and turns. The relationship between the Ralph and the Lady of Abundance is well portrayed, as is the jealousy of her former lover, the death of her husband, and the way she is either loved or feared by everyone around her driving the plot forward. She is a woman of mystery, alternately cruel and kind, one minute the Lady of the Dry Tree, and the next, the Lady of Abundance.

Ralph's story really begins after her death and the twists and turns of fate and magic are compelling. The characters Ursula and the Sage of Sweveham are both deep and well-drawn.

I freely confess, in the same way that the works of William Shakespeare are hard for a modern reader to translate, the language of William Morris’s work is difficult to follow. A quote will show you what I mean: "But Ralph gave forth a great wail of woe, and ran forward and knelt by the Lady, who lay all huddled up face down upon the grass, and he lifted her up and laid her gently on her back. The blood was flowing fast from a great wound in her breast, and he tore off a piece of his shirt to staunch it, but she without knowledge of him breathed forth her last breath ere he could touch the hurt, and he still knelt by her, staring on her as if he knew not what was toward."

When you read it aloud, it rolls off the tongue with beauty and grace, and is somehow easier to understand. The hard-core devotee of true fantasy literature will not be intimidated by the archaic prose. There is a wealth of tales within tales in this volume, all of which come together in the end.  And remember, the book costs nothing!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Burdens of a Saint, Joan Hazel, Guest Review by Carlie M.A.Cullen

- Guest Review by Carlie M.A. Cullen –

After reading, and enjoying, the first book in this series – The Last Guardian – I was looking forward to seeing how the story would develop. I was also a little concerned as to whether Burdens of a Saint would live up to my expectations. I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed.

I don’t like writing spoilers, although it’s going to be hard with this story running through my head, but I’ll try.

The characterisations in this book grew beautifully and organically from book one. I felt I got to know them in greater depth and found myself longing for Saint to achieve the happiness he’d been denied for so long. Ms Hazel created further nuances to the personalities of the characters which made them more fascinating, although with some, not always more likeable. Saint, the main character in this book, was like an enigma wrapped up in a conundrum – at times puzzling, occasionally a challenge, sometimes uncomplicated yet also with an endearing vulnerability. I love the way he was portrayed - the author did a great job of balancing the different facets of his personality while still making him relatable and believable. The new cast interacted interestingly with the existing members. I particularly liked Janet and could empathise with her on many levels. I was intrigued by Eric; it was a tad exasperating not finding out from where his powers originated, but hopefully that will be covered in a future book. It was great to see how CJ (the Guardian) had grown into her role – I had to smirk a little when she exerted her authority – but I would have liked to see her do so a bit more often. However, maybe that’s yet to come; CJ wasn’t the main focus of this story.

The plot moved along at a steady pace and kept me turning the pages long after I should have stopped reading and switched off the light! The introduction of clairvoyance in this story was very realistic and the author obviously knows this subject well. The paranormal and magic aspects were believable and natural.

Thus far, this series has left enough cracks and lingering thoughts about what’ll happen to certain characters in the future for there to be more books about the Guardian and her wards. There are also some unanswered questions. There’s certainly plenty of scope for the author to do so, and I really hope she does.

Would I recommend Burdens of a Saint? ABSOLUTELY! I would advise you to read The Last Guardian first though, as it firmly establishes the relationships and hierarchy, and it would make reading Burdens of a Saint even more enjoyable.

My rating 4.5 / 5


Carlie M A Cullen

Today's guest reviewer, Carlie M A Cullen, was born in London. She grew up in Hertfordshire where she first discovered her love of books and writing. She has been an administrator and marketer all her working life and was also a professional teacher of Ballroom and Latin American dancing until recently.

She has always written in some form or another, but Heart Search: Lost is her first novel. This was launched October 2012 through Myrddin Publishing Group and book two, Heart Search: Found, is now available. She writes mainly in the Fantasy/Paranormal Romance genres for YA, New Adult and Adult.
Carlie is also a professional editor.

Carlie also holds the reins of a writing group called Writebulb. Their first anthology, The Other Way Is Essex, was published September 2012 under Myrddin Publishing Group. Their second anthology is in editing.

Carlie currently lives in Essex, UK with her daughter.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Today we are looking at The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Published in 2007, I had never heard of it until just recently. This is a truly amazing book, and well worth it’s consistently high regard among both authors and readers.

The blurb didn't really sell me, but when I was deciding whether or not to purchase this book, I noticed that the negative reviews were written by people who are not really into reading for pleasure, and some of the negative reviews seemed written by moderately illiterate non-readers. To me, this is a mark of a classic—Tolkien, Jordan—all the great literary-fantasy authors attract 1-star reviews by people whose favorite genre is whatever is written on the toilet-paper wrapper.

My instinct was correct—this book is a true classic, both literary and fantasy.

The Blurb:
The riveting first-person narrative of a young man who grows to be the most notorious magician his world has ever seen. From his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, to years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime- ridden city, to his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that transports readers into the body and mind of a wizard. It is a high-action novel written with a poet's hand, a powerful coming-of-age story of a magically gifted young man, told through his eyes: to read this book is to be the hero.

My Review:
First, lest talk about the structure of this tale. I love the way Rothfuss handled dividing the story into two timelines. The first takes place in the present, described in third person. The second timeline is in the main protagonist Kvothe's past, narrated by Kvothe himself to a renowned 'Chronicler,' who is only called Chronicler throughout the book.
Kvothe’s first mentor, the scholar 'Abenthy', who trains Kvothe in science and "sympathy", a discipline of causing changes in one object by manipulating another , teaches him the rudiments well. He is child of  a famed troupe of traveling entertainers.

A song written by Kvothe's father, Arliden, inadvertently draws the attention of the mythical "Chandrian," who destroy the troupe, leaving Kvothe alive but alone.

He is posing as a simple man, an innkeeper named Kote. His tavern is cleaner than most, and with a good reputation. His assistant (and secretly, his student,) Bast, is a prince of the Fae, posing as a human in order to learn what he can from Kvothe, whom he truly cares about. The story of how he became the most feared swordfighter, magician, and musician, is gripping. He is rumored to have killed a king and somehow caused the present war.

Rothfuss’s magic system is quite unique. It is complicated, but makes sense. The complexity gives it a sense of the mysterious, and I like that.

Kvothe’s tale is hard, and loss of his family is something he never really accepts. It is gripping from page one, and once you begin reading it, you will have trouble putting it down. This is Epic fantasy with a capital ‘E’. If you have not yet read this, and you are a lover of high fantasy, I highly recommend you get your hands on it. I am giving it five full stars.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Desprite Measures, by Deborah Jay

Okay--we all know the cover above looks like I've taken a side-trip into a lurid romance. Don't be deceived by the cover! Yes, there is some graphic sex, and yes there are other elements that might hint that grandma has taken a dip into a lurid romance novel, but stick with me! Desprite Measures by Deborah Jay is a modern day urban fantasy. It is not a deep book, but is perfect for whiling away rainy afternoon. 

The Blurb: 

On the surface she's a cute and feisty blonde, a slender pocket rocket fitness coach. But Cassiopeia Lake has a secret; she's really a force of nature - an elemental.

Water sprite, Cassie, has lived undisturbed in her native Scottish loch for eons. Now, one encounter too many with modern plumbing has driven her to live in human guise along with her selkie boyfriend, Euan. It's all going fine - until a nerdy magician captures Cassie to be an unwilling component in his crazy dangerous experiment.

Escape is only Cassie's first challenge.

She's smitten by her fellow prisoner, the scorching hot fire elemental, Gloria. But how do you love someone you can never touch?

And what do you do when your boyfriend starts to hero-worship your persecutor? Not to mention that tricky situation of being the prize in a power contest between two rival covens of witches.

So when Gloria's temper erupts and she sets out to murder the magician, can Cassie keep her loved ones safe from the cross-fire, or will she be sucked into the maelstrom of deadly desires and sink without trace? 

My Review: 

I met the author through the comment-column on my writing blog, Life in the Realm of Fantasy and picked this book up as a bit of light reading. I was not disappointed. Cassie, the main character is not a human, but rather she is a water-elemental, a sprite. (Hence the title.) The author does a great job of conveying Cassie’s alien-ness, and her lack of human understanding.

While I normally don’t really enjoy first-person point-of-view, I think in this case it is well done. Although graphic sex from a first-person pov puts me a little off, it's okay because there is not too much of that, and what there is does seem to advance the plot. Though this is a rather graphic romance, there is a lot of other action, and all the characters are well fleshed out. Unlike most romance novels, the plot moves quite quickly and does not rely on the sex to keep the reader’s attention.

The plot encompasses a great deal of urban mythology regarding vampires and the fae, modern witchcraft and the old-time selkie legends. The author blends them well and pits them against modern ecological issues, such as sustainable power. There is also the age old conflict of truth and trust, and how sins of omission can mess up a life, which makes for great drama. The magic is quite believable, as are the magical beings.

Liam, the evil magician, is your usual self-centered, amoral, malevolent bad dude, and his machinations drive the action in this tale. Cassie is not the only person who is not what they portray themselves as, and that leaves the door open for a sequel.

The ending, while not exactly happy, is satisfactory. Billed as ‘The Caledonian Sprite Series,’ Desprite Measures does leave the door open to a sequel, which I will definitely buy.