Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain

It’s fair to say that I read a good number of books children’s books. Having kids of my own, I like to pilfer their shelves from time to time. In our house, we like to stock “the classics” as a sort of quality guarantee. Since children’s books became a genre there have been writers who have tried to cash in on the children’s market as a way to make a quick buck with little effort. Reading “the classics” means that you get the best books from every era without having to wade through the formulaic twaddle, most of which has mercifully been forgotten over the years.
It’s a different story with modern children’s books. Picking up a new children’s book means taking a chance on wasting your time, and the modern children’s book publishing machine loves tried and true formulas. After the success of Harry Potter we got books about schools for magical/mythological/specially talented kids who are sorted into groups based on their personalities. After The Hunger Games took off, we’ve have had m…

Review Grab Bag # 8

Almost done reviewing all the books I read last year!


The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe

Well, I finally read this book, which is on Veritas Press’s Omnibus I reading list. The year I taught Omnibus I, we skipped this book because of time crunch and I finally decided to go back and give it a go. After all, the cool looking movie based on the book was coming out and I wanted to read the book before I saw the movie. And how was the book? In short, it was engrossing. For a book that is said to be geared toward children, it’s very adult. The beginning of the plot involves Marcus, the Roman legionnaire who has been maimed in his first battle and now is unfit for military service and how he adjusts himself to civilian life with his uncle. A lot of time is spent developing his friendships with his Brigantes slave, Esca, whom he saved from the gladiator games, a young Iceni girl named Cottia, and a wild wolf cub that he adopts. All of these characters are, to some extent, outcasts, and it’s both realistic and touching to see how they come to know and interact with one another.

The main plot of the story, however, deals with the Ninth Legion of Rome, which marched north of Hadrian’s wall years ago and disappeared. Marcus’s father was in the Ninth Legion, and the loss of the Eagle of the Ninth is a blot on his family honor. When the Eagle is rumored to have been spotted in the north, Marcus, disguised as a traveling occulist and Esca, whom Marcus has freed, journey among the savage tribes to retrieve the Eagle before it can be used as a rallying point for the British tribes against the Romans.

For a book specifically geared to children, this was very well written. The scenes where Marcus takes his leave from Cottia and where he frees Esca are very moving. The relationships and customs of the time are realistic and unforced, and the friendship between Marcus and Esca is one of the better literary friendships I’ve seen. And the movie? Well, after loving the book so much, and having read that Cottia and Cub are entirely cut from the movie, Marcus does not free Esca, but rather takes him north as a slave, and several other major character changes, I just decided to give the movie a pass. Sorry Channing Tatum. I’ll watch G.I. Joe again if I want to see your acting.

5/5 stars

The King Must Die by Mary Renault

I had heard good things about Mary Renault, but this book really blew me away. The story of Theseus, his travels, and the Minotaur are familiar stories from Greek Mythology. Renault, however, reconstructs the culture of the Mycenaean civilization and brings the story to life in a way that is historically believable, while creating characters that go far deeper than their mythological counterparts. Renault really gets the interaction between the native earth-goddess-worshiping peoples and the influx of Hellenic peoples with their sky-gods. The interplay between the “earthlings” the Hellenes and the Minoans, the attitudes and aspirations of the people, and their religious sentiments all rang true with things I have previously learned about the culture and made the experience entirely immersive. Even the explanation of the Minotaur combined with the Minoan practice of the bull dance made perfect sense and is completely natural. The explanation of why Theseus abandons Ariadne will seem very familiar to fans of Euripides, and seems to make Theseus out to be less of a jerk than the traditional myth. Also, I’d like to say hooray for Renault that she connects the Mycenaens and Minoans with the Biblical Philistines, a connection that many people never get.

In summary, this is a well-written book, which, although not based on a real historical plot, nevertheless manages to beautifully create a real historical time period. I couldn’t put the book down until the very end, and even then I was reluctant. I hear there’s a sequel…

Note: A word of warning for any potential younger readers of my blog. The pagans in this story are pagans. They do pagan things and act like pagans act. Because of this the story would probably get a hard PG-13 rating as a movie. Reader discretion is advised.

Further Note: If you’ve read Suetonius, it’s probably nothing you haven’t seen before.

5/5 stars

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Arrr… Pirate books. It’s no secret that I love Pirates. I love the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, I love the Monkey Island Games, and I could play Sid Meier’s Pirates for hours. I also love a good pirate novel. Currently Captain Blood by Raphael Sabatini holds my regard as the best pirate book ever. However On Stranger Tides comes very close. The story follows Jack Shandy, as he comes to be known, a puppeteer who is traveling to the New World to confront his uncle who swindled him out of his inheritance. There he meets Beth Hurwood, the love interest, and her weird professor father. Along the way, the ship is attacked by pirates and Jack joins their crew.

Jack learns that there is more to being a pirate than swords and cutlasses, though, as dark Voodoo magic is common currency among the buccaneers. The master of dark magic, however, is Blackbeard who, due to some accidents with his voodoo, finds himself haunted by restless spirits. Blackbeard is determined to find the fabled Fountain of Youth which will rid him of his curse. But his plans don’t stop there. It quickly becomes apparent that the professor, the professor’s assistant, and Blackbeard all have their reasons for wanting to tap the Fountain’s limitless power, and Beth is a helpless pawn in their plans.

Zombies, evil gods, and blood rituals abound. And the best part is that author Tim Powers goes out of his way to make sure that nothing in his book contradicts actual historical events. His book is more a behind-the-scenes explanation of history. He answers such questions as, “Why did wealthy landowner Stede Bonnet give up his life of ease and become a pirate with Blackbeard?”, “Why did Blackbeard allow himself to be caught in such an obvious trap at the end of his life?”, and “Why was it so darned hard to kill the man?”

This book, with its mixture of pirates and the supernatural, was an influence on the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The Pirates of the Caribbean writers even went so far as to use the title of this book for the newest POTC movie. Don’t be fooled though; the plots are nothing alike. Aside from the fact that there is a guy named Blackbeard and there is something called the Fountain of Youth, nothing else is similar in any way. Take my advice, skip the movie and read the book. It’s epic.

5/5 stars


Rose said…
One book I've been dying to read, and two that look awesome but I've never heard of. Gah there's not nearly enough time for reading in the world.

Long live epic pirate stories.
Erica said…
So Blackbeard's beard is not, in fact, on fire in this book, and he does not in fact own a remote control ship? ;-D
Mom said…
I'm in the process of reading On Stranger Tides. Tis a good book. Erica, I'll send it to you when I'm done with it. And, Rick, only 50 books this year? I think you can do at least!
Rick said…
@ Rose
I know the feeling. Every book I read leads me to about 5 other books that I want to read. Solomon was definitely right. (Eccl. 12:12)

@ Erica
Nope, no remote control ships. No mermaids. No "daughter" for Blackbeard. No young priest. No race with the Spanish. And the fountain of youth happens about halfway through the book, not at the end. Oh, and did I mention that the fountain is a bizarre eldritch location with some serious creepiness involved?

@ Mom
You'd better not send MY book to Illinois!!! :P Erica's a librarian. She can probably just walk down the aisle and pick up a copy if she wants it.
Mom said…
But, Rick, maybe your book wants to Ok, Erica,you heard your brother...guess you'll just have to get it from work. I have the greatest kids ever!