Review: Outlander

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photo from csmonitor.com

Rumors and ads for this book and TV series reached me long before I actually cracked open its pages. My sister loved the show, bought the book, got bored with the book, and then gave me the book. I wasn’t concerned, as there are only three novels she has actually finished, and those are the three installments of The Hunger Games (which are fantastic, by the way). Her complaints of Outlander being “overly detailed” were swept aside in the theory that I shouldn’t trust the review of a novel by someone who rarely reads novels.

 

However, in this case, she was completely right. The detail that works to immerse the reader in 1700’s Scotland often crosses over to being cumbersome and unnecessary. The author, Diana Gabaldon, clearly researched her setting thoroughly and invested a lot of passion into that research and into here characters. For that, she deserves respect, though I wish she had not deemed it necessary to share every single detail with us.

Then there is the issue that plagues most of the romance genre – the fact that plot is so often replaced by the sex. Is it not possible to have both? Other genres seem to know how to include sex without it obstructing the plot. It’s as if Gabaldon (and every other romance writer), sits down, writes every imaginable sexual situation on a slip of paper, draws them out of a hat, and calls this a plot. The resulting plot line follows no discernible arc, but rather moves like a heart monitor, with a regular rise and fall that fails to build to a climax. Ironic that a sex-based plot never reaches a satisfying completion.

In spite of “plot-us interruptus” taking place constantly, there is still much to admire about Gabaldon’s debut novel. She creates an immersive and believable world for her story, all based on her extensive research. Her characters are varied and somewhat complex. She gets her readers invested in the characters. The premise of the story proved so interesting that I expected it to unfold in an intriguing way. This expectation compounded my subsequent disappointment.

Overall, Outlander is an ambitious novel.
If you already like the romance genre, this book will perform admirably.
If you value a plot line that builds to a satisfying climax, this may disappoint you as much as it disappointed me.
Either way, be ready to push through a 200 page story interspersed with 600 pages of unwanted details.

Have you read or watched Outlander? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the story.

 

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Review: A Game of Thrones

AGAMEOFTHRONESnewHC.jpgI realize I’m joining this bandwagon extremely late, and this is probably old news to you, but I’ll say it all anyway. For several years I listened to the varying opinions on this work and the series as a whole. Some said, “Don’t bother with the books, they’re super tedious. Just watch the show.” Others said, “The books are way better. Skip the show.” And one even said, “The books are very poorly written.”

Finally, one day in Barnes & Noble bookstore, as the smell of newly bound pages overwhelmed my senses, I found myself face to face with the first book. I read a few pages, and intrigued by the writing style, decided to buy a copy and see for myself if the book is in fact “poorly written” or “tedious.”

I found myself immersed in the detailed world of George R.R. Martin’s creation. While there were moments where some of those details seemed unnecessary and even interrupted the flow of the writing, it was never what I would describe as “tedious.” If you want tedious, try the books I had read just prior to A Game of Thrones. These were Outlander, King Arthur, and The Space Trilogy Books 2 & 3. Now those get longwinded, I kid you not.

Martin’s characters are complex and he develops them well. He is careful to represent the brutal medieval setting of his epic tale in a gritty way. Then there’s his realistic, daring, signature move of making main characters killable. Overall, it didn’t disappoint. His writing style is enjoyable, the detail immersive rather than tedious, and the arc of the story builds to a satisfying peak.

If you love epic adventure and peering into the minds of characters, this one’s for you. You know, if you haven’t already gotten to it. =)

Have you watched or read Game of Thrones? Do you prefer the book or the show?

King Arthur by Norma Lorre Goodrich

Book Review: King Arthur by Norma Lorre Goodrich (1986)
Type: Scholarly Research
Good: seeing a new face of King Arthur, Guinevere, and Company
Bad: labored, unorganized writing
Overall: recommend reading only if you have deep interest in the subject

Legendary King Arthur has been a favorite in stories of the western world for over a thousand years. In our era, he is beloved by filmmakers and novelists and researchers. Because the facts surrounding him are so debatable, none can really be accused of not following those facts. In a way, Arthur is a canvas on which storytellers can paint their message in gloriously epic hues.

On one end of the spectrum, we have the Romantic King Arthur, told through the lenses of the Medieval French Court writers and therefore surrounded by the items and scenery of their world. On the other end, we have a Roman-British King Arthur, a dark ages warrior in Roman battle gear. This Arthur is the one presented by Norma Lorre Goodrich in her compilation of research, King Arthur (1986).

When I recommend this book to you, it is for Goodrich’s conclusions alone. If you have no interest in King Arthur or British history, the labor of reading this book will not be worth it.

Writing Style Goodrich’s writing leaves much to be desired. She assumes the reader has a great understanding of all the documents and research concerning King Arthur as well as a deep understanding of British geography. Her paragraphs often express several points of information which she then fails to connect to each other or to the other paragraphs. Goodrich’s descriptions of how she arrived at her conclusions are consistently labored. She provides lengthy information with bulky details within awkwardly written sentences. This is compounded by the fact that she offers no structure (other than chapter heads) to organize this information.

In short, the reading itself is not a joy. If you read this, read it for the information, because the writing has nothing to offer you.

Defense of the Source Goodrich’s main source of information about King Arthur is “The History of the Kings of Britain” by the scholar Geoffrey of Monmouth, who lived in the early 1100s and claimed to have a wonderful and unnamed source of his own. Apparently he and his work are a bit of a controversy in the Anglophile scholastic community. Some have written entire works discrediting him and his work as complete touristy garbage. Others defend him vehemently, and Goodrich is among them. All her theories depend on Geoffrey’s legitimacy as a historical source – and having one source as the foundation is shaky at best.

However, I’m willing to play along with her theories and marvel at their fascinating conclusions until convinced otherwise. In the meantime, I’ve already purchased Geoffrey’s History so I can see this controversial evidence for myself.

The Good Part: Fascinating Conclusions

Most of our modern tellings of King Arthur are told through the many layers of cultures that retold his tale before us, namely the French court romantic writers, with their castles, patriarchy, finery, knights, and courtly love. When those layers are peeled away, we see the Romantic King Arthur World turned almost completely on its head, leaving a world of Picts, British War Queens, Romans, and Druids. It’s “face” of King Arthur that’s even more mystical and wild than the other “faces” we encounter in modern retellings.

The face of King Arthur and his world that rises from Goodrich’s research is a wild and tumultuous one. Instead of stone castles, there are hill forts. The Roman roads are still intact and in constant use. Arthur is the son of a British queen and a Roman noble, and he was raised training as a Roman soldier. His armor is that of a legionnaire, rather than the steel plate armor we see in romantic versions of his story. His first major victory as a commander is when he leads in battle at age sixteen.

Guinevere is a British warrior queen from a long matriarchal line. She carries the severed heads of her defeated foes on her belt, pausing occasionally to gaze at their faces in grim victory.

Lancelot is not a dreamy French nobleman, but rather a Pictish berserker and king of a large portion of what is today Scotland.

The idea of Guin and Lance running off together is not even a thought (the French court romantic writers came up with that to fit “courtly love” and the scandal that was so desired by their culture).

The Round Table is not necessarily a table, and is in fact a possession of Guinevere, part of her estate shared with Arthur upon their marriage. Arthur and Lancelot are both required to marry well within the British Matriarchy in order to secure lands and titles for themselves, as British Matriarchy does not allow men to possess property.

The fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages is in process during this time, and Arthur-Guin-Lance & Company are key to maintaining some semblance of sanity in the power vacuum after Rome abandons Britain.

Encountering this world is what makes me recommend Goodrich’s King Arthur in spite of its unstructured, deeply flawed writing style. If you can survive the method of the telling, the story itself manages to unfold like mist unveiling a distant world, piece by treasured piece.