Thursday, December 26, 2013

Back in Little Niflheim...

I've spent most of Christmas week knee deep in Pemkowet, Michigan and its troublesome eldritch community. (again, I'm not sure why people use that word in a supernatural manner, while it's picked up connotations of supernatural goings on, it still means green.) Which can only mean I'm back in Jaqueline Carey's Agent of Hel series. The second book, Autumn Bones, came out recently, and I found it a much more balanced read than the first installment.

Again, we have out half demon with a tail protagonist, Daisy, working part time as a file clerk on Pemkowet's X-Files at the police station. She's sort of dating Sinclair, the Jamaican by birth supernatural tour guide who moved to Pemkowet from Kalamazoo at the beginning of the first book. This leads to issues, as Sinclair's twin sister shows up on Labor Day to drag him back to Jamaica The twin sister he never told Daisy about. The one who serves to balance Sinclair or vice versa.

Emmeline, the sister, is an Oxford educated lawyer, working with Sinclair's mother to get her elected to Jamaica's parliament. Sinclair has no desire to go back with his sister, since under the laws of the Obeah, the further into the light he goes, the further into the dark Emmeline goes.

This causes quite a bit of grief, since Sinclair has no desire to watch his sister pull an Anakin Skywalker.

Emmeline and her mother (also Sinclair's mother) show up with an ultimatum. Come back to Jamaica or else. Mommy dearest refuses to take no for an answer, so she unleashes Sinclair's grandfather's spirit on the town, thus creating a duppy.

Most of the book revolves around this particular conflict, which gets resolved in a very satisfying manner on All Hallow's Eve. (Hel herself mentions to Daisy that she has until midnight on Halloween to fix the issue before the wall between the living and the dead collapses because of the duppy.)

In the mean time, Daisy gets it on with Sinclair following a very amusing Satyr party at the gay bar in Pemkowet, then later mambos with long time crush and co-worker Cody, who happens to be a werewolf.

We also learn more about Bethany, Daisy's best friend's sister, who lives out at Twilight Manor trying to become a vampire, as well as Stephan, a ghoul working with Daisy on her anger management issues. (Her anger acts a bit like Stephen King's Carrie. It also could cause her to claim her demonic birthright and break the Inviolate Wall.)

And we get a fairy creature, Jojo, who I came to love, if only because she started throwing out Shakespearean insults at Daisy because Daisy dared to love Sinclair. While she never broke out the Painted Maypole comment from A Midsummer Night's Dream, she did work "scullion" into several conversations.  

Another new character is Lee (nicknamed "Skeletor". He evidently had as many issues in High School as I did.) Lee designs video games and helps Daisy build a searchable database for the X-Files in exchange for an audience with Hel herself.

Improved upon in this is Casimir, the gay shaman and head of the local coven. In the last book, he came off as a sissy sorcerer. In this one, he's much more fleshed out and not as bloody stereotypical.

With a few plots introduced to carry on into the next book, this one gets my award for most improved series writing. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Oh No! Not the bees!

You can tell a novel is going to be fun when it starts with a trip to London Undertowen to meet the old Celtic god Lud and winds up in a good Christopher Lee movie/Bad Nic Cage remake.

Since the library didn't have a physical copy of Spirits From Beyond by Simon R. Green, I had to navigate through the Overdrive Media app to download the book digitally. I'll be honest, much as I like my Nook for some things (it's great for traveling, since I can watch NetFlix and check e-mail on it), but I'm not all that thrilled about trying to read on it, mainly since any movement with the device is a bit like waving your hand in front of a TV. Which means finding a level surface to put it on, then trying to find a comfortable position. Also, thanks to an old Mad Magazine parody, any title with the word "beyond" in it auto corrects in my mind to Bayonne. Thus making many horror/thrillers all about New Jersey.

Anyway, Spirits starts with JC being lonely in his room, missing his ghost girlfriend Kim. Who shows up after about a page and a half. She tells him to return to the building he investigated back in the second book. The rest of the team, Melody and Happy, join him, and they descend into London Undertowen. Whereupon we meet reanimated Druids who are part of the Flesh Undying's effort to wake up Lud to open a big enough gap in reality to let the Flesh Undying escape. Even if that would destroy the world as we know it.

As in many of Green's novels, this is more or less a prelude into the greater story that takes up the rest of the book. Which in this case involves being ordered to investigate The King's Arms Inn which is supposed to be a routine haunting.

Given this is Green, it's anything but routine. Once the Ghost Finders get beyond the normal haunting stuff "blood that never cleans up, stuff like that) and the locals get chased out by a storm, we delve into doors that switch what lies behind them (time slips, a being from Outside that eats the unwary paying guest....), a spectacularly angry young blond, a young suicide who once loved the current owner....

And oh yes, there are naughty bad evil druids of The Wicker Man kind. Who really don't figure much into the plot as much as they do the background on The King's Arms. No bees though, which puts this a step above the horrible remake.

When they're not busy being cheeky with the preternatural, we're getting some character rounding within the quartet. Kim is keeping secrets, JC is worndering why something from Outside saved him during the fight with Fenris Tenebrae (especially after a few cryptic comments from Lud and Kim both), Happy is back on "the pills", and Melody is dealing with the fact that her love of Happy can't save him from his addiction.

There's also a rather silly running joke about as as yet unseen character known as the Traveling Doctor. Who created an Index for the Carnacki Institute archives that's bigger on the inside. Given the ending on this one, I look forward to seeing what Green has in store next for these characters.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

And the Gods heard her prayer....

As promised with my last update, we're going to Eastern Europe and the Greek peninsula.Back in time to the Hellenic and Hellenistic eras, specifically. Back when the Gods roamed the Earth, having children with nymphs and humans alike.

The problem has been for a while that most translations tend to cut out the interesting parts in favor of making it a more G-rated pantheon. And given that most Americans only study Classical Mythology once or twice, usually in Elementary School, this makes sense, since no one really wants to discuss with prepubescents that Kronos cut off Uranos's penis or testicles (depending on translation) and threw them into the ocean, thus creating Aphrodite.

However, Oh My Gods by Philip Freeman tries to correct this a bit, with more accurate translations, although he did modernize a few of them. (This is not to say that he set them in modern time, more that some of the stories get a more modern filter.) This works well at times, however, it doesn't work well in other cases.

Again, we're getting the less sanitized translations here, which means we also get information on same sex lovers different gods and heroes took. (Like Pelops. Who's life ends when his dad, Tantalus, chops him up and makes him into a stew for the gods. Only Demeter doesn't notice, because of her Persephone issues. The Gods restore Pelops to life and make him a new shoulder to replace the one Demeter ate. Then he becomes Poseidon's lover before starting his own tragic house.) I will also say it was nice to hear the story of Perseus's conception as a shower of golden coins, rather than the less specific "Zeus came on Danae as a golden shower" in most versions (which carries a VERY different modern connotation than what the Greeks intended.)

On the bad side, the author takes any considerations of consent and seduction out of the picture (which other "adult" translations generally keep), thus making it seem like Zeus is less about questionable seduction and more about sexual assault. The main reason why I can't quite go along with this (and Zeus isn't the only one who seems to be performing forcible penetration while wearing a ski mask) is that most of the actual rape gets punished rather severely and violently in the mythos.

The book itself is organized by different subsets of myths, starting with Creation and running through the Aeneid and some of the myths surrounding the founding of Rome (Romulus and Remus, who sadly have nothing to do with Star Trek. Then three very brief tales of Romulus's descendants.) Most of them are fairly familiar, just more fleshed out than what one was taught early in life. And it becomes very obvious which tales the author loves the most, based on the treatments they get. (Really, he spends most of The Odyssey quoting directly from Homer, which is beauteous  in its own right. However, Theseus's travails get very glossed over, meaning we never really get a good glimpse at the challenges he faced. He also leaves off the tail end of Bellepheron's tale, where Bellepheron tries flying the Pegasus up the side of Olympus to join the gods and gets struck by Zeus's thunderbolt for hubris.)

Things I very much liked were his habit of discussing different tellings of the myths when multiple sources disagreed as to what happened. (The creation of man get lumped in here, since Plato's Republic and the discussion on the origins of soul mates gets thrown in. As do some of the fates of characters from Homer's epics.) I also loved the tales included under "The Lovers", since more than a few of them were new to me. Like Ceyx and Alcyone, who get turned into Kingfishers at the end. Or Pyramus and Thisbe, who are the subject of the play within a play in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. (I chuckled and said, "Oh Wall, show me thy chink!" when I read the myth.)

I also really enjoyed how Freeman presented gods about whom we can prove little about. Hades, for instance, is an Olympian, but the only major myth he really is a part of is more a story about Demeter. Or Hecate, whom we know was worshipped, but she shows up once in the myths. Much as I'd like to know more about those two and Hestia, who also really doesn't seem to have much to do, there really isn't much material that survived that goes into any detail about their stories.

One thing I really disliked is that there's no real chronology here. There isn't a real sense of what order this stuff happened in beyond the initial Creation and Clash of the Titans (when Zeus overthrew Kronus and cut off Kronus's genitals with the help of the Hundred Handed Ones) and the Heroes and the Lovers. Honestly, we don't enter any kind of chronology until the last few sections when we meet Jason and the Argonauts and proceed into the Illiad and the Odyssey and the Aeneid.

Now, I'm going to mention another book here as a contrast to Oh My Gods, one very near and dear to my heart. Great Zeus and All His Children by Donald Richardson, which is out of print. (Or at least it was in 1996.) The reason I know this one is that it served as the textbook for CLS 101 at Wright State University where I took the class and had my eyes opened to the myths beyond what I remembered loving as a kid. (Yes, I was a Classics minor.) Again, it's the unsanitized version, but, unlike Oh My Gods, Richardson made the myths as linear a narrative as could be done with several centuries worth of myths with lots of variations cropping up as the stories evolved. Richardson also kept as many of the titles and mnemonics as he could when referring to people places and things. Thus we hear about rosy fingered Dawn  spreading her fingers over the sky, the wine dark sea, etc. Richardson, however, left out more than a few stories that Freeman includes, and Richardson's gods are mostly heterosexual. I think Ganymede gets mentioned in passing.

There are also entire myths and fragments both books miss that I know from other sources. Like that of how Athena became Pallas Athena (Thus her Palladium in Troy), or bits of the story of Persephone before and during her abduction to Tartarus. (Like the boy she turns into a lizard who dies, then his shade feeds her the pomegranate seeds in Hades. Or how she takes the time to give Tantalus food and drink.)

I did label this as survey/synopsis, mainly because there are other things I want to mention while were here. The Greek myths have been around for quite some time, and show up both obliquely and blatantly in literature. The aforementioned Shakespeare borrowed heavily from them. Neil Gaimen borrowed from them for Sandman. There's a wonderful book by Marie Phillips called Gods Behaving Badly about the Greeks in the modern age. Heck, even I have borrowed from the myths to write a story or two.

There's also the exceedingly awful The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Which removes all the fun of the Illiad and replaces it with a so over the top parody of feminism Cassandra as to make it unreadable. I should have known better than to read it after reading The Fall of Atlantis. With a title like that, I was expecting Atlantis to sink. It didn't.

I'll also mention Ilium and Olympos by Dan Simmons, which is a very bizarre mix of Greek mythology, Shakespeare, and science fiction. Like 30th century recreations of Troy bizarre. With Caliban running around on Earth bizarre.

And the WebMage series by Kelly McCullough, which centers around the Greeks in the modern era as well. Even if his version of Persephone is much darker than what most of us will encounter in other collections.

There is one last book I'll mention, and this may be the only time I ever link to Amazon on here. Olympus, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Bruce D. Arthurs is one of the most amazing anthologies of modern Greek mythology. Like any anthology, some of the stories are hit or miss, but there are two standout comedies; one involves the entire House of Atreus on a Jerry Springer type talk show, the other involves Demeter getting annoyed that Persephone comes home early after a marital spat with Hades, forcing her to start Spring early. Those alone make it worth owning.

In short, Oh My Gods is a worthy read for anyone with an interest in the mythology of the Greeks and Romans. While you won't find all the myths, you will find a very wide selection and a bibliography of where the author found them. Which is very handy for when I actually learn Greek and brush up on the Latin.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

So, I saw this going around...

"In the status line list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don't take more than a few minutes and don't think too hard-they don't have to be "right" or "great works" just ones that have touched you."

The problem is, as I came up with my list, my desire to explain my picks filled the status section with too many characters. So, I'm blogging it here and adding explanations.

1) Greek Gods and Goddesses (I don't remember the author's name).

 I found this one in 3rd grade, I think. It was a slim volume, consisting of 24 stories, the 12 Olympians and 12 tales of figures in myths. It was black with white lettering and a stylized picture in thin blue lines on the cover. Admittedly, it was geared towards juvenile readers, but it awakened my interest in Greek mythology, something I've been studying ever since. (When I finish the book I'm reading now, we'll be returning to this.)

2) Adolph Hitler (Again, I don't remember the author.)

Found this one in 4th grade, I think. Having never heard of World War II or Nazis, or the Holocaust, it was a bit shocking to plunge into such a biography. I kind of chuckle, since the tone was one of "Hitler was born, and for that he deserves flaming bamboo shoots under his toenails"... (While I'll not be defending Hitler, I will say that he did actually do a few good things before going totally insane. I'll also point out that he had a lot of help in instituting his policys of evil. And yes, he deserved the bamboo shoots. But not just for being born.) This book makes this list since it got me interested in World War II. This book also got me discussing my own family's role in said war. It's a very interesting topic to me, and one I love researching.

3) It by Stephen King

Read this one the first time in 7th grade. While it isn't scary to me, nor did I find it scary at the time, it was a huge undertaking for me. It's also one I understand better as an adult than I did as a kid.

4) Lightning by Dean R. Koontz

Read this one in 8th Grade. Again with the World War II connection. Plus my Reading teacher loved Dean R. Koontz, and I loved her. We had some great bonding moments over discussions on books in this vein.

5) Imajica by Clive Barker

I can't begin to describe how much this book influenced me. Multiple worlds, bunches of theology, a non binary gendered character, and one of the sweetest gay couples in literature.

6) Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

This is the only book on this list I haven't read multiple times, and indeed, one that I really hated. So why is it on here? Because, even as much as I disagree with Rand on most things, and disagree with her reasoning on the conclusions she came to that I do agree with, and as poorly written and deathly dull as the book is, it also forces you to think. "It's not right" is not an argument. It required me to figure out why I hated it.

7) Great Zeus and All His Children by Donald Richardson

This was my Classics 101 text book, actually. Much more in depth than what I'd read previously. Again, we'll be returning to it after I finish the current book.

8) Men With the Pink Triangle by Heinz Heger

Interestingly enough, if you ever watch Bent, it borrows heavily from the account here. Well, except the ending. It's a depressing read, talking about the author's experience as a gay man from Austria convicted of being gay after Germany invaded Austria. While it's not Night by Elie Weisel, it shares some common themes and a lot less of the losing faith that colors Weisel.

9) The Midnight Club by Christopher Pike

Yeah, it's Young Adult. But it's a fairly solid meditation on death and coming to terms with mortality.

10) Midnight Express by Billy Hayes

Don't ask me why, but I loved this book. Yeah, the author was a bit of an ass, but his account of Turkish Prison was facinating. Even if they did edit some of the more interesting things out for the movie.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Tis the season

I've discussed Discworld before; however, with the Holidays upon us, I feel compelled to bring up the very Christmas-like book of Terry Pratchett's, Hogfather.

A bit of background. Discworld is held up on the trunks of four elephants who in turn stand on the back of Great A'Tuin, a giant turtle floating in space. On Hogswatchsnight, the Hogfather rides through the sky on a sled pulled by several hogs delivering toys and presents to the good children of Discworld.

Well, except this year. DEATH shows up at his granddaughter's (Susan Sto-Helit) house dressed as the Hogfather. He tells her not to get involved. Which,  a classic grim reaper dressed in red velvet and a long beard showed up at your house dropping off presents and eating food meant for Hogfather, wouldn't you investigate?

There's quite a bit crammed into a fairly slim volume. Death's plotline involves him taking several Discworld traditions a bit too seriously (Saving the little Match Girl from freezing to death, thus annoying an angel; stealing food from the king's table to give a beggar an endless repast...) to trying to re-instill belief in a missing Hogfather by Showing up in full regalia at an Ankh-Morpork mall and giving children presents. (For which the owner tries to have him arrested. The Night Watch's reaction to this is priceless.)

In the meantime, Susan (along with DEATH-OF-RATS and Quoth the Raven) winds up at the Hub palace of the Hogfather, where she finds Bilious, the "oh God" of hangovers. The palace crumbles around her as she escapes. She winds up at Unseen University, which itself is being plagued by The Veruca Gnome and several other very minor god like beings. A consultation with HEX, the magical computer in the High Velocity Magic section concludes that with the Hogfather missing, there's much spare belief  floating around that's forming into these minor manifestations.

As the plots begin to collide, Susan winds up finding the home of The Tooth Fairy, where the Assassin Mr. Teatime (Te-ah-to-meh) is using the collected teeth of the children of Discworld to fuel a sympathetic magic spell that's causing the children of Discworld to forget the Hogfather. Here, we find out the true nature of the original Tooth Fairy, which is oddly touching for such a humorous setting.

Susan joins her grandfather for a final confrontation with the Auditors (who seeks to make the universe an orderly place and thereby kill it.) The Hogfather is reborn from his very earliest mythological roots and rides out for his midnight flight.

Later, Susan and DEATH reconcile in the nursery of the house she works as a governess in while discussing the importance of the Hogfather. Well, after a final confrontation with Teatime, of course.

It's really an oddly moving piece of fiction with some very funny bits thrown in. Probably one of the best balanced works in the entire setting, really. It also has one of the best adaptions of any of the Discworld novels. (The BBC made a wonderful TV adaption that does leave a bunch out, but it certainly captures the essence of the book. The other two adaptions I watched were horribly animated things that only passed any muster by having Christopher Lee voice DEATH.)