Monday, November 30, 2009

The Labors of Heracles

I loved Greek mythology as a kid and read my copy of D'aulaires to shreds and through Bullfinch's and Edith Hamilton several times each. And everyone knows of Heracles, though not many people can name the 12 labors he performed. (And for some reason, even when talking about Greek myths, people call him Hercules, the Roman name for him.)
  1. slay the Nemean Lion - where he got his lion-headed cloak
  2. slay the Hydra - probably the best known story
  3. capture the Golden Hind of Artemis - a hind is a deer
  4. capture the Erymanthian Boar - a boar is a pig (sorry, can't give effective color commentary on them all)
  5. clean the Augean stables in a day - he diverted a river to wash through the stables
  6. slay the Stymphalion Birds - alfred hitchcock, eat your heart out
  7. capture the Cretan Bull - we present to you, cretins from Bull...make that a bull from Crete
  8. steal the Mares of Diomedes - flesh eating horses. om nom nom
  9. obtain the Girdle of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta - if you learn one thing from this story, it's that chicks dig guys with muscles and wearing lion skins. or that if you kill a woman, you can take whatever you want from her, depending on which version of the story you read.
  10. obtain the Cattle of Geryon - Hera is a real bitch, just FYI
  11. steal the Apples of Hesperides - takes Atlas' place holding up the world for a moment
  12. capture Cerberus - nice doggy
It's kind of interesting going through the list. Heracles is typically known for his strength and skill at arms, but a lot of the tasks involve him being very clever, and acting outside of his expected capabilities. I think this is why his story has been so successful throughout history. It's not that he's an underdog, or a common man making good for himself, he's already a hero and then shows that he's not just a one-dimensional character. It's an aspect that is often missing from protagonists in many modern stories. And, so too, is he a flawed character. He was assigned the tasks as atonement for murdering his wife in an uncontrollable rage. How many of the epic heroes of modern stories have such complicated stories and such varied abilities?

That's why the cleaning of the Augean stables is my favorite of the labors. It required great physical effort on his part, but only in service to a mental capability that just wasn't expected of him.

What's yours?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Watership Down

Fiver has a "bad feeling about this." Something's wrong, and everyone needs to leave. Unfortunately, only Fiver's good friend Hazel believes him. Hazel, however, is able to convince a few others that leaving is going to be a good idea. So without knowing where exactly they are going, the group heads out on an adventure to find a new home. Oh, and they are all rabbits.

On a matter of scale, the journey the rabbits go on isn't quite the same as going from the Shire to Mordor, but there is no question that their travel isn't just as epic as that of the hobbits. Richard Adams has anthropomorphized the rabbits in such a way that their concerns, their emotions, and the fears that they face are eminently human. By mixing in bits and pieces of the rabbit language, and crafting a cultural history and mythology for the rabbits and showing their interactions with rabbits from other warrens he imbues the characters with depth and complexity that many authors fail to provide to their human characters. Hazel, well-spoken and a natural leader despite his own self-doubt; Fiver, undersized but respected because of his connection with the spiritual world; Bigwig, self-confident and capable, but aware of his own limitations. The level of development which Adams provides to his characters is really amazing.

And the scale of his story is perfectly suited to a group of rabbits. Even the things which seem unlikely at first glance -- 20 rabbits climbing into a boat and floating down a river -- work, and they work because Adams pays attention to detail and explains things in a way which never shifts the reader out of the story. As soon as you pick up the book, you're deeply enmeshed in the story and the world. And it is interesting that Adams seems to try to avoid any moralizing about the interactions of humans and nature. There are a few brief comments about it when the rabbits' home warren is destroyed to make way for a building development (the cause of the bad feeling that Fiver had), but it is limited to the horror that the rabbits experience when trying to understand something which is so outside of their ability to understand. That is something that I feel like many authors would not be willing to avoid doing nowadays.

One aspect of the story that remains distinctly non-human is the separation between male and female roles in rabbit society. Females aren't especially important beyond being the ones who generally do the digging to expand a warren and for procreation. There is no discussion of love, or romance, the does are regarded simply as objects. I think that this was intentional on Adams' part, but not representative of his beliefs, or as something he was encouraging. Despite their anthropomorphism, the characters in Watership Down are rabbits. They aren't human, and so can't be expected to have all of the same characteristics of humans. Perhaps love is a distinctly human trait in Adams' mind, whereas things such as bravery, respect, honor, duty, and other "higher" traits are characteristics which animals might actually share with humans.

Score: 4 out of 5

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Sword of the Lady

Still pursued by the occult forces of the Church United and Triumphant, Rudi Mackenzie and his friends are on the final portion of their journey across the post-apocalyptic landscape of the former United States. Making their way from Wisconsin, they end up in lands in New England that have recreated ancient Norse cultures. And by aiding them in rescuing one of their towns which is besieged by a Moorish raiding party who have allied themselves with the Cutters, obtain a ship which takes them to the island of Nantucket, where Rudi finally obtains the legendary Sword of the Lady.

Continuing the story of the second portion of the Emberverse series, The Sword of the Lady continues SM Stirling's wonderful depictions of the various cultures and religions that have sprung up in the aftermath of the technology killing Change. The story itself is quite satisfying as well, and primes you for the return journey. However, the story feels much slower than the original trilogy. Which makes sense. Where the first three books tell of the immediate aftermath of the Change, and the foundation of the various nation-states in the Washington and Oregon region, this is a much more epic story of a heroic quest and the war for the salvation of all of mankind. Unfortunately, this means that the story is not as tightly written as the earlier one. Stirling tries to minimize the time on the road, or to cover it, by having the characters in conversation and describing the cultures and religions, and months can pass in the turn of a page. But as the size of the world in the story expands, he's less able to provide the same amount of detail, and when he does, it occasionally feels like it is taking the reader away from the primary story.

Score: 3 of 5

Series: The Emberverse - 1. Dies the Fire (2004) 2. The Protector's War (2005) 3. A Meeting at Corvallis (2006) 4. The Sunrise Lands (2007) 5. The Scourge of God (2008) 6. The Sword of the Lady (2009) 7. The High King of Montival (2010) 8. The Blood of the Sun (TBA) 9. The Given Sacrifice (TBA)

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Scourge of God

The sequel to SM Stirling's The Sunrise Lands continues the story of the journey of Rudi Mackenzie and his friends across the post-Change lands that used to make up the United States. The book begins with them in a town in Wyoming, recovering in a monastery established by Buddhist monks who had been in town for a convention when the Change occurred. At the same time, their friends and families are beginning their resistance against the attacks of the Church United and Triumphant.

Stirling gets rather metaphysical in this book. It's almost a comparative religions class, but focused primarily on the similarities and shared truths of various religions -- primarily Buddhism, Wicca, Christianity, and Native American shamanism. And it is primarily focused on preparing Rudi for his role as the salvation of mankind. Somehow, during the Change, gods were (again) given great power, and have begun acting directly upon the earth. Those which are evil, directly subjugate humans and focus them on destruction. Those which are good, influence humans and aid them in their opposition to the destructive forces of their enemies. And in the interactions between Rudi and his friends and their gods, those gods are surprisingly lacking in jealousy for their followers.

As a single book, The Scourge of God does not stand out. It is a solid continuance of the series, but some of the religious discussions might not be very interesting to readers who are more interested in the depictions cultures and scenes of combat.

Score: 3 of 5

Series: The Emberverse - 1. Dies the Fire (2004) 2. The Protector's War (2005) 3. A Meeting at Corvallis (2006) 4. The Sunrise Lands (2007) 5. The Scourge of God (2008) 6. The Sword of the Lady (2009) 7. The High King of Montival (2010) 8. The Blood of the Sun (TBA) 9. The Given Sacrifice (TBA)