The Isles of the Blest

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Book:  The Isles of the Blest

Author:  Morgan Llywelyn

Publisher: Open Road Media

Pages:  170

Format Read: Kindle

“The Isles of the Blest” is a short book based on an old Irish tale, that of Connla of the Fiery Hair. Son of the battle-hardened warlord of Erin, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Connla is a man of many talents, young and handsome. He is also sensitive to beauty and magic. So when the supernaturally lovely Blathine comes to him, and offers him an enchanted apple, and a life in the magical Isles of the Blest, Connla cannot resist. She enchants him when she laughs, for her laughter bright and silvery.

But blight has overtaken the land, and there seems to be a lingering curse that cannot be lifted. The blame, of course, falls on Conn’s druid Coran, who has no answers. As for Connla, he is enraptured by Blathine, whom no one else can see. With each bite of that apple, a little more of his will is lost. He withdraws from reality each time she smiles at him. Eventually, when Conn figures out that Blathine is more than mortal, Connla is almost completely enthralled by her.

And then, naturally, Connla follows her to an ethereal otherworld that has no death, no time, and too much Blathine.

This was a quick and fascinating read. The author’s prose is evocative and the imagery is delicate, and I liked the magic, and the mystery, and the characterization – especially that of the faery creatures and of Conn of the Hundred Battles. I have always like faery stories, myths and mythologies – and this book introduced me to something entirely fresh.

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Scaramouche

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Book:  Scaramouche

Author:  Rafael Sabatini

Publisher: Vintage

Pages:  346

Format Read: Paperback

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

– Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche

“Scaramouche” (originally published in 1921) is set during the turbulent times of the French revolution.  The aristocracy sees itself as superior to the population at large, and there is hunger and poverty among the working class. The upper classes, however, are cynical, and wealthy, and excessively touchy about having their apparently endless powers contained.

It is in such a world that Andre-Louis Moreau is born, and this is the world he must put up with. Adopted by the well-to-do Lord of Gavrillac, Quintin de Kercadiou, Andre-Louis has had a noble’s upbringing – with books and oratory, some fencing, and writing. He has some of the cynicism of the nobility in him, and a whole lot of detachment. After all, the world’s gone mad, and he prefers to keep himself away from the insanity of the class clash.

That is, until a very idealistic friend of his, a certain Philippe de Vilmorin, is murdered by a cold, calculating noble, M. de la Tour d’Azyr. Vilmorin’s death and the guile and deception of its execution leaves Andre-Louis shaken, and then determined to carry forward his friend’s idealism – and bring some justice to the downtrodden, especially to those suffering  under the caprices of the aristocracy.

But Andre-Louis discovers that he is hotheaded and his speeches are inflammatory. Which means he must go into hiding, and join a travelling theatre troupe. There, he dons the role of Scaramouche, a theatre-buffoon, and is a tremendous success. Naturally. Andre-Louis, being Andre-Louis, is an exceptionally gifted character. He acts with élan. He writes plays that are huge successes. Later on, he takes up fencing, and within months, his rudimentary knowledge develops into extraordinary skill. People listen to him when he speaks, and are influenced enough to riot on his behalf. He is acutely aware of his abilities and revels in them, almost to the point of being insufferable.

And there is also the beautiful, accomplished, free-thinking Aline, who is on Andre-Louis’s mind as he traverses this quagmire of intrigue.

“Scaramouche” is an adventure novel, and Andre-Louis is by no means infallible. He is often called heartless by his peers, and he makes mistakes during his hiding that almost lead to his discovery. He manages to annoy and enrage the Lord of Gavrillac and he makes powerful enemies because of his excessive honesty that is more handicap than virtue a lot of the time.

“Scaramouche” is an engaging, gripping read, one that I enjoyed very much.

Songs of Sappho

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Book: Songs of Sappho

Author: Sappho, various translators

Publisher: Peter Pauper Press, published 1966

Pages: 62

Format Read: Hardback

“The stars around the fair moon fade

Against the night,

When gazing full she fills the glade

And spreads the seas with silvery light.”

–  Sappho, Moonlight, translated by H. De Vere Stackpoole (page 10)

Personally, I enjoy ancient and classical literature, and I have been on the lookout for a translation of Sappho’s works for some time. Sappho, who was born around 630 B.C. on the Greek island of Lesbos, was a lyric poet – and perhaps the best known. Most of her poetry has survived only in fragments.

It was with a great deal of surprise that I discovered the Peter Pauper Press translation of Sappho’s work at a local bookstore – and the book was published in 1966. It’s a little volume, with 124 fragments put together by various translators. The fragments are beautiful, lyrical, and often sensuous – and they deal with a variety of themes, from odes to Aphrodite to wedding songs. Some of them are full of light and cheers, others are tinged with sadness, and still others have in their words enchanting imagery.

Since these pieces are fragments, most of these poems are tantalizingly short and incomplete. It makes you wonder what they were like before they were lost, since the fragments themselves are musical. The translations are sometimes a little archaic, but they’re still poetically lovely and very readable.

Also in this book are full page illustrations on every other page reminiscent of an ancient style. “Songs of Sappho” is beautifully compiled, and I consider myself lucky to have found this volume unexpectedly.

“Cool waters tumble, singing as they go

Through appled boughs. Softly the leaves are

Dancing.

Down streams a slumber on the drowsy flow,

My soul entrancing.”

–  Sappho, Orchard Song, translated by T.F. Higham (page 11)

Caraval

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Book: Caraval

Author: Stephanie Garber

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Pages: 416

Format Read: Kindle

All Scarlett of the Conquered Isle of Trisda ever wanted was an invitation to the magical circus-carnival called Caraval. For her sister, for course. For years, she wrote to the Master of Caraval, Legend, and he never wrote back. Until that final letter – she was getting married, and she asked him not to invite her.

So he did.

“Caraval” opens with Scarlett’s series of letters, beginning with her hopeful childlike note, and the first chapter ends with her reserved, after engagement notice, to the Caraval Master. That was intriguing in itself, because those letters reveal that Caraval is hard to attend, but it is magical enough to make a child, then teenager, then young woman, continue trying to get an invitation.

But when she does get the invitation, Scarlett has other problems. Her father is abusive and thinks nothing of whipping his daughters. Her younger sister Donatella has grown breathlessly daring, and has found a strange sailor called Julian for her current dalliance. Scarlett herself is engaged to a man she has never met, but he has sent letters to her that sound sweet and romantic. Of course, all she wants is to get out of her father’s household, and take Donatella with her.

And then Donatella disappears, apparently gone to Caraval on her own, and Scarlett, panicked, must find her before their father does. The only company she has is the infuriating and irrepressible Julian.

I found “Caraval” suspenseful and original, and very magical. Caraval, where Scarlett eventually finds herself, is part carnival, part circus, all of it dreamworld, with altered timescales and mysterious actors all playing a part, and players – like her – caught in the web of the Caraval Master’s games. Scarlett, after a point, has no idea who’s real and who’s not, and no idea who to trust. All that keeps her going is her desire to see her sister again and keep her safe.

This book does keep you guessing until a surprising conclusion (not exactly subtle, that ending, and a little farfetched, but that is a minor quibble). The writing style is lyrical, and suited to the theme and setting of the book, a little strong on metaphor. The characters are well drawn out and quite memorable actually, especially Scarlett and Julian.

“Caraval” is mysterious and strange, and a book I really liked.

The Last Unicorn

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Book: The Last Unicorn

Author: Peter S. Beagle

Publisher: Roc

Pages: 294

Format Read: Paperback

Living alone in a magical forest with a pool she can see herself in, a unicorn overhears a couple of hunters. They know she is there, although they do not see her, and through their conversation, the unicorn learns that she is the last unicorn in the world. The realization is disquieting for the immortal creature, enough for her to embark on a quest seeking others of her kind. Then again, the world has changed and those who do see her see a white mare – and those who recognize her for what she is have sinister plans for her.

Eventually though, the unicorn must confront the one who is responsible for her solitary existence without her kin. A little butterfly, with his short attention span and infuriating habit of leaping from speech to song to poetry and riddle, is the most enigmatic oracle the unicorn can find. He tells her, in a brief moment of clarity, who to look for. Then he lapses back into his song and speech and poetry and riddle. Just like that.

“The Last Unicorn” is a whimsical story, part fable, part fairy tale. The unicorn is simply called the unicorn, a remarkable character. Almost everybody around her is mortal, animals and birds and humans alike, and she makes no distinction between them, talking to humans as easily as she does to a butterfly. Briefly captured by a carnival and put on display, she is freed by a seemingly foolish magician called Schmendrick. By his own admission, Schmendrick and others like him are, “…not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream.” (page 40)

The magician follows the unicorn on her quest, and later on, so does the strong willed and bold Molly Grue, who was once part of a Robin Hood-esque band of outlaws. They’re a little confused though – they steal from the hapless poor and allow themselves to be robbed by the rich. And of course they pay tribute to the rich mayor to leave them alone. Of course.

“The Last Unicorn” is a beautifully narrated tale of magic and imagination. The language is rich and musical, and the story is in turn happy and humorous and sad and always enchanting.

The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays

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Book: The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays

Author: Bhasa, translated by A.N.D. Haskar

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 127

Format Read: Paperback

Not much is known about the Sanskrit playwright Bhasa although there is a fair deal of speculation. He did, however, predate Kalidasa – for Kalidasa mentions Bhasa in what is presumably his first play, Malavikagnimitram. If Bhasa did live in the Mauryan period, his works might be dated to the third or fourth century B.C. as the Penguin edition suggests on the first page.

“The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays” is a compilation of six of Bhasa’s plays, all of them tied in to the Mahabharatha. As the introduction reveals, the works of Bhasa were thought lost until palm leaf manuscripts of his plays were discovered in the Malayalam script. His plays are still performed, especially in that very ancient art form of Kerala, Kootiyattam.

The first play, ‘The Middle One’ or Madhyama Vyayoga, focuses on Bhima’s son Ghatotkacha. It has at its core a father-son relationship, of Bhima, exiled in a forest, meeting his son Ghatotkacha for the first time in unusual circumstances.

The second, ‘Five Nights’ or Pancharatram, has at its core a scene from the Mahabharatha, where the Pandavas, dwelling in disguise in the kingdom of Virata, are almost captured by the Kauravas, their sworn enemies. However, Bhasa takes liberties with the telling here – and introduces a cattle raid and a sympathetic Duryodhana, the Kaurava king. It is a very interesting take on the character.

‘The Envoy’ or Duta Vakyam introduces Lord Krishna as a character trying to mediate peace between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. But Duryodhana has none of it, and Krishna is incensed.

‘The Message’ or Duta Ghatotkacham reintroduces the character Ghatotkacha from the first play. This time, he attempts to the deliver a message to Duryodhana, who mocks him.

‘Karna’s Burden’ or Karnabharam focuses on Duryodhana’s close aide Karna, and his discovery of his parentage. He is not a Kaurava as he believed, and he cannot join the Pandavas. This play reveals his turmoil and self-doubt.

The last play, ‘The Shattered Thigh’ or Urubhangam is again portrays Duryodhana with a lot of pathos and feeling, and in a rarity for Sanskrit theatre, shows death on stage. The setting here is towards the end of the Mahabharatha war, with the Pandavas  on the verge of victory, and Duryodhana at death’s door.

The translation of “The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays” is fluid, and Bhasa’s style is forceful yet crisp, and very evocative of the scenes of skirmish and battle. The scenes are stark, and the world is fraught with the tribulations of war and weaponry, a world where honour is held dear. Duryodhana’s characterization is especially fascinating, with the Kaurava king shown to be honourable, conflicted, angry and just – sometimes all at the same time. All the plays appear to be tied in to each other, with one picking up where the other left off. And yes, Duryodhana’s real name has also been used by his father – Suyodhana.

In “The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays” each play is small, and some of them comprise a single act. All of them are powerful, masterfully crafted, and worth reading.

The Northern Lights

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Book: The Northern Lights

Author: Philip Pullman

Publisher: Scholastic

Pages: 399

Format Read: Paperback

A long time ago, when I was in school, I came across a note in the school supplement of a national newspaper. It spoke of a book called “The Northern Lights,” the first book in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Since then, I’ve read the trilogy in its entirety, but I want to focus on “The Northern Lights” (or “The Golden Compass” as its American edition is called).

It’s about a girl called Lyra, and when the book opens, she’s up to some spying along with her companion, the daemon Pantalaimon. Lyra hides in a room where she is not supposed to be, ignoring her daemon’s grumbles, and stumbles upon magic and worlds she never knew existed. And that interest, for her, begins with a magical particle of creation called ‘Dust’ – with a capital D. And that Dust, it seems, is tied in with the aurora borealis.

Then, her close friend Roger disappears, and for some reason, she knows his disappearance has something to do with Dust.

The world of “The Northern Lights” is intricately crafted. It is set in London, and Oxford, but not the London of this world. Lyra’s Oxford is like our world in many ways, and very different in others. Here, everybody has a daemon, a sort of spirit companion that takes the form of animals, right from birth. To not have a daemon is unnatural, freakish.

The book is a little slow moving in the beginning as the world is built up, but that does not make it any less interesting. Lyra’s exploits are exciting, and there is a sense of wonder when the mysteries of Dust get more and more complex. Children vanish and a strange and exquisitely beautiful woman has been linked to their disappearance.

And through it all, Lyra begins to discover her true parentage.

Lyra Belacqua is an extremely precocious, often difficult and wild child, and she is very likeable, as is her daemon Pantalaimon or Pan. There are mysteries she must solve on her own, the truth of Dust she must uncover – and the plot is complex. Very complex. The sheer brazenness of her nature is mixed with empathy for those around her, a formidable combination considering the dangers lurking in her world. She must also deal with the mesmerizing Mrs. Coulter, and the harsh, sharp tongued Lord Asriel – both of whom have secrets of their own.

“The Northern Lights” is an immensely readable and captivating fantasy on an ambitious scale.