A Liitle Magic Always Helps

Moving on from murderous tales and creepy characters, I’ve been watching “The Adventures of Merlin” on Netflix with flashing swords and mythic magic.

The impish young Merlin honing his magical skills in secret in the days when Arthur was a prince of Camelot and Merlin was an apprentice to the court physican, is a treat to watch. Taking more than poetic license with White’s Once and Future King (referenced by the Dragon to Merlin), the plot barely resembles either White’s post World War II tales or the original fifteenth century telling in Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur.”

This BBC version changes many pieces of the well known legend but keeps enough of a foundation to make the stories exciting and somewhat predictable. For example, Guinevere is the lowly serving girl to Morgana (still the villain and Arthur’s half/sister). Arthur loves Gwen, promising to break with tradition and marry her. Whenever Merlin’s eyes glow and he mutters a pseudo Latin or Gaelic phrase, he is the superhero we all love and wish we were.

Raluca Radulescu of Bangor University writes “…our modern appetite for fantasy {is} a reflection of our need to reinvent the past, and bring hope into our present. Moral integrity, loyalty to one’s friends and kin, abiding by the law and defending the weak, form the cornerstone of Arthurian {legend}. They offer the reassurance that doing the morally right thing is valuable, even if it may bring about temporary defeat. In the end, virtues and values prevail…”

We could all use a little hope and some moral integrity in our world these days. Watching the series has inspired me to reread or listen to some old favorites: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart’s The Last Enchantment. Have you read them?

Circe – A Witchy Goddess for Our Times

Image of Circe Book Cover

🏺The Greeks attributed both good times and misfortune to the whims of the gods.  With the world still in turmoil, we are all hoping the gods get tired soon of tormenting us poor humans – enough already.  We need some good times. Reading Madeleine Miller’s Circe has me wishing for some spells or maybe an errant lightning bolt.

If you are a fan of Greek mythology as I am, having D’Aulaire’s children’s book as one of my most treasured still on my shelf, you will enjoy the retelling of how the world was once occupied by goddesses and nymphs, with unusual powers.  Although a minor character in Greek storytelling, Circe is the focus of Miller’s story, as she interacts with her father, the Sun, and Odysseus on his travels.  Miller cleverly weaves in other gods – Hermes, Athena, the Titans – as well as lesser known humans with skills – Daedalus, the architect and father of Icarus, as they interact with the main character.  The minotaur makes a brief appearance as Circe’s nephew, and Medea as her niece.

Impatient for a resolution to some of the teasing narrative, I often flipped to google to remind myself how the story progresses in the famous Greek poems. Why was Athena so worried about Circe’s son?  How was the famously beautiful Helen related?  Whatever happened to poor Prometheus and his liver? Who was Achilles’ lover?

But Miller has her own agenda for retelling the old tales with Circe as the heroine, “ a reclamation of one of myth’s reviled women.” as noted by author Clare Messud in her review of the book. Annalisa Quinn for NPR says: “{Circe is } a fierce goddess who, yes, turns men into pigs, but only because they deserve it.”

Though most readers may recall Circe from her dealings in the Odyssey,  Miller extrapolates a world from the few short lines from Homer’s poem to create more of her life, from her lonely childhood with Helios, the sun, as her scorching father, her first romance with a human and later a true love with Odysseus. Circe’s discovery and development of her magical powers gives her the well earned accolade of witch and her heritage makes her a goddess.

I downloaded Circe to my phone in 2018, when it was first published, but have not felt the urge to read it until now.  I’m glad I did.  The story was entertaining and flowed easily.  I knew how the story ended, but I persisted to finish.  From the pages, I noted a few lines relevant to me today I might not have appreciated two years ago:

“Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things, is another that waits to tear the world in two.”

 

“…the floor was always clean, the tables gleaming. The ashes vanished from the fireplace, the dishes washed themselves, and the firewood grew overnight. In the pantry jars of oil and wine, bowls of cheese and barley-grain, always fresh and full.”  A dream come true.

 

“Your wife sounds like a clever woman {says Circe to Odysseus}. {He answers} – She is. I cannot account for the fact that she married me, but since it is to my benefit, I try not to bring it to her attention.”

 

“What was the fight over? Let me see if I can remember the list.  He ticked his fingers. Vengeance, Lust, Hubris, Greed, Power.  What have I forgotten? Ah yes, vanity and pique.”

 

 

 

Listen to The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Magical, compelling, adventurous, scary – and just plain fun – Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a book to take you out of your doldrums and into another world.  I listened to this book on audilbe and the narrator’s clever changes in voice from villain to heroine, from young to old, from awe to terror – had me walking extra steps and driving an extra mile to continue the story.  After a while, I just gave up and turned up the sound on my iPhone.

In the story you will follow January Scholar as she navigates her life through the beauty of the world and the ugliness of evil characters to find her true identity.    January is left with her father’s wealthy employer in Vermont as he travels the world searching for old valuable pieces for his employer’s collections.

One of the most satisfying elements of the book is having the villains get their due – irrevocably beaten back and punished.

Words and stories are the catalysts, as each chapter reveals another piece of January’s life, from small girl to mature woman with the power to open doors into other worlds through her writing.

The book within the book is The Ten Thousand Doors, which tells of magical doors between worlds.  When her father goes missing, January decides to leave Vermont to find him. As she travels to new countries through new Doors, January becomes fearless and learns to use her words to live a free and exciting life.

The stories are as mesmerizing as Scheherazade, and even if you are not a fan of fantasy, you will appreciate the magic and the possibilities in opening another door and hearing a good story.  I did.

The Starless Sea

I had expected the unusual from Erin Morgenstern after reading her Night Circus, but The Starless Sea goes beyond my expectations for strange and complicated. The book has elements of Scheherazade in her storytelling, and bits of Lewis Carroll in her references and visits to fantastic worlds, but the story Morganstern most reminded me of – even referencing it in the beginning of her book – was Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.

Just as in Carlos Ruiz Zafón‘s Cemetery of Lost Books, Morgenstern creates her own secret underground library and a mystery involving the hero and books, as well as their pages and words, sifting them through a tangential plot sometimes hard to follow. If you have read The Westing Game, you might see some of its elements too.

But it’s the many stories, not necessarily the one following the main characters, that become pieces that can be taken by themselves – fairy tales of fantastic places and sometimes horrible creatures. I was tempted to skip over these chapters to follow the main line, but after a while they seduced me into reading, and then I wasn’t so concerned about Zachary Rawlins, the graduate student on a quest – I knew he’d be back somewhere in later pages as the time warp flexed.

If all this sounds wild and ambiguous, it is – probably because the book is written that way too. The pages are crammed with symbolism – The Owl King, a sea of honey, magic doors – mixed with real places – the New York Public Library, posh hotels, and a professional fortune teller. Read it if you dare, but be prepared to get lost. In the end, I thought I caught a moral from the Never-ending Story, but maybe I just imagined it.

Review of the Night Circus: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2011/10/06/the-night-circus/

 

Mysteries with Ghosts, Murder and Magic

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts

With a cast of quirky characters, including a handsome stranger, a dead billionaire, and a weird heroine, Kate Bacculia creates a puzzle-solving mystery through a citywide treasure hunt in Boston in Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts.  The promise of a fortune, as well as the possibility of finding a murderer, drives Tuesday Mooney,  clever and intelligent researcher, who dresses in black and usually tries to avoid most social contact. Her sidekicks, a gay friend and a teen neighbor, help her face a painful past as well as propel her to a future with promise as they search out strange clues and coded messages.

Not for everyone, this story has elements of Edgar Allen Poe mixed with Agatha Christie, with a touch of Sophie Kinsella, and allusions ranging from Ellen Raskin to King Arthur.  I’m not sure I caught them all but the ones I did connect were hilarious.  Suspending belief is key as the reader gets involved in these strange and sometimes nefarious doings.

The Last House Guest

Megan Miranda’s The Last House Guest involves a mystery in Maine with tension between the rich with summer houses and the locals. The death of Avery’s best friend, Sadie, triggers the story, with the action going back and forth over the years. Eventually, Sadie’s suicide is ruled as murder, with Avery as prime suspect. As she works to clear her name, Avery solves not only the mystery of her friend but sadly discovers more deceit leading back to her parents’ car accident when she was a teenager. A whodunit with a sad twist.

 

Ninth House

Leigh Bardugo’s strange tale in Ninth House involves ghosts and dangerous magic at Yale University. Galaxy “Alex” Stern, a high school dropout, has a second chance at the good life with a scholarship to Yale; the quid pro quo requires her using her powers (seeing ghosts) to watch over the famous Yale secret societies. The most well known “Skull and Bones” can read the future of the stock market in blood and guts (both Bush presidents were members).  Bardugo lists all the societies at the end of the book, with the names of the famous alums.

Alex’s freshman outsider problem – the poor girl who doesn’t fit in – quickly gives way to her struggles to solve a murder noone wants solved, with ghosts hovering nearby.

With a nod to Harry Potter some of the magic seems harmless at first, like the library conveniently shaking its stacks to deliver books requested through a special portal, but Bardugo has a flair for more adult consequences.  When the magic goes awry, lethally burying someone under books cascading down from the walls, she notes ironically “Suffocating beneath a pile of books seems an appropriate way to go for a research assistant.”

Although Bardugo is noted for her children’s fantasy books, Ninth House is for adults only.  As the story gets more complicated, so do the magical malfunctions, often with lethal results.  I enjoyed following the witches, demons, and ghosts, and if you are a fan of Deborah Harkness books, you might too.