The SFFaudio Podcast #275 – READALONG: Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

July 28, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Podcasts 

Podcast

Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe

The SFFaudio PodcastThe SFFaudio Podcast #275 – Jesse and Mr Jim Moon discuss Ivanhoe: A Romance by Sir Walter Scott

Talked about on today’s show:
1820, the Tantor Media audiobook as read by Simon Prebble, 3 comic book adaptations!, the July 2014 BBC Radio 4 adaptation (1hr), General Mills Radio Adventure Theater, immensely important, Wamba and Gurth, looking at adaptations, refinement, Robin Hood (1973), the splitting of the arrow, a willow wand, daring-do fiction, archery, folktale, Will Scarlet splits the arrow in the Queen Katherine Ballad, the historical inaccuracies, Rob Roy, a plump text, King Richard and Friar Tuck, The Merchant Of Venice by William Shakespeare, a very Shakespearean novel, pithy and punchy, dialogue and banter, The Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, fully motivated characters, Athelstane, colour cloaks, where does Isaac stat at Ashby?, Chapter 2 Gurth is “this second Eumaeus”, Ivanhoe is a retelling of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, the usurpation, the governance of Scotland, the Saxons as the Scots under the English yoke, Loxley, Prince John, King John, Magna Carta, robber barons, Brian de Bois-Guilbert (wants Rebecca), Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, “Front of Beef” (wants Isaac’s money), Maurice de Bracy (wants Rowena), war and God, the 1997 BBC TV adaptation of Ivanhoe, an Arthurian style obsession, the reconciliation, Athelstane is almost a Hobbit, Athelstane death is a comedic version of a Guy de Maupassant or Edgar Allan Poe premature burial story, The Fall Of The House Of Usher done as farce, Monty Python And the Holy Grail, surprisingly few deaths, “boys own adventure”, The A-Team, Ulrica’s death, the the Waverley Novels, almost a Fantasy, magic, The Prisoner Of Zenda, venison, the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood, the Black Knight – who could it be?, how easy would the disguises be seen through in 1820, bigger than Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, stage adaptations, Waverley places around the world, Abbotsford, British Columbia is named (in part) after Sir Walter Scott’s home, Ivanhoe’s popularity in the southern United States, invasion, slavery and chivalry, underselling the power of fiction (as compared with non-fiction), On The Origin Of Species by Charles Darwin, The Communist Manifesto, Tolkien, understanding fiction, the revelation of truth through fiction, novels were once quite novel, the need for novels, models of action, 1984 changes, helps and improves you, “what is honorable action?”, the power of oaths, rapacious acquisition vs. honorable service, the destruction of the Templars, banishment was a harsh punishment, an obsession with love, Rebecca is the female Ivanhoe, the role of the Jews in the book vs. the adaptations, banking, this is not an anti-Semitic book (shockingly), the coin counting scene, the roasting scene, Friar Tuck is super-anti-Semitic, Churchill’s background, why is it that English were not as anti-Semitic as most of Europe?, a zeitgeisty historical novel, looking at the present through a historical lens, puffy, the level of intellect is very high – the etymology of pig, Lincoln Green, the final battle, a powerfully intellectual book for a piece of fiction, mid-19th century fiction isn’t as punchy, wit and intelligence in peasant characters, J.K. Rowling must have read Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott’s was “the Wizard Of The North”, Cedric <-the name comes from this book, "freelance" <-lances for hire, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Robin Hood (Ridley Scott), Robin Hood’s nom de guerre, ITV’s Robin Of Sherwood <- both Robin Hood mythologies are in it!, the "Dread Pirate Roberts", a good knight but a bad king, pagan gods, Herne the Hunter, Ivanhoe popularized the Middle Ages, Arthurian scholarship, folk customs, the ancient Egypt craze, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, a big powerful book, A Song Of Ice And Fire is kind of the anti-Ivanhoe, the Dunk And Egg stories, surprisingly modern, the symmetry of Ivanhoe, a tonic for gallstones, HBO should commission Ivanhoe, the 1952 version, the 1982 version, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Hamill, Kevin Costner vs. Alan Rickman, a noir ending averted.

Rebecca and Ivanhoe - illustration by C.E. Brock (1905)

Ivanhoe illustrated by Clarence Leonard Cole (1914)

Ivanhoe illustrated by Maurice Greiffenhagen

Ivanhoe illustrated by Maurice Greiffenhagen

Ivanhoe illustrated by Maurice Greiffenhagen

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

May 15, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Cover Art for Grave MercyGrave Mercy
by Robin LaFevers; Read by Erin Moon
Publisher: Recorded Books
Publication Date: 3 April 2012
[UNABRIDGED] – 14 hours 14 minutes
Themes: / historical fiction / assassins / medieval / politics / young adult

Ismae, our protagonist, is a teenage nun assassin in fifteenth-century Brittany. That descriptor alone, issued by a guest on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, was enough to hook my attention and reel me into listening to this book. The term “nun assassin” alone, evoking a strong sense of cognitive dissonance, is rife with narrative potential. Mix in some fantastic elements of ancient gods  masquerading as saints and set the whole thing against a late medieval backdrop, and you would seem to have all the ingredients for an entertaining, emotional, and perhaps even thought-provoking novel. Unfortunately, Robin LaFevers’s young adult novel Grave Mercy falls short in almost every regard.

The novel opens with great promise. Ismae finds herself rescued inexplicably from an arranged marriage and whisked away to the convent of Saint Mortain, who, in LaFevers’s universe, is the ancient Britonic god of death who lives on in the guise of a Catholic saint. She quickly gains acceptance as one of Mortain’s servants and begins her training as an assassin. We meet several of her Sisters in training, who show immense promise as complex, complicated characters. Ismae immediately shows promise in the deadly arts, especially in the brewing of poisons. The stage is set for a Potteresque term of training, comeraderie, and schoolyard intrigue. I very much wanted to read that book.

Unfortunately, we are soon whisked three years into the future just as Ismae receives her first assignment as a full-fledged assassin. Easily dispatching her first victim, she then undertakes a much more difficult assignment at the behest of the Abbess. This task throws her smack-dab in the middle of Brittany’s courtly circle, where the young Duchess struggles to fend off both French invaders and equally persistent suitors. Under the pretense of serving as mistress to Duval, the Duchess’s bastard brother, Ismae must try to sort out the tangled web of politics and allegiances.

Wait, what? Where’s my Bildungsroman? I was looking forward to a classic coming-of-age story, but instead find myself listening to a book of court intrigue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with court intrigue, of course, except that most of the members of court in Grave Mercy are utterly forgettable, and those who do show a spark of personality don’t receive much stage time. There are no Lannisters or Starks here. Characters from the novel’s tantalizing early chapters hardly receive a second mention. The plot simply doesn’t hold together.

My second complaint is more subjective: the novel just isn’t rooted enough in fantasy. Mortain, the ancient god of death who marks his targets for the sisters of the convent, is potentially a fantastic character, or at least a useful construct, but sadly we learn about him and him only indirectly. Had we been treated to more time at the convent, we might have learned more of his mysterious ways. The novel also hints that other old gods also live in LaFevers’s Brittany, and presumably the remaining novels in the His Fair Assassin series shed more light on their nature. This volume, however, resembles historical fiction more than fantasy.

Despite its medieval setting, there isn’t much in the writing and themes that bear much resemblance to the writing or thought of the Middle Ages. The prose, while capable and at times even captivating, feels thoroughly modern in its tone and diction. The characters converse in a colloquial style that feels sterile and devoid of even the veneer of medieval cultures that most authors apply when setting stories in this time period. Ismae is an empowered young woman of the 21st-century variety, and the undertones of trauma and survival also have a modern ring to them. LaFevers is writing for a young adult audience, which in theory should make these choices easier to swallow. I grew up reading authors like Tolkien and Kipling and even Shakespeare, though, so I don’t buy into the assumption that fiction should be diluted for young readers. I’m not saying that this was necessarily LaFevers’s explicit intension, but rather that the current YA culture subconsciously encourages these trends. The genre’s very existence, to some extent, proves my point.

Erin Moon’s mellifluous narration makes Grave Mercy a pleasant listening experience even if the story itself is uneven. She captures Ismae’s quavering sense of vulnerability, and gives distinct voices to the other characters, at least to the extent the writing allows. Her pronunciation of French place-names, with one or two minor exceptions, is pretty much spot-on. Nothing ruins an otherwise-perfect audiobook like even a few pesky mispronunciations. So even though I wasn’t always captivated by the story, Moon’s performance kept me listening to the end.

As I look back, I’ve tried reading several assassin-themed fantasy novels: Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows, and Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study. This is the first one I’ve actually finished. Assassins should make for compelling, dynamic characters spinning taut webs of dramatic tension. But for some reason they have always fallen short in this reader’s estimation. Maybe my subconscious finds them somehow inherently distasteful, or maybe the kinds of stories they find themselves in just aren’t to my liking. Take that into consideration in my review. If you like assassin stories, you’ll probably find much to enjoy about Grave Mercy.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of Twisted Rhymes

October 1, 2004 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Review

Twisted Rhymes by Bob HarperTwisted Rhymes
Performed by Bob Harper
1 CD – 52 minutes
Published by: Bob Harper Productions
Themes: / Horror / Royalty / Ghosts / Zombies / Medieval / Tavern / Revenge /

I played this CD not knowing at all what to expect. I heard some music and some background voices that quickly established the setting of a royal feast. Then the voice of Bob Harper started to perform a poem and I was pulled right in. The poem starts well enough “…it was a marvelous affair…” but I realized that the affair was not so marvelous. The king, not sane, describes his burdens to the lords in attendence… and things get horrifying from there. I immediately played the 5 minute track again. And again. Like a good song, I wanted to keep listening, but I continued on and listened to the rest of the CD in one mesmerized sitting.

Harper’s resonant tone in combination with the sound effects and music – it just works beautifully. These poems are great scary fun, suitable for family listening; though some scenes are definitely intense, I would not call the horror “graphic”. They are more in the Poe tradition – in fact, a few of the tracks are influenced directly enough by Poe to be called homage.

The entire CD was a very pleasant surprise. These ten short horror stories left me a nice creepy feeling this season the likes of which I haven’t experienced for a long time. Highly recommended!

You can buy this at Horrorsound, the website for Bob Harper Productions.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

April 12, 2004 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Fantasy Audiobooks - A Clash of Kings by George R.R. MartinA Clash of Kings
By George R.R. Martin; Read by Roy Dotrice
21 Cassettes – 37 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 073930870X
Themes: / Fantasy / Medieval setting / Power struggle / Dragons /

A Clash of Kings continues the saga started by George R.R. Martin in A Game of Thrones. There are six projected volumes in this series. The first three novels are currently in print, and all three of them are now available on unabridged audio from Random House Audio or Books on Tape. A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings are also available on Audible.com.

This volume is frankly more of the same kind of thing experienced in A Game of Thrones. (See the SFFAudio review of A Game of Thrones here). In this case, that’s a good thing. A Clash of Kings is a direct continuation of the first volume with the addition of several new characters. The stories of members House Stark and House Lannister were again the center of the plot – their struggle for power in the land of Westeros continues, while the supernatural threat from the North continues to gather, and Daenerys Targaryen, with her dragons, gains power. Tension runs high throughout the book, and resolution is left for future volumes.

George R.R. Martin has created a medieval world filled with interesting characters that I continue to care about. The plot is complex, and each time I felt a question was answered, a new mystery unfolded.

The myriad of characters created a challenge for narrator Roy Dotrice, but again he does a fabulous job. With captivating skill and range he charges on, unfolding the story chapter by chapter, character by character, event by event. The book is certainly a marathon for the listener, but by the end, after 37 hours, I was (and am) still eager to continue listening to this truly excellent fantasy series.

Review of A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

February 8, 2004 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Fantasy Audiobooks - A Game of Thrones by George R.R. MartinA Game of Thrones
By George R.R. Martin; Read by Roy Dotrice
19 Cassettes – 34 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 0739308688
Themes: / Fantasy / Medieval setting / Power struggle / Dragons /

A Game of Thrones is the first of six projected volumes of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series. It was published in 1997, where it joined a host of other fat fantasy series, including Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. With many fully realized characters and subplots that don’t fail to surprise, Martin’s series stands tall above the rest in the genre. This particular volume won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (1997) and was nominated for the Best Novel Nebula Award.

I was very much looking forward to the audio version of this novel, and followed some of the discussion on George R.R. Martin’s website concerning it. He apparently rejected an offer to make a 9-hour abridged version of the book, which he felt would be more of a summary than a novel. He was right – this unabridged version is 34 hours long, and I for one am delighted that he waited.

A Game of Thrones is not fantasy in the style of Tolkien. In fact, it has much more in common with Herbert’s Dune than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The book is a chess game played by various Houses in a quest for power in a land called Westeros. The setting is medieval, with kings, knights, lords, and ladies. At the beginning of the novel, we’re introduced to House Stark, led by Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell. He and his family live in a castle in the northern country, and are reminded often that winter is coming… in more ways than one. Eddard’s wife is Catelyn, formerly of House Tully, and their children are Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Rickon. Eddard also fathered a bastard named Jon Snow – his mother is a mystery to all but Eddard.

The struggle around which everything revolves is between House Stark and House Lannister. Cersei, the king’s wife, is of that house, as is Jaime, her twin brother, and Tyrion, a dwarf. Every one of the characters mentioned play important roles in the story, and because they are so realistically portrayed, they are not difficult to tell apart, nor are they hard to remember as they love, fight, promise, and betray.

What makes this novel fantasy? Magic plays a very small role in the story. The characters in this novel are all grey, unlike the black and white good/evil of typical fantasy characters. But there is a growing supernatural threat in the north, introduced in the Prologue. And there is also Danerys Targaryen, of the house that held the throne years before the events in this novel, who is coming of age… and Targaryens are known for their dragons.

George R.R. Martin’s writing style is very easy to follow, and translates beautifully to the spoken word. Roy Dotrice does an excellent job. In my opinion, his performance is on par with Jim Dale’s reading of the Harry Potter novels. Many, many characters present themselves here, just as in the Potter novels, yet Dotrice, like Dale, manages to keep them all separated and gives them all distinct mannerisms and voices that keep the story flowing. I caught a few mispronunciations in the book, all names where Dotrice gets caught up in the moment and calls Prince Joffrey “Jeffrey”, for example, or pronounces the name “Varys” two different ways. This did cause me pause, but it happened only a few times in the 34 hour performance.

This was one of my favorite novels before I listened to this audiobook. Martin has created a realistic world peopled with authentic characters that are not difficult to care about. The book runs me through a huge range of emotions as the complex plot runs its course. This audiobook enhanced the experience – listening to Dotrice’s performance was like reading it again for the first time.