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Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped?
by Neil Walsh

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]

Blissful Ignorance or the Soul-Crushing Despair of Knowledge: You Decide

So I'm assuming you're a reader -- otherwise you're not terribly likely to be reading this column on a web site dedicated primarily to reviewing books. You're probably a person who loves books, maybe even as much as I do. Well hello there, and welcome to my new column on books. Now I'm going to crush your soul in seconds flat. Don't believe I can do it? Read the following short paragraph, really think about it, and you will be a quivering, jellied mass of despair. If you want to avoid soul-crushing anguish, skip ahead. I seriously recommend you skip ahead. Really, I mean it. This is your final warning: do not read the next paragraph; choose blissful ignorance instead.

Abandon All Hope Ye Who Read Here

OK, if you really insist on desolation and despair, here it is: how many books do you read each year? Realistically, how many more years do you expect to live? A quick calculation will result in what can only be the shockingly low number of books you will read before you die. Think about it for a moment, and despair.

You had to know, didn't you. Well don't blame me for your insatiable curiosity. I'm just the messenger. A couple of years ago, a misguided friend thought he was doing me a favour by using this evil argument to dissuade me from reading anything but really good books. Having had my heart and soul compressed into a soggy wad and tossed into the gutter, I thought I would share the love. (You're welcome.) Quick calculation, and bye-bye happiness. Forever. Because, like Adam and Eve, once you have the knowledge, the innocence can never be regained.

OK, so now you have to move on and deal with your lost innocence. Now you have to make some hard choices. First choice: you can wallow in your despair. Not a good option. It can get messy, it won't really make you feel better, and everyone around you will eventually get fed up and leave you to your pathetically self-indulgent wallowing. Option two, you can increase your lifespan, thereby increasing the time you have to read and, by corollary, the number of books you can read before your ultimate demise. Not a bad option if you can pull it off, but it's a long term goal that can be difficult to attain. Also, it may require a diet and fitness regime that could curb your enjoyment of your unnaturally long lifespan and, irony of ironies, cut into your reading time. It may therefore prove to be self-defeating. Third option, you can read more. This is probably your best option, although it may put your eyesight at some risk, and if you are not careful could have an impact on your relationships, your job, or your capacity to ever again find your way home from the library.

Safe Reading Resumes

You may be wondering how you could possibly read more. I'm pretty sure you can do it. Television, video games, sleep -- all of these activities can cut deeply into your reading time. It's all a matter of prioritizing.

All this to say that no matter how many books you read, there will always be many more that you will not read. By simply spending more time reading, I've managed to whittle down my stack of volumes waiting to be read to a mere 420 or so books. Plus all the ones I haven't bought yet. But some of those 420-odd books have been there for years. Last year, I decided I would take an even dozen of those I had been avoiding for years and read one each month. In this way, I managed to get through Dante's Divine Comedy (the John Ciardi translation -- his footnotes are invaluable), Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, James Joyce's Ulysses, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, and other classics of literature and non-fiction.

The Matter at Hand: To Quest for Elfland or Hide in Trembling Fear from the Scary Monsters

This year, I decided to target the classics of science fiction and fantasy that I've been avoiding. And in my continuing endeavour to read more, I thought why not make it two books each month instead of just one -- all in addition to my regular reading, of course. But for the sake of variety, I've got two stacks on my "waiting to be read" shelf for this particular project: a dozen classics of science fiction and fantasy, and a dozen more obscure titles that I've also been avoiding and have several times rescued from the annual household garage sale. It's time to check out these overlooked or (possibly) over-hyped books and test their mettle.

The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924)
Lord Dunsany

The King of Elfland's Daughter Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany (1878-1957), published over 60 books under the name Lord Dunsany and he is reputed to have been a major influence on numerous writers, especially Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft. But even authors writing today still list Dunsany as an influence. The book that earned him his enduring seat in the fantasy hall of fame is certainly The King of Elfland's Daughter, first published in 1924.

The King of Elfland's Daughter There have been may reprints, including the edition I read which was a Ballantine Books mass market reprint from 1977 with a somewhat cheesey 70s fantasy cover by Darrell Sweet.

The King of Elfland's Daughter This novel is readily available in various editions. A notable recent one was the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition (2001), with a beautiful Waterhouse cover.

Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter is our classic, so the question is: how does it stand up to a fresh reading today? My assessment is that it's still a fairly accessible read, if you're not put off by the mock-archaic language. Let's examine Dunsany's style. Here's a sentence from near the beginning of chapter 16 that provides a typical example:

  "And little he knew of the things that ink may do, how it can mark a dead man's thought for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark of time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills."  

Well, what a convoluted way to say "He was illiterate," which was all the story required at that point. But on the other hand, notice the hauntingly beautiful imagery conjured by this single sentence -- it says so vastly much more than simply "He was illiterate." You'll also notice the structure of the sentence, the order of the words. The whole book is deliberately written in this simulated archaic style to make it seem like it's a tale of long ago -- like a genuine fairy tale.

The story is simple: the people of Erl want to be ruled by a magic lord, so the king sends his son Alveric to Elfland to win the King of Elfland's daughter for his bride. Boy meets girl, love happens, boy steals girl away from her father and his magical realm and returns to reign in Erl. They, in their turn, have a son. Eventually the Elf King's daughter returns (magically) to Elfland, which the King of Elfland withdraws from the mundane world. Alveric undertakes a life-long quest to find Elfland once more and be reunited with his wife. Meanwhile, their son Orion grows up and rules Erl in his father's absence. He is a bit magic, which rather scares the people of Erl who now decide maybe they were better off before they had a magic lord after all. There's just no pleasing some folks.

So, we've got a romantic love between man and elf-maid, defiance of a powerful father for that love, and finally the lifelong quest to regain the lost bride -- all this sounds like a potent romance story, and it's a significant chunk of the plot (note the title). And yet, I never really feel the passion I'm informed of in this book. In his attempt to emulate traditional fairy tales, Dunsany may have done his job too well. I've read a lot of fairy tales, and frequently they toss in things that don't really make a lot of sense and just expect you to go along with it. I'm told that Alveric and Lirazel (the daughter of the Elf King) have this undying love, but I never really feel it.

On the other hand, Dunsany is capable of brilliant character treatment. When Orion recruits trolls from Elfland to be in charge of his hunting hounds, there's a whole chapter dedicated to Lurulu the troll discovering the enigma of the world that is not Elfland. Here's a little guy who never before experienced time flowing; in Elfland nothing changes, but now he finds himself in a strange land where night follows day and so on. Furthermore, poor Lurulu is a little mystified that most birds and animals can't understand him when he speaks to them. It's an absolutely inspired depiction of alien first contact, and it's handled with delicate compassion.

The thing that really struck me, though, was Alveric's quest for Elfland. He'd go to people and say (in much more flowery language) where's Elfland gone to? And they'd just look at him blankly or blink stupidly. So he'd say You know, that place that used to be just east of here? Where is it? And they'd say, Oh, if you go north from here you'll find such, and if you go south you'll find this other place, and if you go west you get to somewhere else. It was like they couldn't even bear to think about what they didn't want to believe in. I find people are frequently very much like that.

The Cockatrice Boys (1996)
Joan Aiken

Joan Aiken (1924-2004) is probably best remembered for her several series of children's fantasy book, including the rather famous The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), which was the initial book in what was her longest-running and most beloved series.

The Cockatrice Boys The Cockatrice Boys (1996) was marketed as young adult fantasy in the UK and as adult fantasy in North America. The edition of The Cockatrice Boys I read was the 1996 Tor hardcover first edition, with interior black & white illustrations by Jason Van Hollander, who also did the cover art shown here. These interior illustrations add to the overall allure of the whole package.

This quirky little novel was reprinted in 1998 by Puffin.

The Cockatrice Boys And it was done by Starscape Books in 2002.

Perhaps it isn't exactly obscure, but I think it qualifies as overlooked. Particularly in North America, where it could easily have been missed by fans of Aiken's work who might have been looking in her more regular haunts among the shelves of children's books.

Now let's turn to The Cockatrice Boys, which was first published in 1996 and marketed as young adult fantasy in the UK and as adult fantasy in North America. The premise of this curious little book is that England has been invaded by hideous monsters out of mythology and fantasy and even Monty Python. After a few years of cowering in trembling discomfort in relatively safe places like the vault of the Barclay's Bank at Shepherds Bush and being picked off by flying sharks whenever they surface to scavange for tinned vegetables, the English finally try a new tactic. They respond to this occult threat by forming the Cockatrice Corps -- a loose military unit with fancy equipment like drums and special goggles to fight off this terrible plague of demons and gorgons and giant foot-monsters -- and sending them off on a train to see what's going on outside of London. This unit doesn't seem to have much in the way of training, and in fact they are willing to recruit anyone who happens along (regardless of age, experience or personal suitability) as long as they're not outwardly monsters.

Dakin is a young drummer boy from London, and a fresh recruit for this adventure. The Cockatrice train chugs along to Manchester, fighting monsters all the way, where Dakin's prescient cousin Sauna is rescued from a creepy old aunt. Then they get orders to head up to Scotland to track down the source of the monster invasion.

...Y'know, I'm not sure a plot summary is going to do justice to this book, so I'll abandon my attempt to tell you what it's about and instead tell you what I thought of it. First of all, I think the UK marketing had it right: this is clearly a YA novel, even though the US Tor edition calls it "Aiken's first adult fantasy novel." If you know from the outset that this is an outrageous lie, and as long as you have no objection to YA fiction, then you'll be better equipped to enjoy this book. Because it is an enjoyable book, if somewhat flawed. It's funny, and creepy, and odd, and frightening. There are several elements that don't make sense if you pause to think about it. My recommendation is don't pause. Just hop on the Cockatrice express and enjoy the mad ride.

Among the moon-sized holes in the plot is the following: the monster invasion has only affected Britain. So even if you try to just go along with the story and not think too hard about it, you may find yourself wondering why the English don't just get the hell out of England. I lived in London for a year and I often wondered that about the English. Particularly in London, an awful proportion of the population (those who are struggling to earn a living) seemed absolutely miserable most of the time they were sober. I was only in England for a year, absolutely miserable almost all of the time since I couldn't even afford to get drunk very often. But for me there was a light at the end of the tunnel because I knew that, once my wife was finished school, we would have options: we could stay and make a better go of it (since the two of us could then be earning money instead of just me) or we could go elsewhere. In the end, we chose the second option and ended up back in Canada where we've lived in comparative opulence ever since. When I lived in London and spoke to the English, I was surprised at how many of them told me they utterly despised living in England and were desperate to go and live somewhere -- anywhere -- else. I would say to them, so why don't you? And they would just look at me blankly or blink stupidly.

I don't mean to pick on the English. It's also true that wherever I've been when I was travelling, people would always say to me, I wish I could just pick up and travel like that. My inevitable answer: then why don't you? And I always receive the same reaction. Blank stares.

Paradiso Regained

So to come back to what I was talking about earlier, if you did read the soul-crushing paragraph and if you're actually beginning to feel that black hole of despair, then believe me when I tell you that you actually can read more. And who knows, maybe it will even help you live longer, or at the very least keep your mind active enough that you'll still be able to appreciate your later years.

It's like my friend Chris says about dancing to Led Zeppelin: you actually can dance to Led Zeppelin; you just have to want to badly enough. So please don't blink stupidly when I tell you that you can read more; Elfland can be as real as you want it to be. You just have to want to get there badly enough.

Copyright © 2007 Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is an avid reader of speculative fiction, literary fiction, and non-fiction. Despite reading an average of 12 books per month, he leads a fairly active life that involves relationships, work, theatre, travel, and classical fencing. Other titles Neil has read in the past month include Beck & Al Hansen: Playing With Matches, Ex Machina 4: March to War by Brian K. Vaughan, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt by Nick Hornby, Travels With a Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson, Cold Steel: The Art of Fencing with the Sabre by Alfred Hutton, How to Cook a Hippopotamus selected by Ian Pindar, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie, and Have Your Poo Rolled Away By Dung Beetles and 99 Other Things to Do Before You Die edited by Valerie Jamieson & Liz Else.

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