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Necropolis: London and Its Dead
Catharine Arnold
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Naomi Novik

The Fifth Wave/The Book of Three/The Black Cauldron/The Castle of Llyr/Taran Wanderer

  I tried. I really did.  


  It took me months  to read The Fifth Wave, because I'm one of those readers who must finish books I start, without cheating. I do not read the end unless I arrive there from the beginning. Never before have I been so sorely tested by a book, though. 


It seemed to start out pretty good, though I noticed that the four "waves" in the book closely mirrored speculation in a program I'd seen on the Nat Geo channel, speculation about what would happen should aliens invade and act like they wanted to win instead of provide opportunities for movies. So. There was that. Still, it was different than aliens in space ships.  


  Then there was the fucking love triangle. Show me a teenaged girl in a fucking book and I'll show you a fucking love triangle.  Do teenage girls love books, football, embroidery, writing, reading? Yeah, maybe, but they love boys more. Girls must have a boy or be in love with a boy, is the message, but boys themselves don't view girls the same way. Girls aren't fed to boys as the only way to have self esteem; girls, furthermore, get told no, while boys get told yes. Too many of these bloody YA books seem to promise that this book will be different, that this girl will get told yes.


 It's a lie.


  Boys display no such obsession with girls being necessary to their lives.  It doesn't dominate boys' existence in books they way it does girls. In part that's because our culture pays lip service to 'strong' girls and women but in reality it just shoots them down if they get too uppity.  


   Then there's the secondary plot with her.....relative. Yeah. Relative. Let's just leave it at that. I just didn't feel it. There was no there there. There wasn't a lot of effort here, either, although the heroine did now and then address herself by her own name or think of herself in the third person.   


I had to put the fucking thing down for weeks on end. As a result, I lost the plot and really didn't care much.  The characters were non-descript, the plot was....meh....and the whole book just left me feeling cheated. I cannot think of a single turn of phrase or line of dialogue or emotional moment that stayed with me. That's because there just wasn't anything to recall. 


 The problem with Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain is exactly the opposite. I re-read four of them in as many days, saving The High King to slobber and snivel over because while these books stab you periodically right in the heart, the last book really twists the knife. 


   Where do you start? For starters, the characters are unique and individual, so fresh and different that you can read untagged pages of dialogue without doubting for a second who each speaker is. Not just that, the characters are realistic and recognizable as human,  not in ways that seem pretentious and show offy by the writer, but in actions that remind you or yourself or others in every day life. For fantasy novels, that's quite an accomplishment. 


There's Dallben, the elderly wizard who meditates so extensively and exhaustively that he must frequently accomplish this task lying down; Coll, the gruff farm worker who knows that horse shoes are more practical than swords; Princess Eilonwy, the golden-haired princess who speaks in similes and seems always about to throw things at Taran; Prince Gwydion of Don, the stark, spare, mysterious leader who battles the forces of evil; Fflewdyrr Fflamm, the bard who's really a king but who loves being a bard more than his throne, even if Taliesin did give him a harp that keeps his tale-telling from getting too far from reality. 


And then there is Taran, a character utterly unique in fiction, adult or otherwise. Taran is basically like we all are on bad days, or very young days, wanting something and not realizing how much it will cost in terms of sacrifice and effort, or not realizing that something else entirely is worth far, far more.  Taran is a curious hero, for without his friends he wouldn't really accomplish anything, and recognizing this is what enables him to do what he is able to. When, in the fourth book, he is close to being a  man and he decides to search for his birthright, he journeys to and fro and learning from others, but ultimately, he gets slapped with one of the most tragic, humble fates I can ever recall seeing a hero being put through: he finds something he loves doing, but he has no real talent for it. What he has a talent for, he has no real interest in.  


 Taran starts out impulsive and starry-eyed, and his impulses cost him, when he indulges his fantasies of heroism and finds out things aren't that simple. There's no miracle Chosen One here, no fate already sealed. Whatever Taran's fate is to be is not yet decided, and it can only be seen when he grows up and humbly realizes who he really is, and how with a little hard work,  anyone might be heroic. The hardest lesson Taran learns is that "Hero" is not an identity, but a process, not a title, but one's actions. When this achievement is gained----after great tragedy and loss------only then does Taran get the recognition he once so eagerly sought, now meaningless compared to the things and people he has lost. Taran's essential decency is not heroic or show offy. He's the desperate boy who seizes a hidden sword and doesn't realize till later that in his terror he unsheathed a blade that should have killed him outright. The Tarans of the world learn to find satisfaction in simple things, for the great deeds they wind up doing come not from grand station or importance, but from the basic kindness and decency of their characters. Taran is the one person who does the right thing in the dark, whether there's a witness or not,  because he knows what it feels like when someone else did not do that for him.  


   Rare for a 'children's' novel, there's very few black and white villains.  With one or two exceptions, the villains are all depicted as frail creatures that couldn't fight off temptation, or who at least partially redeemed themselves.  When one good person turns bad and a heretofore bad character effectively switch places, one character says, "I shall remember (this character) for who he once was, and I shall honor (this other character) for who he became."  The bad people are often genuinely unlikable in familiar ways that easily bring to mind common types one sees every day, from the younger son who wants glory and takes refuge in his pride, to other characters who are enigmatic at best.  Seeing bad people try to become good because it's the right thing to do----often at a terrible price-----is almost as bad as watching good people die so that other people might continue the fight. 


 The characters are so much fun that the plots are almost after thoughts,  providing a vague framework for adventures and danger or poignance. Taran Wanderer is a hint of what's to come in The High King, as Taran faces choices he never imagined as a child in Caer Dallben, dreaming of heroics. When he finds out that the old farmer who tends Dallben's garden was once a hero of legend, he cries out, "But he's so....bald!" In the end, the humble things he once scorned as a child become valuable to him as an adult,  because it is by labor and hard work that most of us shape our fates.  Kings and farmers alike may ride off to and die in battle, but it is the farmers who till the battlefield afterward, and grow the crops that keep soldier and Assistant Pig Keeper alike alive and healthy.  


 The Chronicles of Pyrdain will yank the emotional rug out from under you about a zillion times, sometimes in tiny ways, sometimes in huge ones. Taran's grieving list of tasks at the end of the last book might, one suspects, lie uncompleted, because that is what happens with human beings.It's another trick the book pulls, too, for as soon as Taran realizes the importance of keeping those promises,  by virtue of recognizing that responsibility he becomes perhaps too important to do such work himself. It that doesn't make you sniffle---having watched Taran sometimes stomp and shout and sulk his way through five books, only to grow up in the last-----I really have some misgivings.