Archive for the ‘The Tripods Quartet’ Category

My big bad youth fiction page!!

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

In November I had a back operation. Recovering at home, I had a mind to read mainly light fiction, and I indulged in three series of youth fiction – The Tripods quartet, the Giver quartet, and the Earthsea cycle. Other than the first book of Earthsea, which I read as a kid, the remaining 15 books in these series were new to me; in fact, I’d never even heard of The Tripods and The Giver before 2014! But it was a great journey, and here’s a bit of information about these books.

The Tripods Quartet – John Christopher

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Tripods 1

A friend of mine who knows more about sci-fi than I do recommended the Tripod series for my 12-year-old. I got him the first book, The White Mountains, but he didn’t show an interest, so I read it instead. It was fantastic! I eventually read the full series, discovering that the fourth-written book is in fact a prequel, and could easily be read as the first instalment – the prequel is written in near-contemporary times, whereas the three “main” books cluster the timeline around the same characters and are set in the relatively-distant future (200-400 years from “now”, probably) when the Tripods return human civilisation to easier-to-manage feudal societies.

The first book (in terms of publishing timeline), The White Mountains, is indeed a very nice book for kids. The futuristic Kamandi-like world is very interesting, and you can have a lot of fun figuring out what he’s really doing, where he’s travelling, which part of our world he’s actually in during his post-apocalyptic times, and the action and human relationships are strong and believable.

Christopher had been a writer of adult fiction until that stage, and although he pulls youth fiction off well, there are times when you really wonder if he’s not writing over the heads of his intended audience when he contemplates whether he’d be happier off as a slave-who-didn’t-know-or-care-that-he-was-a-slave in the Matrix-like universe of the Tripods, or whether he’d be better off as a partisan/guerrilla, living and fighting in the hills. Existential philosophy for 12-year-olds.

This edition has a very interesting foreword by Christopher where he recounts what he went through writing this book, and very different types of  correspondences he exchanged with his London publisher (“Great, let’s publish it the way it is!”) and his New York editor (“Rewrite!!”).

Tripods 2

With The City Of Gold And Lead, the second-published book in the series, Christopher ups the ante by building a complex and exciting tale: Will has been training in the mountains for some time, now he’s sent  undercover with a mission to infiltrate the lands of the brainwashed humans, and then eventually enter the city of the Tripods itself, where he learns their terrible secrets.

To say any more would be to spoil the many pleasures of this amazing book, so I shall refrain – suffice it to say that I wish that more adult books were written as economically as this one has been, and as intricately plotted!! Naturally, it has been immaculately edited, and I can hardly tell of any dross, except maybe for a superfluous misadventure at the beginning.

Tripods 3

The Pool Of Fire is the third book in the Tripods series, with each book being equally good, and exciting for entirely different reasons. Just to recap: the first book introduces the “human slaves and their alien overlords” situation and characters, but is a simple “flight to safety” story, while the second is a “going undercover into the land of our enemies” tale. Now it’s up to the third book to wrap the saga up convincingly with an ingeniously-crafted “puny humans use their brains to overcome a seemingly invincible enemy”. Great to see how tables can be turned to defend an over-run homeworld.

Christopher even includes a final chapter that meditates on the nature of democracy, the cultures of the Earth, and man’s ability to get on with fellow man in times of peace as well as times of war; he does the same throughout the books as well in more subtle ways, such as Will’s interactions with the character Ulf, and also Julius’ criticisms of our young hero, each time doing it with style and panache.

Each part of the Tripods series is fantastic, and the prequel When The Tripods Came is no exception – it completely rocks!! I started reading from the first-released book, The White Mountains, but any reader could start here too and follow the stories in their natural reading order, with The White Mountains as the second book, etc.

Tripods 4

When The Tripods Came is set in a near-contemporary setting, and tells the tale of – you guessed it – when the Tripod overlords came to Earth. The tale unfolds marvellously, with the first encounter, the reaction, and the unfolding of the Tripods’ insidious plan. The narrowing of the escape hatch is impressive to read in its unfolding, and we see our heroes move from indifference to desperation within only 100 pages or so. Great development!! By the ending, we know that hope should be lost, but somehow Christopher builds a bridge to the next 200-400 (??) years of human enslavement, without building an obvious and literal link to The White Mountains. A stunning tale!!

All of these books are fantastic for kids, and just as great for adults as well!!

This series is also highly consistent, with all four books of similar excellence; the same cannot be said for other youth fiction series, like the other two reviewed here – the Giver Quartet, and the Earthsea Cycle – which are fairly inconsistent.

The Giver Quartet – by Lois Lawry

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The Giver 1

My 13-year-old son actually turned me on to this book, which I’d never heard of before. His class will be studying it in their English Literature class, so he gets to study it for a few months. Lucky kid.

I don’t remember the last time a book shook me to the core, but somehow The Giver did just that. I didn’t have high expectations, as the description makes the book sound like a corny post-apocalyptic dystopian tale, and just another Brave New World or Starship Troopers dumbed down for kids; but in many ways author Lois Lowry uses the setting, with a young apprentice learning a lost art from a wizened elder, to introduce challenging ideas of social structures and their  pros and cons, all in an easy-to-understand way. The learning process that young Jonas undergoes, and how he comes out of his shell and into the harsh light beyond, is quite amazing. This is a light book, 200 pages of lightly-spaced text, so you can finish it quickly, and with its spareness the tightly-edited tale allows no excess. Highly recommended.

The Giver 2

I started reading the sequel, Gathering Blue, the day I finished The Giver, and  prepared to see the recently-released film version of The Giver, starring Jeff Bridges (which, unfortunately, isn’t very good at all).

Gathering Blue is a great novel, and a wonderful sequel to The Giver, although it doesn’t deal at all with Jonas and Gabriel and the fate they meet following the cliffhanger ending Lowry gives The Giver.

This book deals with Kira and her medieval society, its rules, its secrets, and the unusual fate of three very special children. I’ve become a bit cynical about fiction after many years of voracious reading, but I am thoroughly enjoying Lowry’s wonderful ideas and style. Gathering Blue is just as remarkable as The Giver, although in completely different ways.

The Giver 3

In her third book in The Giver Quartet, Messenger, Lowry continues building her fascinating vision of a future society, this time in a utopian village that is slowly being poisoned by inside and outside forces. Lowry keeps it a bit conceptual and metaphorical, a step away from the harsh magic-infused science fiction of The Giver, with the action focussing on Matty, the scamp from the second book who aids and befriends Kira. As it turns out, Matty also has special powers… so by now we have five or six mutants in Lowry’s world; here also we see the characters from the three books come together in ways that were only hinted at in the second book, and we find out what became of the boy on the sleigh – even getting hints of what became of the world he escaped from. At only 180 pages, the book is short, tight, and fast-moving – a great read.

The Giver 4

The longest entry in The Giver Quartet, Son, wraps it up by bringing together characters from its three predecessors, but focussing very much on those from the first book (Joshua and Gabriel, plus one of their contemporaries – Claire, a new character to the series). It doesn’t quite do it successfully, though, but it has a lot of great parts full of exquisite prose.

Son is divided in to three books, the first one concerning Claire’s life in the city of The Giver, the second one looking at her life in a newly-discovered village (probably the best part of the book, a stand-alone tale full of magic and poetry), while the third one is a sort of Howl’s Moving Castle fairy tale that somehow tries to sew everything together… while also making it more un-real and strange.

It’s probably not Lowry’s best book in the series, although parts of it may actually exceed anything in the earlier three books. The first part of Son offers us a few new insights into the emotionless hyper-modern society that Joshua and Gabriel lived in for The Giver, but maybe not enough to provide any new perspectives on how it became the monstrosity that it is, while the last part can offer no satisfying consolidation of the previous four books. The middle part is the best, to the point where it may even seem like the parts before and after it were hardly necessary. In that sense, perhaps this book could have been edited much more tightly than it was – certainly, the previous three books were very lean, lovely tales – this one… less so.

The Earthsea Cycle (six books) – by Ursula K Le Guin

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I read The Wizard Of Earthsea as a kid and remembered enjoying it very much; now that I have a 12-year-old, I thought that I could get it  for him to read and expand his horizons beyond a voracious reading of the Rick Riordan books. Well, he wasn’t interested, so I took the opportunity to re-read it and found myself enjoying it immensely as an adult. The tale of Ged/Sparrowhawk is fascinating, and Le Guin is masterful in how she tells about his youth, the discovery of his magical powers, his growth and coming of age, his near-fall and redemption, and generally the bizarre island world of Earthsea where sea commerce is nearly everything. Great tales of ocean voyages, discovery, magic, arrogance, redemption, and even more exploration. The conflict in the book is highly metaphorical, and by making it physical Le Guin also get metaphysical. Wow all around!

At the same time as I was re-reading this, I have also been reading the Game Of Thrones books, and find so much more to enjoy in this simple tale, where nothing is purple or over-written. Martin’s world of Westeros, with its kingdoms, languages and warring clans, bears some similarity to Earthsea, but it is so much more compelling. Bravo! It left me hungry to read the rest of the Earthsea series of books (and I’ll probably re-read this book before too long); unfortunately, only the second book is as good, with the fourth book nearly unreadable; this first book is also only one of two books that includes extensive sea travel and visits to various islands throughout the archipelago that gives Earthsea so much of its unique character (the other being The Farthest Shore); I guess Le Guin just got seasick. A pity, because this gives us fewer excuses to study the amazing map of Earthsea that Le Guin provides.

Earthsea 2

Book Two, Tombs Of Atuan is a great book for both kids and adults. It tells the continuing story of Ged Sparrowhawk and the magic of Earthsea, looking in particular at the culture of the Kargs (a cluster of four islands at the top right of the map of Earthsea, and not far from Ged’s native island of Gont), their worship of the sinister Nameless Ones, and the young Dali Lama-like priestess, Tenar, selected for her role because she was born the same day the former priestess died.

The tale is told in the third person, but from her perspective, and we don’t even meet Ged until nearly halfway through the book. This makes the journey of discovery in the tale quite rich, and we learn much more about her than we do of him. We see her grow from frightened girl to a playful child apprentice, and then a haughty priestess, before becoming a discerning free thinker who can make her own decisions and exert her power and influence. Great!!

Le Guin does a great job of describing the terror of darkness in the depths of the tombs, and later also the terrifying power of the Nameless Ones; through Ged, we understand more and more of the make-up of the magic of Earthsea, the emergence of the God Kings of Karg, and the history of one of its greatest treasures.At just 180 pages, it’s a quick, tight read, and packed with awesomeness!!

Earthsea 3

After the foundation tale A Wizard Of Earthsea, which established Sparrowhawk/Ged as a major character in the world of youth fiction and fantasy, and the supremely plot-driven mystic-psychological drama The Tombs of Atuan,  Le Guin offers us the third Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore, as a blend of the two – a distant voyage to the ends of the earth chasing dragons and other shadowy figures like the first novel (and more explanation of the “mirror image/alter ego” concept), and introducing a significant new character like the second. Part of the tale is about humans abandoning their humanity and embracing murkiness, and Le Guin writes this way – aimless, murky, unfocussed. Much of the middle is about wandering and stumbling, and it doesn’t make for fun reading, although I understand why Le Guin might have wanted to write like this. The new character, Prince Arren, is supposed to be noble, but he doesn’t make a strong impression, and we have no sense of where he comes from or where he’s going – in spite of the fact that most of the book is written from Arren’s point of view (inexplicably flying off from time to time to look in on other characters). There’s also a bit of fussing with dragons, which is interesting, but also murky and unfocussed. Le Guin takes a stab at social commentary, attacking both commercialism and drug-taking before moving the characters on in their voyages. Overall the book is disjointed, with a murky conclusion and only occasional snatches of brilliant, lucid writing. There’s also a brief flirtation with gay themes, or at least brotherly infatuation/man-love. On the plus side, our travellers do visit about 10 different islands, and Le Guin mentions many others, giving plenty of excuses to pore over the brilliant map of Earthsea provided in the book.

Earthsea 4

The Farthest Shore  was initially published as part of a cluster of three Earthsea books written within a few years (and therefore often described as the concluding tale of the Earthsea trilogy). Le Guin would go nearly 20 years before coming up with the next installment, Tehanu. Published after a gap of so many years, the fourth book is yet again a vastly different book. Largely concerned with domestic items, very little happens between the books opening chapter, which establishes the background and key events of the book, and page 150, when we get our first act of movement. By page 210 we get our first major incident, and by page 255 things finally start to get very interesting. The book has 270 pages. You get passages like “She smiled at his wit and kindness. What a nice boy he is, she thought.” While I realise that a criticism like this is incredibly unkind to the hard work that the author put into building her creation, I can’t help but think that if this tale had been trimmed down substantially it would have made a great 30-page short story.

Le Guin has been very defensive of her vision for the book, clearly resentful of the critical savaging it got. She wanted to write a book of themes – womanhood, powerlessness, old age, feelings of frustration, domesticity, disenfranchisement, the oppression of the patriarchy, bullying, and the unseen power/potential of the underdog. These are all noble themes, and are often visited by other great authors like Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro and others; certainly, it is very brave of Le Guin to turn two incredibly strong characters (Ged and Tenar) into powerless underdogs for the sake of the development of these themes she feels are important to explore. But they feel a bit oppressive here, as they completely overcome any semblance of a story-telling novel, which is what the first three books in the Earthsea cycle have led us to expect. A such, I cannot help but feel disappointed with Tehanu; however, I’m going to continue on and read the remaining two books that Le Guin has so far added to the cycle, Tales From Earthsea (a collection of short stories – yay!), and The Other Wind, the latest Earthsea.

Earthsea 5

Given how the four Earthsea books that come before the fourth book, Tales From Earthsea, vary widely in quality – from the fascinating first two books, an okay third book, and a nearly unreadable fourth book – it only goes to follow that the various short stories in this collection would also vary in quality: some that are great and some that are not-so-great (although it’s only the introduction that is really terrible). Le Guin spends a fair amount of time repressing her female characters so that she can talk about double standards, hypocrisy, and women’s liberation (Earthsea style) in a way that I can’t help but feel is a bit contrived, but at least she’s dealing with Big Ideas as she weaves her tales of fantasy… (incidentally, this theme is almost totally absent from the final book, where women and men have equal footing, and gender roles are never contentious).

  • The first story, The Finder, tells the tale of Otter and the women in his life, how he tries to sabotage the ships of pirates, then becomes a magical slave, a wizard, and eventually one of the founding teachers of Roke; his return to his home is interesting, deadly, and the tale has all the charm (and nearly the length) of the original Wizard Of Earthsea, including an epic backwards double-cross. Great!
  • “Darkrose And Diamond” is an interesting love story about a young wizard and a witch’s daughter. It’s light, unexpected, and quite charming.
  • “The Bones Of The Earth” is a less satisfying tale, as it deals a lot with a wizard wandering around in the forest, looking after his chores, thinking about life… and averting an earthquake; concentrate on this one, or you’ll get lost.
  • “On The High Marsh” is an much better tale; it starts off very pastoral and pedestrian, but eventually becomes terrifyingly intense… somehow. Real magic in this tale.
  • “Dragonfly” is another long-ish tale, this time about a mysterious woman who wears a man’s clothing, Yentl-like, to enter the school on Roke. Amazing things occur when this happens that tie it in (somehow) with the ending of Tehanu! The tale introduces interesting new characters, it’s not bad; it also ties in with the events of The Other Wind, the sixth book in the cycle.

At the end of the book is some sort of “Description of Earthsea” appendix, which is a bit boring to read through, as it talks about the history, languages and cultures of Earthsea. It’s decent as reference material, although anyone who’s read the five books so far would have been able to piece together on their own most of what is contained here; one thing that is remarkable, though, is how Le Guin writes that the runes of Earthsea resemble Chinese ideograms, referencing for the first time in an Earthsea book anything from our own world.

A nice book, better even than The Farthest Shore, in parts nearly as interesting as A Wizard Of Earthsea or The Tombs of Atuan.

Earthsea 6

Finally the Earthsea Cycle draws to a close with The Other Wind. This book builds on the situations created in the third and fourth books in the cycle (The Farthest Shore, and Tehanu, respectively) and their characters, also referencing to the short story “Dragonfly” from the fifth book, Tales From Earthsea. Ged and Tenar, the main characters of the first two (and best) books of the series are only minor characters in this tale, and Ged hardly appears at all; he is also entirely inactive, other than listening to Alder’s tale and recommending him to visit King Lebannen in Havnor.

The tale is one of court life and philosophical discussions, abstract changes, unifying concepts, and general inactivity. Hardly anything happens in the book, but then again so much happens; in this way, the book is very similar to Tehanu, which has nearly no activity or development until the closing pages, but it is still a better book than Tehanu as we get plenty of new characters, fine character development, and also a sense of closure to the Earthsea cycle. But be sure to pay close attention to the book as you read, or you’ll miss important developments, or just generally get lost; it’s not an easy book to read, despite being lumped into the category of young adult fiction (which may have been true of the first two books, but hasn’t been the case for a long time).

Le Guin, in an afterword, hints that there are more stories from Earthsea, but in many ways they are not necessary.

Earthsea 7

Semi-unrelated footnote: In 2006, a Japanese animated film version of an Earthsea story was released. It was originally supposed to be directed by Miyazaki Hayao himself, but in the end was turned over to his son, Miyazaki Goro, to be his directorial debut. The Japanese title of this film translates as “The record of Ged’s adventures”, and is a misnomer – the book is less about Ged than it is about a relatively minor character in Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea saga, Prince Arren. The English title, Tales From Earthsea, is also misleading, as it is the same title as the fifth book of the Earthsea series (which has six books so far), but draws its characters more from the third and fourth (and worst) books of the series (ironically, the book Tales From Earthsea only includes Ged as a minor character in a short part of one of its five short stories). I suspect the English title was given as a matter of convenience, while the selection of the Japanese title is a complete mystery (not to mention the fact that Ged goes by his nickname of Sparrowhawk throughout most of the movie).

I read reviews of this that said it was awful, but given my interest in the book series (and healthy respect for Ghibli Studios), I needed to watch this film to satisfy my curiosity. Sadly, it really is a terrible film. Nothing makes sense plot-wise, the characters are uninteresting, and the screenplay has almost completely reinvented the source material. Events from Ged’s life are transferred to Arren’s, whose father is introduced haphazardly for the film (he’s never featured in the book). The relative age of the characters is all over the place, and Therru is about 10 years older for the movie than she was in the books, and has been turned into a moody little creep with cliched anime mannerisms (poutiness, etc). The depiction of the wizard Cob is interesting, although also a bit hackneyed by regular Japanese anime standards.

The opening scenes in the court of Enlad, with talk about trade disruptions in the kingdom and a mysterious blight sweeping the crops and peoples, has all the charm of the opening scroll of The Phantom Menace. So many things in the plot are confusing, like why suddenly wolves are attacking Arren, why Sparrowhawk even takes the kid on as a travelling companion in the first place, or why Lord Cob is in such desperate need of slaves (I’m sure there’s no reason for any of this, other than to drive action scenes that build to some sort of a conclusion). Of course, the ending is pretty exciting, and the downfall of Cob is terrifying to watch; the theme about a door between life and death is also a grand one, which Le Guin somehow explores in a few of her books, most notable The Farthest Shore.

The quality of the animation is also pretty clunky, and at times I felt like I was watching an animated TV show from the 1980s or so. Not really what you’d expect from Studio Ghibli.