These are reviews originally posted to Amazon as customer reviews. They're intended for entertainment and informational purposes only. (Apologies for any typos, bad grammar, or offensive language.) This isn't sponsored by Amazon or represent them in any way, although they do have a very nice site and I recommend checking it out for your next book purchase. Feel free to comment on the books if you've read them or tell me how much my reviews suck or whatever.
That is all.

Friday, July 31, 2009



(Book 3 of the Warlord Trilogy)

by Bernard Cornwell

(5/5 stars)

Cornwell's Arthurian trilogy set around 500 AD concludes with "Excalibur." You can check my recent articles for reviews of the two preceding books.

At the end of Book 2, Enemy of God, Arthur survived not only a Christian rebellion led by the cowardly Lancelot, but also betrayal by the love of his life, Guinevere. Now declaring himself the Emperor of Britain, Arthur is taking a firm control of ancient Britain with plans to unite the various kingdoms of the island to wipe out the invading Saxon horde.

Meanwhile, Merlin the Druid wizard is collecting the Thirteen Treasures of Britain--relics of magical powers--in order to stage a ritual that will bring the old Gods back to the island and wipe out not only the Saxons, but the Christians as well. In order for this to work, Merlin needs Excalibur and something much more precious that Arthur possesses. This creates a rift not only between Arthur and Merlin but our narrator Derfel and the crazed witch Nimue, who is Merlin's priestess and Derfel's former childhood friend and lover.

Not long after this ritual goes terribly wrong, Derfel is sent to rescue the imprisoned Guinevere from the invading Saxons. She, Derfel, and his band of warriors end up on an old mountain fort called Mount Baddon, from which they fight a desperate siege against the Saxons. During this we see that Guinvere still loves Arthur--and the feeling is more than mutual--and she's not such a conniving, evil [witch] after all.

But even with the defeat of the Saxons there are dark times ahead as the enemies of Arthur and Derfel continue to plot and scheme. As Merlin says, it all ends in tears, which anyone who knows anything about the Arthurian story already knows.

The conclusion of the trilogy wraps everything up nicely. The story doesn't sag as much under political intrigue as the two previous entries with the fiery ritual to lead things off, followed by the big battle at Mount Baddon, and then the smaller final battle to end the story. The real achievement is that by the end I really cared about all those who had survived since the beginning like Arthur, Derfel, Galahad, and even Guinevere, who really gets to shine in the Mount Baddon segment. At the start of the series there were so many characters, but by the time the end comes the less important ones have been winnowed out and we're left with only the important characters, whom we've either come to love or hate as the story has progressed. Because of that, when the end finally comes, it's bittersweet, which it always is at the end of a great series.

All the good things about the series from the other books are also present like the more realistic battles, the depth of the political intrigue, and the clash between religions that still resonates today. Because of all that, there's really nothing I'd speak against with this book. While the writing isn't Tolstoy, no one expects it to be and so for a rollicking historical read, I'd highly recommend this and the two that precede it.

That is all.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Enemy of God

Enemy of God

(Warlord Chronicles Part 2)

by Bernard Cornwell

(3/5 stars)

See my review of Part 1, "The Winter King" Here

As far as the middle parts of trilogies go, "Enemy of God" is more "Attack of the Clones" than "The Empire Strikes Back." By that I mean it helps move the story from the beginning (Part 1) to the end (Part 3) but by itself isn't as interesting as either of those. The action in this second installment of Cornwell's tale of a 5th Century AD Arthur is largely political, with only one major battle--and a short one at that--punctuated by a few smaller skirmishes. Instead, "Enemy of God" sets the stage for the climactic battles that await in the final part of the trilogy.

What's important to note here at the start is the difference in Cornwell's Arthur from what people traditionally think of. The traditional Arthur created in the Middle Ages was a Christian hero, as evidenced by the quest for the Holy Grail. Cornwell's Arthur though is an agnostic pagan, who makes an enemy of the early Christian church in Britain by insisting the church pay taxes to help him fund expensive wars to keep Saxon invaders from taking over the land. For that matter the church in those days was far different than most churches today, with far less organization and rituals akin to those of revivals.

In this 5th Century world after the Romans have gone but before the Saxons, William the Conqueror, the Tudors, and so forth, paganism defined by the Druids is fading while the newer religion of Christianity is rising. This creates bitter rivalries and conflicts within Britain even as Arthur struggles to bring peace to the land.

After the bloody battle of Lugg Vale that ended Part 1 of the trilogy, the warlord Arthur sets about the business of uniting Britain (what we'd think of as England and Wales) to fight the invading Saxon horde. This he does with political alliances and a Round Table oath, but the war against the Saxons goes terribly wrong thanks to a betrayal by the cowardly, vainglorious Lancelot.

However, a peace is established, during which time the conflicts turn from military to religious. As the year 500 approaches the Christians believe Christ is set to return and thus all unbelievers must be converted or otherwise eliminated. Meanwhile the Druid Merlin sets out to find the 13 "Treasures of Britain", including a daring raid into a wild Irish kingdom to find a magic cauldron. (The cauldron story is like the equivalent of the search for the Holy Grail.) And while Arthur has peace, chaos threatens thanks to a betrayal by the one he loves most. (Anyone who knows anything about the Arthurian saga knows to whom this refers.)

As I said at the beginning, most of the action in this book is of the dramatic kind as the Christians and pagans clash and various people scheme for control of Britain. Our narrator, the brave warrior Derfel, is caught up in the middle of everything, including the quest for the cauldron--how convenient! The middle of the story then tends to sag, something Cornwell tries to remedy by weaving the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult (or Tristan and Isolde as it was in the recent movie) into his Arthurian tale. As interesting as much of this is, it's hard not to get anxious for the climactic finish you know is coming.

Still, it's a necessary piece of the puzzle and an interesting study of life in the Dark Ages. Christians might find it especially interesting and should certainly find some parallels between these ancestors and current society. Certainly the idea of religions battling each other is something we all know something about these days. Maybe if we all had a little more of Arthur's pragmatism about the subject we'd have more of a Camelot.

That is all.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Winter King

The Winter King

(Warlord Chronicles, Part 1)

(4/5 stars)

by Bernard Cornwell

OK, most everyone should know the legend of King Arthur by now. If you don't, the basic summary is that there was once a king named Arthur in England who became king when he pulled a sword called Excalibur from a stone with some help from a wizard named Merlin. Later he married a woman named Guinevere and formed a wonderful kingdom known as Camelot, where he and his brave knights sat around a round table after a day of searching for the Holy Grail or battling dragons. But eventually he was betrayed when his top knight, Lancelot, slept with Guinevere. Later his bastard son Mordred shows up and they lock horns and Arthur is ultimately killed. Excalibur ends up thrown into a pond, where a disembodied female hand takes it while Arthur is taken on a boat to a magical land known as Avalon to wait the day when he is needed again.

Now most of that historically speaking is pure bunk. There are some who try to assert there really was an Arthur, but evidence is sorely lacking. Nevertheless, Bernard Cornwell, known in the UK for writing the Sharpe's series of historical military novels, tries to recast the Arthurian legend in a more historical context in the 5th Century AD.

Before the story begins, it's important to note that at the time the series begins, what we think of as Great Britain is divided into a bunch of little kingdoms. There's an alliance among the kingdoms of central and western Britain (what we think of today as England and Wales) rules by a High King named Uther. Uther's son Mordred was recently killed by Saxon "barbarians" who are coming over from probably what we'd think of as Scandinavia now, leaving the High King with no heir and thus leaving the alliance in trouble if the frail Uther should die.

The story begins with the dead Mordred's wife giving birth to a boy, whom is named Mordred for his father. The only hitch is that the boy is born with a deformed foot. But for the moment the alliance is saved. Unfortunately, before long, Uther finally dies and some of the other kings want to take power for themselves. Enter, Arthur.

In Cornwell's vision of the Arthurian saga, Arthur is not a king. He starts out merely as Uther's bastard son who is a warlord in Brittany (France) and pledged to help his nephew obtain the throne. This Arthur does by sweeping in with his armored horse troops and putting down any rebellion and in the process making himself the unquestioned leader of Britain.

All seems to be going well and will be even more well once Arthur marries a princess named Ceinwyn to cement an alliance with a neighboring kingdom. Except when he goes to meet the princess, he sees a beautiful redheaded woman across the room and is smitten with love. That redheaded woman is named Guinevere and while she too is a princess, her father lost his kingdom to Irish marauders and thus she isn't nearly as good of a bargaining chip.

Though Arthur should think with his head and marry Ceinwyn to keep the peace, he instead thinks with his netherregions and marries Guinevere on the sly. This ticks off Ceinwyn's daddy, who in turn rounds up a huge army to crush Arthur and make himself the High King. It all comes down to an epic battle in a place called Ludd Vale.

That's leaving out a lot of what else happens in the story. Cornwell tells the story through Derfel, one of Arthur's loyal soldiers. He is a Saxon child raised by the Britons, who survived being thrown into a pit of spikes as a sacrifice to pagan gods. This led to Derfel being raised in the household of Merlin, the most powerful Druid in all of Britain. Derfel's coming of age from a boy in Merlin's household to a warlord at Ludd Vale parallels the coming of Arthur and his rise to power and fame.

I first read this trilogy about ten years ago and what I like about it is the way that even if none of this ever happened, it feels like it COULD have happened. Instead of the old Arthurian world with plate armor and jousting contests and courtly love, we have a Britain a generation removed from Roman rule, thrust into chaos as various kingdoms fight each other while invaders from Scandinavia and Ireland threaten to wipe everyone out. Instead of noble jousting and such, men fight in clusters called "shield walls" because the shields of the clustered men are used to protect each other from attack. There's nothing heroic about shield walls fighting, as it's a bloody, gruesome business of pushing and stabbing.

The way Cornwell debunks the myth while at the same time turning it into a more realistic story reminds me of reading Mary Renault's "The King Must Die" and its sequel about ancient Greece and the hero Theseus or Colleen MacCullough's novels about Rome like "Caesar's Women." As well the attempts to make the battles more realistic is similar to Stephen Pressfield's "Gates of Fire" about the Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae (more famously recounted in idiotic fashion by Frank Miller's graphic novel "300"). There's also a lot of political intrigue that helps make the world in which this Arthur and his companions live seem to come alive.

My major nitpick is that there are too many names. There are so many kings and warriors and princes and princesses and different regions that you need a scorecard to keep track of who rules what and who hates who at the moment.

Still, even with no magic swords, dragons, or Round Table this is an exciting book that promises much more to come.

(On a side note, this to my knowledge has no relation to the "King Arthur" movie starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley put out in 2004, though that also deals with an Arthur in the 5th Century. These books came well before that, which means Jerry Bruckheimer probably stole and corrupted them. I've long thought the Cornwell novels would make a great series of films like "Lord of the Rings" but I doubt that would happen.)

That is all.

The Hours

The Hours
By Michael Cunningham

I feel cheated by this novel. The sole reason I read the book is because I had just watched the film version and thought the source novel might shed some light on a couple of points, especially the relationship between Richard and his mother. I suppose it helped a little, but not much.

I think that about summarizes my entire problem with the novel--it's too short. I suppose that was in part because it's only supposed to cover one day for each of the three main characters--Virginia Woolf in 1923, Laura Brown in 1949, and Clarissa Vaughn in "the present" or late 90s--and so to maintain that the author couldn't go so much into a lot of backstory. References are made to the past relationship between Clarissa and her former lover Richard, who's dying of AIDS, and his other former lover Louis, who is not dying of AIDS, but still I would have liked to have known more. As I mentioned at the beginning, the relationship between Richard and his mother was something I didn't quite understand in the movie, but it makes a little more sense in the book. In particular I didn't understand how she shows up at the end of the movie when they seemed to imply earlier that she was dead. In the book it makes more sense that she dies in Richard's book in real life and later he asks Clarissa to call her.

I'm sure some people would be annoyed that I'm comparing and contrasting the book and movie and not taking them as separate entities. On the whole, I think it was a push as to which is better. The book does a better job, as books do, of giving characters internal life. The movie conveys much of this through dialog between the characters, which makes for better drama, especially when Virginia Woolf and her husband are arguing at the train station. It works much better in the film version when they're talking than in the novel where most of it occurs in Virginia's head as she sits on a bench. Some of the background characters like Sally, Clarissa's lover, and Julia, Clarissa's daughter, are given more depth in the book than the movie while Virginia's husband Leonard and her sister, niece, and nephews seem to get more time in the film. So it's hard overall to say which is better, though in the end I think I'm more attached emotionally to the film because of the heightened drama, whereas the book seems a little dry.

To summarize the plot, it involves three women, as I mentioned above. First there's Virginia Woolf, the brilliant but mad author who in 1923 is living in the countryside of England with her husband, a printer, and not altogether happy about it. She sets off to writing "Mrs. Dalloway," a novel about a woman who is giving a party and what all happens to her and those around her in London that day. Concurrently, Laura Brown is living in LA in 1949 with her husband Dan and son Richie and is pregnant with another child. A socially awkward girl, she seems to have struck it rich when Dan returns from the Pacific and asks to marry her. But three years later she's not happy. She's reading "Mrs. Dalloway" and sees parallels to the book and its author in her life. And parallel to this we have Clarissa Vaughn in the present. Her former lover Richard nicknamed her Mrs. Dalloway for Clarissa Dalloway and like that character, Clarissa Vaughn is giving a party. In her case it's a party for Richard, who has won a prestigious poetry award. This section of the book often has parallels to the Woolf novel, with modern characters recreating the roles of those in "Mrs. Dalloway." (Sally as Mr. Dalloway, daughter Julia as Elizabeth Dalloway, Richard as Septimus, Louis as Peter Walsh, and writer friend Walter as Hugh.) Most of the events of this section also mirror those of "Mrs. Dalloway," which is really obvious to pick up if you do like I did and read Woolf's book immediately prior to reading "The Hours."

All three sections of the book are interwoven together to create a rich tapestry of the lives of these three women. It might have been richer if the author had expanded a little more, as I indicated earlier. Still, it's a good book and an even better film. I recommend both.

That is all.

BTW, it's ironic in the novel that Clarissa thinks she sees Meryl Streep in the trailer of a movie being shot in New York. For the film version of "The Hours" Clarissa was played by none other than Meryl Streep. (This probably explains why that scene was omitted from the film as it would have been pretty cheesy to have Meryl Streep trying to meet herself.)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys

By Neil Gaiman

(3.5/5 stars)

"Anansi Boys" is not so much a sequel to Gaiman's "American Gods" as it is more of a spin-off, a literary "Rhoda" or "Facts of Life." In "American Gods" there was a trickster god called Anansi or Mr. Nancy, who was a spider but also manifested himself as a swinging black man in the mold of Cab Calloway.

When "Anansi Boys" begins, Mr. Nancy is dead. He leaves behind two sons. One is "Fat" Charlie Nancy, who is not fat but the childhood nickname given to him by his father has stuck no matter what he does. Though he grew up in Florida, Charlie moved to London as an adult, where he works for a sleazy talent agent and is engaged to a charity worker named Rosie. By any standard Charlie's life is pretty boring.

That is until he meets his brother. Charlie's brother goes by the name Spider. He has no job, spending his time flitting from place to place, having a grand old time. He has no steady girlfriends either. What Spider does have is magic. This is what he inherited from his father and that he uses to make himself the life of the party.

Charlie makes the mistake of inviting Spider to stay with him and before long Charlie's life is turned upside down. And like house guests everywhere, Spider soon overstays his welcome.

If the plot sounds like a sitcom, it's because for the most part it is. It's like "Two and a Half Men" without the kid. And with a bit of island magic. That makes the book more lighthearted and fun than "American Gods" but it also doesn't have quite the same impact. Though a fun and engaging read, it's likely to stick with you as long as it takes to flip the channel.

Still, I'd recommend it, especially if you're a fan of books like Terry Pratchett's Discworld series that similarly combine humor and fantasy.

That is all.