Review – The White Princess

The White Princess (The Cousins’ War No.5) – Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster, 2013

Once the name of York belonged to kings, a name to speak with pride. With the death of Richard III, however, and the ascension of Henry Tudor to the throne of England, royal blood is no longer an advantage. Compelled into marriage with the new king to cement his place on the throne, Princess Elizabeth of York must tread a fine line to survive. Henry has won a kingdom but keeping it is another matter, because plots simmer under the surface of his court and hopes still grow for a York prince, returned from the dead…

This is the penultimate instalment of Gregory’s Cousins War series, set during the Wars of the Roses. Each part of the series has followed a different player during that tumultuous period of English history. The first book, The White Queen, was about Elizabeth Woodville; The White Princess is about her eldest daughter. And it was hard to read, quite devastating actually – the skill of Philippa Gregory is that even when the novel took me to dark and terrible places I couldn’t stop reading, I had to know what happened next, even though I mostly knew what would happen next. The series concludes with The King’s Curse.

Review – The Wife Drought

The Wife Drought – Annabel Crabb

Ebury Press, 2014

How do you have it all? By not doing it all. Where many studies examine the workplace and the home as separate spheres, Annabel Crabb looks at the points where they connect – and in many cases, painfully collide. From examining the advantages of having a stay-at-home spouse, to historical precedents in enforcing there be one, to the modern shake-up of gender roles that still somehow raises eyebrows, this book tries to pinpoint exactly what it means to have a ‘wife’, and what it means to manage without one.

I don’t read much non-fiction, let alone non-fiction containing half as many statistics as The Wife Drought, but Annabel Crabb’s breezy, wry style makes this book immensely readable. She turns questions of gender roles around to look at them from all angles and makes some truly fantastic points (how I opened that blurb is one of them and she is so right). You don’t realise how ingrained some of your assumptions are until they are gently poked into the open. Crabb also hosts the ABC’s political cooking show Kitchen Cabinet.

Ladies of Legend: Arianrhod and Blodeuwedd

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd., 2007) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, The Fairy Bible (Godsfield Press, 2008) by Teresa Moorey, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

Goddesses get a bad deal in popular legends, where they generally dwindle to ill-fated queens or villainous sorceresses. Arianrhod is a Welsh goddess of the moon, associated with spinning like the Fates from Greek myth. According to The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies and The Fairy Bible she is queen of Caer Siddi, also known as Caer Arianrhod, a place where the dead go to be reincarnated and where poets go in their dreams for inspiration. The Fairy Bible takes a particularly starry-eyed view of Arianrhod, holding her up as a feminist icon fighting against a patriarchal world. That’s an interesting point of view and worth arguing, but I don’t think anyone could say she was a good mother.

Arianrhod’s story is a part of the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh myths translated from medieval manuscripts by Lady Charlotte Guest between 1838 and 1849, and this one really begins with Math Ap Mathonwy, Lord of Gwynedd in the North and a totally judgmental magician who has a weird kink: when not at work or war, he absolutely must set his feet in the lap of a virgin. According to Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies, his nephews Gilfaethwy and Gwydion both fancy Goewin, who has the dubious honour of occupying that position, and they trick Lord Pryderi of the South in a deliberate attempt to start a war. Which works. All so that Math will be distracted and the brothers can break into his place to rape Goewin. Then Gwydion zips back to the battlefield to kill Pryderi.

It’s a cold comfort, but at least they don’t get away with it. Math is so furious when he finds out what happened that he forces them into the shapes of a different species every year for three years – and each year, one is made female while the other is left male, so that they produce incestuous animal offspring. COULD THIS BE CREEPIER. At the end of the three years, Math turns them back to men and Gwydion’s sister Arianrhod applies for the post of Virgin Footstool. There are probably perks we don’t know about. Only, as Eyewitness Companions: Mythology tells it, Math has a way of ensuring that applicants don’t fudge their resumes: he makes Arianrhod step over a magic wand (WOW does that sound like a dreadful euphemism) and she immediately gives birth to two sons – who may or may not be fathered by Gwydion.

So I guess that answers my question. It got creepier.

The first boy is named Dylan but Arianrhod refuses to name the second child. More than that, she curses him: he shall have no name unless she gives it, no weapons unless she arms him and no mortal wife EVER. See what I mean about terrible parenting? Gwydion is present to overhear this and takes the nameless boy’s side. Or maybe he just wants to pick a fight with his sister, I don’t know. Being a magician himself, he goes to Arianrhod’s household masquerading as a cobbler and takes the boy with him as an apprentice. Not realising that it’s her son she’s admiring, Arianrhod calls him Llew Llaw Gyffes – translating to, ‘the bright one of the skillful hand’ – thus breaking the first term of her curse. Next, Gwydion conjures up an illusionary invading army, leading a panicked Arianrhod to offer her visitors weapons.

So the boy is named and armed, but finding an escape clause for his love life is a harder question. Gwydion is a magician, however, and magicians don’t accept words like ‘impossible’. Or, for that matter, words like ‘an ethical no-go zone’. Math, who has some sympathy for Llew’s plight, joins forces with Gwydion to transform the flowers of meadowsweet, oak and broom into a beautiful woman. She is named Blodeuwedd.

Unfortunately, though hardly unexpectedly, Blodeuwedd is an actual person with actual feelings and she doesn’t fall for her intended bridegroom. Instead she chooses Gronw Pebyr and starts plotting to kill Llew. This is a) horrible and b) very difficult, because Llew may be the unluckiest man in the world, but he’s well-protected and can only be killed under very specific circumstances. Blodeuwedd wheedles him into revealing them and Gronw follows through, but as his spear flies towards its target Llew changes into an eagle and flies away. When his uncle finds out what happened, his rage is swift and vicious. He talks Llew out of a tree and turns him back into a man, tracks down Gronw to kill him, and then turns his attention on Blodeuwedd – who is not an angry, desperate woman to him, but an experiment gone wrong, the original Frankenstein with his creation. She is transformed into an owl, condemned to darkness and solitude for the rest of her life.

Which is a terrible punishment, unless you think like me and really love owls.

What Arianrhod makes of the incident is not recorded in any of the versions I have at present, but I rather think she would take Blodeuwedd’s side. An atrocious mother she certainly is, but a woman wronged by arrogant magicians would probably be guaranteed her sympathy.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Review – Harpist in the Wind

Harpist in the Wind (Riddle-Master No.3) – Patricia A. McKillip

Ace Books, 1999

Originally published in 1979

Morgon of Hed has been a prisoner, a hunter, a mystery. Together with Raederle of An, he sets off toward the ancient city of the wizards, where the last survivors are gathering to face the master who brought about its ruin so long ago. Shapeshifting warriors seek Morgon, intending to end his life before he can complete his destiny – but Morgon still does not know where that destiny is taking him. He has become the central point in a war that began millennia before he was born, and one way or another, it will end with him.

This is the final installment of McKillip’s Riddle-Master trilogy, which I’ve been reading consecutively in an omnibus edition, and I think that was probably the best way to experience this series. Individually the books are that particular type of poignantly, poetically dissatisfying that McKillip does very well. I would not have liked the ending of Harpist in the Wind as much when I was younger (as I said, poignant and poetic!) but it suits the characters perfectly, and is a fitting conclusion for this rather unusual high fantasy series.

Review – Heir of Sea and Fire

Heir of Sea and Fire (Riddle-Master No.2) – Patricia A. McKillip

Ace Books, 1999

Originally published in 1977

Prince Morgon of Hed, a man with a destiny that has roused unrest all over the realm, disappeared a year ago. Tired of waiting for answers, his promised bride Raederle commandeers one of her father’s ships to find out what happened for herself. Together with Morgon’s friend, the warrior heiress Lyra, and his determined sister Tristan, Raederle sails towards Erlenstar Mountain, where Morgon was last seen. But there is an uncanny war brewing in the realm, and wizards walking the world who were last heard of in legend, and Morgon is not the only one with a troubling heritage. In seeking him, Raederle may lose herself.

This book could have been written specifically to make me happy. I mean, three princesses get fed up with waiting around and go to wring some answers out of the world, becoming good friends on the way? SIGN ME UP. The Riddle-Master of Hed was lovely but not satisfying; Heir of Sea and Fire gives the insight into the mysterious Raederle that I wanted very much, with bonus wizardry and wraiths. The trilogy concludes with Harpist in the Wind.

Review – The Riddle-Master of Hed

The Riddle-Master of Hed (Riddle-Master No.1) – Patricia A. McKillip

Ace Books, 1999

Originally published in 1976

The last thing Morgon wants is a destiny, he already has enough to do – his remote island kingdom of Hed to manage, his argumentative siblings to keep in order – but a spur of the moment challenge from a time of grief is suddenly no longer a secret and the consequences spiral outward, creating unimaginable ripples across the world. Trained by the Riddle-Masters of Caithnard, Morgon has won a ghost’s crown and the hand of a princess. At the same time, he has unknowingly woken enemies from centuries of truce. The greatest riddle of all, he discovers, may be himself. He’ll be lucky if he lives to answer it.

I don’t read much high fantasy any more, but I would make pretty much any exception for Patricia A. McKillip, who is one of my favourite writers. Morgon is a very likable protagonist and I enjoyed the exploration of ideas about destiny, even if I didn’t agree with all of them. I would have liked more explanation for why so many characters are centuries old, but McKillip sweeps you off into a world of beautiful enigmas and her writing is so very lovely that she gets away with it. The Riddle-Master continues with Heir of Sea and Fire.

Review – Carry On

Carry On – Rainbow Rowell

Macmillan, 2015

Being a Chosen One is not all it’s cracked up to be. Simon Snow might be the most powerful wizard of his generation, but he has precious little control over that magic and it places him right in the middle of a brewing war between his mentor the Mage and the elitist old guard of magicians. He is supposed to defeat the nebulous nemesis of magic in Great Britain, but can barely escape their encounters with his life. As his last year at Watford School of Magicks begins, even Simon’s obnoxious roommate Baz lets him down by failing to even turn up and conclude their seven years of mutual tension. One way or another, this year will be the end – of more than Simon could ever imagine.

If you read Rowell’s novel Fangirl you’ll recognise the characters and possibly be confused by the meta-within-meta mindbend, but don’t think of this as fictional fiction or fictional fanfiction, this is an entirely separate story. It’s an entry to the enormous canon of magic school and Chosen One stories and so will probably remind you of Harry Potter. There are deliberate references, actually, some of them very amusing. I have such mixed feelings about Carry On, though! It was a fast, enjoyable read and I loved the magic system – drawing on the inherent power in popular phrases, with all the tricky intonation and evolution that involves, it’s delicious – but the plot was a bit messy and the ending didn’t satisfy me at all. (For spoilery details, see the paragraph below.) Much as I liked Simon and Penny, it was Agatha I found most interesting.

SPOILERS: The story was really centred around Simon and Baz’s evolving relationship, but while it is brilliant to see an LGBT romance like this and the chemistry between them was strong, the emotional balance was off. Baz kept claiming to be desperately in love with Simon but hardly ever showed it in his behaviour, while Simon had to keep explaining his own feelings and proving how much he cared, even right at the end. It didn’t feel healthy. I was also uncomfortable with how Simon’s sexuality was handled. Obviously he doesn’t have to figure out everything at once, but I would have liked the possibility of bisexuality to be at least referenced rather than it being presented as a binary between gay and straight. Lucy was another troubling character – she came back to tell her story to her son, who REALLY needed to hear it, but was not heard. And it kind of just ends there? Lucy deserved a lot better than that.