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The Prince in Waiting by John Christopher (1970) 160 p.
This is the first volume in John Christopher’s “The Sword of the Spirits” trilogy, which is aimed at young adults. I count Christopher’s Tripods trilogy among the best young adult science fiction I’ve ever read, so I was interested to see him do fantasy. The story begins with Luke, a young man, visiting a colony of dwarves who work with arms and armour at a great forge. We learn some more about the city where he lives, a medieval-sounding place with a Prince and his captains, wagons on the roads, horses in the fields, etc. Before the chapter is out, Luke idly traces the faint outlines of old words written on a piece of wood: RADIO & TV DEAL.
Surprise! This is another post-apocalyptic story, which is kind of a shame, because it ends up echoing a lot of the ideas in the Tripods trilogy. The city itself is Winchester, which is also where the protagonist in the Tripods trilogy comes from – I suppose it’s Christopher’s hometown. The book follows Luke as Winchester’s ruling Prince is deposed by the gods known as the Spirits, and Luke’s own father is raised in his place. A number of campaigns and events and battles come and go, and without spoiling the ending (which is clearly just the end of the first part in a series, anyway) Luke eventually leaves the city.
I didn’t enjoy this as much as The White Mountains, the first book in the Tripods trilogy, but I was probably about 15 when I last read that. When I re-read that trilogy, which is on the to-do list, maybe I’ll now see the same flaws present in The Prince in Waiting – wooden characters, and Christopher’s oddly stiff narration. This is just his style, I think – it was definitely present in The Guardians and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it when I revisit the Tripods trilogy. It’s a strange style of prose, not so much in how it cleanly lays out the circumstances on the table and analyses the characters’ emotions, but the way it does so in a polite, refined British manner. There are echoes of it in The Death of Grass, Christopher’s brutal apocalyptic novel for adults, though not as much – maybe he felt the need to spell things out a bit more for kids.
One thing that sets this book apart from Christopher’s others is how unlikeable the protagonist is. Luke is arrogant, proud, lacks curiosity about the world around him, and is often cold:
I was too bitter and wretched to realise what he was offering: having weathered his own grief and disappointment he would still go into exile with me as a companion to me in mine. Later I understood. Friendship meant much to him, more than it could ever do to me.
Beyond that, however, I felt that The Prince in Waiting rehashed too many elements from The White Mountains – the ruins of a great civilisation, a young protagonist going in to exile, and (most blatantly) a secret organisation that remembers the old ways. And in comparison with its predecessor, this book suffers from having a static setting and an larger cast of ancillary characters. The White Mountains had only three major characters, undertaking a road voyage. Characterisation is not Christopher’s strong suit, and I lost track of who was who to some extent towards the end of The Prince in Waiting.
I was fairly ambivalent about The Prince in Waiting and have no doubt this will be an objectively weaker series than the Tripods trilogy. But I’ll read the next two books nonetheless, because they’re not big or time-consuming, and I’m interested to see where Christopher goes with it.
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams (2008) 331 p.
I’ve always enjoyed post-apocalyptic fiction, even if I’ve gone off it a bit in recent years. I can’t remember where I had this book recommended to me, but it’s been sitting on my shelf for quite a while and eventually I got around to it. Adams has collated some impressive big names for this anthology, including Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Jonathon Lethem and George R.R. Martin. Unfortunately, aside from a few stand-out stories, this is a mostly forgettable collection.
Adams kicks the anthology off with, in his own words, a “stand-out story” from Stephen King which “packs an emotional punch.” On the contrary, I found King’s “The End of the Whole Mess” to be an enormously tiresome story, dripping in the tedious kitsch that’s come to define most of his work since the 1990s. I was very surprised, then, to discover that it was actually written in 1986 – a fact which is now putting me off reading King’s short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes, which is sitting on my TBR pile. Not a great start.
The next story, Orson Scott Card’s “Salvage,” is unremarkable, but is followed by Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag,” probably the strongest piece in the book. Set in an environmentally devastated future where humans have genetically modified themselves to the point where they can regrow severed limbs and survive by eating sand, the story follows a group of security workers at a mine in the desolate wasteland of North America who discover, amid the slagheaps and toxic run-off creeks, a scrappy, wretched dog. The narrator’s mild feelings of affection for the dog versus the hassle of keeping it alive was something I found quite relatable. It’s arguable as to whether this is a post-apocalyptic story at all, since society is still functioning and thriving, but whatever.
Jonathon Lethem’s “How We Got Into Town And Out Again” is another solid entry, very readable and weirdly touching. George R.R. Martin’s “Dark, Dark Were The Tunnels” is an interesting story relayed through incredibly awkward exposition. A few more mediocre stories later, we come to Cory Doctorow’s “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth,” relating the apocalypse (a bit of a grab-bag apocalypse that doesn’t make much sense, it must be said) from the viewpoint of tech geeks in a data centre trying to keep the internet infrastructure up and running. Doctorow is an adorably irredeemable nerd, and while this is ultimately not a great story, it was an interesting and original take on things.
That’s followed by “The Last of the O-Forms,” by James van Pelt, in which every new lifeform on Earth is born mutated; a sad and often creepy story. Gene Wolfe’s “Mute,” a few entries later, is a strange allegorical story. After recently finishing The Book of the New Sun, I’m wasn’t in the mood to deconstruct more symbolism out of Wolfe’s writing, and this post I found “decoding” the story makes me suspect he has one of the more pretentious fan groups going.
Elizabeth Bear’s “And the Deep Blue Sea” is a solid story following a motorcycle courier as she makes her way across the nuclear wasteland of the American South-West, harassed by a devil figure she’s apparently made a pact with. It’s immediately followed by Octavia E. Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” easily one of the best stories in the book, involving a truly original apocalypse in which a virus robs people of their ability to speak, communicate or understand each other.
That, unfortunately, is about it for the stories in this anthology that I had anything more than a mild opinion on. I only thought four stories were really, definitely worth reading – “The People of Sand and Slag,” “How We Got Into Town and Out Again,” “And The Deep Blue Sea” and “Speech Sounds.” There other stories were either unremarkable, mediocre or somewhat interesting but heavily flawed. It’s also unbalanced, with most of the more decent stories in the first half; I found the downhill stretch to be quite a slog. Even for a fan of the genre, I can’t strongly recommend this book – the few really good stories within are probably collected elsewhere.
Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve (2007) 339 p.
Philip Reeve mentioned in a Reddit chat a while ago that he considers Here Lies Arthur to be his “favourite” of the books he’s written, and since I personally consider his Mortal Engines series to be some of the best books I’ve ever read, I thought that was a claim worth investigating. Here Lies Arthur is a children’s historical fiction novel based around Arthurian legend, but rather than a rehashing of the same old stories, it portrays Arthur as a typical power-hungry Celtic chieftan whose myth, legend and reputation is deliberately manufactured and disseminated by Merlin, who in Reeve’s version is not a wizard but merely a crafty bard. The novel is narrated by Gwyna, a slave girl adopted by Merlin after Arthur pillages her town.
The concept is a good one, allowing Reeve to explore the many conflicting stories of the Arthurian cycle, and examining further ideas about the role of stories in general and the longevity of myths. Reeve wisely uses Celtic names for the characters, adding a degree of separation from the more well-known names, so that we have “Gwenhwyfar” instead of “Guinevere” and “Myrddin” rather than “Merlin.” Despite Celtic being fairly unwieldy as a language (and yes, I know “Celtic” isn’t a language per se), it doesn’t break up the flow of the eye across the page at all, and there were a number of characters whom I didn’t realise were Arthurian analogues until their actions later in the novel. (It’s interesting that, when you read in your mind, you simply recognise the shape of the letters in a name rather than actually sounding it out. Or I do, anyway.)
How much you appreciate Here Lies Arthur and its original take on Arthurian mythology probably depends on how familiar you are with Arthurian mythology in the first place. As an uncouth colonial lad, whose knowledge of the topic stems mainly from John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ and Monty Python’s ‘Search for the Holy Grail’, I probably didn’t take as much away from it as a British reader, who would have spent plenty of their primary school childhood learning about Arthur while I was learning about Simpson and his bloody donkey.
Speaking of childhoods, though, I also spent much of mine reading post-apocalyptic fiction, and it was only relatively recently that I realised Western society already had an apocalyptic event followed by a post-apocalyptic period: the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Dark Ages. Reeve mentioned this himself, saying that it made a historical novel much easier to conceive, because it was “almost undocumented , so lots of freedom for a writer.” There’s quite a bit of this in Here Lies Arthur, with Myrddin reminiscing about the old days when the Roman legions ruled Britain with peace and prosperity, and ruined Roman towns like Aquae Sulis where the burghers still go about clad in togas, clinging to the past. It’s a neat idea – probably not wholly accurate, but fun.
There are a few technical issues with the presentation of the book as a whole. For some reason Reeve chose to write it in first person, which presents a number of troubling scenes where Gwyna describes events (in great detail) she couldn’t really know about, and the first person narration doesn’t really accomplish anything third person couldn’t have. While I personally love Reeve’s elaborate descriptive prose and creative metaphors, they don’t work as well when they’re slotted in amongst a solid, no-nonsense slave girl narration. There were also quite a few moments where he slips back and forth between present tense and past tense.
While we’re on the nuts and bolts of the book, because there’s no better place to bring it up, it’s probably aimed at older readers than I thought it was; I was thinking 9-12, at the beginning, but then there are a couple of relatively graphic scenes and the words “piss” and “shit.” I mean, I was dropping “fuck” amongst my friends on a regular basis when I was 11, but I always figured that what kids were ready for was several years ahead of what their parents and teachers thought they were ready for. But what would I know? Categorising books by age group is a dubious idea anyway.
Is Here Lies Arthur the best book Philip Reeve has written? He thinks so, and according to Wikipedia, so do British libraries, since they stock more copies of this than any of his other books. I haven’t read all his books, but I don’t think this is the best of them. He’s entitled to his view (well, duh) but I personally enjoyed the Mortal Engines series better than Here Lies Arthur. Despite all the violence and calamity and pollution in the Mortal Engines series, flying a swashbuckling airship through the Himalaya is still amazingly enticing for a young reader, whereas Gwyna’s cold and muddy Dark Ages aren’t as much fun to visit. (I have a theory that the appeal of young adult fiction hinges on escapism; relatable characters and all that, but still characters having a better time than you.)
Mind you, it’s become fairly clear that my regard for the Mortal Engines series is at least partly fuelled by overwhelming nostalgia and fierce established loyalty, so don’t take my word for it. Besides, I liked Here Lies Arthur quite a bit; it’s just comparing silver with platinum. Read them both and decide yourself.