by Lloyd Alexander
This book is a retelling of some ancient Greek myths by a past master of folklore retold, from the Chronicles of Prydain to The Iron Ring. I know that many readers share my high estimate of those works, and so also my high expectations of this book. So I'll say up front that I was somewhat disappointed by it.
In the land of Arkadia - based, I believe, on the southern region of Greece - conflict stirs between the Bear People who rule the land and the conquered people they rule. The Bear People are led by a brutish king who, in turn, is ruled by a pair of crooked priests. When the new king seeks the traditional prophecy of his reign from an oracle known as Woman-Who-Talks-to-Snakes, he gets bad news. The evil counselors take this as an opportunity to increase their power. Their first step will be to purge the land of its wise women and their traditional lore.
Meanwhile, someone else finds himself crosswise to the priests: a
palace bean-counter named Lucian, who has uncovered their treachery. Forced to flee the capital city in the company of a talking jackass - or, rather, a poet named Fronto who has been turned into one - Lucian befriends a pretty young prophetess, the hard-riding Horse People, a mischievous goat boy, a professional scapegoat, and a wily sailor. Their quest takes them to the temple of a powerful wise woman, an island where victims are constantly sacrificed to bulls, and other strange places. And finally the circle closes and they find themselves back in the capital, fighting for justice, friendship, and love.
These characters and their adventures will seem familiar to anyone who knows a bit about Greek myths and legends. But the way Alexander turns them topsy-turvy may appeal to some people more than others. Throughout the book, the old tales are retold in a way that alters the whole point of them, often in what I felt was a hostile and glib
manner. Frequently, the gender roles are reversed and a story is reshaped to fit a feminist worldview. The result is a peculiar marriage of recycled tradition and original invention. It's an interesting new fantasy world, created by consciously rejecting the tenets of the classical one.
One often sees books spoofing fairy tales in a similar way, but unlike them this book doesn't wink at the reader or send any singals that it should be taken tongue-in-cheek. This is where my disappointment comes in. I was prepared to enjoy the romance of Lucian and Joy-in-the-Dance, their adventures, and their friends. But my enjoyment was lessened by a sense that, all the while, Alexander was passing judgment on all of western culture, a judgment based on moral principles I don't share.
I also thought everyone gave Lucian a rougher time than he deserved. This comes partly of being the hero of the tale, but also partly of a wide streak of male-bashing
that runs through the entire book. If I were Lucian and I had to put up with that, I don't know why I would bother being the hero. It would be too discouraging. And, in my view, it canceled out the chemistry between Lucian and Joy-in-the-Dance.
I say all this in full knowledge that my criticisms will probably be selling points for many readers. Women's studies programs should take note of this book; if they're looking for a new mythology in line with their aims, this would be a good place to start. For anyone else, I recommend it merely as an average-quality tale of magic and myth from an author who has done far better.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 11+
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