Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A War of Gifts

Anyone who knows anything about me (or at least about my taste in books) will tell you that Ender's Game is, without a doubt, my favorite book (with Speaker for the Dead not far behind).  Given this, you might have expected me to rave about a "new" Ender story.  Not only that, but a Christmas-themed Ender story!  Sadly, this is not the case.  A War of Gifts (2007) is just not a compelling story.  Nor is it written particularly well.

A War of Gifts is a short novel set during the time when Ender is at the Battle School.  The story follows Zeck, a boy with an evangelical Christian upbringing in rural North Carolina.  Upon reaching Battle School, he chafes under the military rule prohibiting the practice of religion and refuses to participate in mock battles.  Along about the middle of the story (I say this because the different threads of the story are only loosely connected most of the time), a fellow student decides to buck the system by participating in a Dutch Christmas tradition.  Soon, the entire Battle School is in a gift-giving frenzy much to the chagrin of the administration.  Zeck confronts the Battle School commander about the unfairness of the situation and is told that belief in Santa Clause does not constitute a religion.  Seeing his teammate struggle with the meaning of his religion, Ender, the consummate empath, steps in to help Zeck reconcile his beliefs.  In the process, Zeck learns some hard truths about his own upbringing.

One of the hangups I had with the novel is that Card has evolved his characters far past the confines of the original Ender novels (i.e. the Shadow novels).  [Don't get me wrong--this is not a bad thing.  Card has the right to do whatever he wants with his creation].  As a consequence of this, the style in which he presently writes the Battle School children seems quite different than that in Ender's Game (and Ender's Shadow for that matter).  These differences were distracting enough for me to detract from A War of Gifts.

I can't help but think that A War of Gifts has great potential to be a better novel.  Card strains to impart some sort of message about religion in general, but I'm at a loss to say what it is.  This, combined with the lackluster writing, makes A War of Gifts a book only for those die-hard fans who thirst to read anything Ender-related.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Road

My latest read, The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy, came highly recommended by a friend.  Boy, am I glad he suggested I read it.  It is a deeply affecting story--one with the rare power to shift one's perception of the world and one's place within it.
"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.  Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.  Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world."
So begins The Road.  And let me tell you, the story doesn't get a whole lot cheerier for the rest of the 250-page novel.  The narrative follows an unnamed man and his son as they wander a vast, dark landscape in the aftermath of some apocalyptic event.  Details are left ambiguous, but the great majority of life on Earth has perished.  The ash-covered land is barren and hostile, and the man and boy are fighting a daily struggle to subsist.  As they head south across the wasteland to escape the oncoming winter, they must scavenge for food and water and fend off other travelers along the road.

But the novel really isn't about the narrative.  This is not to say that there aren't a few seriously intense moments--there are.  But the true centerpiece of The Road is the relationship between the man and his son.  The simple love the father shows toward the child is remarkable in the midst of the almost unbearable agony of survival.  He is endlessly patient with the boy, constantly teaches him, gives him his own space when necessary, and, above all, acts as a wellspring of comfort.  The man is the archetypal parent--the kind we all hope to be. Being a fairly new parent myself, this theme resonated strongly with me.

Toward the beginning of the The Road, I confess I was trying to (over)analyze parts of the novel.  It seemed there was an inconsistency between the boy's life experience and his behavior.  At another point, when being given a glimpse of the family's past, I was incredulous at the callousness of the boy's mother.  About halfway through the novel, I realized that I was missing the point.  McCarthy chose to draw the characters the way he does for a reason.  After all, they have been completely shaped by the apocalypse, something which I (thankfully) have not yet encountered.  I needed to sit back and let myself be shaped by the novel.

The overall style of the novel can only be described as sparse.  There is little dialog, and even less in the the way of overt action.  Yet, The Road is infused with a richness that defies the spare prose.  In its pages, the characters (and by extension, the reader) wrestle with huge questions: What is the purpose of one's life?  What is death?  Who or what is God?  What is the essential difference between good and evil?  While there are no concrete revelations to be had, I feel closer to understanding some of these things than before picking up the novel.

To me, The Road is a true tour de force.  McCarthy uses a fairly simple concept, sparse language, and a couple of characters to fashion something altogether breathtaking.  And, furthermore, he makes it seem completely effortless.  The Road might well be the best book I've read this year!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Leper of St. Giles

A short review this time as I'm in danger of falling hopelessly behind in my reviews!

The Leper of Saint Giles (1981) is the fifth installment in the Brother Cadfael series of medieval mystery novels (see my previous entry for general information on the circumstances of the series).  I'm in the middle of casually (re)reading the novels.

The novel opens as a wedding party makes its way to Shrewsbury Abbey.  A callous, middle-aged noble, Huon de Domville, is marrying Iveta de Massard, a young maiden whose grandfather Cadfael knew from the First Crusade.  It is immediately obvious to all present that this is a marriage arranged by the maiden's guardians for the sole purpose of advancing their own fortunes rather than for the happiness of Iveta.

Shortly after their arrival in the village, Cadfael stumbles upon Iveta and Joscelin Lucy, a young squire in the employ of de Domville, in his workshop.  The two, secretly in love, have met to console each other over the impending nuptials.  In a fit of youthful indiscretion, the young man declares to Cadfael that he would go so far as to commit murder to prevent Iveta from marrying.

Not so surprisingly, the next morning de Domville is found murdered in the forest.  The hunt is soon on for the squire, who takes refuge a place that lies wholly separate from normal medieval society--a leper colony run by the monks on the outskirts of town.  The novel has a fascinating description of how and why lepers set themselves apart from society during the Middle Ages.  Brother Cadfael, being a softy at heart when it comes to young lovers, is determined to get the bottom of the de Domville's murder to absolve Joscelin of the crime.

I would rate The Leper of Saint Giles the best of the series that I have (re)read so far (mind you, I've only read three so far).  The pace is swift, and Peters' characters are, as always, well drawn out.  The descriptions of medieval society, and, specifically, the place of lepers within it, really made this novel stand out from the others.