Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Butterfly in Amber by Kate Forsyth

(Book Review)

After spending several months deprived of new audio books, I've finally discovered the audio book section in my University.

Because I'm such a slow reader, and because reading is a bit of an effort for me, I'm very picky about which books I chose to spend my time on.

But audio books are a completely different story. I don't lose anytime listening to them (they're great to have on while walking or exercising) and there's no effort required. So if an audio book looks even vaguely interesting, I snatch it up.

And so, when I saw this one on the shelves, my thought process went something like this. "Looks like a fantasy story. I like fantasy. The cover looks like it has a bit of an air of mystery to it. So far so good. It's a children's book, but no shame in that. The pink colours look slightly girly, but let's keep reading..."

Skimming the back cover, I noticed that Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans played a big part in the story. And then I was hooked.
I've not yet gotten around to reading a lot about Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil Wars (other than what I've learned from "Monarchy" and the BBC radio program "This Sceptred Isle"), but I consider the period to be among my historical interests.

So I checked out the book.

Once I got it home, I tried to look online to find out more about it. But there's surprisingly little information about this book on the internet.

In this day and age when information about everything is on the internet, it's unusual to find a gap like this. Especially for a recently published book (2007) by a major publisher (Pan MacMillan Australia). And especially considering someone found this book worthy enough to make into an audio book.
(And the voice actor they got to do the reading on this book is really reading her little heart out with all sorts of different voices for every character. It almost seems a shame all her effort went unnoticed.)

It's not a complete blank of course--there are various websites which list this book among their merchandise. But nowhere is their any information that's not on the book's back cover. The Amazon page doesn't even contain any reviews for this book (as of this writing).

It could be that this book was only distributed in Australia? I don't know.

From what little I can piece together, it looks like this book is the 6th part of a larger series, called "The Chain of Charms" series.

(This goes to prove my theory that it's impossible to find a fantasy book these days that doesn't commit you to reading a whole series.)

But "series" is almost the wrong word for it. "Harry Potter" or the "Chronicles of Narnia" are series, but each book in those series also stands alone as its own independent story.

This is one long story that has been chopped up and sold as six different books.

Which personally I think is indefensible.

When you buy a book (or check one out of the library) the least you expect is to have a self-contained story.
Now, if you want to follow the same characters on for other adventures (as I have been doing with the Flashman series, for example) by all means make a series out of it. But don't split one story into several different books. It's just makes it a pain for the reader who has to track down all those different books.

I'm willing to make exceptions for stories that are just too long to physically fit in one binding (such as "Ilium" and "Olympus".) But this book is only 4 CDs long on audio book. (And if you listen to a lot of audio books, you know that's nothing.) According to amazon, the printed page is only 288 pages long. All six books could easily have been put into one binding.

(I know it's a kids book, but kids like long epic stories just as much as the rest of us. Look at how long some of these Harry Potter books are.)

I know the publishers were hoping I would run and immediately buy the other 5 books in this series, but really how much trouble do they expect me to go through? The University library doesn't even contain the whole set of books. It's out of print so I can't go to my local bookstore. Amazon doesn't even look like it has copies in stock. Even if I was absolutely blown away by this story (which I wasn't) I wouldn't have the energy to spend my afternoons searching through used bookstores.

I realize that now that the book is out of print, and the profits have already been made, publishers no longer care how easy it is to track down the whole series. But as long as these books adorn library shelves and used book store racks, they will represent a frustration to readers. It would have been much better to publish this as a single volume.

That's my biggest complaint about this book. And admittedly it's an editorial one. (Maybe the publisher's decision instead of the author's.) But it still irks me.

Other than that, the book was pleasant enough. Nothing great, but a nice little read.

This is the 6th and last book of the series (if you're only going to read part of the series, you might as well just read the end) and it was easy enough to catch the plot even coming into the middle of the book. (Although the last fourth of the book was all about the emotional re-union with characters from the previous books. Since these characters meant nothing to me, the last part of the book was pretty boring.)

The plot involves two gypsy children who are trying to rescue their family (who have been imprisoned by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans). In order to do this, they first need to search and find all the lucky charms of their family.

(All the talk about finding my lucky charms and loosing my lucky charms sometimes made me feel like I was listening to a breakfast cereal commercial (W).)

The children get into several tight spots in this book, from which they all escape due to miraculous coincidences or acts of nature. Most of this is attributed to the lucky charms.
Which is, unfortunately, one of the problems with stories about luck and magic. As a reader I wanted to see the children struggle out of the tight spots on their own, using their own wit, strength, quickness or whatever else. I didn't want them to be miraculously delivered every time by some deus ex machina. But at the very least I guess this story is upfront about what it is doing.

Oliver Cromwell never actually appears in the story itself, but all the characters are always talking about his illness and impending death.

The children appear to be on the side of the royalist cause. (And references are often made to the Duke of Ormand, who apparently befriended them in a previous book.)

My own sympathies are decidedly anti-royalist. Oliver Cromwell himself is of course very difficult to defend. Cromwell may have been nothing but a dictator and a tyrant, but at the very least I'm very sympathetic to the anti-royalist side of the English Civil War. I particularly like the radical republican groups of the time (such as the Levellers, the Diggers). But I'm also more sympathetic to the Roundheads and the Puritans than I am to the Royalists, and I don't view the Restoration of the monarchy as a positive step forward historically.

This book portrays the Puritans as religious zealots and extremely...well, Puritanical for lack of a better word. And I guess they were religious zealots. But in this case my dislike of monarchy trumps my dislike of religion.

[Also, in the afterward to the book, the author claims that Charles II worked with Parliament and had much less powers than Oliver Cromwell ever did. It is true that Charles II never had the absolute power the Cromwell did, but it wasn't because of any virtue of his own character, just a result of historical circumstance. Furthermore in the last years of his reign Charles II dissolved parliament and ruled without a parliament.]

So I had to swallow my own historical prejudices a little bit as I read this book, but it was nothing I couldn't handle.

The book is a nice mix of historical fiction with an element of fantasy. One element of fantasy is all the tame animals that accompany the children--a dog, a monkey, and a bear. And a horse shows up at the end of the book. It's slightly silly, but it's good fun.

The children also mix with historical characters such as the countess of Dysart.

At the end of the book, there's a brief afterwards where the author explores the question of whether or not Cromwell was poisoned, and also gives an interesting recounting of what happened to Cromwell's mummified head (W) after he died.

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Further thoughts:
Despite there being some problems in the execution, I really like the idea of this story. I think it's a cool idea to mix historical fiction with fantasy.

I think the fantasy genre is appealing to people because it touches on the subconscious idea that there must have been a mythic period in the past. And some of the greatest fantasy literature is successful because it mixes myth and history together. Think about The Trojan War, early Roman history, the King Arthur cycle, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Old Testament (if you want to open that can of worms) et cetera.

Tolkien of course was one of the first people who took the fantasy genre into a completely made up world. And he was very good at what he did (and yes, I know he was influenced by Norse Mythology). But all the imitators of Tolkien in the past 60 years have kept returning to this made up land.

Perhaps it's time for the pendulum to swing back the other way. I'd like to see a lot more books that retold traditional history but added in fantastic elements to it.

I know some of these books are out there already, and it's just a matter of tracking them down. (Such as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke--another example of a book which failed a bit in the execution, but nonetheless had a really cool idea to retell the Napoleonic Wars with feuding magicians.) If you know of any cool history fantasy books, feel free to recommend them to me.

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One last thought:
In writing historical fantasy you'd have to make certain compromise of course. You couldn't have armies of dwarves or elves running around anymore (unless you went really far off the historical rails). But in the traditional stories dwarves and elves were never meant to be assembled into huge armies anyways. They were meant to be hiding out in the forest or deep in the mountains.

This book takes the Gypsies as it's magical element, which is a bit sticky because you're dealing with an actual real life ethnic group.

It's a very sympathetic portrayal of the Gypsies. And in fact it highlights the persecution they suffered under the religious zealots (like the Puritans) in old England.
Nevertheless, it does portray them all as dealing in magic and fortune telling. It's not a bad thing per se, but it does reinforce stereo types.

But I'm a little hesitant to stick my nose into the fire by declaring an opinion on it either way. I'd like to see what the Gypsies themselves think of the book first.

Link of the Day
NOAM CHOMSKY More rights than people (THE CORPORATION)

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