Review: The Kalevala

(“A book that was originally written in a different language” from the Reading Challenge)

The Kalevala is the national epic of Finland. As with many of the older epics, this one is a modern-ish (early-1800s) written collection of stories that were originally an oral tradition, spoken or sung. And, in this particular case, then also a translation from Finnish into English. I’m sure that some of it gets lost in translation, but overall I found it very interesting and I enjoyed it. It took me a long time to actually read all of it (3 years or so), both because it is very long, and because I could read a good chunk of it at a time, but then would need a break before I would feel like reading more. I read it primarily to get some further inspiration for The Wizard of Suomen, not so much in plot or story-line, but more for the feel of ancient Finland as a place, and for some of the descriptions of things and land and animals. I would say that any inspiration for TWoS is more aesthetic than anything else. (The following is more a collection of my impressions than a proper review, so be forewarned. There are also a few slight spoilers.)

The story traces several heroes, and here I will use that term in the older sense as meaning a great warrior or great master of something, rather than the more modern connotation of “a really good person.” The three main heroes whose stories are told are Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkäinen. (Or at least, those are their usual names. Sometimes the same character was given multiple names or epithets, so it was a little difficult to follow at times. Don’t ask me about pronunciation, I wouldn’t dare try.)

Inasmuch as there is a main character in the Kalevala, it is definitely Väinämöinen, who is an old wizard and musician of great power. He has many adventures, and uses his very-cool-seeming powers to either accomplish great deeds or to get his way. As a modern person, I found him kind of arrogant and annoying at times, but I think that is partially a symptom of my perspective.

Ilmarinen was the only one of the three that I really liked particularly much. He is a blacksmith of great skill, and seemed to get the short end of the stick in many of the stories, but always pushed through and worked hard anyway. My impression was that he was younger than Väinämöinen, but other comments I have seen about the Kalevala seem to indicate that he is an older man too, so I’m not really sure about that.

I really hated Lemminkäinen, who struck me very much as a spoiled, whiny brat who only wanted to get his own way and whose mother very much enabled him. I was pleased to reach the point in the story where he is killed on a quest to the underworld, because by that point I really felt like he deserved it. But then of course he turned out to be the one who got the “my mother will gather my body parts, put me back together, and bring me back to life” story arc, so my relief was short-lived.

The fourth character who gets a large arc, Kullervo, is pretty much just straight-up evil. I think it was prophesized at or before his birth that he would be evil and do lots of horrible things, and he then spent much of his life turning that into a self-fulfilling prophecy, so I liked him even less than Lemminkäinen. Granted, he was also treated very poorly by almost everyone around him, so it’s understandable why he would be angry at everything, but still. (Tolkien apparently found this character fascinating, and his story of Túrin Turambar in The Silmarillion is based on this character Kullervo in the Kalevala.)

There was a lot of interesting repetition and exaggeration, which may or may not have come through the translation well, but fits with what I would expect from an oral tradition. One of my favorites was the description of an ox that was “neither the largest nor the smallest,” but its size was given by stating something like it would take a weasel seven days to run around its head.

The land called Pohjola (possibly the area we know as Lapland today) is always described as “ever-dismal Northland,” which I found very amusing (and again, not surprising!)

The last Rune was the strange story of a young maiden who becomes impregnated by a lingonberry and does this strange virgin-birth thing, which I strongly suspect was added to the tradition after the introduction of Christianity. I often wonder what changes have been made to these traditional stories and epics since the introduction of Christianity into those lands; it would be interesting to know what they were like prior to that time, but of course nothing was recorded in those days, so we will likely never know.

While I didn’t always like the characters, the Kalevala as a whole was an interesting and enjoyable read! I don’t have much to say about the specific stories/adventures, I guess, but they were fun to read. The Wikipedia entry about it seems decent, and I might go through the summary of the story at some point, just to clean up my knowledge of it; there were a few things that I was never quite clear on. There is also interesting discussion there about the man who wrote it down originally and the translations and that sort of thing. I would recommend it to anyone who likes the old epic sagas, who is interested in Finland/Finnish culture, or who is interested in a source that Tolkien drew some of his inspiration from.

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Review: The Orc of Many Questions by Shane Michael Murray

(“A book with nonhuman characters” from the Reading Challenge)

I got this book specifically because it seemed like it would have an unorthodox take on orcs, and I was not disappointed.

The story follows a young orc (a “blunc”) who unusually has a fairly sharp mind and a very inquisitive nature; not attributes that are looked on favorably in his tribe. Large, powerful orcs who can be successful in raids against the humans, elves, and dwarves of the world are the ideal, this being the only way that the orcs can procure food, weapons, goods, and “entertainment.” Talking-Wind wants to know why his people are stuck in this life of constant raiding, and even has some hints that life was not always like this for orcs, but he has more questions than answers, and little time to search for them. Talking-Wind’s curiosity draws unwanted attention not only from the other young orcs, who are all too happy to bully someone smaller and weaker, but also from the dragon that demands regular tribute from the orc clan. When the dragon comes for him, Talking-Wind needs all his wits in order to have a hope of surviving long enough to get all of his many questions answered!

This book was a lot grosser than I was expecting, which perhaps should not have surprised me given the subject of the story; there is some gore, but mainly a lot of unpleasant bodily functions! This does not detract from the story, but might be something to be aware of.

It also does a good job with starting to break down the standard fantasy trope of “orcs are evil because they are evil,” which has bothered me more and more in recent years. A certain well-known fantasy series that shall not be named recently doubled-down on this, after spending several books/years looking like they too might be reversing or at least questioning the trope, which annoyed me. Partly for that reason, I’ve been looking for stories that do better and don’t automatically go the route of saying that some races are actually evil by nature. To me, that makes for much less interesting villains/enemies. Easier to kill with a clean conscience, perhaps, but not much else.

There is a sequel which I have not gotten to yet, but do hope to read soon! I would recommend this one to anyone who is interested in a subversion of typical fantasy tropes, anyone who likes a very down-to-earth-complete-with-bodily-fluids type of story, or anyone who happens to be interested in orcs as a fantasy race.

Review: The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán

My first thought when I finished this book was “I have died and gone to heaven…or maybe just to Paradise.”

In many ways, this is just another Alternate-Medieval-Europe fantasy (though quite well-written); it has bloody battles, secret (and not so secret) religious fanatics of various flavors, and plenty of political intrigue. I appreciated the author’s way of using languages; the book is written in English, but he uses a blend of English and other languages to give the sense of the different countries, for instance giving titles in both Spanish or French as well as in English. It leaves the reader not needing to guess what unfamiliar words mean, while still getting to see them, learn them, and appreciate the varied vocabulary.

In many ways, it is just another fantasy…but it also has dinosaurs.

Some reviewers have made the point that this story is not a Medieval Jurassic Park. I agree, and would then add that I think it’s much better than that. If you are a Jurassic Park fan and your favorite part is that a bunch of people run around screaming and then get eaten by the dinosaurs, this may not be the book for you (though some people do get killed/eaten by dinosaurs in the story).

I think the best way to describe it is to say that dinosaurs exist in the world of Paradise; they are animals that inhabit the land, and people have learned to exist with them, much as we exist with the many animals around us today. There are some unique challenges to life with dinosaurs, given their often-large size and definite ability to cause harm to humans, but in this world those are challenges that people have undertaken. Some dinosaurs still roam the wild, and are hunted for meat or sport or self-protection by the humans. Many have been tamed or domesticated to one degree or another; they are beasts of burden, war-steeds, pets. The dinosaurs in the world of Paradise feel real, because they are part of the landscape and the ecosystem and the culture; much better than attractions at an amusement park.

To many of the characters, this is all dinosaurs are: part of the landscape, a familiar backdrop to everyday life. But to a couple of the characters (and to the author, I believe), the dinosaurs are more than that: to these characters, dinosaurs are a source of awe. Even as they fully understand and constantly deal with the realities (pleasant and otherwise) of coexisting with dinosaurs, they never lose the lingering edge of breathless wonder at the existence of these great creatures. That, more than anything, was what sold me on this book’s premise and world (and not surprisingly, those two characters are my favorites so far!)

I did enjoy the story itself, and am interested to see where it goes in the next two books of this (I believe) trilogy. This is a very adult book – plenty of gore, sex, violence, and foul language. If you don’t mind those things, then I would recommend it to fans of dinosaurs (the author seems to have done his research fairly well), fans of epic medieval fantasy, and fans of stories with battles and political intrigue.

A Personal History of Books: 16 Years of Reading

A Personal History of Books: 16 Years of Reading

As my second post of 2017 (although it’s coming a bit later than I intended), I thought I would talk about my New-Books-Read list.

Back in 2000, somewhat on a whim, I decided to start keeping a list of the new books that I read that year in this small, cheerfully-psychedelic Lisa Frank notepad:

booklist

(I can hear you all crying “Oh god, the nineties!” and shielding your eyes.)

The list is just titles, no author names or any other information. My only criteria for adding things were that it had to be an actual book of some sort or another, that I had not read it before (I am an inveterate re-reader of books, sometimes, so I decided not to count those), and that I read all of it. At the end of that first year, I counted up how many titles were on the list (109!), and then flipped the page over to make a “New Books Read Since January 1, 2001,” and continued on.

booklist2000

I kept this up for the next 16 years. At the end of 2016, I finally reached the last page of the notebook.

booklist2016

(As you can see, my handwriting has not notably improved. Be glad that you get to read only typed things from me, my handwritten fiction drafts are awful. XD)

Looking through it since then, I ran a few numbers just for kicks:

-694 new books in 16 years

-Average of 43.375 books per year

-Best year: 2000 (109)

-Worst year: 2007 (13)

For those interested, the 2000 list includes all of both the Dragonriders of Pern series (Anne McCaffrey) and all of the Lord Peter Wimsey series (Dorothy Sayers), among other things. I was prone in middle and high school to spending my summer vacations discovering a new series of books (or two) and then devouring them all in one steady go. (I really miss being able to do that sometimes.) After 2007, I vowed to never read fewer than 15 new books per year again, and so far I’ve managed to hold to that. (To be fair, 2007 was in the middle of college, and I was pretty swamped with work, but still.)

So, the psychedelic 90s teddy bear will now be retired to a shelf, and I have a plainer (less eye-smarting) little purple notebook in which to continue these annual lists. This one has more pages than the previous one, so it will probably take me longer than 16 years to fill it up (unless I get back to reading 100+ new books every year!) Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a post about that one when I finish it too. 🙂

Happy Reading, everyone!

~Ethelinda