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: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

(“A nonfiction book” from the Reading Challenge)

I am switching my non-fiction book because I read this one more recently and feel that I can write a decent review. (I did read My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek, which was my original choice, and I definitely liked it a lot and would recommend it! But I didn’t get to writing a review as soon as I should have, so I’ll do this one instead.)

This book was a Christmas present from a family member, who rightly guessed that I would enjoy it. It was very good!

The author is a paleontologist and professor of anatomy, and he has a clear, engaging writing style that was very easy to read. The book is (as you might guess from the title) talking about evolution as it relates to the biology and anatomy of the human body.

I really loved the way he talks about science! He talks about his lab (which is half fossils and half genetics/DNA, apparently), and he talked about looking for fossils in ways that I hadn’t thought about before. He points out that while yes, there is a certain amount of luck involved in actually finding the fossils you’re looking for, you have to start by doing the right prep work identifying where your chances will be greatest.

He uses the example of wanting to find an intermediate stage between finned fish and amphibians with true limbs, a transition which happened between 385 and 365 million years ago. So, he had to identify rocks in that age range, of the right type to preserve fossils at all (meaning, sedimentary rocks), and that were somewhere exposed/accessible to people. In this case, Ellesmere Island in Canada, north of the Arctic Circle, turned out to be the best place, and so that is where he and his team have gone summer after summer. And, after many seasons, they did in fact find the kind of fossil they were looking for; Tiktaalik was a fish that had fins…but they were fins with bones in them, and bones in the same basic number/arrangement that we see in all limbed animals today.

He does a really good job of working the reader through a somewhat abstract idea (that we can trace our bodies/body parts/body construction back in time through evolution, as evidenced by both fossils and genetics), by providing several concrete examples that show this, and going through the process each time. Looking at our bodies this way helps to make sense of some things about us that seem confusing when you think about them by themselves. Hiccups, for example. Why do we get hiccups? Well, probably because our bodies are descended from amphibious creatures that needed to be able to switch back and forth between breathing with lungs in air and breathing with gills in water. The muscle/nerve combination that causes hiccups originally worked as a pausing mechanism that allowed for that switch…only we don’t need it anymore, so for us it’s just a leftover thing our bodies do that can be a nuisance.

All of his examples are really interesting like that. Going back to limbs, he points out that every vertebrate creature that has limbs has limb bones in the exact same combination: one upper bone, two lower bones, blobby bones in the “wrist,” and then rod-like bones that radiate from those (fingers/toes, for us). The exact shapes, lengths and configurations of these bones are very different in an alligator, a bat, and a human, but the same basic combination is there in all three animals. In another example, he talks about nerves in the human head, some of which are very complex and kind of confusing, because they do lots of different-seeming things. But when you look at them from a developmental view, they make perfect sense, because one nerve is connected to all the various parts of the head that form from one “gill arch” on the human embryo, and another nerve is connected to all the parts that form from another “gill arch,” and so on. (Those “gill arches” are so called because, in fish like sharks, they do actually form into gills. In humans, they are present when we are an embryo, but then develop into various parts of our face, jaw, neck, and throat.)

So it was a very interesting book! It falls into the category of “I sort of knew the basics of this (evolution and how it works),” but this book lays it out so much more specifically and with such fantastic examples that it just becomes much, much clearer in my head. Books like that are the best ones, for me. I definitely recommend this one to anyone interested in paleontology, science, evolution, or the history of life on earth. A fantastic read!

Review: The Martian

(“A book a friend recommended” from the Reading Challenge)

I put this on my Reading Challenge list on the recommendation of a friend, and then ended up reading it for a book club that I’m part of with a few other friends – we definitely did not regret it. I’m probably a little late to the party on this particular book, but in case you haven’t heard about it or given it a try yet, The Martian is excellent. (Spoilers below.)

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Review: Princess Retribution by Elaine Tipping

(“A graphic novel” from the Reading Challenge)

I have enjoyed Elaine Tipping’s art and comics for quite some time, and her latest graphic novel, Princess Retribution, was a very welcome addition! As usual, the art was great, and I especially enjoy her character and clothing designs. Add to that the fact that there is a fun story to go with it, and I’m very glad I was able to contribute to her Kickstarter to support this book! (I’ll cut for minor spoilers.)

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Review: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

(“A book published this year” from the Reading Challenge)

So, this is technically a review of Shadow Scale, but out of necessity it will also talk about the preceding book Seraphina. Expect spoilers for both books!

I loved both Seraphina and Shadow Scale! Seraphina was one of my “grabbed it randomly off the library shelf because it looked interesting” finds that worked out well – I was hooked about ten pages in. They are set in a fantasy world in which two sentient species – humans and dragons – are struggling to coexist. The first book is set entirely in the country of Goredd, where forty years of uneasy peace between the humans and the dragons is teetering. Seraphina herself is a musician in Goredd’s court…and secretly a half-dragon. Continue reading

Review: Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson

(“A book with bad reviews” from the Reading Challenge)

[Technically, this book has more good reviews than bad on Goodreads, but the list doesn’t specify “only” bad reviews, so I’m going to go with a couple of bad reviews + I didn’t care for it = good enough to meet this particular criterion.]

[Some spoilers under the cut.]

I wanted to like this book. It was one of my “picked it up randomly whilst browsing at the library” books, and the blurb made it sound interesting. The world that the author creates is very interesting, with a society that has spent centuries recovering from an ancient cataclysm currently on the cusp of a technological revolution. Continue reading