The Change #1: Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith

Read: 15 May, 2017

Like most people, I have a bit of series fatigue, and have been trying to aim for more stand-alone novels. But then I accidentally picked Stranger up after seeing it recommended somewhere, not realizing that it was a series until I started writing this review.

This is an ensemble story, beginning with a scavenger (called ‘prospector’) coming upon a small town. He tries to fit in while each of the other characters deal with their own drama and the regular dangers of their environment, while their own local Lord Humungus brews up dastardly designs on the town.

The most obvious thing about this book is it’s diversity. There are many different ethnicities, many religions, many sexual orientations and types of romance… This is a book that is chock full of diversity.

It does read a little odd at times. This town, that seems to be so inclusive (except, of course, along the Changed/Norm axis), has preserved its distinct ethnicities for generations. It also feels almost a little collectionist, in the “one of each” style of diversity.

But, you know what? This is not a complaint. Maybe I’d count it against the book if diversity were so common that it were humdrum. But I don’t live in that world, so I will clutch to any book that intentionally and thoughtfully gives as many people as possible a character they can identify with.

I really really loved the romance triangle in this book. I don’t want to spoil it, but this is how love triangles are done right. When the romance stuff first started and it was clear that a potential conflict was coming up, I groaned because I have just been through this love triangle biz far too many times and I just can’t even. But then it resolved, almost immediately, and to great satisfaction, and it was wonderful.

This is YA, and perhaps even on the younger side of that bracket. There were times when it felt a little extra kiddy, maybe even late middle school-ish. It was still a perfectly enjoyable read for this 32 year old, but there was a certain naivete to the narrative that reminded me that I’m not the intended audience. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to the 12-16 crowd, though. It’s a very enjoyable read with great representation, interesting worldbuilding, meaningful conflict, and some great messages scattered along the way.

Some of that naivete is in the worldbuilding – little details that feel off. Like when a town of about a thousand people, a town that rarely gets visitors and then only one or two at a time, has street signs. I grew up in a town about that size and most of our streets didn’t have signs. They probably had names, though I never knew them. Places were referred to as “by the bakery” or “next to so-and-so’s house.” Small towns get by perfectly well on relational descriptors, and yet these are completely absent in Las Anclas.

While part of a series, Stranger does work as a stand alone. There are plot threads that don’t get resolved, but not in a terribly unsatisfactory way. I’d say it’s a safe book – fine for people who might be feeling a bit of series burnout, but with the option of continuing the story if desired.

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Earthsea Cycle #1: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Read: 24 April, 2017

The first book in the Earthsea Cycle gives us the origin story of Ged – a boy with promising magical talent who, in a moment of weakness, makes a terrible mistake that shapes the rest of his life.

I first read this book as a young teen, and I was surprised by how much of it I could remember. The unleashing of the shadow thing, in particular, was still vividly in my memory. It was particularly interesting to revisit scenes that have stuck with me all this time and to go “uh, so this is where that’s from…”

This was written in an era when fantasy was still very much tied to oral storytelling – “Tolkienish”. It makes the narrative pace very fast, as we get little more than brief sentences to cover weeks and even years of the story’s chronology. That doesn’t mean that the story’s pace is fast, though. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it does drag a bit as Ged travels around the world and meets with largely unconnected side quests.

The style also adds a distance between the reader and the action. Rather than seeing the action, we are told about it. This used to be standard in fantasy, but a book written like this now wouldn’t get anywhere near the same reception.

That doesn’t make it bad, by any means. It’s beautifully written, and the worldbuilding is magnificent, but it does mean that people who aren’t either at peace with older fantasy genre conventions, or who have adjusted their expectations to the newer expectations of the genre are going to struggle with the book.

All that being said, it fully deserves its place in the canon, right alongside Tolkien for its worldbuilding and lyrical narrative. And for me, specifically, it’s wonderful to visit again with an old friend.

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Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Read: 12 February, 2017

There’s a man no one remembers, a young woman who holds a piece of paper that she can’t put down, a boy whose absent father suddenly reappears and reappears and reappears… It’s really just your average Night Vale day.

I’ve somehow managed to have never listened to the podcast. I know, I know, I’m just not really a podcast sorta person right now. But many of my friends listen to Night Vale and post quotes and tweets and such, and I’ve always found them the perfect combination of funny, insightful, and weird.

So when I found a Welcome to Night Vale audiobook at my local library, I figured I’d give it a shot – helpfully in a more familiar format.

And I really enjoyed it! Night Vale does a fantastic job of ‘hyper-reality’. Details of the story are absurd, but they’re also true, they are subjective impressions rendered literal. The character of Josh is the perfect example of this: a teenage boy, his body assumes a different shape every day – some days he has skin, some days he has a carapace – but no matter what form he takes, his mother always knows him.

I loved how inclusive and refreshing the book is, too. Josh has a crush on a girl and he has a crush on a boy, the only explicit couple in the book are gay men, and the plot revolves around an absent father who is a perfectly nice guy but just not a good father. The central relationship that emerges from the plot is a friendship between two women. It’s just wonderful.

I see quite a few negative (and negative-ish) reviews complaining about how the narrator’s voice carries over into a print, and I can see that. The narrator’s intonations and pauses added a great deal to the story. And that’s not particularly surprising – these characters were made for a podcast format.

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Gentlemen Bastards #1: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Read: 29 January, 2017

Venice is such an obvious and wonderful setting for fantasy, it’s hard to imagine why it doesn’t get more use. Everyone always jumps on medieval England or France, maybe with a bit of Scandinavian, but Renaissance Venice? With its glass works, its intrigue, its cloaks, its daggers, its Carnival… That is a rich and fertile ground for fantasy!

I had a little trouble getting into this one at first because it does an awful lot of time hopping. I can understand why this was done – giving us the exhilaration of the adult Locke Lamora on a heist, while also feeding us some of his backstory in the form of child Locke. On the one hand, I’m not sure it was necessary to do it this way since child Locke gets up to quite a few exciting adventures of his own. On the other hand, it gives us a tighter narrative in which the beginning connects directly with the ending. Having gotten through the difficult beginning, I can appreciate it. But having to keep track of time skipping on top of all the new characters, the new setting, the new terms… it makes the book just that little bit less accessible.

Once I got into it, though, I loved this book! It was exciting! It was fun! There were times when the main characters got themselves into a scrape I couldn’t see a way out of and my stomach tightened and I read as fast as I could to find out what would happen.

I wish that there were more central female characters. There are women around – really cool and interesting women, women with power, active women – but none in the core group. Well, that’s not quite true. There is one woman in the Gentlemen Bastards, but we don’t see her in this book. She’s talked about, but always out of the picture for one reason or another. It’s obvious from the first mention of her that she’s Locke’s One True Love, and this gets brought up a lot, so having her be completely absent from the first book is a very interesting choice. It’s a good choice, too, since it lets us see more of Locke’s friendships. We need more books that centre platonic friendship! But now I’m worried that we’ll meet Sabetha and she’ll just be your standard “pretty but tough as nails” love interest. I like that she’s held back from the story for now, but my fingers are crossed that she’ll be given some proper development.

In conclusion, I loved this book. I devoured it. It was fun, it was exciting, it had some great character development, it had a fantastic setting, and it had one of those excellent plots that feels meandery but then ties up neatly at the end and I loved it so very very much.

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Graceling Realm #2: Fire by Kristin Cashore

Read: 22 September, 2016

In this sequel (or, rather prequel) to Graceling, we journey across the mountains to an isolated country where graces don’t exist. Instead, the Dells have monsters – variant forms of ordinary animals, but brightly coloured and capable of influencing the minds of those around them. Fire is the last of the human monsters, and it seems that everyone wants a piece of her powers.

WARNING: This review contains a lot of spoilers.

As I mentioned above, Fire is actually a prequel. The book begins with the birth of Leck -the Big Bad of Graceling – and his journey into the Dells. He disappears from the story, which then becomes more about Fire, her personal relationships, and her role in the bigger politics of the country. But the child Leck still hands around, skirting the edges, and seems to be pulling strings of one sort or another.

Which leads me to my first complaint. For a while, I thought Leck was to be the Big Bad here, as well. As in Graceling, we don’t really meet the political enemies for a very long time. Rather, the story focuses on Fire working through her own life choices. So I was led to believe that Leck was somehow behind the rebel lords’ uprising, or was making them far more dangerous by getting them to work together. Instead of an ominous puppetmaster threatening from the shadows, Leck was a red herring.

A red herring with very odd motives. Even though we first see his handiwork when he sends brainwashed archers to kill Fire, he only kidnaps her when he has a chance, with a story that he wants them to be partners. He seems to want to take over King’s City, but his actual role in the civil war is unclear.

Maybe I just missed it because I wasn’t paying enough attention, but Leck’s presence in the story seemed superfluous – there only to tie Fire to Graceling.

The novel also suffers from what I can only call a Love Octagon. Absolutely everybody is sleeping with absolutely everybody else, and much of the third act is devoted to uncovering everyone’s secret parentages so that everyone can have a supportive family as a reward for making it through the plot.

The idea of not letting one’s parentage define us (as both Fire and Brigan work to forge identities for themselves separate from their fathers, and Archer’s own relationship with the father who raised him) is a good one, but it was all watered down at the end when all the characters get to be reunited with their unknown relatives, and Brigan gets to find out that he never was his father’s son in the first place!

Aspects of the book do play out melodramatic, and the premise itself is rather silly. But the books are clearly intended for a younger audience – preteen or early teen girls – and for that audience, both Graceling and Fire are absolutely fantastic. When I think back to who I was at 12-13 and what books I loved, I can easily see how I would have adored Cashore’s works. Even better, these books are good for girls of that age, because they redefine what it means to be a woman, and they give girls options. Katsa didn’t want to marry or have children, Fire wants children but can’t have them. Their relationships are ones of mutual respect and caring, in which the women have boundaries and have them adhered to.

That idea of priming girls to expect appropriate treatment from men is woven throughout the series. Fire, as a monster, is irresistible to men – they find her so beautiful that she is sexually assaulted several times in the story as they “lose control” upon seeing her. When King Nash does this, when he tries to defend his actions by explaining that he just can’t control himself when he looks at her, Cashore puts the perfect response in the mouth of his brother: “Well don’t look at her, then!” Never is their behaviour Fire’s fault, and she has the right to expect the men around her to behave. She has the right not to be jealously kept by someone, even if she does love him.

Fire has a lot of flaws, and I wish that Leck were better integrated into the story, but it’s a good and healthy book for young girls to read, and I think it would be very well liked within that age bracket.

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Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Read: 8 August, 2016

Who Fears Death takes place in post-nuclear holocaust Africa, though save for a few mentions of computers and scooters and other relics of modernity, it might as well have been set in mythic time.

The story follows Onyesonwu, a mixed race child born of weaponized rape, as she comes into her power as a sorceress and ends the genocide of her mother’s people. On the way, she gathers friends and allies, falls in love, and learns about her mother.

I really enjoyed Onyesonwu as a character – it’s rare to find a narrating main character that has quite so strong a personality. She’s certainly no Bella Swan! And while she tends to get angry and lash out, I never felt annoyed by her. That’s no small feat when she keeps impatiently interrupting characters who are trying to explain things to her because they aren’t getting to the point fast enough!

I loved the setting. I loved Okorafor’s descriptions of the desert, and I tend to favour that mythic, mysterious brand of magic. The early parts of the book, as Onyesonwu is learning about magic, what it can do, and how it works were, in my opinion, the best.

That said, the book has its flaws. The big one that I see mentioned a lot in other reviews is that it follows that “be mentioned in a prophecy, get mentor, kick ass” formula. I actually found this to be the least of the novel’s problems – mainly because I enjoyed the mentorship sections of the books so much, and because the prophecy bit took a backseat to the characters. It was brought up every so often (along with the plot-paradoxing issue of the two main characters knowing how they were going to die), but Onyesonwu’s strong personality drove the plot forward. Until the very end of the book (which I’ll talk about in a bit), I never had the sense that she was being driven by the prophecy. Events seemed to line up conveniently, but it worked within the context of the world, and Onyesonwu made deliberate choices every step of the way.

The much bigger issue with the book is its second half. (SPOILERS: Once the group of friends leaves Jwahir, the plot loses its focus. Long passages are spent on side missions, and most of the narration is devoted to the in-group bickering. Toward the end of this, they meet the Vah – a group of people who live in the centre of a sandstorm. The Vah are literally only introduced right before they appear, when Mwita sees the sandstorm approaching and asks if Onyesonwu has ever heard of the “Red People.” These people pop in so late in the story, with no build up, and they end up providing the main characters with the means to destroy their enemy. It’s too convenient, and it stinks of poor planning.

The ending itself – where the Big Bad is defeated and the corrupted holy book is rewritten – felt horribly rushed. They confront the Big Bad, Onyesonwu is completely incapacitated, and Mwita whips out the magical item that can defeat their enemy. That’s it! After all of that build up and all those journeys and all that accumulation of power, it’s all over in a page or two. And then, when Onyesonwu goes to rewrite the holy book, she does so with a little bit of handwaving. That’s it?!)

The final thing I want to touch on is the lack of consequences. There are times in the novel when choices are made that have negative consequences, and the impact is just sucked out of them. (SPOILERS: A perfect example is the treatment of FGM. Bringing it up, and having the female main characters all undergo it, is interesting and has consequences for their relationships with others – specifically, Onyesonwu’s friends link the idea of freedom to the physical fact of having a clitoris (much is made of heterosexuality in the novel). But when it comes right down to it, Onyesonwu just uses her magic to grow everyone’s clitorises. That’s it, conflict over, everyone healed, the end. And just when I’d thought it so interesting to see a pre-pubescent girl choose FGM, against her parents’ wishes, for the sake of her family’s honour suddenly hit puberty and rage at her choice. But then she gets to Ctrl+Z and the consequences are just gone.)

Overall, I did enjoy Who Fears Death a lot. I think that I would have judged it more harshly if it had been written by a white author and set in, oh I don’t know, Chicago, but my library needs a lot more colour. As it was, I welcome Okorafor’s perspective and I was glad to see a non-western European take on magic. If I’m going to read fantasy about Chosen Ones defeating the Big Bads in accordance to prophecy, I’m happier for it to be Who Fears Death than The Fionavar Tapestry.

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Graceling Realm #1: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Read: 29 July, 2016

This came up in a Goodreads list of YA books with “strong female characters.” The list wasn’t actually that great, namely because there seems to be some confusion over the word “strong” (with some taking it to mean that the female character can beat people up, and others taking it to mean that the female character is complex and has a proper story arc that doesn’t exclusively follow the “begins without man, ends with man” pattern).

But this one stood out to me – both because the cover art is gorgeous (hear that, marketing people?) and because the premise seemed like it might have somewhere to go.

And it was pretty good! The Graces could have had a bit more depth and some of the side relationships could have done with some more exploration, but it was a thoroughly solid YA novel.

Graceling reads like Jessica Jones in Medieval Times. The main character, Katsa, is a young woman with heightened strength (among other survival skills), and she must defeat a man with the power to influence people’s thoughts with this words. Katsa’s Grace make her seem almost over powered, but because of what her enemy’s power is, her own strength is a liability against herself and her allies.

It’s a fantastic concept, one that I loved in Jessica Jones and love here. The difference is that King Leck just isn’t ominous the way Kilgrave is. He doesn’t feel nearly omniscient, his influence isn’t felt (despite the narrator telling us frequently that it is). There was a bit of suspense because I didn’t know how Katsa would be able to defeat him (and the way she managed it was satisfyingly set up), but Leck just wasn’t terrifying the way Kilgrave was.

Instead, the focus of the story seems to be on Katsa’s relationship with Po. Which means, of course, that we get to go through the standard “headstrong young woman who isn’t interested in men and just wants to be independent learns to love and be vulnerable.” Which would be a fine plot, except that it is apparently the plot where strong female characters are involved. But while the romance was a bit of a cliché, it wasn’t offensively so.

All in all, this isn’t some new feminist manifesto, and it isn’t some pseudo-feminist schlock where a “strong female character” learns to be weak for love. It just was. It was interesting, it carried me through from start to finish, and it never caused me to face-palm.

Though only the first book in a series, Graceling is a complete book on its own. So it’s safe to read without a great commitment. This would be perfect summer reading for 11-15 year olds.

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The Magicians #1: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Read: 17 July, 2016

When I was told to read The Magicians, it was explained to me as “Harry Potter for grownups.” Which isn’t inaccurate, and I guess that Harry Potter is probably the more likely to have been read comparison for people of my age and younger, but I found it to be much more like “Narnia for grownups.” The magical school stuff is in there through the first half of the book, but the focus seemed to be on setting up the worldbuilding and main characters. When we get to the Narnia portion, The Magicians reads quite well as a direct response to the series.

Perhaps the best way to describe the novel would be “Narnia, with a touch of Harry Potter, but where the characters are terrible people.” Because “for grownups” is just a nice way of saying that the main characters will lash out and do terrible things for petty reasons, and there will be no redemptive nobility at the end.

Reading through some other reviews, I can see a lot of people didn’t like this book because they didn’t like Quentin, the main character. I can certainly see how they might respond that way – Quentin makes terrible choices, acts out for petty reasons, and then goes on relentlessly about his feelings of guilt. Under many other circumstances, I would have reacted the same way, and I’ve certainly complained an awful lot about books with terrible characters.

But, for me, it was okay here. I could read about Quentin’s latest hurtful lashing out because the narrator never once made excuses for him. When I judged Quentin, the narrator judged Quention. I was asked to understand, but I was never asked for forgive or overlook. That’s something that many books – even those deliberately setting out to write flawed character rather than accidentally creating them – have trouble negotiating.

I can see how that may not be enough, though. Watching Quentin train wreck his life over and over again was difficult and frustrating, even with the narrator’s commiseration. Which raises the important question: Is it necessary to like the main character?

I think John Green addressed that beautifully when he said: “I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books a supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification with. Books are in the business of crating great stories that make your brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr.”

The catch, of course, is that there has to be enough going on in the story to make your brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr. At which point, we’re looking at an issue of personal taste. For me, The Magicians worked, but I can understand how others might disagree.

Back to the comparison to Narnia, it’s hard to imagine that The Magicians wasn’t a response to the series. I didn’t read the books as a child and, when I decided to tackle them as an adult, I decided to go in chronological order and only got through The Magician’s Nephew before I got distracted by shiny things. But even just with that book, it was hard not to see the connections (the talking animals, the “hub world” with many pools through which one plunges into different planes, the witch who controls time/seasons, etc).

The commentary even gets quite direct in the second half, when the characters go to Fillory. At one point, a character explicitly tells them that they came looking for a child-friendly adventure, one in which they get to become kings and queens and perhaps fulfil their character arcs. And this character tells them that Fillory is its own world, it exists independently of the children who come to it, and it does not exist merely to cater to their desires. That was definitely a ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr moment that made me appreciate the Chronicles of Narnia from a different angle.

It was interesting to read this at the same time as the Fionavar Tapestry, because the response to Narnia fits Fionavar just as well. Both The Magicians and Fionavar give us flawed characters who enter a new world – but while Fionavar takes the Narnia approach (an oddly naive position given the kinds of things that happen in the series) of having the characters “step up” and unleash the inner nobility that they couldn’t find expression for in the mundane world, Grossman wisely concludes that people do not suddenly change with the scenery. Take a restless, never-satisfied, selfish jerk and plunk him in a magical world and he will still be a restless, never-satisfied, selfish jerk. Real change simply does not happen that fast, or that painlessly.

For all that ranting, I’m not actually sure how I feel about The Magicians yet, or whether I will be interested in pursuing the rest of the series. Quentin was very unlikable – and while that was okay in the small dose of one book, I’m not sure that I have the emotional energy in following through his entire character arc (wherever that may lead). It’s the same reason why I gave up on Breaking Bad in the second season – I can see that it was a very well made show with a lot of interesting stuff going on, but it was just exhausting.

The strength of The Magicians is in its commentary on Narnia (and similar books). I get the feeling that Grossman must have grown up with the series, or at least loved it very much, because the criticisms never felt hateful. They were just insightful, and they contributed to how I perceive the series.

For weaknesses, the series took a very long time to get to the nougaty centre. We had to go through Quentin’s entire magical education in episodic fashion before I had any idea why it should have mattered. Harry Potter did something similar, but the episodes there were so whizz-bangy that they sustained themselves. In The Magicians, Grossman was clearly struggling to balance the wonder of introducing his magical world building with the fact that his main character’s defining trait is a sort of dissociative ennui.

That said, I’m at a loss on how the issue might have been corrected. The Fillory portion of the story could not have sustained an entire novel, and much of it needed the Brakebills background to work correctly, but making the Brakebills section of the novel more interesting would conflict with the character exposition. Elements were introduced and then immediately dropped, uncharacteristically, because Grossman clearly wanted to save them for later. I suppose a little more foreshadowing could have been sprinkled in, maybe the appearance of the Beast could have had more of an impact, but what there was (and as subtle as it was) worked so well once it all began to fall into place in Fillory.

I would absolutely recommend this book, but with the caveat that the main character has few redeeming qualities.

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We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Read: 6 June, 2016

The Sinclairs are tall, beautiful, and athletic. They are old money Democrats, and they spend their summers on Beechwood island. They are liars.

This was a particularly interesting read for me because, like Gat, I have spent several summers with a similar family in their “summer compound.” I’m the same age as the cousins, and we get along well, but I’m still conspicuously not a cousin (not that they’ve ever done anything to alienate me – it’s just that they have a history with each other that I don’t share). Lockhart did a fantastic job of capturing the sense of idyll, those summer friendships, the surreal bliss of spending all summer reading books in a hammock stretched over the water, as well as how those feelings change as we get older and begin to notice the cracks and politics.

The strength of the story is definitely in the characterization – and the island itself is absolutely a character. The downside is the plot. SPOILERS: The trauma induced amnesia, the characters who are perceived as real but who are actually just figments of the main character’s broken mind, etc. It was all fine, but it’s just been done so much that I’m not sure it can be saved by even the best execution. As it was, it felt like a cheap way to jerk a few tears for the ending. Ironically, I feel like I would have been far more moved if Cadence’s illness were physical, if there had been a real accident (perhaps one that Gat was involved with and felt guilty about), and we saw her being forced to choose between between her love for Gat and her love for her family. Or even if it just explored the grandfather’s death and the mix of grief and relief that would come from it.

Despite the novel’s downside, I did enjoy it. It’s a short and relatively easy read (in terms of the mechanics of reading – the plot is, of course, rather brutal), perfect to be consumed whole in an afternoon. Essentially, this is the perfect summer book. It’s a solidly written novel with strong characters and a strong sense of place.

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The Once And Future King #1: The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White

Read: 17 May, 2016

This really wasn’t what I was expecting at all. My dad had given me an old paperback copy of The Once And Future King when I was a child interested in Arthurian legends, but he made it sound like a very serious, stuff tome – a perception that wasn’t corrected by the fact that this thing is an absolute brick. It ended up sitting on my shelf for nearly two decades before I finally decided that I’d give it a read through audiobook (my preferred vehicle for fantasy novels suffering from gigantism).

It turned out to be very different from what I had assumed. For one thing, it’s clearly aimed at children (specifically boys – there are almost no female characters in the whole book, and the two I can think of are a) Maid Marianne, and b) the witch, Madam Mim).

The story is episodic, each usually involving some adventure Merlyn sends the young Arthur (often accompanied by his foster-brother Kay) on. These mix and match different stories, including Robin Hood! Most of these adventures include some kind of lesson: A discussion on the nature of time, an introduction to embryology and evolution, etc.

The book is still quite a brick, and I think it would have been difficult to get through if I had tried to just read it to myself. It did work well as an audiobook, though, and I think that it would have worked fairly well as a bedtime story – with each adventure read aloud and treated as self-contained.

I found the novel to be quite funny, particularly the episodes with King Pellinore. The audiobook reader was clearly having a lot of fun with those episodes, what?

Overall, I found the book a bit dated, and it’s hard to see it competing for children’s bedtime attention given the options that are available now. But it was still a fairly enjoyable read, a good story with some food for thought and amusing humour. I may give it a try on my kid when he’s a little older.

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