Review: Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth by Joseph Campbell

By Lis Carey: Joseph Campbell was a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, and wrote extensively about comparative mythology. His “hero’s journey” theory has been extremely influential.

This book is a collection of his lectures and writings on the Arthurian adventures and Grail Quests of the Middle Ages, specifically the “Matter of Britain” stories of the 12th and 13th centuries. These are the stories, or the basis of the stories, of Arthur’s court and its knights and ladies that we are most familiar with, and have nothing to do with the probable historical Arthur figure of the late 5th/early 6th centuries who may have led the Celtic Britons in resistance against the invading Saxons. If the historical Arthur existed, Arthur would have most likely been a nickname or title, not his name.

And that’s not the Arthur Campbell was interested in. He was in it for the mythology, the fantastical adventures, the stories of the Grail, the Fisher King, the Dolorous Stroke, Tristan and Isolde. He makes it fascinating.

In these lectures, essays, and his previously unpublished master’s thesis, “A Study of the Dolorous Stroke,” he traces the origins of these myths and legends, the sources in Celtic mythology, influences from Greek, Islamic, and Indian myths and poetry, and the transition from originally religious mythology to perhaps the first secular mythology, influencing and influenced by the emerging customs of courtly love.

That Greek mythology would have influenced European poetry and story-telling is of course just a given. Islamic influence is also not very surprising, given that much of Spain was occupied by Muslims who had conquered the territory. I was initially quite startled by the idea of Indian influence. That seemed a reach–until I reminded myself of the Silk Road and the trade and communication between Muslims in Europe and the Middle East, and Muslims in India. The contributions to one of the most popular, influential, and lasting story cycles of Europe was truly not just international, but from the entire Eurasian world. That’s part of why we see repeated themes told differently, including the “dolorous stroke” that wounded the Fisher King and made his kingdom a wasteland until the true and proper knight arrived to set things right, occurring several different times, with kings of different names. And while the “dolorous stroke” is most often from a spear, sometimes it’s a sword.

There are even echoes of some of the Arthurian themes in African stories from cultures distant enough to wonder if this is influence, or an underlying theme arising in more than one culture.

It’s interesting, complex, not always an easy read, but well worth the time and the effort. Highly recommended.

I received a copy of this book as a gift, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

  • Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth, by Joseph Campbell (author), Evans Lansing Smith (editor); New World Library, ISBN 9781608688289, first paperback printing August 2022

Review: What Abigail Did That Summer (Rivers of London #5.83), by Ben Aaronovitch

By Lis Carey: This is a novella in the Rivers of London series.

Abigail Kamara, younger cousin of police constable and apprentice wizard Peter Grant, has been left largely unsupervised while he’s off in the sticks on a case. This leaves Abigail making her own decisions when she notices that kids roughly her age are disappearing–but not staying missing long enough for the police to care.

Natali, a girl she slightly knows, invites her to a “happening” on the Heath. When she goes to the Heath to meet up for the happening, she doesn’t find the girl, but does meet a white boy named Simon. Simon was also invited to the “happening” by a different girl, Jessica, whom he slightly knows. When neither of the girls shows up, eventually they abandon the “happening,” but start to develop an unlikely friendship of their own. Simon tries to teach her to climb trees; Abigail wins a small degree of favor with the housekeeper and Simon’s mother by getting him to actually do his Latin study. They are both studying Latin in the summer, a year or two earlier than expected, because Simon’s mum has ambitions for Simon, and Abigail has (wizardly) ambitions for herself.

When Abigail realizes that Natali and Jessica, the girls who invited her and Simon to the “happening” that never happened, have disappeared, she can’t let go of it. She insists on investigating. Simon introduces her to the Cat Lady, who is a good deal more interesting that that label alone suggests. A talking fox named Indigo approaches Abigail, and says Abigail is needed for something the foxes can’t do on their own.

Abigail, Indigo, and Simon wind up at a very oddly haunted house, and Abigail has to navigate relations with the police, the talking foxes, a river goddess and her court, Peter’s superior officer, Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, and, some ways most terrifying of all, Simon’s mum.

Oh, and the haunting at a closed-up house.

Abigail grows, learns, and shows herself as a genuinely kind and decent person. Also a smart and determined person.

Altogether an enjoyable and satisfying story.

Recommended.

I received a free review copy of this novella, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

  • What Abigail Did That Summer (Rivers of London #5.83), by Ben Aaronovitch; Subterranean Press, ISBN 9781645240280, March 2021

Review of The Cats of Tanglewood Forest

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest (Newford #18), by Charles de Lint (author), Charles Vess (illustrator). Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, March 2013

Review by Lis Carey: Lillian Kindred is an orphan girl living with her Aunt on a farm in the hills, surrounded by a very tangled forest. When she is not doing chores, she wanders the forest, looking for fairies and spirits and spirits and magical things. Aunt warns her spirits don’t necessarily want rambunctious little red-haired girls bothering them, Lillian says she’s not bothering anyone. She just wants to say, “Hello hello.”

One day, Lillian is out wandering, and lays down under a tree to rest. She falls asleep, and is awakened by a snake biting her. It’s poisonous, very poisonous, and Lillian realizes she is dying. 

Many of the local cats gather around her, though, and realize that they can’t save the little girl’s life, but they can use cat magic to change her into something that isn’t dying–a kitten. Lillian agrees, and when she wakes again, she’s a kitten, and very healthy. This is when Lillian starts to get her first tough lesson in not thinking things through. She heads off for home, knowing Aunt will be worried about her.

Aunt is worried. And remains worried, not realizing that the kitten is Lillian, because of course, why would she? As the day gets late, Aunt gets very worried indeed, and starts organizing the neighbors, the few neighbors they have, to search for Lillian.

Lillian goes looking for her next excellent magical solution. She can’t find the cats; she doesn’t realize they weren’t supposed to use cat magic that way, and they’re keeping scarce for fear of the anger of the Father of Cats. She meets a fox, with whom she forms a tentative friendship, and visits Old Mother Possum, who is a witch. Old Mother Possum rolls time back for her, so that the snake bite never happened.

She goes home, and discovers the snake has bitten Aunt, instead, and Aunt is already dead. This is her second lesson in not thinking things through, and what major effects small changes can make.

But Lillian doesn’t give up. She has a lot to learn, and that includes staying for a while with the nearest neighbors, the Welches, and learning about the harder tasks of running a farm. She’s Aunt’s only heir, and while Mrs. Welch wants to make her a proper, respectable girl, Lillian is determined to run her aunt’s farm, not sell it.

Eventually, though, not accepting Mrs. Welch’s plan for her means setting off to find another solution, hopefully one that doesn’t involve Aunt dying. Along the way, she meets Jack Crow, the terrifying Bear people, the Father of Cats, and other magical creatures. None of the lessons are easy ones, and before she gets home again, she’s learned to speak to the animals, to think things through a bit better, to take responsibility–and taken on an obligation to the Father of Cats, which may not come due for many, many years. It’s a wonderful, magical story, and at the same time, one that makes clear that even magic can’t make things perfect, that happy endings are provisional and the result of hard work and careful choices.

And Charles Vess’s illustrations are wonderful and magical in themselves, making the story even better.

Recommended.

I received this book as a gift, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

Review of Rocket to the Morgue

By Lis Carey: Police Detective Lt. Terence Marshall, of the Los Angeles Police Department, is home with his wife, Leona, feeding their new baby, while she asks about his day. Nothing interesting, he tells her. One dead drifter, though, shot dead in a very cheap hotel. A couple of odd things, though. He had $300 on him, that wasn’t stolen, and an unusual rosary, with what seems to be the wrong number of beads.

It’s a puzzle.

It’s a bigger, more important puzzle, when they discover the dead man also has the private phone number of Hilary Foulkes, heir and literary executor of the late giant of science fiction, Fowler Foulkes, author the adventures of Dr. Derringer. Derringer has outlived Fowler, or would, if not for the fact that Hilary Foulkes charges extremely high fees for any use of Derringer’s name, image, or adventures. He’s killed many literary projects, original adventures, quotes of memorable lines as chapter headers, even audio records for the National Library for the Blind. A lot of people really hate Hilary Foulkes.

And Hilary Foulkes reports that he has been getting threats and has experienced actual attempts on his life — so far, not successful or even there impressive, but still, attempts on his life.

Soon Marshall is investigating a locked-room attempted murder, questioning a selection of potential suspects from the Mañana Literary Society, the informal social circle of the science fiction writers living in and around Los Angeles at the time. For dedicated science fiction fans, this adds some extra fun, because these writers are mostly thinly disguised major sf writers of the period. However, if you’re only here for the mystery, you won’t notice, and it won’t distract from the story. This is a solid mystery, well plotted, and the characters, sf writers or not, are developed and interesting.

One of the suspects is a friend of Marshall’s; one very helpful amateur detective is Sister Ursula of the Order of St. Mary of Bethany, who has a keen, observant mind, and useful background knowledge about the strange rosary, which turns out to be quite relevant. With the story not only set in 1942, but written then, one could be concerned about the women characters. However, Boucher doesn’t fall into the trap of much of both the sf and mystery fiction of the period. The women are described physically as you’d expect, tall and bosomy, but they’re smart and capable, though they don’t always make it obvious.

I just really thoroughly enjoyed this.

Recommended.

Cats Sleep on SFF: Boskone

Lis Carey gives credit to where it’s due to a “cat-sized critter”:

Dora wishes the sf world to know that this past weekend, she did her part for the cause, working the NESFA sales table at Boskone for a whole hour. She was shocked to discover that this involved allowing people she’d never sniffed before to carry away books.


Photos of other cats (or whatever you’ve got!) resting on genre works are welcome. Send to mikeglyer (at) cs (dot) com

Carey – Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom Review

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom

Tor Books, ISBN 9780765383297, June 2017

By Lis Carey: Retropolis is a city of the future as imagined in the first part of the 20th century. Robots walk the streets and work in many jobs that require physical abilities and machine precision that humans don’t have. They’re intelligent, and while they start out as indentured workers, they earn their full freedom over time, and have formed a pretty powerful union.

Meanwhile, humans do other work. Everyone relies on InfoSlates, which are a lot like our phones, except perhaps standardized more at the size of an iPad. That’s my impression of them, anyway. Another difference between InfoSlates and either iPads or phones is that they rely on human switchboard operators.

Nola Gardner is a switchboard operator, and she and her sister operators (remember, think 1930s rather than present day) abruptly find themselves out of jobs after a surprise efficiency review. What they can’t seem to find out is who replaced them.

Rusty is one of the aforementioned intelligent robots, who on his way home from work one day finds a female robot with no legs lying in the street. She doesn’t seem to talk, which is awkward, but he takes her back to his apartment, determined to find out where she belongs.

Nola persuades her coworkers to pool their severance pay and hire adventurer Dash Kent, who is also a plumber who lives in Rusty’s building. He’s got a great track record rescuing cats from the temple of a weird cult on Mars…

Soon an unexpected and unlikely group have formed to fight an unseen, devious enemy.

Rocket cars! Private rocket ships! Robots! Evil industrialists!

And all that is before the world’s tiniest giant robot shows up and starts wreaking havoc.

Schenck captures this retro future perfectly. It’s goofy, it’s exciting, it’s joyful.

Don’t go looking for science-fictional plausibility here; that would be missing the point. This is an adventure in the 1939 World’s Fair’s future, not ours, and it’s a lot of fun.

Highly recommended.

(I received an advance reader’s copy of this book, and am reviewing it voluntarily.)

Review of Cosmic Powers, Edited by John Joseph Adams

By Lis Carey: This is just one kickass good anthology. Go buy a copy in your preferred format now.

Okay, okay, you want to know more.

Every one of these stories is, as advertised, far-future, galaxy-spanning, and involves people confronting huge problems caused by technology, in some cases so advanced as to be, as Arthur C. Clarke said, “indistinguishable from magic.”

They vary wildly in tone, also.

Charlie Jane Anders’ “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime” is just really funny.

“The Chameleon’s Gloves” by Yoon Ha Lee features an interstellar thief saddled with the unenviable job of committing one theft not for profit but to prevent the deaths of billions. I hadn’t been attracted to what I’ve heard of Ninefox Gambit, but now I very much want to read it.

“Diamond and the Worldbreaker” by Linda Nagata gives us a twelve-year-old who just wanted a chance to be the bad guy for once, and her mother whose job it is to prevent the kind of chaos created by the kind of “bad guy” her daughter admires.

In Becky Chambers’ “The Sighted Watchmaker,” Umos has the responsibility of tending a planet through its evolution, and wishes he could have the guidance of the Makers. But who are the Makers? Meanwhile, Seanan McGuire’s “Bring the Kids and Revisit the Past at the Traveling Retro Funfair” is straight up adventure.

There’s more variety and excellent storytelling in store as well.

It’s rare that I’ve enjoyed an anthology so thoroughly, and Yoon Ha Lee isn’t the only author represented here for whom I will be seeking out more work when I previously had my doubts.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher, and am reviewing it voluntarily.