LIke you Ricky, I was very pleasantly surprised by this book. I thought it was the most enjoyable SF novel I have read this year (which includes Ann Leckie’s excellent Ancillary Justice). The themes are familiar […]
A manuscript is lost, known only by rumour. Dedicated to preserving the memory of its author, two true believers track it down decades after his death. Finally stumbling upon the word horde, they discover it unreadable, shattered into fragments. Aided by the few who are still able to decipher these forgotten pages, the followers painstakingly recreate the story that had once been lost.
That’s not the plot of The Fourth Gwenevere, it’s the tale of the book’s rediscovery by John and Caitlín Matthews. The novel was left, unfinished amongst John James’ computer files after his death in 1993. They have now pieced together James’ final novel, to reveal a new twist on Arthurian legend.
The Fourth Gwenevere owes more to Welsh myth than the French romance of Chrétien de Troyes. Our narrator is cynical, world-wearing Morvran, a follower of Arthur and King of Gwent, although as he sourly observes
in the social circles where I move kings are as common as sparrows on the roof.
Throughout the book, dry wit punctuates scenes of battle, as the Kingdoms of Britain collapse into civil war. This is a Dark Age tale of peoples jockeying for position, with the Britons facing the threat of incursion from Saxon marauders.
In the midst of it all is Arthur’s new wife, Gwenevere. Following the tradition of the Welsh Triads, Arthur had four wives, all with the same name, and we encounter each in the novel. Strangest of all is the last, the fourth. Her quiescence to the demands of the men who rule her life hides secret plans. She concocts these as deftly as the precious cloths that she weaves in her isolated chamber.
Like another posthumous book composed of fragments, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, The Fourth Gwenevere does feel incomplete at times. This is especially true at the beginning where a confusing cast of characters come and go. This may be James’ intention, to create a modern text that resembles the incomplete sources that have come down to us from that time. Fortunately, once the true story begins, the novel becomes a gripping tale of treachery, bloodshed, and plague.
Written twenty years ago, The Fourth Gwenevere manages the trick of feeling both ancient and modern at the same time. The ancient world does feel truly different and the characters do not look and sound like modern people. The text is dense with detail of everyday life from these far-away times:
we kings danced before Arthur, as we had so often done on the eve of battle. Swords were brought, not the battle-proud grey blades of Damask and Bezant, but poor rust-brown things, blunt Heathen knives fit only to be trampled on. These were so spiritless that they might be drawn without need to satisfy their thirst for blood.
It feels contemporary in that the narrator Morvran ap Einion is simultaneously all-knowing and utterly bewildered. Morvran is like a fantasy equivalent of Breq, the starship narrator of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (this year’s Hugo Award winner). Readers who enjoyed puzzling their way through that tale of slaughter will find much to enjoy here.
I’ve always thought of these ‘Biome’ worlds as a lazy way of creating a planet, although in defence of Dune, Arrakis does conceal secrets below the surface.
One of my favourite fictional planets is one of the […]
Star Trek’s prime directive states that the crew of the Enterprise must not interfere with the social development of civilisations on alien worlds. It’s possible that Spock contravenes this directive in issue #1 of Gold Key’s Star Trek comic, when he ruthlessly wipes out all life on the planet Kelly Green.
In the defence of the Gold Key comic’s authors, they hadn’t actually seen any episodes of Star Trek up to that point. The Italian illustrators had been given only the barest reference materials.
How things would change from that inaugural comics run in 1967 to the first comics adaption of Star Trek: The Next Generation, twenty years later. In a terrific essay in this book, the comics’ editor explains all the hoops they had to jump through to get approval for each comic, including feedback from a surprisingly tetchy Patrick Stewart.
He wanted Picard’s head pointier and then asked for less hair to ring his head. This was a recurring refrain from him for the first year or two, making me wish I had invested in White Out.
New Life and New Civilizations, a collection of essays on the history of Star Trek comics, is full of similar nuggets of trivia, making it an essential read for fans of series. It is not however, a slavish adoration of all things Trek. Several authors are prepared to cast a very critical eye over the material. Cody Walker even goes so far as to call one Trek comic “pure blasphemy”.
Sometimes, the contributors take things too seriously. In one bizarre moment, an author solemnly informs us that in a Star Trek coloring book for children
No ethical or moral dilemmas are presented nor explored.
In a coloring book?
This collection is also highly recommended for people interested in comic book history as it casts a light on the world of licensed properties in comic book form. It’s incredible to see how this process has changed over fifty years. Malibu Comics publisher Tom Mason relates that in the early 1990s:
When we got the Planet of the Apes and Alien Nation licenses from 20th Century-Fox, it was as easy as ordering a pizza and handing over a check. They didn’t even read material that we’d sent them ostensibly for approval. I stopped sending stuff to Fox after a while, and nobody ever called to find out what happened.
By 2009, the growth of graphic novels had changed the status of comics beyond imagining. When JJ Abram’s new Trek movie hit the cinemas, it was accompanied by a comic mini-series not just approved but actually plotted by the screenwriters themselves, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. Kurtzman and Orci also stated that their comics were canon, so there would be no more random paths appearing in the comics only to be conveniently forgotten later.
Their passion for the Star Trek franchise is shared by almost all of the creative teams, in whatever format they were working. This love for the characters is even there in weird merchandising like the 1970s book and record sets, where kids read along to a comic whilst listening to a recording of the words on vinyl (a bell rang when it was time to turn the page).
This dedication to making adaptions comes from the fact that many of those working on these comics are big names in the SF and comics field, like Ringworld creator Larry Niven or legendary Batman artist Neal Adams.
The involvement of big hitters like these is a reflection of the huge importance of Star Trek as a landmark in the popularisation of SF. New Life and New Civilizations is a fine addition to the growing library on all things Trek. It will make interesting reading for anyone even with a passing knowledge of the original series and The Next Generation, as well as the Hollywood movies.
Alastair Savage commented on the post, Self-Publishing Odyssey: Part 2 Agents and Editors 3 years, 2 months ago
An extraordinary warning here for agented authors who may be thinking of going down the self-publishing route: http://janefriedman.com/2014/07/21/i-left-my-agent/
You may still have to pay 15% to the agent for a […]
Alastair Savage commented on the post, The Greatest Science Fiction Novels of All Time Part 4 3 years, 3 months ago
I love the David Lynch film version even though it leaves a great deal unsaid. You would have thought that Dune would be perfect for a Game of Thrones type continuing series on HBO or a similar channel. As you […]
The echo chamber: that’s the great trap for the self-published author, as Michael J Sullivan has talked about on his blog. You send out messages on Twitter or social media, but the sound bounces around the room […]
How could Scotland have suffered a ‘British invasion’? British refers to England, Scotland, and Wales, all the nations on the island of Great Britain.
I think your summary ought to point out that although […]
One of the first books of historical crime fiction came from the pen of Agatha Christie, whose Death Comes As The End was set in Ancient Egypt. Drawing on her own archaeological experience, Christie set her story many millennia in the past. Now Graham Edwards has returned to those distant times in his new novel, Talus and The Frozen King. This is a crime fiction at its most raw: a murder mystery set in Stone Age Britain.
Our Neolithic Sherlock Holmes is Talus, a wandering bard who uses his story-telling to insinuate himself into the good graces of his hosts. This vulturine traveller is decidedly creepy, so it is fortunate that he is accompanied by his friend Bran. Slow on the uptake, Bran is headstrong and loyal but also consumed with grief for a lost love. He plays the Watson role admirably, albeit it with a fiery temper.
These two strangers stumble upon a strange island. Enveloped in mist, cut off from the shore, it is a place full of secrets. Someone has slain the local king and the murderer may be one of his six sons.
It’s a crafty plot and well-written too:
Fog had obscured the mainland. It seemed to glow with a light of its own. Somewhere, unseen, the sun had risen, heralding a new day. The wooden pillars of the henge were twisted phantoms looming from swirling cloud. A gust of wind touched Bran’s face and he flinched.
A figure stepped out from behind one of the pillars: Mishina. His face, striped yellow and white, seemed to float in the fog.
Talus and The Frozen King could be a candidate for one of those two-hour costume dramas that TV stations like to show on Sunday evenings. It would be a candidate, that is, except that it all descends into a bloodbath that would give George R.R. Martin pause for thought.
If there is a weakness in the book, it is in some of the dialogue. Edwards can’t really replicate Stone Age speech so we have to accept that the words used by the characters are just an interpretation of what they would really be saying. Mostly this works well but it does seem improbable that people from the dawn of time would say things like ‘of course’.
There are authors who get round this by creating a fake language, such as a sort of cod Anglo-Saxon. This is being used in a new book called The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. On the one hand, writing in a language like that sounds like a work of genius. Or it may just be pure self-indulgence. In any case, Edwards sidesteps the whole issue by using modern speech throughout.
Talus and the Frozen King is an unusual book which wears its research lightly. I found myself lost in the story towards the end as events hurtled towards their tragic conclusion.
Alastair Savage commented on the post, Self-publishing Competitions: Leave Your Elves At Home 3 years, 6 months ago
I would imagine so, but it is a monthly competition so there’s plenty of room for many different types of books to win the prize. The Guardian Books pages are very open-minded about what kind of books they cover […]
Alastair Savage commented on the post, Histoire de la science fiction française : la genèse 3 years, 6 months ago
This looks fascinating but it’s too hard for my pauvre French. Avez-vous une version en Anglais? Sometimes the huge French contribution to SF gets overlooked so it’s great to put it back on the map.
Alastair Savage commented on the post, Self-publishing Odyssey: Part 3 The Dirty Business Of Promotion 3 years, 6 months ago
Thanks for the tip John. Konrath’s site looks great. I’ve been really impressed with how generous the self-publishers have been with their time and their knowledge. That’s actually been one of the nice things […]
Alastair Savage commented on the post, SGT. Fury Special Marvel Edition – Captain America and Bucky 3 years, 6 months ago
Are you sure that Captain America Comics #1 first appeared in 1940? According to Marvel’s official site, it was released in March 1941: http://marvel.com/comics/issue/7849/captain_america_comics_1941_1
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