Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Forays into Children's Fantasy: Alexander and Cooper

So, to avoid working on the diss, I've been working on some classics of fantasy literature. Either I've become fantastically  picky and judgmental (see what I did there?), or -- well, okay, I've just become fantastically picky and judgmental. Here goes.


The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander.

Made me bored and impatience. I vaguely remember seeing The Black Cauldron (book 2) in my middle-school library, but I never tried it -- something warned me away, proving once again that the child be wiser than the man. This time around, I read four of the five books (skipping book 4), and I knew going in to look for the Welsh influences. Well, the Welsh was all fine and good, although I never felt the appeal that many others apparently do. But the books themselves annoyed the hell out of me. The protagonist, Taran, is just some random boy who, for no reason that I could fathom, becomes the leader of his group. He collects a motley assortment of comrades, including a wayward prince who doesn't mind following 14-year old boys, a princess who's inevitably going to fall in love with the protagonist, and a Gurgli. And eventually Taran becomes a king. Of course.

The above, I admit, is an unfairly snarky synopsis. Unfortunately -- and this is a problem with most early fantasy -- the plot was so predictable that an experienced fantasy reader could predict every twist and turn. Alexander has a true talent for nice set pieces and quirky characters, but the overall plot was achingly familiar. And even the things I liked, like the three sorceresses in The Black Cauldron and the giant Grew in book three, while cool in themselves, felt almost "predicatably" quirky, quirkiness being almost a stock character. Worse, Alexander's final book, which is apparently the most well-renowned, tried its darnedest to fit in every half-loved character from the previous four books, I had difficulty fending off the dizziness which came from my eyes rolling too hard. Nothing but fan service before "fan service" became a thing.

Considering that I love Harry Potter, I absolutely refuse to say that I was "too old" to appreciate it. I certainly could see the appeal; if I was a publisher, I'd easily recognize this as something worth noticing. But a plot-driven fantasy featuring a generic teenager just isn't going to do it for me personally.


The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper.

Blech. Blech. BLECH. Unlike The Black Cauldron, of which I'd read (maybe) a chapter of in middle-school, I'm virtually positive I read the entire book 2 of this sequence, the eponymous The Dark is Rising, in high school. (It was the assigned reading of some book program or another.) If memory serves, I absolutely hated it then, and I absolutely hated it now. In fact, of the whole 5-book sequence, I skim-read the first book and only managed to get through half of the second one. Couldn't bring myself to attempt the final three.

First, I'll admit a personally shortcoming. The Arthurian legend completely bores me to tears. Always has. Like The Prydain Chronicles, which I knew because criticism often mentions its Welsh connection, I knew the Dark Sequence because criticism likes to notice its fidelity to Arthurian and medieval material. But whereas the Alexander books had recognizably good writing, I just saw nothing noteworthy about Cooper's.

Let's take the first one. Again, pretty standard fantasy plot: children protagonists enter a far-off location, encounter some Bad Guys and a not-so-mysterious Magician-Guide-Figure, and then successfully complete a quest. Fine. Nonetheless, nothing really stood out. Although I vaguely remember the children all having different personalities, I can't recollect what those personalities were, nor even the names of the children themselves. The Bad Guys were foppish rather than ominous. And my complete lack of interest in the Holy Grail made that a singularly awful McGuffin, although one can't fault Cooper for that.

As for The Dark is Rising itself, though, I stopped half-way through because it so thoroughly resembled every other formulaic fantasy I'd ever read. An 11-year old protagonist is the promised one of some prophecy, the bad guys hold some grudge from thousands of years back, Mr. Magician Exposition explains everything to the protagonist, and so on, and so on. Considering my intense dislike of this book as a teenager, I have a tough time imagining people's fascination with this series.

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