Urhurgh. I’ve been dragged backwards through five kinds of hell this week and I’m not really feeling the whole blogging thing, so this seemed like an opportune moment to get a couple more of the old reviews from my earlier book blog(s) out of my drafts folder. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Mistakes were made. I wish I could say it’s been long enough that I don’t even remember what the books were about, but that’s not how my brain works.
Obvious obligatory warning: There are spoilers.
Theme of the week: Books I wish to toss into a volcano.
Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle
I first read this in 2008 and found it tolerable but unremarkable. I’m a sucker for pretty covers, though, so I thought I’d try it again in 2017.
It was awful.
Set against the glorious green backdrop that is medieval Ireland, Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle is a retelling of the legend of Tristan and Iseult, and the first in the Tristan and Isolde trilogy. Their unfortunate romance is kickstarted – somewhat ironically – by Isolde’s mother, the queen of Ireland, who is supposed to be a strong-minded woman but in fact is easily influenced by whoever she happens to be sleeping with. At the beginning of the book she is sleeping with thuggish knight Marhaus, who appears to have visions of world conquest. Sent by his queen to demand tribute from Cornwall, Marhaus is mortally wounded by Tristan, the hot nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, and is carried back to Ireland, where he dies. Isolde’s mother plunges into a state of deep grief, but revives quite a bit when presented with the prospect of forcing her daughter to lose her virginity. (It’s literally not about strategic political alliances. It’s all about getting Isolde to Stop Being A Virgin.)
Meanwhile Isolde, who is more interested in her work as a healer than in any of the suitors swanning around her, becomes quite taken with the mysterious stranger who arrived half dead on her doorstep. Their budding romance is cut short when she realizes the mysterious stranger is Tristan, who was grievously wounded in his duel with Marhaus. Rejected by Isolde, Tristan goes home but later finds himself escorting her to Cornwall after her mother bethrothes her to King Mark to make up for the Marhaus debacle. Unfortunately Tristan and Isolde are wildly incompetent in their sworn duties, and they somehow manage to drink a love potion that was intended to make Isolde fall in love with Mark (because that’s her mother’s idea of making her daughter’s life easier), thus setting them firmly on the Tragic Romance road. Oh, and there’s also some grumpy monks in there who hate women, but I’ve completely forgotten what they have to do with the story because it’s been four years since I read this.
Full disclosure: I didn’t reread the whole thing. I have no idea how I read it the first time. From the lame prose to the irritating Goddess, Mother!s every few words, the first third of this book was unequivocally displeasing. Foremost among its battalion of problems: Isolde’s mother. I have no problem with women who own their sexuality. I have no problem with women who like to have sex. I do have a problem with women who are so insecure about their sexuality or just sexuality in general that they will force it onto other women, e.g., “What do you mean, haven’t found anyone you like enough yet? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?!”
That burning question forms the basis of Isolde’s relationship with her mother. Her mother loves men and loves sex and makes no effort to understand her daughter, whose needs are substantially different from hers. Her mother is so ashamed of Isolde’s apparent lack of interest that she promises to give her to a man who threatened to rape her. Sir Palomides, foreign visitor and lovestruck suitor, courts Isolde politely throughout the first few chapters; when she rejects him, he goes to her mother and tells her that one of two things will happen: (1) he will marry Isolde and carry her off to his country, or (2) he will rape her as punishment for dishonoring him. Her mother would have been well within her rights to toss him off the castle battlements. Instead she gives him some vague twaddle about women’s rights before saying in the same breath that she fully intends to push Isolde into his bed anyway, which she plans to do by making Isolde the prize in some harebrained tournament. Women have the right to choose in this world, apparently, but they waive that right if they choose to postpone sex. Mother knows best!
I don’t remember exactly where I stopped; it doesn’t really matter. This book was horrible. I’d maybe try it again if it were the only book left in the world, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
House of Many Ways
Diana Wynne Jones
I picked this up because I liked Howl’s Moving Castle, so I assumed I would like House of Many Ways too. Boy was I wrong.
House of Many Ways is the third book in the Howl’s Moving Castle trilogy, and it really could’ve been something if it had followed Howl and Sophie. Instead it follows Charmain Baker, a spoiled, snotty little brat who reads a lot but somehow still knows absolutely nothing. Her hand-wringing helicopter parents inexplicably agree to send her to her Great-Uncle William’s house to help him out while he’s ill, in which capacity she fails magnificently, though she does leave her books long enough to figure out that the doors in the house are not, strictly speaking, normal. After a day or so on her own, her peace is abruptly shattered by the arrival of Peter Regis, who was recently apprenticed to Great-Uncle William (or, as he knows him, Royal Wizard Norland). Peter is an idiot but he does know how to do housework, and he sets Charmain to work washing dishes and doing laundry. Charmain, who has never worked a day in her life and intends to keep it that way, sneaks off at the earliest possible opportunity and manages to get in with the king and his daughter, who are frantically searching for the fabled Elfgift for reasons I have forgotten. Charmain joins them in their quest despite having zero qualifications and gets swept up into a very unengaging adventure, in which she pisses off a horde of small blue creatures; reads Great-Uncle William’s books and eats his food, dodging housework all the while; starts to discover her latent magical abilities; unwillingly adopts a small dog named Waif; pisses off giant wasp-like creatures called lubbocks; and eventually meets Howl, Sophie, and Calcifer, a.k.a. the only interesting characters in the book.
The worst part of the book is obviously Charmain. She may be the worst heroine I’ve ever encountered in my life. I suppose her cluelessness could be written off as a function of her age, but that seems like an insult to 13- to 15-year-olds everywhere. She’s lazy, self-absorbed, and so breathtakingly useless that she can’t even figure out how to dry a dish. As with most selfish people, she is inconsiderate of others but still expects them to be nice to her, and gets angry when they treat her with as little consideration as she shows to everybody else. She is sent to Great-Uncle William as a temporary housekeeper but apparently doesn’t understand that she is actually supposed to clean things. I was expecting her reading material to play into the resolution of the plot, given her grating obsession with The Twelve-Branched Wand, but the only thing that seems to leave any impression on her at all is the encyclopedia entry telling her what lubbocks are. About half of the very small cast keeps insisting on calling her “Miss Charming,” and for the life of me I have no idea why.
The other half of this aggravating equation is Peter, an astonishingly stupid apprentice whose spells always backfire but who still believes he is capable of taking care of himself. After the first half of the book I was sort of expecting him to start learning from his mistakes (“Maybe I shouldn’t try to work magic alone without asking anybody” would’ve been a fine start), but this kind of logic is apparently too great a stretch for poor Peter. Despite his genuine incompetence, he’s bewilderingly self-righteous and condescending, and, though he could avoid a lot of problems by sitting on his hands and doing nothing, he is utterly incapable of curbing his overwhelming urge to Do Something. Add to that Charmain’s and Peter’s infuriating overbearing helicopter mothers, who feel they are perfectly within their rights to invade the house at random and try to control everything, and you’ve got the basic premise of House of Many Ways. (Peter’s mother literally introduces herself by inviting herself into the house and helping herself to Great-Uncle William’s food. Charmain finds her alone in the kitchen, “calmly eating breakfast.” Am I the only one who finds this rage-inducing?)
Additional disappointments: weak prose, a plot so predictable that none of the “twists” are actually a surprise, boring magic, disappointing minor roles for the actually interesting characters, bad decisions by characters who should know better, sloppy writing all around. Don’t expect Sophie to do anything, because she’s relegated to the role of Upstaged Wife while Howl and Calcifer do all the magic. I was expecting much more from her after the back cover glowingly described her as an “intimidating sorceress.” I was expecting much more from all of them.
When writing book reviews, I normally provide a link to the book’s goodreads and Bookshop pages. I have not done so here because I do not wish to encourage anybody to read these books.