Monday, December 10, 2012

More old books: Epic fantasies you should have read

With the imminent arrival of the Hobbit movies and my recent long (but enjoyable) slog (still reading!) through The Song of Ice and Fire (the Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin), my mind has been on epic sagas. So when I was driving down Glenoaks this morning behind someone with a personalized license plate that read "STREEL," which is a place-name (and something more) in another large and dramatic story, I was inspired to blog about it under the intermittent theme of "more old books you should have read."

Richard Adams, now 92

The author Richard Adams is best known for Watership Down, his classic heroic fantasy featuring a group of rabbits. It was the first book he ever wrote, and although 13 publishers turned him down ("you want to publish a book about a bunch of rabbits, one of which has ESP? really?"), once someone finally said yes, the book has remained continuously in print since 1972. It has won multiple awards, is regularly assigned reading in classrooms across America, and is a wonderfully told, moving story.

Adams also penned another lesser-known heroic tale written in two volumes: Shardik, which he wrote in 1974, and its sequel, Maia, which he didn't complete until 10 years later, writing two other books (The Plague Dogs and The Girl in a Swing) in between.

The people who live on the river island of Ortelga, a tiny part of the vast Beklan Empire, worship a bear-god named Shardik. The Ortelgans used to rule the empire, but now they inhabit a few insignificant islands on the outskirts. Although Shardik is a mythical creature from ancient history to most, to Kelderek, a simple man known as "Play-with-the-Children," the immense bear that was driven by a forest fire to shelter on his island is the literal embodiment of the Power of God.

Kelderek labors to heal the bear of its extensive wounds sustained during its escape from the fire, and then convinces the local priests and barons of its divinity. Its appearance at this particular time is taken as (or used as) a portent by both religious and secular powers that it is Ortelga's destiny to rise to greatness again; a series of events leads to Kelderek assuming a high rank in the kingdom of Bekla. Building your power base on the whims of a wild beast, however, is bound to have unexpected consequences, as Kelderek finds when Shardik escapes the imprisonment imposed upon him by the power-hungry, and Kelderek must choose whether to cling to his position without the bear, or once again abandon everything to roam the land after Shardik, seeking to know his will.

Following Shardik leads Kelderek from the heights to the depths, and Adams's story is really a saga of self-discovery and a study of the effects of faith on the behavior of people. This is an extremely simplistic summary of a complex story, containing a wide array of characters and a deep exploration of philosophical issues. It's also an enthralling read!

The second book, Maia, is actually a prequel of sorts, with events that begin about a dozen years earlier than Kelderek's story; but my recommendation would still be to read the books in the order they were written (Shardik first, Maia second), so that you will understand the setting and context.

Maia is a beautiful, lighthearted and engaging teen girl whose naive indiscretions with her stepfather lead her jealous mother to sell her to a passing slave-dealer. The rest of the book is the tale of her experiences as a slave (mostly as a "bed-slave") that take her to both the most degraded and the most elevated levels of society. Adams uses Maia's naivete and provincial outlook to explore the politics, religion and philosophies of his fantasy kingdom, as seen through her eyes and those of her best friend, the concubine and spy Occula.

Although this second book shares only a few characters in common with Shardik, the events also transpire within the kingdom of Bekla, in the middle of similar religious and secular political struggles, and this book expands upon a particular theme--the existence and morality of slavery--that was treated as only a small part of the first book. Again, the themes are sweeping but the characters are specific, beautifully evolved, and memorable.

By the way, the Streels of Urtah (which provoked this review) are a series of dark, narrow chasms in the middle of a vast plain. The people of Bekla believe that no one goes into them unless they are drawn there by their own evil. Once someone enters the Streels, they are not permitted to leave alive. Well, nobody ever said that epic sagas were supposed to be cheery...

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