Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Good Man Jesus

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman, is from Canongate’s Myths series – in which contemporary writers retell a myth in a new and memorable way. Pullman has pulled off quite a feat in taking the foundation story of the Christian religion and bringing the well known tales encompassing Jesus’s birth, ministry and death to readers in a fresh and enticing form. He explores how history is recorded – what is included and how this is intended to influence those of the future. The author asks challenging and thought-provoking questions but in a beautifully clear and simple way.

Major events covered in the biblical gospels are included in the story: Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist, Jesus’s life and death. The key twist in the tale is that Mary gives birth to twin boys – Jesus and Christ.

As a boy Jesus is the volatile naughty one, often defended and thereby protected by his more considering and compliant brother. When Jesus becomes a preacher, Christ writes down his teachings that they may be remembered accurately. He is encouraged in this endeavour by a stranger who visits from time to time and takes care of the scrolls. Jesus comes across as raw and unswerving, passionate in what he promotes. Christ smooths his words out to make them more palatable and useful.

What do I mean by useful? Christ believes that the growing number of followers should be brought together in a church, with leaders appointed to continue the teaching and carry out the good works encouraged. When he spoke of this to his brother, Jesus vehemently opposed the idea. It was Jesus’s belief that the Kingdom of God was imminent. No planning for the future was therefore needed. What mattered was to get people to repent of their sins and start to behave better, that they may be saved now.

The reader is offered a closer account of Christ than Jesus. It is easy to empathise with the thoughtful brother’s reasoning, even though with hindsight his hopes for the church appear naive. I was disappointed by the inclusion of one scene in which he chooses to sin – it seemed unnecessary and against character. Apart from that, the development of the brothers is skilfully rendered, especially as they come to realise how the wheels they have set in motion are heading in unintended directions, hurtling beyond their control. There is nothing magical in either of their actions. Crowds are always looking for something new and sensational to be a part of, and gossips interpret for attention as suits them.

I enjoyed the author’s Afterword in which he shares his personal views on God and religious belief. He asks: if time travel were possible, would church leaders try to prevent their Messiah being so barbarically put to death? Actions have consequences, as both Jesus and Christ discover to their cost.

I have enjoyed several of the Myths series and this easily stands with the best. It offers an imaginative take on the potential power of storytelling to control and influence. A fascinating and memorable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Canongate.

Book Review: Mischief Acts

mischief acts

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

“What is a wood for?”

Mischief Acts takes the reader on a whirlwind romp through the history of everyday life in England. It weaves true events, often violent, both natural and man-made, with the mythical creatures that may have caused them. Set in the Great North Wood, a sprawling ancient landscape that gradually became fragmented by the development of south London’s suburbs, the story opens in 1392. King Richard is out hunting, his party led by Herne, a favourite. In an act of self-sacrifice Herne steps between the king and an attacking stag. Although mortally wounded, Herne is brought back to life by Bearman (regarded as a sorcerer) but at a terrible cost. Herne will continue to haunt the woods in various incarnations, with his saviour and nemeses always close by.

The chapters are mostly set a century or so apart. We see how the Great North Wood was used and how this changed with the times. There are: charcoal burners, landowners, inn keepers. Living alongside the wild creatures are: hermits, goddesses, beautiful women drawn from their modest upbringing to commune with the elusive and enchanting. Local residents forage for food, for themselves and their livestock. There are those who understand that the ancient network holds secrets, having observed everything that has played out in these environs across time.

“The straight lines of society’s rules cannot extend into the wood. They are left at the road, and something else takes precedence in the mind at the sight, and scent, of trees.”

I very much enjoyed the writing style and how it subtly altered as the way life was lived by man changed as the centuries passed. In the 1691 chapter, colliers gather in a tavern to discuss the rumour of a highwayman who dresses like a woman – an unimaginable concept and one that disturbs more than any known law breaking.

“As the heath absorbed the last film of light, as dew into a rug, on that Monday evening in October, and the colliers asked for more ale so that their throats were now thoroughly wetted, they began to talk. Always their conversation creaked before finding its runners, for days and nights alone in the wood can rust a man’s words, but find a track they did”

In later centuries, the Enclosures Act carves up the wood for the wealthy, with trees felled and non-conforming residents evicted. Wildness is to be tamed and money made however foolish this may again prove to be. At a time when landowners desired manicured lawns and managed landscapes – the outdoors an extension of their vast country houses – natural woodland was merely another resource to be plundered.

Men of science are shown to be revered as forward thinkers, harbingers of progress who understand the benefits to their own standing.

Moving on, the 1936 chapter focuses on the fire that destroyed the redevelopment of the Crystal Palace. Herne the Hunter, in this incarnation, woos the daughter of the man whose life’s work is the restoration of this supposed wonder of the modern world. The daughter expects to impress Herne when she shows him around – and is perturbed by his reaction.

“You won’t have seen anything like it,’ I said. ‘Inside is like an endless garden, like a paradise. You can see anything, learn anything.
‘You don’t remember what was here before,’ the man said […]
‘Spectacle! Glamour! Obedient magic! Come to the Crystal Palace, and be enchanted. For what could be more enthralling than things that men have made.’”

Mischief makers are and have always been villains to some and heroes to many. There are those who believe it is worth sacrificing freedom for a conformity that is sold as offering wider benefit – to privileged mankind at least, who considers little else. The latter sections of the book move into the future to vividly portray the path this attitude takes.

“Progress is a slippery concept … It’s all about context”

The author plays with a plethora of myths and legends as she moves through time and the key events that serve as anchors in the myriad stories told here. Nature is appreciated by few of the characters, except when it has been controlled and prettified. Wildness – the unknown – is feared. The results of the dominance of one species and the destruction they wreak are shown to be deadly serious.

The denouement is a clever turning of the circle, with Herne and Bearman coming together in an imaginative and almost hopeful scene. Although much has changed, the elemental heart of the wood remains, waiting to reawaken.

Chapters are preceded by poems – folk lyrics – some of which I recognised, in cadence if not the words. There are also charms that weave through the story that follows – magic to be found in nature. All of this adds to the air of mystery. Not everything in life needs provable explanation.

Maps are included that show how the Great North Wood lives now mostly in street names.

Despite the obvious destruction of a wild place filled with lore as well as life, this remains an exuberant take on man’s conceits – his reaction to what he cannot explain and whose existence he will therefore deny credence. The stories offer a reminder that natural woodlands are much more than the trees. Man’s foolish belief in his omnipotence is what is fanciful – how quickly he forgets the storms and other phenomena that rip through the houses of cards he mindlessly, endlessly builds.

Any Cop?: A tale for our times, a call to learn from history. An evocative and highly entertaining read.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Goddess Chronicle

goddess chronicle

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Goddess Chronicle is based on the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi, gods credited with the creation of the Japanese Islands and many of their elemental gods. It is a tale of love turned to hatred, of death and revenge. Much of it is set in an underworld where the spirits of those who died with regrets drift unhappily for eternity. They end up in this place as they were unable to make peace with their fate while living.

The book is divided into five sections; all but one narrated by a young woman named Namima who died young. The opening section tells her story, how she was born and raised on an island far to the south and east. For generations cruel customs had been accepted there, believed necessary to keep the majority of islanders from starvation.

Namima is the youngest of four siblings, closest in age to her adored sister, Kamikuu. Their family is privileged as it is they who must produce the island’s Oracle. On Kamikuu’s sixth birthday she is taken to live with her grandmother to begin training for this revered role. Namima learns that she is ‘the impure one’, but what this means is not explained until she turns sixteen.

The section opens with a great deal of exposition, describing the small island and the lives lived therein. Much of the culture appears shocking, such as occasional culling of the elderly and killing of babies not born within rules. The plot progresses slowly but nevertheless retains interest after the lengthy descriptions of setting. The islanders live daily with the unease of repercussions if caught in transgressions, something Namima risks when she falls in love with an outcast, Mahito.

“I had never encountered anyone with such strength. The rest of us lived such timid lives, fettered by laws, fearful of breaking them.”

When Namima learns what her role on the island is to be she rails against it. Mahito sets out to save her but with motives she only learns of after her death.

The second section is set in the Realm of the Dead. Here Namimo meets Izanami who she is to serve. A lengthy few chapters tell the creation story, how the many gods came to be. The detail provided did not seem entirely necessary for the telling of this tale.

Despite being a god, Izanami died. She feels betrayed by her beloved Izanagi and now kills any woman he marries. Namima empathises with these feelings of jealousy, desperate to know what became of Mahito yet struggling to accept that he will have moved on with his life.

The third section opens in the underworld where, each day, Izanami chooses one thousand humans who are to die. She remains bitter over what happened to her and how Izanagi remains in the land of the living, still siring offspring.

“She continued with her task, silently and listlessly. Determining who would die was, in truth, a chore that left an unpleasant aftertaste.”

Namima now learns there is a way she could briefly visit the land of the living. Izanami advises against such a course of action. Ignoring this, Namima sets out to try to return to the island, albeit in a different form. Through this quest, Namima changes the direction of others’ lives.

The fourth section explores what became of Izanagi since Izanami died. Many centuries have passed and the god is growing tired of his immortality. Having travelled, as is his wont, he is returning to visit his latest wife who is due to give birth. Unashi, his loyal servant, has misgivings about this plan being more aware than his master about what befalls the women he marries. When Izanagi presses Unashi to share this knowledge, the pair concoct a plan to try to break the cycle.

Although this section pulls together the threads of the story, it does so by imbuing further characters with a death wish. When choices in life appear limited, suicide is accepted. Throughout the story, life is given little value until lost, and then it is only selfishly desired.

The final section returns to the underworld where there is a showdown between Izanagi and Izanami. Love turning to hatred due to jealousy has also gripped Namima.

“I suddenly made a terrible discovery. Spurred by my hatred of Mahito, I found myself longing for someone to die. Wasn’t this the feeling that had gripped Izanami when she was first locked up in the Realm of the Dead? Hatred is terrifying.”

The denouement offers a certain dark satisfaction. This carries with it a disturbing undercurrent as to why.

Previous releases in ‘The Canons’ series have been tightly woven, imaginative retellings. By comparison this was ponderous with much detail beyond what was needed for clarity. Although containing interesting elements, the length seemed unnecessary.

Any Cop?: An embittered tale of selfish desire that cast on this reader a perturbing shadow.

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: The Empire of Gold

The Empire of Gold is the final book in the Daevabad trilogy – a rare example of a series that gets better with every book. It’s everything I could possibly have wanted in the final book – brilliantly written with great character development, intriguing revelations, and an ending that’s both satisfying and, in some ways, unexpected. This series has become one of my favourite trilogies of all time, and I’m so happy that the final book exceeded my expectations.

The Daevabad trilogy is an Islamic epic fantasy series inspired by Persian and Egyptian mythology. It follows three primary characters – Nahri, an Egyptian woman with a talent for healing who turns out to be the daughter of a famous group of Daevas – or djinn – called the Nahids; Ali, Prince of Daevabad and trained from birth to protect his older brother Muntadhir; and Dara, a famous djinn enslaved for over a thousand years who has always served the Nahids. There are secrets, betrayals, uprisings, coups, weddings, and assassinations, but at the start of The Empire of Gold all three major players are still alive – albeit not very happy.

The Kingdom of Copper, the second book, is set five years after The City of Brass, the first. In contrast, The Empire of Gold starts immediately after the ending of The Kingdom of Copper. Nahri and Ali have fled Daevabad after an invasion, finding themselves in Cairo, where Nahri grew up. Dara remains in Daevabad dealing with the aftermath of the invasion – and the sudden, unexpected loss of all Daevabad’s magic (except his own). Nahri wars between settling down in Cairo and returning to Daevabad to save her people. Ali is determined to return to Daevabad but is struggling with the loss of those closest to him. Dara is on the winning side – but it doesn’t feel like a victory, and he’s struggling with morality and navigating politics he’s a thousand years out of touch from.

Nahri remains a great character. No longer out of depth in the djinn world, but nonetheless with many ties to the human one, she’s exceptionally strong and stubborn but also incredibly kind. She’s a shrewd game player but has clear moral lines and an absolute respect for the sanctity of life. It’s impossible not to like her and feel anguish every time something goes wrong. Her only ambition is to be a doctor, and it’s nice to see a character with an actual plan for the future beyond ‘take over this country’ or ‘kill the dictator’.

Ali is a fascinating character and one of my absolute favourites. It’s unusual to see a devoutly religious character in epic fantasy, and it’s great seeing how his religion shapes his actions and views of the world. Ali remains pure of heart and soul – far too kind and trusting for the world and position he’s in – but he’s forced to confront many of his prejudices and emerges a much stronger character for it.

Dara is the ultimate grey character, not truly protagonist or antagonist. The examination of morality and how far to go in pursuit of what you believe to be right is excellent and done exceptionally well. I can’t help but wonder if SA Chakraborty changed his ending – it’s not what I expected for him, although it fits very well, and I do love it.

This book branches out more than its predecessors into the world of the djinn, with the Marid and Peris playing a role. I enjoyed this peek at forces only briefly mentioned in previous books and loved how they were portrayed. Each book has expanded on the world further, and the setting created is gorgeous and thoroughly believable. This isn’t an area of history or mythology I’ve really read about before, and having read this trilogy I’ll definitely be seeking out more.

Overall, this is a fantastic book in an excellent series that I’d recommend to everyone. If you’re looking for an epic fantasy series, look no further. I can’t wait to see what SA Chakraborty does next.

 

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 11th June 2020

Book Review: Deep Water

deepwater

Deep Water, by Lu Hersey, is a children’s novel (age 12+) set in Cornwall, England. Taking myth, folklore, witchcraft and ancient beliefs as inspiration, it weaves a contemporary tale about a group of teenagers caught up in a legacy of family secrets. Puberty is a time of change. What if that change also involved the mastering of mysterious abilities?

The protagonist, fifteen year old Danni, comes home from school one day to a cold and empty house. When her mother fails to return from work, and has still not appeared by morning, Danni knows that something is wrong. Such a disappearance with no explanation is out of character. Her mother fusses about the smallest of things and would not leave her only child alone for so long without contact.

Danni moves in with her father and starts to uncover clues as to what may have happened. She learns that the town in which she is now living is close to where her mother grew up. Realising that she knows little of her mother’s past she determines to find out more.

Danni encounters people who remember her mother and some of them react to her with hostility. She befriends her father’s assistant, an older teenager named Eliot, and discovers that he too comes from a family with mythical powers. As the town’s history is revealed Danni begins to understand why her mother left. She embraces her newfound knowledge but finds herself in danger. The inexplicable is regarded as a threat by those who seek power and control.

The writing is assured and original. The disconnect between adults and teenagers is well represented as are the relationships between the children. Although the story requires an acceptance of possibilities, it is interesting to reflect on those things in life which are given credence and those which are dismissed. The Christian church may be powerful and have written much of this island’s history, but there have always been other beliefs.

An enjoyable read and one which I would recommend to young teenagers. The what ifs may inspire some pondering.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Usborne.