Saturday, August 11, 2012

Book Reviews-The King of Elfland's Daughter, Fearless Jones

The King of Elfland's Daughter
By Lord Dunsany
Lord Dunsany (1878-1957) was a true Renaissance Man (poet, author, playwright, chess champion, nobleman, pistol shooting champion, veteran of three wars, big game hunter, professor, animal rights activist) who had a profound influence on such writers as disparate as J.R.R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman,(check out Stardust) Michael Moorcock, Evangeline Walton, David Eddings, H.P. Lovecraft, and even Robert E. Howard.

Sadly I had never read Lord Dunsany before and since I have roughly 300(!!) or so books waiting to be read I decided to finally start reading his work and see if it held up to the wonderful things that other writers had said about the author. It did. Man, did it ever. Dunsany possessed a lyrical fluid verbosity with prose which put you in mind of Shakespeare in some ways. It's not enough to say that H.P. Lovecraft bit off of Dunsany. In some places he devoured him whole. Although The King of Elfland's Daughter (TKED) is a short book, it is incredibly dense and will leave you wanting more.

To just digress for a moment in J.R.R Tolkien's legendarium elves and humans do not normally intermarry and when they do there's often tragedy. Elves are virtually immortal and ageless while humans of course deteriorate rapidly from an elvish POV and die like mayflies. The two peoples experience Time differently and have slightly different relationships to their Creator. 

Humans are jealous of elves' immortality and fearful (thanks to the Enemy's lies) of the Gift of Death. Elves do not understand human haste and restlessness and seeming need of change for change's sake. Humans who seek after elvish immortality are dabbling in things they do not understand and generally come to very bad ends indeed. Tolkien just paints this in very broad strokes though and moves on to other things in most of the works published in his lifetime. 

In TKED Dunsany dove a little deeper and actually made a pretty compelling tale of the problems that a mixed marriage might bring. In Elfland Time does not exist or moves at such a slow state that it is virtually nullified. There is no rush to do anything. Moments of bliss can literally last for eternity. Of course while Time stands still in Elfland it rushes in the mortal world. A human who spends what he thinks of as a short time in Elfland may return to the mortal word and find that a decade or more has passed. 

Similarly an elf or other denizen of Elfland may come to our world and be excited and more than a little frightened by the constant change of seasons, people aging, sunsets and moonrises and all of the other things which humans take for granted. An elf has no religion and sees no reason why she shouldn't worship the stars. In TKED you get an idea of how far love would have to stretch when a human would have to find the words to explain to an elf that laughing and singing at funerals or talking to goats is not considered proper.

This mixed marriage and several other events are set into motion when the Parliament of Erl decides that their home area needs to be better known. To this end they tell their aged lord that nothing personal but they would prefer to be ruled by a magic lord. The noble thinks this a silly idea but is bound to follow the rule of Parliament in most things. 

He sends his son Alveric on a quest to bring back the King of Elfland's daughter, marry her and then produce an heir who will have magic. Alveric is a dutiful son and proceeds to follow his father's instructions to the letter. It's what happens after his initial quest, which is completed within the first few chapters, that makes this book unusual and well worth the read. 

Again, Lord Dunsany had a beautiful way with prose. The images he created are vivid and almost leap off the page. His wording is odd but strangely compelling. It's like the writers of the King James Bible turned their skills to even more fantastical stories. Here's an example:
She wore a crown that seemed to be carved of great pale sapphires; she shone on those lawns and gardens like a dawn coming unaware, out of long night, on some planet nearer to us than the sun...And Alveric gazed in her eyes all speechless and powerless still; it was indeed the Princess Lirazel in her beauty.
Know then that in Elfland are colours more deep than are in our fields, and the very air there glows with so deep a lucency that all things seen there have something of the look of our trees and flowers in June reflected in water.
TKED is a great little novel (almost short enough to be a short story) about the perils of inviting magic in your life, the glory and madness of true love, and how sometimes you should be careful what you ask for. Good stuff. But for the last time what makes this story stand out is not the plot or the characters but the language. It's a fairy tale in the best sense of the term.

Fearless Jones
by Walter Mosley
Fearless Jones was Walter Mosley's return to noir crime fiction set in post war LA. It is quite similar to his Easy Rawlins work so if you like those stories I think you will enjoy Fearless Jones. It even takes place in the same universe and the legendary Mouse is name checked. Like the Easy Rawlins stories, Mosley has split the hero into two characters. 

There is the quiet more analytical man, who's not quite cowardly but certainly doesn't go looking for trouble or violence and prefers to think or negotiate his way out of a tough jam. Then there's the more brash fellow who's not stupid but would rather be acting than thinking when it comes down to it, won't back down from anyone, and is no stranger to severe acts of violence. 

In this book the first sort of man is Paris Minton. Minton is a relatively short man who doesn't have a lot of luck with ladies and generally keeps a low profile as much as he can. He's a go along to get along type of fellow. He runs a used bookstore, one which he maintains despite routine harassment from racist cops. He doesn't make a lot of money from his business but it's enough to pay his rent and allow him to do what he likes to do best all day, which is read and not bother or be bothered by people.

One day Minton is minding his own business when a beautiful woman runs into his store and asks him if a Reverend Grove is there. Once Minton stops drooling over her looks he explains that Grove had a church down the street but moved out a short while before. She's in despair and runs into Minton's back room. A thug comes in asking for the woman and then beats Minton like a rented mule. Once he's awake Minton runs into the woman again. Her name is Elana Love. She tells him a rather fantastic story, makes love to him, and then steals his car. Confused Minton goes back to his shop only to find out that someone burned it down. And suddenly people are shooting at him. 

Minton decides that it's time to spring his buddy from the clink, one Fearless Jones, so nicknamed because he really doesn't give a bleep who you are, if you hurt him or his there's gonna be hell to pay. Jones is a WW2 vet. And only Minton knows how far Jones is willing to go to help his friends. And Minton needs help. This all happens in the first 20-30 pages.

It's a breakneck speed read that kicks off an initially confusing but ultimately rewarding tale of revenge, international intrigue, organized crime, and black life in mid 20th century Los Angeles. Mosley had a Jewish mother and his depiction of Jewish home life and food are quite entertaining and interesting. Jones tells the over cautious Minton that although Minton is not what Jones would describe as full-bad ,that description being reserved for Jones himself and two or three other men, including the dreaded Mouse, Minton is nonetheless a hero because he tries to do the right thing despite his fears whereas Jones simply isn't afraid of anything on God's green earth.

This was a good read but quite complex. You might have to occasionally go back a few chapters and see who a seemingly small character really was. I liked that though. It will stretch your reading comprehension in a good way.
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