Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Stacks: Prophecies


Enquire after the most overused tropes in fantasy fiction and prophecies will claw their way to the top of the list without fail, likely brandishing signs along the lines of “Have Chosen One Will Travel.” Overused it may be, but there’s nothing wrong with prophecy done right, well, or in a way that stands out from the pack. To help you wade through the veritable seas of prophecy-bound narratives, I’ve gathered some of my favorites here.

The Chronicles of Prydain
By Lloyd Alexander
[The Book of Three; The Black Cauldron; The Castle of Llyr; Taran Wanderer; The High King]
——
Taran dreams of adventure, but nothing ever happens to an Assistant Pig-Keeper—until his pig runs away.  A chase through the woods leads Taran far from home and into great danger, for evil prowls the land of Prydain.  With a collection of strange and wonderful friends whom he meets on his journey, Taran finds himself fighting so that good may triumph over evil—and so that his beloved home will not fall to a diabolical fiend.
——
The Rundown: Prydain appeared on my earlier Stacks post on Arthuriads and Welsh mythology, but it also employs prophecy. What’s interesting about the Chronicles of Prydain is that while they feature that oh-so-beloved trope of humble, orphaned farm boy (in this case bearing the title “Assistant Pig-Keeper”) prophesied to rise from his base origins to defeat great evil to become king, this prophecy is hidden to 99% of the cast, including Taran himself, and is only revealed in the last pages of the series. Thus while it is clear to see the prophecy working throughout the five novels, it does so largely behind the scenes, apart from the more immediate, adventure-to-adventure auguries of Hen-Wen, the oracle who, incidentally, isn’t human—she’s a white pig prone to running off at inopportune moments. Besides, these books are just plain good. They captured my imagination in elementary school and have never let it go. 

Specs
Type: YA Fantasy, Series
Acquisition: Borrowed/Stolen from my da
Discovery: See above. If you're noticing a pattern here, read the earlier notes on Da and classic fantasy
Current Rank: Books I love
Number of Reads: 2 (but not for long, I really want to reread these)

The Belgariad
By David Eddings
[Pawn of Prophecy; Queen of Sorcery; Magician’s Gambit; Castle of Wizardy; Enchanter’s Endgame]
——
It all begins with the theft of the Orb that for so long protected the West from an evil god. As long as the Orb was at Riva, the prophecy went, its people would be safe from this corrupting power. Garion, a simple farm boy, is familiar with the legend of the Orb, but skeptical in matters of magic. Until, through a twist of fate, he learns not only that the story of the Orb is true, but that he must set out on a quest of unparalleled magic and danger to help recover it. For Garion is a child of destiny, and fate itself is leading him far from his home, sweeping him irrevocably toward a distant tower—and a cataclysmic confrontation with a master of the darkest magic.
——
The Rundown: I should preface this by saying that I have not read a single book of Eddings’ that did not involve prophecy or unusually human gods. Not a single one. The man and his wife (they co-authored all his books, though she wasn’t given credit till later) found a formula that worked for them and ran with it. That said, these books are too much fun to avoid. Is the cast comprised of characters whose roles carefully fill the slots of high fantasy archetypes? Yes. Is the hero a seemingly baseborn farm boy whose lineage has been hidden from him so that evil will not kill him before he can fulfill the prophecy for which he was born? Oh yes. However, and it is a big however, the books are well done. They deal with prejudice of all stripes (and good versus evil is not quite so clear-cut a distinction as one might initially believe), have wonderfully endearing characters who, despite filling archetypes, are actually allowed to grow and mature over the course of the novels, some of the best dialogue I have ever read, and a protagonist who is really quite lovable, particularly once he gets over his growing pains of the first two books. Plus the prophecy is actually a sentient, though disembodied, being who lives in Garion’s head and is the most sarcastic character in the entire cast. And with this cast, that’s really saying something.

The books are not without fault: They are so heteronormative it is occasionally painful. Eddings has an unstoppable determination to pair up his characters and set them on the path of, admittedly not always precisely conventional, domestic bliss. Additionally, the pacing of the first book is a bit slow, and not all readers will appreciate Garion and Ce’Nedra’s growing pains and teenage outbursts—they’re realistic in the sense that they are not always rational, and can behave childishly. This didn’t bother me—after all, they are children, children forced outside their comfort zones by adults who expect the world of them but will tell them nothing of what is going on or why it is necessary for them to do and behave as they wish. Still, there’s a reason authors usually write children and teenagers more mature than they necessarily are, and that is that they tend to drive adult readers mad. If you fall into that category of readers, be comforted: both character grow up quickly. Okay, Garion grows up a little quicker, but give Ce’Nedra her due.

Specs
Type: High Fantasy, Series
Acquisition: Personal purchase from Borders
Discovery: Two of my friends at college were obsessed with all of Eddings’ novels. They went on about it so much that I broke down and got them to take along on a family vacation. As I recall, I only bought the first couple and ended up dragging my parents to a bookstore while we were away to get the rest. I finished before we got home, and I’m pretty sure we weren’t even gone a whole week.
Current Rank: Books I love
Number of Reads: 2 or 3? Maybe more? I really don’t know, but I want to read them again. In fact, since starting this post I’ve gone off and reread the first three. I’m on four now.

The Mallorean
By David Eddings
[Guardians of the West; King of the Murgos; Demon Lord of Karanda; Sorceress of Darshiva; Seeress of Kell]
——
Garion has slain the evil God Torak and is now the King of Riva. The prophecy has been fulfilled–or so it seems. For there is a dire warning, as a great evil brews in the East. Now Garion once again finds himself with the fate of the world resting on his shoulders. When Garion’s infant son is kidnapped by Zandramas, the Child of Dark, a great quest begins to rescue the child. Among those on the dangerous mission are Garion and his wife, Queen Ce’Nedra, and the immortal Belgarath the Sorcerer and his daughter, Polgara. They must make their way through the foul swamps of Nyissa, then into the lands of the Murgos. Along the way, they will face grave dangers–captivity, a horde of demons, a fatal plague–while Zandramas plots to use Garion’s son in a chilling ritual that will make the Dark Prophecy supreme…
——
The Rundown: See above. The Mallorean continues the adventures of Garion and his motley crew as they get dragged halfway across the world through what they had previously presumed to be enemy territory in order to rescue Garion’s son, complete the remnants of the prophecy, and save the universe once and for all. The prophecy still lives in Garion’s head, is still snarky as hell, and the books are possibly even better than the first series. I’m personally torn between them, so I prefer not to choose.

Specs
Type: High Fantasy, Series
Acquisition: Personal purchase from Borders
Discovery: Purchased (and read) immediately following completion of The Belgariad. 
Current Rank: Books I love
Number of Reads: Hell if I know, I’ve read these books a lot. More times than The Belgariad. I didn’t count.

The Redemption of Althalus 
By David and Leigh Eddings
——
It would be sheer folly to try to conceal the true nature of Althalus, for his flaws are the stuff of legend. He is, as all men know, a thief, a liar, an occasional murderer, an outrageous braggart, and a man devoid of even the slightest hint of honor.

Yet of all the men in the world, it is Althalus, unrepentant rogue and scoundrel, who will become the champion of humanity in its desperate struggle against the forces of an ancient god determined to return the universe to nothingness. On his way to steal The Book from the House at the End of the World, Althalus is confronted by a cat--a cat with eyes like emeralds, the voice of a woman, and the powers of a goddess. 

She is Dweia, sister to The Gods and a greater thief even than Althalus. She must be: for in no time at all, she has stolen his heart. And more. She has stolen time itself. For when Althalus leaves the House at the End of the World, much wiser but not a day older than when he'd first entered it, thousands of years have gone by.

But Dweia is not the only one able to manipulate time. Her evil brother shares the power, and while Dweia has been teaching Althalus the secrets of The Book, the ancient God has been using the dark magic of his own Book to rewrite history. Yet all is not lost. But only if Althalus, still a thief at heart, can bring together a ragtag group of men, women, and children with no reason to trust him or each other. 
——
The Rundown: Remember when I said Eddings has an unrelenting love of prophecy, gods, archetypes, and matchmaking? Meet The Redemption of Althalus. Althalus is like a cross between Silk and Belgareth from The Belgariad, a thief who is himself stolen by a goddess posing as a tiny, tart-tongued but extremely affectionate, black cat. Readers familiar with The Belgariad and The Mallorean will note a number of similarities between the stories and characters, but Althalus is a stand-alone novel with enough of a distinction in execution to render it a highly enjoyable read. The workings of prophecy within the novel is one of those distinctions. There are three gods, each fighting to establish the “truth” of the universe with their Books. Because they are much more directly involved in the story, they can intervene, sending prophetic dreams in an attempt to write and rewrite history to their liking. The possibilities are both imaginative and intriguing, and the result is delightfully fun novel.

Specs
Type: High Fantasy, Stand-Alone
Acquisition: Personal purchase from Borders
Discovery: Purchased (and read) immediately following completion of The Belgariad. 
Current Rank: Book I love
Number of Reads: Lost count. A lot.

****A Note on Eddings: As I mentioned above, Eddings remaining work (The Elenium and The Tamuli; The Dreamers) ALL involve prophecy, gods, and archetypes that are extremely similar to The Belgariad and The Mallorean. I am not saying that they aren’t good or that they aren’t worth reading. I am not even saying that rehashing the same basic formula is in itself a bad thing. The fact of the matter is that at the heart of all novels there are only so many basic stories, just billions of variations in characters and execution. If they’re done well, and bring in something of their own, I do not necessarily mind a lack of complete originality. However, I feel that there ought to be some variation in the works of a single author. If you got it right the first time, you do not need to rewrite your own novels over and over again. If you find that you like Eddings and you don’t mind that he never varies his fundamental base story, by all means, read his entire bibliography. ****

The Dark is Rising
By Susan Cooper
[Over Sea Under Stone; The Dark is Rising; Greenwitch; The Grey King; Silver on the Tree]
——
Will Stanton’s ordinary life is shattered with the dreadful revelation that the Dark—the source of all evil—is rising in its last and greatest bid to control the world.  He finds that he is no ordinary boy, but the last-born of the Old Ones, immortals dedicated to keeping mankind free from the Dark.  Soon Will is swept up in the great battle, along with his ageless master, Merriman; the three Drew children, who are mortal but have their own vital part to play; and a strange boy named Bran.  These six fight fear and death in a quest through time and space interwoven with the most ancient myths of the islands of Britain—until at last, Will and Bran find the weapon that will ultimately vanquish the Dark.
——
The Rundown:  These books appeared on my earlier Stacks post about Arthuriads, but they have returned because I love them and because prophecy plays an integral role in the story. I can’t really say more without spoiling the plot, save that I am a sucker for poetry and poetry and prophecy are essentially one and the same in Cooper’s novels. See the Arthuriad Stacks post for more details regarding characters and story.

Specs
Type: YA Fantasy, Series
Acquisition: Yet another set of books borrowed/stolen from my da, purchased my own copies from Borders in grad school because I wanted to re-read them and couldn’t wait till Thanksgiving break to get them from home.
Discovery: Da again. All my classic fantasy recommendations came from Da.
Current Rank: Books I love beyond belief even though The Grey King makes me weep uncontrollably
Number of Reads: 3



Wind on Fire
By William Nicholson
[The Wind Singer; Slaves of the Mastery; Firesong]
——
Kestrel Hath's schoolroom rebellion against the stifling caste system of Aramanth leads to explosive consequences for her and her family: they are relegated to the city's lowest caste and are ostracized. With nothing left to lose, Kestrel and her twin brother, Bowman, do the unthinkable: they leave the city walls. Their only hope of rescuing the rest of their family is to find the key to the wind singer. Armed with bravery, wits, and determination, Kestrel, Bowman, and a tagalong classmate set off to find the key. Along the way they meet allies and foes, but in order to succeed in their quest, they must face the most sinister force of all: the evil spirit-lord, the Morah.
——
The Rundown: Kestrel Hath is one of my favorite heroines of all time. These books are haunting, evocative and generally wonderful. They are not easy books, in that the subject material and the experiences of the characters are at times quite dark and the overall bent of the series unflinchingly philosophical in a painfully practical way. Even the best of characters do things that are not admirable. All face hard truths about themselves. All grow. And all hurtle inexorably towards a conclusion that is as bittersweet as any I have read. As for the prophecy, it is a tricky beast and comes from more than one source, though its primary voice is Ira Hath, Kes and Bowman’s mother, who is quite literally dying of prophecy. I cannot say more about the plot, save that the relationship between twins Kestrel and Bowman is profound, their relationship with their best friend Mumpo and younger sister Pinto, difficult, complex and at times heartbreaking. I cannot recommend this trilogy strongly enough. 

Specs
Type: YA Fantasy, Series
Acquisition: Personal purchase from Borders
Discovery: Shelf browsing circa early high school. I’m sorry, but if you saw a book titled The Wind Singer with a cover and description like that, you’d pick it up too.
Current Rank: Books I love
Number of Reads: 2, but that will change.

Un Lun Dun
By China Mieville 
——
What is Un Lun Dun?

It is London through the looking glass, an urban Wonderland of strange delights where all the lost and broken things of London end up . . . and some of its lost and broken people, too–including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas; Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is an enormous pin-cushion, and an empty milk carton called Curdle. Un Lun Dun is a place where words are alive, a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and a dark cloud dreams of burning the world. It is a city awaiting its hero, whose coming was prophesied long ago, set down for all time in the pages of a talking book.

When twelve-year-old Zanna and her friend Deeba find a secret entrance leading out of London and into this strange city, it seems that the ancient prophecy is coming true at last. But then things begin to go shockingly wrong.
——
The Rundown: This book brilliantly takes the tired “Chosen One” trope and gleefully throws it out the window. Almost literally. I love Deeba and her dedication to saving Un-London when almost no one else wants her to try because she isn’t Zanna. I love her tenacity, the friendships she forms and the undying trust she earns the hard way. I love the zany cast of supporting characters, especially Curdle, the sentient empty milk carton who follows Deeba everywhere. I love the imaginative world Mieville created, somewhat reminiscent of Clive Barker’s Abarat in its ability to explore the strange, but the two are decidedly separate entities. This book is not for everyone, but if it is for you, it’s amazing.

Specs
Type: YA, Urban Fantasy, Stand-alone
Acquisition: Personal purchase from Borders
Discovery: Shelf-browsing. Couldn’t resist the concept or the cover description.
Current Rank: Book I love
Number of Reads: 2, but that will change.

The Riddle of Stars
By Patricia McKillip
[The Riddle-Master of Hed; The Heir of Sea and Fire; Harpist in the Wind]
——
Long ago, the wizards had vanished from the world, and all knowledge was left hidden in riddles. Morgon, prince of the simple farmers of Hed, proved himself a master of such riddles when he staked his life to win a crown from the dead Lord of Aum. But now ancient, evil forces were threatening him. Shape changers began replacing friends until no man could be trusted. So Morgon was forced to flee to hostile kingdoms, seeking the High One who ruled from mysterious Erlenstar Mountain. Beside him went Deth, the High One's Harper. Ahead lay strange encounters and terrifying adventures. And with him always was the greatest of unsolved riddles -- the nature of the three stars on his forehead that seemed to drive him toward his ultimate destiny.
——
The Rundown: I cannot possibly do justice to these books by describing them. Patricia McKillip is one of my favorite authors of all time. Her prose is lyrical, her characters’ struggles, failings and triumphs unerringly real in whatever fantastic landscape they are set. The Riddle of Stars is one of her earliest works and is closest to the epic form we generally expect high fantasy to take. There is an ancient prophecy in the form of riddles, a lonely god not all seem convinced exists, great doings, an epic struggle of “good” and “evil”, a princess, and a hero of deceptively humble origins (Morgon may be a prince, but in Hed that just means he’s the farmer all the other farmers come to for advice and to settle disputes) who is far more than he seems—but it takes McKillip all of three sentences to veer off the beaten path and defy expectations. These books will make you fall in love with the characters and break your heart before putting the pieces back together in a resolution that somehow manages to break your heart all over again. As I said, I cannot do them justice. Go read them and then read everything else McKillip has ever written and all the books that are yet to come.

Specs
Type: High Fantasy, Trilogy
Acquisition: Personal purchase from Borders
Discovery: Renata recommended them. I have yet to find a suitable means of thanking her.
Current Rank: Books I love beyond belief
Number of Reads: 3, but that will change.

Harry Potter
By J.K. Rowling
[Harry Potter and the… Philosopher’s Stone; Chamber of Secrets; Prisoner of Azkaban; Goblet of Fire; Order of the Phoenix; Half-Blood Prince; Deathly Hallows
——
Harry Potter has no idea how famous he is. That's because he's being raised by his miserable aunt and uncle who are terrified Harry will learn that he's really a wizard, just as his parents were. But everything changes when Harry is summoned to attend an infamous school for wizards, and he begins to discover some clues about his illustrious birthright. From the surprising way he is greeted by a lovable giant, to the unique curriculum and colorful faculty at his unusual school, Harry finds himself drawn deep inside a mystical world he never knew existed and closer to his own noble destiny.
——
The Rundown: Do I really need to explain these? I didn’t think so. But in case you’re one of the two people who hasn’t read the books and/or seen the films, Harry Potter makes this list partially because it defined a period of my adolescence but largely because prophecy defines the plot of the series. Unfortunately, in case you are one of those two people, I can’t actually explain how prophecy works in the books or how it is used in intriguing ways because that would ruin the entire thing. Let us just say that it explores the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy to great effect. 

Specs
Type: YA Fantasy, Series
Acquisition: Scholastic Book Fair, followed by the borrowing of my sister’s best friend’s copies of Secrets and Azkaban because I was not allowed to buy hardcover books at the time. After my sister and parents read Stone I was allowed to buy Secrets and Azkaban in hardcover. All subsequent installments were personal purchases from Borders, pre-ordered and acquired at midnight the day of release.
Discovery: My little sister’s Scholastic Book Fair catalogue shortly after the publication of Prisoner of Azkaban.
Current Rank: Ranges between books I loved and books I enjoyed
Number of Reads: Depends on the book. 1-6 have been read many, many times, particularly in the years of waiting for the next installment. Book 7 has never been reread, nor have any of the earlier books since 7’s publication because it is just too painful. One day I will go back and read them all.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians
By Rick Riordan
[The Lightning Thief; The Sea of Monsters; The Titan’s Curse; The Battle of the Labyrinth; The Last Olympian]
——
Percy Jackson is about to be kicked out of boarding school…again. And that’s the least of his troubles. Lately, mythological monsters and the gods of Mount Olympus seem to be walking straight out of the pages of Percy’s Greek mythology textbook and into his life. And worse, he’s angered a few of them. Zeus’s master lightning bolt has been stolen and Percy is the prime suspect.

Now Percy and his friends have just ten days to find and return Zeus’s stolen property and bring peace to a warring Mount Olympus. But to succeed on his quest, Percy will have to do more than catch the true thief; he must come to terms with the father who abandoned him; solve the riddle of the Oracle, which warns him of betrayal by a friend; and unravel a treachery more powerful than the gods themselves.
——
The Rundown: As with the Greek mythologies, epics and tragedies that serve as inspiration and core premise of this series, the characters and plot are driven by the prophecies of the Oracle of Delphi. There are many lesser prophecies, both past and present, throughout the books, but Percy and his friends are caught up in one of the Great Prophecies. The prophecy isn’t entirely clear, and interpretation or misinterpretation of its meaning could determine its outcome for better or worse. I loved these books. Wholly and without reservation. Percy Jackson is one of the most endearing first person narrators I have ever encountered. I love the mythology and the way Riordan translated the Greek gods into the modern world. I love the characters, I love the story. Read these books. 

Specs
Type: YA/Middle Grade Fantasy
Acquisition: Personal purchase from Borders
Discovery: My friend Renata told me to read them. I finished the whole series before I found out she’d only read the first book. To this day, I’m not sure if she ever finished the rest.
Current Rank: Books I loved
Number of Reads: 1 (so far)

****Note on The Heroes of Olympus: Riordan’s ongoing follow-up series to Percy Jackson also involves prophecy and is worth reading. It has yet to conclude, so I withhold final judgment till then, but thus far though it is good, it is not as good as Percy.****


Obviously there are thousands of fantasy novels that employ prophecy as a key part of their narratives. To list all the good ones I’ve come across in my reading would be a folly I would not attempt.* I did intend to include more than currently comprise this post, but to do so at this time would either violate my medical orders or postpone the list’s publication for several more days. As such, I will post it now and simply update it with the remaining books when I can.


*This is a blatant lie. I might attempt it, it would just take a long time. A really long time. 

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