On the Editor’s Desk – Byzantium

My house is full of books. They’re everywhere, and if I had more wall space, I would need at least another two book cases in an effort to contain the chaos of them. Instead, they’re piled everywhere, and they only move from one region of the house to another for company. I’ve read at least two thirds of them cover to cover, and I’ve started or sampled probably four or five dozen beyond that, but at any given time, I have a very short list of things I’m going to read next.

I feel no guilt that I haven’t read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – it was a gift – and there’s a good chance that I’ll never read all of Le Morte D’Arthur because it’s more work than I generally want to put in to recreational reading. They’re off to the side, unobtrusively holding up the adjacent books on the shelf. The ones that are in the running for next book are more central to book-life clutter, sitting on an end table or underfoot on the couch. I wonder, sometimes, if it’s simple ego that makes people want to talk about what they’re reading now (or, even more ADHD, what they’re watching now) but that’s what I’m about to do anyway.

I want to call attention to the stuff I like, the stuff I hope to like, or the stuff I’m going to read anyway either as I’m about to start it or just after starting it, commenting on why it made it to the top of the list and what I’m hoping to get out of it. I’m open to other types and genres of writing, but these are what I like and what I most enjoy working in and around. With that said.

The top three books on my list right now are a pair of Terry Pratchett books and one by Stephen Lawhead. While I will go on about Mr. Pratchett at some point, and while I may end up reading one of his pair first by virtue of it being a library book (the fluffiest books are library books by volume because I don’t really need to own all 60-odd Pratchett books, nor everything written by Piers Anthony or Dick Francis, much as I enjoy them) the Lawhead book is a better starting point for what stands out to me as my kind of book.

Byzantium will be my seventh book of Lawhead’s since last Christmas. I got The Song of Albion trilogy Christmas-last in hardback, and the only big decisions that have been made about buying his work since then has been whether it should be in hardback or paperback, and whether I have enough time available to risk buying the book now. Books don’t last me very long when I’m reading them for enjoyment because I like to read them with all the momentum they can generate, in as close to one sitting as I can pull off. Certain series in the past have been a one-book-per-Saturday event for as long as I could stand them, and I didn’t break off because I didn’t like them enough any more, but rather because they were having too much of an impact on my nonfiction life.

Byzantium, and the rest of Lawhead’s library, doesn’t carry this level of intensity. I’ll take three or four days to read the 800-plus pages in this installment, but I’ll be able to hold normal (if slightly Celtic) conversations in the meantime. Intensity is a characteristic, not a virtue. I’m looking forward to starting the book, but I know it will mean three or four very late nights reading, very sleepy cranky days followed by promises (from me) to go to bed at a reasonable hour (routinely, if not universally broken). So I’m biding my time.

Now; the good stuff.

Lawhead has spent serious time studying the things that I would broadly refer to as Celtic. I’m a huge fan of ancient mythology as both a literary genre and as a foundation for more modern work, but the Irish/Celtic/Welsh/British/Scottish oral tradition captured to text has routinely failed to keep me. Part of it is that oral storytelling doesn’t translate well into plain prose, and another part is that undoubtedly I have the attention span of a cocker spaniel. They read like Aesop. Great stories, great ideas; but I’m ready to put the book down and do something else any time.

Faeries and elves and druids and the Isle of the Mighty are intoxicating, conceptually, but the closest I had gotten to reading a story about them that I’ve really enjoyed is Tolkein, and we all know that he put a lot of work into making those things up for himself. Lawhead, though, lives in that world. Okay, no, there haven’t been any elves go-by, but the characters in his plots are of a different age in the development of the British world, and I am loving it.

The Song of Albion trilogy is the true, old-school Celtic lore. Bards and warriors and kings with tiny, hamlet kingdoms who ally and make war; supernatural clashes of good and evil; beautiful warrior maidens and epic warrior feats – all set against a gorgeous before-the-world-was-spoiled pastoral scenery. Lovely, lovely, lovely. Hood, matched with Scarlet and Tuck, is a Welsh re-imagining of the Robin Hood story, set against the cultural and political invasion of England by the Franks. Ask me how much I know about this period in history. Only what Lawhead has told me. The Britons, dubbed the Welsh by the Franks, comprise a few wild kingdoms left between the Franks and the sea, and Robin hasn’t been away to the Crusades, but rather Bran’s father and warband is slaughtered by a Frank nobleman and his kingdom claimed by the same. Rhi Bran y Hud (King Raven the Sorcerer) spends the three books pulling vaguely familiar tricks to weaken the Frankish hold on the kingdom and attempting to get the English king to acknowledge Bran’s right to the throne of Elfael. The introduction to the books explains why Nottingham and Shirwood Forest are an unlikely home for the Robin Hood, if there ever were one, and the fiction concludes with an explanation of how the Robin Hood myth ended up there.

All six books are broad-ranging, what-else-could-possibly-happen type stories that celebrate convincing victories with three hundred pages left. Well told, well constructed, and they’re Celtic! More or less.

Byzantium is Irish. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into the Irish world as Lawhead builds it. It will go beyond that, though, wandering throughout (I presuppose) the medieval world though high and low estate. There will be terrible events, miraculous rescues, and acts of epic and historical significance. Lawhead’s world is huge and intimate, and rings true to the point that I would probably believe him over most any factual historical medium without corroboration. I’m not a history buff, nor is my taste generally found in historical fiction, but Lawhead seems to exist to prove that you don’t need to write your own world to write great fantasy: the world we live in is plenty big enough.

Happy reading, all.

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