Source of book: Audiobook from the library, but we own this one too.
A couple of friends have been urging me to read this book - and the series - for some time. When I brought home the audiobook, I discovered that my kids had already read it. Well, the older ones, at least, and in particular, my second daughter who has introduced us to a lot of cool books about mice and more, rather liked the book.
I’m not quite sure how I missed these books as a kid. After all, they were written in the 1960s, not the 2000s like a lot of the books I never read. They also seem like the kind of thing I would have read. Somehow, I never discovered them.
Anyway, this book is the first in the Pyrdain Chronicles, a five book set. They are set in a fictional kingdom, which the author says might, not coincidentally, resemble Wales, but should not be used as a guide for tourists. Some of the characters are historical/legendary, others are fictional but are drawn from the Mabinogion (which meant that I was somewhat familiar with them from Bulfinch’s Mythology), and others are Alexander’s own creation. The one disadvantage of the quasi-Welsh setting is that the names are difficult to spell, and murderous to pronounce. Kudos to audiobook reader James Langton for keeping his tongue untied throughout.
The book draws on many elements of mythology (and yes, the monomyth is definitely here…), including the hero with a mysterious parentage (which we presumably learn in a later book), the power of knowing someone’s name, the magical elder, and the general fantasy types and objects. However, despite the familiarity, the story itself is well told, has memorable characters, and made for a good traveling book.
Taran is the protagonist, the young and green boy on the verge of manhood who must come of age. His companions eventually include the half human half animal Gurgi, whose skills of alliteration and groveling are expert level; the young woman, Eilonwy, who has a sarcastic edge and definitely is not the damsel in distress; and Fflewddur the king-turned-bard whose magic harp breaks strings whenever he stretches the truth. And then there are the supporting characters, from the semi-historical warrior prince Gwydian to the animal whisperer Medwen, to the world’s only oracular pig, Hen Wen.
Because we listened to this book back to back with The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett, it was fun to contrast the two styles. Both are fantasy, and both involved a quest of sorts. The macguffins were different: Taran must warn of an invasion, while Rincewind the incompetent wizard must return the spell that is lodged in his head. But both characters are in way over their heads. Pratchett is definitely aiming for an older audience, at least young adults, with pointed satire and a few risque allusions. Alexander, on the other hand, is straightforward children’s literature, with adventure, humor, and themes suited to those ages. Both were enjoyable in their own ways. And my kids, of course, tend to enjoy books for various ages, and tolerate fairly adult books. (Case in point: we also listened to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and my 11 year old son in particular loved it.)
One disappointment was that the title (which refers to a mysterious book) seems to have little to do with the book itself. The book appears at the beginning and end, but is never really explained, and plays little role in the story. One wonders if an editor picked the title as being catchy rather than being the best title. This is no knock on the story itself, just the choice of the title. I also wonder if the mysteries will unfold later in the series - there are a number of unanswered questions.
We may have to locate the rest of the series, either in audiobook or in printed form, as we enjoyed listening to this one.