The High King (Audiobook) by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton

The High KingThe High King

by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton (Narrator)
Series: Chronicles of Prydain, #5
Unabridged Audiobook, 7 hrs, 24 min.
Listening Library, 2005

Read: March 29 – 30, 2017


Arawn-Death-Lord has managed to get his hands on Dyrnwyn, Gwydion’s sword, which has emboldened him to move his forces to launch an all-out assault on the Kingdom of Prydain. Gwydion and his allies move quickly to assemble the forces necessary to stand against him — basically, it’s an Armageddon-type situation, and all hands are needed.

Taran is sent to the Free Commots, where he spent so much time recently to gather their support — and he does so, almost without trying to, becomes the leader of the assembled forces (such as they are) of the rather libertarian people. Before you know it, Taran’s leading his band into battle at the side of Gwydion and the other warleaders. It’s a stretch to believe, but at this point, you go with it. The forces marshaled against the High King are strong enough to make this an uphill battle, but when treason rears its ugly head and the forces of Prydain are divided against themselves, it really seems that all hope is lost. Eventually, Gwydion and his forces head off on a last-ditch effort to stop the Death Lord, while Taran, his companions, allies, followers and Glew take on a vital, but smaller task that will allow Gwydion’s hail Mary to work.

And frankly, that whole treason storyline bugs me — not just because it’s evil, but because it’s futile, stupid, and pointless. I think this was Alexander’s biggest error in the series. It serves no real purpose but to stack the odds against the armies of Prydain.

Finally, we get final battles — The Death Lord and his forces are defeated (spoiler, children’s fantasy written in the 60’s features good guys winning); the future of Prydain is settled; other Tolkien-esque things take place as is fitting in the conclusion to a fantasy series (actually, Tolkien was probably following the same older rules and tropes as Alexander, but we now associate them with Tolkien, not his predecessors).

Taran finally grows up into what Alexander’s been holdig out for him all along — it takes the whole novel, but it happens. Gwydion is probably the least interesting he’s ever been here, which is a shame. Eilonwy? Oh, Eilonwy — she’s just so perfect (as a character, probably annoying in real life — still, someone you want in your corner). I loved everything about her in this book. I wish Gurgi had a little more to do, and that Glew had far, far less. Fflewddur Fflam remains the unsung hero of this series — the sacrifices he makes, the efforts he makes, his wisdom, etc., are all overshadowed by his comedic use. What he goes through moved me more this time through than any of the deaths. As an aside, the first time I saw a picture of Lloyd Alexander, I shouted — Fflewddur! I don’t know if it was intentional, or if I just had a strange imagination, but he looks exactly like a Fflam.

Oh, and there are many, many deaths — mostly nameless soldiers on both sides, but there are quite a few named people, too. Some get great heroic moments, others are just named in a list of the fallen. I remember the first time I read this book being very upset by just one of them — it was quite possibly the first time in my young life that anyone other than a dog, an ailing elderly person or a villain had died in a book I read. I still get sad when I read that particular one, but it doesn’t get to me as much.

James Langton’s performance here is consistent with what he’s done for the last few books. If you liked him before, you’ll like him now. If not . . .

I remember liking this more than I did, even just a few years ago when I read this with my kids. Still, a great way to wrap up this series — Alexander ties up everything that needs tiring up, he rewards all the surviving characters in a fitting way and sends our heroes off on new adventures. There’s still a bit of fun, a little adventure, and character growth throughout, with all things ending up just where they need to satisfy readers. It’s really easy for adult-me to see where kid-me fell in love with the genre thanks to this series. Still, a fitting conclusion to this series — which I still recommend for young and old (primarily the young).

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4 Stars

Taran Wanderer (Audiobook) by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton

Taran WandererTaran Wanderer

by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton (Narrator)
Series: Chronicles of Prydain, #4
Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs, 22 min.
Listening Library, 2005

Read: March 28, 2017


The one question that’s plagued Taran all his life is just who is he? Who is his family? Is there any chance at all that his family is some sort of nobility? This last question has taken on a new level of importance to him as he has realized that he’s in love with a princess and can’t do anything about it without that nobility.

Dallben can’t answer the question for him — but he allows Taran leave to go try to find the answer himself. I’ve never understood just how Taran can pull this off — there’s practically no birth records in Prydain (I can’t imagine), it’s not like he can get blood tests done — and he doesn’t really interview anyone, just meanders around.

Still, he visits various corners of the kingdom — visiting friends old and new, dipping his toe in all sorts of trades and vocations. He renders aid, and gets aid. Fflewddur Fflam shows up and spends a good portion of the novel traveling with him (Gurgi remains a constant companion). There’s a confrontation with a wizard, a regional armed conflict to try to settle, a mercenary band to deal with — as well as other woes.

He learns a lot, he matures a lot, and maybe even gets a dose of wisdom. It’s not your traditional fantasy novel by any sense, but it’s a good one.

As for the audiobook? Everything I’ve said about the other books in the series — Alexander’s introduction and Langton’s performance — holds true for this one.

The most emotionally rich of the books, the most thoughtful — particularly for those of the target age. Good, good stuff.

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4 Stars

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Audiobook) by Alan Bradley, Jayne Entwistle

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's BagThe Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag

by Alan Bradley, Jayne Entwistle (Narrator)
Series: Flavia de Luce, #2

Unabridged Audiobook, 9 hrs., 49 min.
Random House Audio, 2010

Read: March 21 – 27, 2017

I think I’d have phrased things a bit differently, but in the interest of time, I’m just going to copy and paste from my thoughts when I read the book a couple of years ago and add in a bit for the audiobook:
The plucky young chemist with a nascent obsession with death is back in action. The case is a little less personal for Flavia de Luce this time, but that doesn’t stop her from jumping in whole hog to get to the bottom of it.

Flavia runs into a couple of traveling performers with some car trouble and before you know it, she’s got them some help–and a gig. While she hangs around the TV star and his assistant, she finds herself surrounded by some of her town’s darker history and then face to face with a murder. And Flavia being Flavia, she can’t resist sticking her nose in and making sure all the knots are untangled–particularly the ones adults are ignoring, despite them being painfully obvious to her.

We get less of Flavia’s sisters (and the rest of the household, come to think of it) in this installment–but when they’re around, their impact is greater. Clearly, as this series continues, there’s going to be some serious drama on the homefront with some major implications for the de Luce family, I hope Bradley tackles that quickly, the foreshadowing’s getting old quickly.

Unlike with so many other amateur sleuths (particularly juveniles), it’s nice to see that her reputation and track record are acknowledged by some in the community — which is both a help and a hindrance, I hope to see more of that in the future.

Entwistle really impressed me again with her narration. Not just the way she nails Flavia — both the good and the bad aspects of her personality. But her work on the rest of the characters — the TV star’s assistant in particular — really won me over, showing a little more range than we got to see, er, hear last time.

My only major quibble with this installment is that it takes far too long to set the main action of the novel up–in a 348 page mystery novel, you’d better get to the central crime before page 150 or so. Unless you’ve got a heroine like Flavia to focus on, I can’t imagine being patient enough to wait that long to get the ball rolling. Entwistle’s performance helps, but, man, it drags on awhile before Bradley’s done setting things up and gets things moving.

Another fun (occasionally hilarious) read, with a mystery satisfyingly twisty, with just enough red herrings to get you through it.

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3.5 Stars

The Castle of Llyr (Audiobook) by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton

The Castle of LlyrThe Castle of Llyr

by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton (Narrator)
Series: Chronicles of Prydain, #3
Unabridged Audiobook, 4 hrs, 36 min.
Listening Library, 2004

Read: March 20, 2017


Taran is tasked with escorting Princess Eilonwy to the Isle of Mona, where she’ll be taken in by distant relatives — the king and queen, who will help her learn how to be a proper young lady (an idea she finds ridiculous). They sail there on a ship “captained” by the island’s Prince Rhun.

Once they reach the island, Taran runs into Fflewddur Fflam, who’s enjoying barding again — even if the castle’s steward, Magg, has an intense dislike of his music. Shortly after that, Taran discovers there’s a threat to Eilonwy in the castle and tries to save her from it without letting her know she’s in danger. That goes poorly and he joins the rescue effort instead (also led by Rhun — or at least Rhun thinks so).

The companions also meet the world’s littlest giant (why does that sound like it belongs more in The Phantom Tollbooth than here?) and a mountain cat that we’ll get to spend a lot of time with. There’s a lot of links to the first book as well as the last book in the series here.

The introduction by Alexander was great — I wish I could hear more of his own takes on the books. Langton was solid. Again, I think he could talk a little faster — but that’s minor. His Prince Rhun’s “Hullo”s are just what I’ve heard in my head all these decades.

This is probably the most entertaining of the lot — there’s some really good comedy here. Taran grows up a lot more here than he does in other books, I think, which adds something more than just entertainment to this book. It’s possible that this is the one in the series I read the most as a kid. The story isn’t as rich as I remember, but factoring in the growth in characters and the entertainment factor, the experience as a whole was pretty satisfying — and I’ll take that.

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3.5 Stars

The Black Cauldron (Audiobook) by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton

The Black CauldronThe Black Cauldron

by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton (Narrator)
Series: Chronicles of Prydain, #2
Unabridged Audiobook, 5 hrs, 28 min.
Listening Library, 2004

Read: March 15 – 16, 2017


Of the five books in the Chronicles, this is probably my least favorite installment, still I enjoyed reliving it with this audio. Why Disney chose this one to make a movie out of, I’ll never know (and have never seen).

Prince Gwydion has called a council at Cair Dalben — bringing warriors, royalty and others from across the land to discuss something of urgency. Taran is included as well, thanks to the Prince’s experience in the previous book. One of the attendees, Prince Ellidyr, is a young, proud twit who might as well have been named William Zabka — if he doesn’t remind you of the quintessential 80’s movie antagonist, you’re not reading him right. He and Taran clash immediately, and are predictably assigned to work together.

We also meet the son of Taliesin, the chief bard, Adaon. Adaon is one of those characters that comes out of nowhere, every character loves and so do the readers. He’s wise, kind, and probably a decent fighter. Taran is possibly more taken with him as friend and role model than he was with Gwydion — partially because he’s not a prince, and so is more approachable; but also is just that kind of guy. Thankfully, Taran and he are also assigned to work together so it’s not all about the jousting with Ellidyr.

There were other characters introduced — several actually, but those two are the ones to focus on now. I’m not going to tell you anything about Gwystyl and Kaw, because I’ll not do them justice. But you’ll enjoy both. Gurgi was Gurgi, and Eilonwy was perfect — seriously just perfect. I always liked the character, but maybe never as much as I am this time through the series.

I got distracted by talking about the characters, the purpose of the council is to go hunting for the Black Cauldron, the source of the Cauldron Born warriors of Arawn. These are basically zombies with swords, doing anything their master calls for — and were the source of a good deal of apprehension when I was a kid, and now just seem like a great foe. Their numbers are swelling, making Dalben and Gwydion certain that something bad is on the horizon — now seems like a good time to raid the Dark Lord’s domain and destroy the Cauldon. Which may not derail the plans in motion, but will at least make them easier for the good guys to survive.

So after the Council, the heroes head out. As soon as they launch their strike, they discover that someone has beaten them to it — the Cauldron is gone and they’ve got to regroup before hunting it down. Things go bad there, the companions are separated from each other and on the run from those the Cauldron has already produced.

Taran, Ellidyr, Adaon, Gurgi and Fflewddurr get a lead on the Cauldron and decide to follow it up immediately rather than let their foes get it while they’re off looking for Gwydion. This takes them to the swamps of Morva — one of my favorite places in the series — and to the hut of Orddu, Orwen, & Orgoch. They will chill younger readers and entertain readers of all ages. From there peril, betrayal, redemption, grief and more ensue as the companions try to destroy the titular MacGuffin.

The Lloyd Alexander introduction to this one was better than the previous — I’m such a geek that listening to little bits of Alexander was one of the highlights of my day. I don’t think I have anything to say about Langton’s performance here that I didn’t say last time. It was good, nothing spectacular, though. He kept me engaged, even if he paced it slower than I’d like. Whoever transferred this from audiotape to digital format had an odd approach to dead space between tapes/tape sides — there are times that I feared the file had stopped unexpectedly, either from a corruption in the file or a glitch in the app, and just as I’d grab my phone to check the Langton’s voice would start again.

A needed part of the story, if only for Taran’s growth, and for what it sets up in books to come. It was never my favorite growing up, still isn’t now, but it was still an entertaining few hours.

—–

3 Stars

The Book of Three (Audiobook) by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton

The Book of ThreeThe Book of Three

by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton (Narrator)
Series: Chronicles of Prydain, #1
Unabridged Audiobook, 4 hrs, 56 min.
Listening Library, 2004
Read: March 6 – 9, 2017


I’m pretty sure that I’ve mentioned once or twice before here that The Chronicles of Prydain were the books that got me into fantasy. The Chronicles of Narnia made me a fan of Narnia, but really didn’t carry over to anything outside of Narnia (at least until I got older and tried Mere Christianity). But Prydain got me appreciating the tropes, conventions and characters that’d get me into Brooks, Weis & Hickman, Eddings, etc., etc. Listening to the audiobooks seemed like a nice way to revisit the series.

Taran, the Assistant Pig Keeper to Hen Wen (an oracular pig), dreams of glory to be found with a sword on the battlefield. His charge is frightened by something and escapes from her pen — Taran chases after her, leaving the only part of Prydain he’s ever known behind in the process. This hunt for the pig takes him to the far reaches of Prydain, where he encounters the son of the High King, Gwydion; Princess Eilonwy — about his age, and a fantastic foil and friend for Taran; Fflewddurr Fflam, an unofficial bard; Gurgi — some sort of simple-minded Sasquatch-like being; and others. Taran also encounters the forces of evil — the Horned King; Archen the enchantress; and other minions of the Dark Lord Arawn.

The themes of true nobility, heroism and what it means to be a man are prevalent (and Alexander maybe gets a little didactic here) — nothing I object to, just it seems a little thick by contemporary standards. Taran learns (for the first time) that there’s as much honor to be found in doing your everyday work well as there is on the battlefield. It probably feels a little old-fashioned to many, but there’s value here. Taran begins to mature here, but it takes (as I recall) all but the last 30 pages of the fifth book for it all to come together for him.

There’s a little audio recording of Alexander before the book kicks off as an introduction — that was pretty cool. Langton’s narration was okay — the narration was okay, maybe a little slow. His interpretation of Taran and Gwydion didn’t do much for me (and actually made me realize how clunkily Alexander wrote their dialogue), but they slowly grew on me. I really couldn’t find anything to like about Gurgi (one of my favorite characters ever). But I really liked everything else — his Eilonwy and Fflewddurr were perfect and a lot of fun. He deserves kudos for his Hen Wen alone, really.

This isn’t the greatest writing you’ll encounter — for the age group or genre. But it’s effective, there’s so much to appreciate here (and not just for nostalgia’s sake). I remain a big fan of the series, and do appreciate the audiobook.

—–

4 Stars

Mercy Thompson Audiobooks 1-3: Moon Called, Blood Bound, Iron Kissed by Patricia Briggs, Lorelei King

Rather than try to talk about these individually, I thought I’d save time and tackle them in one post. Let’s hope it works…

Moon CalledMoon Called

by Patricia Briggs, Lorelei King (Narrator)
Series: Mercy Thompson, #1
Unabridged Audiobook, 9 hrs., 14 min.
Penguin Audio, 2009
Read: December 23 – 38, 2016

Blood BoundBlood Bound

by Patricia Briggs, Lorelei King (Narrator)
Series: Mercy Thompson, #2
Unabridged Audiobook, 10 hrs., 2 min.
Penguin Audio, 2009
Read: December 28 – 30, 2016

Iron KissedIron Kissed

by Patricia Briggs, Lorelei King (Narrator)
Series: Mercy Thompson, #3
Unabridged Audiobook, 9 hrs., 11 min.
Penguin Audio, 2009
Read: December 30, 2016 – January 4, 2017


I’ve only posted about a couple of the books in this series, since I read most of the series before starting this blog, it feels strange not to have old posts to go back and steal from. How do I do this concisely, now? I mean this should be one of the longest posts I’ve written, if I was going to do it right.

But I’m not going to do it right, I’m going to do it quick. Simply: Mercy Thompson is a skinwalker of sorts, who was raised by a pack of werewolves (a pack led by the Alpha of North America, it should be noted), who has an English degree and works as a VW mechanic. When we meet her in Moon Called, she’s living near the Alpha of the Tri-Cities of Oregon, is friends with a vampire, knows a couple of the Fae who live on the (Fae) reservation nearby. Almost no one knows about her ability to shift into a coyote (other than these supernatural folks), and she has no intention of changing that. However, she finds herself in the middle of a few goings-on in the supernatural community and becomes a prominent player in the area.

In Moon Called Mercy discovers a group experimenting on werewolves — even creating some for the sole purpose of being guinea pigs. In Blood Bound, Mercy is called upon by the local vampires to pay a debt by helping them track and destroy a rogue über-vampire/serial killer. Then in Iron Kissed Mercy begins helping local Fae investigate a series of murders on the reservation, using her special abilities — in the end, she has to dance around Fae politics while trying to prove that a dear friend wasn’t behind the killings. Throughout this, she has a love life, some friends, helps the local pack with some internal issues, and finds herself in mortal danger frequently. All while maintaining her shop, sense of humor, and independence.

I love these characters — all of them, I can’t think of a single one of them I wouldn’t want to spend more time with. Mercy has an attitude, perspective and humor that I enjoy, and good taste in friends/acquaintances, too. Briggs’ approach to werewolves, vampires, etc. is fantastic and I frequently judge other UF writers by how they match up to Briggs’ approach.

There is a richness to Briggs’ writing and to the world she’s created that’s truly impressive. It takes me less than a chapter to feel absolutely at home in the books (this happened when I first tried Moon Called and has happened with every successive volume — not just in my going through them again on audio). What blew me away going through these books is how much of this series (and the spin-off series, Alpha and Omega) is established in Moon Called — she’s what, 14 books or so in and 98% of those books can be traced to this first one. Whether that’s because she’s good at going back and picking up details to flesh out or because she plotted things out so well, it really doesn’t matter — the material was there and she’s using it well. The world she established is so well-formed that she can keep playing in it without having to invent new things, change the rules she established, or anything else. I can’t think of another UF universe that was so well-built from book one.

King gives a really strong performance here — her characters are spot-on, the narrative stays engaging. Really, a bang up job, with one big flaw: she can’t pronounce local geographic names. Granted, most people who don’t live in Washington/Idaho/Montana(ish) aren’t going to notice, but man, it’s hard to listen to. If I have to hear her butcher “Coeur d’Alene” one more time . . . On the other hand, there’s this scene in Iron Kissed between Adam (local Alpha) and Ben (British werewolf who joined the pack because he had to leave England under suspicious circumstances) where Ben has to explain to Adam the psychological trauma Mercy’s suffered and how she’s reacting. When I first read the book, I was in shock a. because of the traumatic scene (really well written) and b. Ben’s more than capable and empathetic understanding/explanation. This time through, King’s performance just stunned me — it was so good. She nailed the whole thing and almost had me in tears in my cubicle.

I loved the books, I think the audiobooks are among the best I’ve heard — the only reason that I haven’t gone further in this series of audiobooks is that the library system here doesn’t have #4 (they do have the rest of the series, oddly enough), and I haven’t justified the expense for myself yet. For old fans of the books, or people looking for something new to listen to — these are well worth your time. Great material presented in a pretty compelling way.

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4 Stars