1922 Honor: The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles

VERDICT: Meh

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles, the runner up to the 1922 Newbery Medal, tells the epic tale of Jason and the Argonauts as they venture out on a quest to find and retrieve the mythic Golden Fleece.

The book is divided into three distinct, varying-in-quality sections. The first part covers the introduction of the heroes and the gods, the second part narrates the finding of the Golden Fleece, and the last segment meanders along with random tales of what happened to the heroes after their voyage. The main quest was entertaining enough to read with a prominent cast of legendary characters made up of Jason, Heracles, Atalanta, and Orpheus, but the final section questionably breaks away from the main quest to focus on random stories featuring the secondary characters who are not as interesting to read about when they are off on their own.

The writing style is very similar to what I’d call textbook-style mythology: it’s a straight up narrative with little character introspection. The language might be a little archaic for modern readers, but its very simplistic plot makes it accessible to those who may struggle with the style. It reads like a young person’s version of the mythology textbook that would be read in college, and its long page count makes it a chore to get through.

I’d only recommend this Newbery Honor for those who love epic quests and bigger-than-life characters. Lovers of Greek mythology will find some merit in this book as the tale is one for all ages.

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1968 Honor: The Egypt Game

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is an entertaining read that plays to a child’s overactive imagination and taps into an adult reader’s nostalgia for simpler times.

If you obsessed over Egyptian mythology as a child, this is the book for you. When April comes to live with her grandmother, she makes an unlikely friendship with her neighbor Melanie, and they begin to bond over their love of ancient Egypt. They  unintentionally recruit a group of kids to play in the backyard of an antique shop where they create their own Egyptian names, construct altars to gods for sacred ceremonies, and play around with hieroglyphics. But things begin to get mysterious when a murder happens nearby and the make-believe oracle they ask questions to begins to answer them back.

I found this to be a decent read. Children with active imaginations can easily relate to the main characters in this book and their adventures while adult readers will be nostalgic for their younger days when they could easily play pretend games all day.

Despite the fun plot, the book has an older style of language that may put off younger readers. The main characters converse in a more sophisticated way than how modern children their age would speak now. But, I will say that the book did a good job with having a very diverse cast of characters.

With an amusing story line and a varied cast of characters, The Egypt Game is for readers who enjoy Egyptian mythology and its ancient pantheon of captivating gods, but more likely the ones who will love it are those who once upon a time played make-believe games with the other kids in their neighborhoods who are looking for a way to reminisce.

1976: The Grey King (a travel advisory for Wales)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 5/5

It’s rare to find a fantasy series that improves as it goes on, but each book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series keeps raising the stakes with each sequel having more urgency and scope than the one that came before it. The Grey King, fourth in a five book series, focuses on Will Stanton and his adventures in the Welsh countryside as he becomes entangled in the Grey King’s mischief.

The Grey King, also called the Brenin Llywd, is more interested in causing chaos by preying on humanity’s weakness and anger than starting an all-out battle or apocalypse. Oftentimes, it feels like the bad guys in children’s fantasy are never very menacing and their threats never seem to have much heft behind them. The Grey King escapes this pitfall as there is always a dark feeling of foreboding that surrounds his actions – the paranoia surrounding the sheep killings, the gloomy weather on the mountain, and the grey foxes that go unseen by the townspeople. Caradog Prichard’s crazed actions make the most devastating parts hit closer to home as many readers can probably relate to the loss of an animal or pet, and it is ultimately human emotions that end up being the real evil.

This book feels more intimate and darker than the ones that came before it, as it focuses solely on Will and his new friend, Bran. While Will had previously grown into his powers as an Old One, he starts this book in a place of weakness, having lost some of his strength and memories to a bout of hepatitis, which makes him more relatable and human than ever before. Isolation affects all the characters, as Will must survive his trials without the help of his mentor Merriman, who is only tangentially involved in the storyline for the first time in the series. Will is mainly left to his own devices, forced to learn a new geography, find new allies, and understand the Welsh language, which makes him an outsider in a new, unknown and treacherous place.

The characters of Bran, Cafall and John Rowlands are all welcome additions to the series. Bran’s connection to the Arthurian myth is slowly teased throughout the novel as he learns more about his family history. He gets the toughest character journey in the book as all the horrible stuff happens to him, yet his relationship with his father ends up being poignant and touching as he learns several hard truths about his past. Additionally, Cafall’s loyalty to his master is used to great effect, as well as John Rowland’s human understanding of the real battle that is going on around him – even though he has no special powers himself.

Susan Cooper created a vivid world with some memorable scenes that really stay with you. The scenes of Will and Bran’s riddle game in the mountain, Cafall’s chasing of the grey fox and its aftermath, and the riders rising out the lake have all stayed with me since my first reading of this book as a child. Additionally, I’m always wanting to travel to Wales after I read the book since the descriptions of the countryside are so magical and beautiful. I would definitely recommend The Grey King to anyone who loves fantasy or the Arthurian myth.

1974 Almost Newbery: The Dark is Rising

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

One of the 1974 Newbery Honor books, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising is the second book in her series of the same name. Because the next Newbery Winner to be read is the fourth book in the series, and features the same main character, I figured I’d also review this title.

Will Stanton is the seventh son of a seventh son and turns eleven on Midwinter’s Eve. He begins to enter into his powers as an Old One, a guardian of the Light, just as the Dark is at its height and mustering for an attack. Will’s quest is to hunt the Six Signs: iron, bronze, fire, water, air, and stone. In so doing, he learns to look beneath a person’s surface, to act even when frightened, and to think creatively. The author does an excellent job portraying Will’s growth and development in a realistic, non-cheesy manner. While no major characters die, Will doesn’t win every battle or instantly master a given skill. He causes injury to someone by giving into emotion and is nearly trapped by the Dark when he reveals himself by trying out his new fire-starting skill. In the end, Will succeeds in his quest to gain the Six Signs and free England of a bitter blizzard called up by the Dark. He does so on Twelfth Night, which, depending on how you count it, is either tonight or tomorrow. Having just suffered through a mini-snowstorm myself, I feel their pain!

I’m very torn about The Dark is Rising. I had a hard time getting into it, at points. The feature that drew me in, Cooper’s use of language, particularly detailed description, was also one that made it a slow read. The whole series is based on Welsh mythology and is paced something like a myth. Cooper’s description is intimately tied to the symbolic nature of mythology.

Overall, this book has more good than bad (or Light than Dark). It gently teaches a lot of hard truths, particularly through the character of Hawkins. A liege-man of Will’s mentor Merriman, Hawkins is imbued with the power to open a hiding place of knowledge; scared of the risk Merriman takes by using him thus, Hawkins listens to the whispers of the Dark, hidden under the facade of a sweet-faced maid servant/witch-born girl. His betrayal opens a hole through which the Dark can strike. Cooper does a great job of translating into very physical terms the impact that a betrayal can have. In the end, Hawkins chooses redemption, and death. The character building is impeccable, with the transition from ordinary boy to Old One handled particularly well, as was the building of secondary characters.

I would highly recommend this to late elementary/early middle school students who are interested in fantasy. It’s not a bad read as an adult, but I do remember liking it a lot more when I was about that age.

1969: The High King (complete with oracular pigs)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series wraps up in the fifth and final book, The High King. Filled to the max with every trope that a high fantasy series can possibly offer, the fight between good and evil comes down to a final battle that needs the courage and help of Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper.

A book based on Welsh mythology, The High King follows a group of heroes who must band together to save the day against the forces of evil. The adventure is kicked off by a prophecy made by an oracular pig, which is the only highlight of the journey. Beyond that, the story is just a bunch of battles and narrow escapes from being captured. The melancholy ending elevates the novel quite a bit, but it still wrapped everything up too neatly and perfectly for a book about war.

I listened to the first novel on audiobook, but I skipped over the middle books to read this one. Perhaps if I had, some of the characters would have felt more well-rounded and important to the plot. The tight-knit relationships between the heroes were lost on me as a result, and the sacrifices they made for each other lost their impact. The main characters were all fairly cookie cutter stereotypes. If forced to choose a favorite character, Princess Eilonwy would easily win because of her sass and high-spirited ways. She gives a much needed spark to a book that is overloaded with good-natured heroes who are always virtuous and noble.

This book encompasses everything that I hate about high fantasy – a simplistic good versus evil plot, bland characters, and lots of description of various battles. While children can read this novel as an introduction to this genre, as an adult reader it’s hard to not compare this to the countless other classic children’s fantasy novels out there like The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia. And it does not fare well in comparison.

Recommended for hardcore Welsh mythology buffs and lovers of high fantasy.

1938: The White Stag (Chase a stag, murder half of Europe)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

In The White Stag, 1938 Newbery Winner, Kate Seredy retells the mythological origin story of the Hun-Magyar people. Seredy wrote it in response to a history book, full of “FACTS, FACTS, FACTS as irrefutable, logical and as hard as the learned pens of learned historians could make them”, but with differing conclusions on the origin of the Hungarians than the author held. She wished to preserve the mythology which taught that the Hungarians descended from the Horde.

The plot is typical for a myth: it begins a few generations before the characters of most interest. Nimrod, Mighty Hunter before the Lord, expelled from Babel with the rest, searched for a home for his people. After his sons Hunor and Magyar followed a white stag, they became the new tribal leaders, taking Moonmaidens (fairies) as wives. Hunor begat Bendeguz, nicknamed the White Eagle. He in turn married a Cimmerian (Sumerian, probably) princess. She died birthing Attila, the Red Eagle. The grieving Bendeguz takes as his mission to make Attila into a weapon, riding with him into battle before Attila could even walk. Wreaking havoc as they rode, Attila’s Horde ravaged Europe until they reach the Promised Land between two rivers.

Like most creation myths, this one involves divine guidance, retribution from the deity for doubting him, and a healthy dose of symbolism (White Stag, White Eagle, Red Eagle, etc.). However, the author does her best to humanize the characters. Bendeguz, particularly, is a multi-dimensional character. His grief and guilt over his wife’s death prevents him from showing Attila love and drive Bendeguz to hone his son into a weapon. Later in the narrative, however, Bendeguz tenderly covers Attila with a cloak. He also agonizes over Attila’s bloodshed, asking his god Hadur if Attila will ever wash himself clean of the death he causes. Although there’s little scope for character development in such a short multi-generational story, Seredy manages to insert some poignant moments.

Illustration from The White Stag
Basically, pick this book up for the pictures. They are vividly drawn, in a mix of realism and fantasy. I loved them all and put a few more on our Tumblr. The plot is standard mythology. Not great, not terrible, but blessedly short – the entire book is 94 pages and images take up a quarter to a third of the page count.