Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: The Princess Bride

Book Name: The Princess Bride
Author: William Goldman
First Published: 1973

William Goldman was born in Chicago. He gained a bachelor of arts from Oberlin College in 1952 and then enlisted in the army. Since he knew how to type (keyboard) he was sent to work in the Pentagon where he worked as a clerk until he was honorably discharged. He continued his education at Columbia University and earned a master of arts. While he was in the army and at University, he honed his craft by writing short stories in the evenings, having caught the writing bug during a creative writing class at school. Few of them published, but he did not give up on his dream of being a writer.

Although he later gained fame as a screenwriter, during his early years he was interested in writing poetry, short stories, and novels. In 1956, Goldman began writing his first novel, Temple of Gold. It sold well enough to launch his career.

He published five novels and three plays before he began to entertain the idea of writing screenplays. Movie adaptations of books such as Flowers for Algernon (later renamed Charly) were followed by hits such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, No Way to Treat a Lady, The Right Stuff, Misery, and All The President’s Men.

Goldman met Rob Reiner when adapting Stephen King’s novel Misery. Later they would collaborate again when Reiner directed the film version of Goldman’s book The Princess Bride. Goldman himself wrote the adaptation for the movie and created a cult classic that featured many of the top Hollywood actors of the day.

William Goldman is no stranger to the Motion Picture Academy. He has won two Oscars, one for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and for All The President’s Men. He also has won two Edgar awards for best motion picture screenplay. In 1985, he earned the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writers Guild of America.

“She loves you,” the Prince cried. “She loves you still and you love her, so think of that–think of this too: in all this world, you might have been happy, genuinely happy. Not one couple in a century has that chance, not really, no matter what the storybooks say, but you could have had it, and so, I would think, no one will ever suffer a loss as great as you.”
― William Goldman, The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride is presented as if it were an abridgment of a classic adventure story by S. Morgenstern, an author from the imaginary country of Florin. Goldman claims a history with the story of The Princess Bride. He first heard the tale from his own father, an immigrant from Florin, who read the story to him as a ten-year-old child when he had pneumonia. As an adult, Goldman went back to the original classic and discovered that his father had skipped over many “boring” parts of the novel in order to intrigue his small son. Now a writer himself, Goldman decides to edit the original (and fictional) S. Morgenstern book into the more adventurous story he remembers and to allow himself to make editorial comments during the story.

The story takes place in Florin, a renaissance-like land featuring a lovely maiden named Buttercup. Her chief amusement is verbally abusing the family’s farmhand, a youth named Westley. She never calls him by name, only “farm boy” and his response to her demands is always “as you wish”. It doesn’t occur to Buttercup until much later that when Westley says “as you wish”, he actually is saying “I love you.”

The two confess their love for one another and Westley leaves the farm to seek his fortune at sea in order for the pair to marry. It is not long before Buttercup learns that Westley’s ship is boarded by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who is known for killing every man in the ships he attacks. She assumes that her true love has been killed and goes into mourning. Meanwhile, Prince Humperdinck learns that he must marry upon the death of his father. He learns of Buttercup’s renown beauty and decides that she is the one that he will marry. He proposes to her, although he is a stranger to her, and Buttercup agrees to the match, although she makes it clear that she does not love the prince and likely never will.

The story cuts away to a trio of villains, the Sicilian genius Vizzini, the Spaniard Sword-master Inigo Montoya, and the giant Turk wrestler Fezzik. The group kidnaps Buttercup before her wedding to the prince and takes her across the sea in an effort to start a war between Florin and a neighboring kingdom, Guilder. The are pursued by a masked man in black and Prince Humperdinck in separate parties. Vizzini and his group find their way across the sea and dock at the Cliffs of Insanity. The mastermind orders the Spaniard to kill the man in black and whisks Buttercup away with the help of the Turkish giant.

Inigo is a man seeking revenge. He wishes to kill the six-fingered man who had murdered his father. He became a master swordsman in order to reach this goal. When the man in black reaches him, he arranges for a fair fight, allowing the man to rest before the duel. Inigo is confident that he can kill the man in black easily, but as the duel commences, we learn that the masked man is his equal.  In the end, the man in black is triumphant, but he leaves Ingio alive.

The man in black defeats the giant and then finds Vizzini. The two have a battle of wits and in the end, the man in black is victorious and Vizzini dies of his own treachery. The man in black takes Buttercup and flees ahead of Prince Humperdinck’s party which is still in pursuit of the princess bride. As the pair travel, the man in black taunts Buttercup, telling her that she must have felt nothing when her sweetheart had died. The girl is angered by him and shoves the man in black into a gorge. She yells at him, “You can die too, for all I care!” It is then that she hears the man call out, “As you wish.” In shock, she realizes that the masked man in black is none other than her true love, Westley the farm boy. Both explain their time apart to each other and they make up.

Despite navigating through a fire swamp, dealing with snow sand, and battling rodents of unusual size, the pair is captured by Prince Humperdinck and his friend, the six-fingered Count Tyrone Rugen. Buttercup bargains with the prince to spare Westley’s life and returns with the prince back to Florin and her fate of being his bride.

The adventure is not over. Westley must deal with a double cross, make friends of enemies, and ultimately fight once more for the woman he loves. Inigo Montoya returns and confronts the six-fingered man who killed his father, and a host of strange and wonderful characters are yet to come and enjoy.

The Princess Bride Book Cover 2I did not read The Princess Bride until I had seen the Rob Reiner film by the same name in 1987. The film has become a beloved cult classic and remains popular today. Far from a simple fantasy tale, the story is filled with tongue-in-cheek wit and serves as a satire to the fairytales that we all cut our teeth on. The author claims that the book is an abridgment of an older book by “S. Morgenstern” which was a satire on the excesses of European royalty, but the book is completely of Goldman’s own invention. He based the tales on stories that he told to his daughters as they grew up. One daughter requested a story about “princesses” and the other about “brides”. Goldman made up the interconnected scenes on the fly and gave all the characters ridiculous names. The two countries, Florin and Guilder are both named after European coins.

In an anthology The Best of All Words (1980), edited by Spider Robinson, Goldman published a scene from the novel, Duel Scene (From the Princess Bride). Among writers, this scene is often used as the gold standard of how to write a fight scene and is cited as one of the best in literature. It is not so much that it is gory, it is that it displays conflict, emotion, and a clear story arc.

If you enjoy fantasy or fairy tales, you should fall in love with The Princess Bride. If you are a writer, check out the fight scene from the book. I think you will find it as informative as I did.  This is a wonderous tale from a master-class author and it should not be missed.

Book Review: Flowers for Algernon

Book Name: Flowers For Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes
First Published: 1966
Hugo Award for best short story (1960)
Joint Nebula Award (1966)
Nominated for Hugo Award as novel (1967) Lost to Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Daniel Keyes first job as a teenager was to join the U.S. Maritime Service as a ship purser. When he left the sea, he continued his schooling and gained a B.A. in psychology and then a Master’s in English and American Literature from Brooklyn College in New York. Keyes became a teacher for the New York City public school system and taught English and creative writing. Later he would go on to teach creative writing at Wayne State University in Ohio and become a professor emeritus there in 2000. His original university, Brooklyn College, also awarded him its “Distinguished Alumnus Medal of Honor.” Keyes was elected the SFWA Author Emeritus in 2000 for making a significant contribution to science fiction and fantasy, primarily as a result of Flowers for Algernon.

Keyes died in his home in 2014 at the age of 86. It was due to complications from pneumonia. He is survived by his two daughters, Leslie and Hillary, his wife Aurea Georgina Vazquez having died the year before.

His writing career began a few weeks after his graduation from Brooklyn College. Keyes was hired by Magazine Management, a publishing company owned by Martin Goodman. Since he had some experience with science fiction, he eventually became the editor of the pulp magazine Marvel Science Stories, a precursor of the now famous Marvel Comics. When Goodman discontinued the pulps in favor of paperback novels and men’s adventure magazines, Keyes was moved to Atlas to become an associate editor under Stan Lee. In 1952, Keyes was one of several staff writers (officially known as editors) who wrote for the comics. He had two science fiction stories published in Journey into Unknown Worlds along with art from Basil Wolverton.

Flowers for Algernon began as a story proposal for the comics, entitled Brainstorm, but Keyes felt that this story had more depth and was more literary based than comic based. Instead, he wrote it as a full short story and it was published in 1959 by The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He won the Hugo Award for this short story. In a few years, he would expand the short into his first full-length novel to publish in 1966. The novel has since been adapted into several movies, including the famous version “Charly” that gave Cliff Robertson the academy award for best actor. The novel was nominated for a Hugo and it won a Nebula Award.

Keyes published additional books: The Fifth Sally, The Minds of Billy Milligan, The Touch, Unveiling Claudia, and the memoir Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer’s Journey.

Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eye are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye.
— Plato, The Republic

Charlie Gordon, a thirty-something man, suffers from phenylketonuria and has a modest IQ of 68. He works as a janitor at a bakery which allows him enough money to afford an apartment and stay out of the state institution. Charlie has ambition. He takes courses to learn to read and write at the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults. His teacher is young and attractive Alice Kinnian.

Two medical researchers look for a human subject to test a new surgical technique to raise biological intelligence. The first experiments performed on a mouse were successful enough that they felt it was time to take the next step in their studies with a human. Based on a recommendation from Miss Kinnian, Charlie is chosen to be that test subject based on his motivation to improve his condition.

Charlie’s operation is a success, much like that of the mouse Algernon. His IQ soars to 185 and his dream of understanding the world around him as a normal human becomes a reality. As the months pass, life changes dramatically for Charlie. His relationships take on new meaning as he realizes the guys at the bakery “liked” him because he was a butt for their jokes. Now they fear him and demand that he be fired from his job. The scientists who performed the surgery think of him as another test subject, more a mouse than a human. Charlie confronts them with anger at a cocktail party. He also begins a romance with Alice Kinnian, but due to lack of intimacy with her, he rebels and starts a purely physical relationship with another woman, Fay.

When not dousing his soul with alcohol, Charlie continues his mentor’s research. This includes observations of the mouse Algernon, who he keeps at his apartment much like a pet. He discovers a flaw in the scientist’s research. When Algernon begins to behave in an erratic manner, losing his intelligence and then dies, Charlie realizes that he may suffer the same fate as the mouse.

Charlie attempts to mend his broken relationships with his parents and sister. He discovers that his mother suffers from dementia and his sister Norma is caring for her. Norma had hated Charlie as they were growing up, but now has new compassion for him. She asks Charlie to remain with her and their mother, but Charlie declines. Instead, he offers money to help with their mother’s care.

The process inverts and Charlie begins the decline back to a man of special needs. Fay becomes afraid of Charlie’s new condition and leaves him even as Alice returns. But will Charlie be able to accept Alice Kinnian into his life now that he is no longer a lauded genius?

Flowers for Algernon Book Cover.jpgLike many school children, Flowers for Algernon was required reading in my high school English class. It is a powerful book that left a lasting impression on me. I was made aware that science fiction did not need to be “pulp” to be part of the genre. There is room for sci-fi to be literary and comment on the human condition.

The novel has gone on to sell over 5 million copies worldwide. It has inspired many television and movie adaptations, the most famous of which is Charly starring Cliff Robertson who won an Oscar for the title role. It has become a story that is now a part of the pop-culture and has been included in many high school curriculum plans.

Yet, there is still controversy surrounding the novel. Some critics of the book find it to be sexually explicit and irreligious. Consequently, the book is occasionally removed from the shelves of schools and put onto “banned book” lists.

I view the book as a statement of how the physically and mentally challenged are viewed in the world. I am proud how far their treatment and place in society has come. There was a time not all that long ago when such children and adults were locked away in institutions or treated with derision when kept with their families. Today, I feel that much of this stigma has been removed and that people are treated with more dignity and understanding.

And what of the idea of augmenting human intelligence that plays a pivotal role in the novel? When Daniel Keyes was asked when he thought such a process might come to pass, his reply was “Perhaps in 30 years.” Science fiction may very well become science fact in our lifetime.

Book Review: The Island Stallion Races

Book Name: The Island Stallion Races
Author: Walter Farley
First Published: 1955

Walter Farley was born in 1915 in Syracuse, New York. His uncle was a professional horseman and took the young Walter under his wing. He taught him about horses and training methods that were used on the world racing tracks. Walter spent a great deal of time with his uncle at the Belmont Race Track and stables. Many of his future novels would be set in this racing complex.

Farley was a high school student at Erasmus Hall High in Brooklyn when he began to write the first Black Stallion novel. As he continued his education at Columbia College, he completed and published The Black Stallion in 1941 when he was still an undergrad at the university. The book was a success and Farley was ready to write sequels, but World War II intervened. He was forced to set his stories about Alec Ramsey and the Black aside and instead worked for the US Army magazine Yank for the next five years. It would not be until the end of the war that Farley could return to his first love, writing about horses and the racing world. Altogether, Farley would write 21 novels about his beloved horses and would become renown as a young adult author.

Farley and his wife Rosemary had four children whom they raised on a farm in Pennsylvania and later in a beach house in Florida. The love for horses was passed on to his children and in one, his son Steve, the love of writing.

In 1989, Walter Farley was honored by the Library in Venice, Florida by the creation of the Walter Farley Literary Landmark in it’s children’s wing. Soon after, Farley died of cancer in 1989. He would not see the completion of the Young Black Stallion book or the start of production of the television series The Adventures of the Black Stallion.

There was also a famous Francis Ford Coppola film The Black Stallion, which features some of the most beautiful cinematography featuring an Arabian steed, a beach and a boy taming the heart of a horse. It stars Mickey Rooney as the old trainer and is well worth looking into as a family-friendly film everyone can love.

“His mane was like a crest, mounting, then falling low. His neck was long and slender, and arched to the small, savagely beautiful head. The head was that of the wildest of all wild creatures- a stallion born wild- and it was beautiful, savage, splendid. A stallion with a wonderful physical perfection that matched his savage, ruthless spirit.”
― Walter Farley

The Island Stallion Races is an unusual offering by Walter Farley, his only science fiction novel. The story returns us to Azul Island, a tropical paradise with a hidden secret: Inside the ancient walls of this extinct volcano is tucked away the last outpost of the Spanish conquistadors where the descendants of their powerful steeds still roam. Young Steve Duncan and his scholarly friend Pitch have discovered the secret of Azul Island and Steve has befriended the mighty stallion Flame who guards his herd and keeps them safe.

Pitch is called away while the pair study the ruins left by the Spaniards on the island and Steve is delighted to have more time with his favorite horse, a fire red steed that he longs to race so he can show off Flame’s speed and grace to the world. Alas, it is not to be. Flame has no pedigree or papers. He is barred from racetracks due to this defect.

Enter a pair of supposed “Eastern American Business Men” who are anything but. Jay and Flick arrive on the island via unconventional means: An intergalactic spaceship. They have unusual talents such as transforming into birds when they wish. Their mission is to watch over the invisible spaceship that has been parked on the remote island while their colleagues Victor and Julian are off studying human culture.

Jay would like to do more than simply study humanity. He has watched the beautiful horses of Azul Island for a long time and is interested in experiencing horse racing for himself. He concocts a plan to take Flame and Steve to Havana, Cuba via their invisible spaceship and enter the Island Stallion in the Grand International horse race.

Does the Island stallion have what it takes to beat the best race horses on the planet? Will Steve overcome his fear of the aliens in order to pursue his dream of being Flame’s rider in a major racing event? Will Jay the intergalactic alien get away with his reckless behavior or will his comrades leave him behind when it is time for them to depart Earth?

You’ll have to read the adventure to find out.

The Island Stallion Races Book CoverOne of my favorite series, when I was a pre-teen were the Black Stallion novels by Walter Farley. I had quite the crush on young Alec Ramsey and identified with his love of horses since I had a similar love for my own horse at that age. The Black Stallion novels are quite famous.  The series is being continued by Farley’s son Steve Farley to this day.

There is a second series of books written by Farley featuring another mighty horse. There are only five novels in the series about Flame the Island Stallion and his rider, Steve Duncan.  Each one a well written YA adventure featuring a beautiful steed and the boy who loves him.

Although the Island Stallion books were written at the same time as the Black Stallion books, I put off reading them. I loved the Black and Alec so much, I felt a sense of youthful disloyalty to read about this other horse. Much to my surprise, when I finally gave in to my curiosity, I found that I enjoyed these books as much, if not more than the original Black Stallion books.

Azul Island, a walled paradise tucked away in the tropics and home to the beautiful equine descendants of the conquistador warhorses tickled my fancy with delight. Then, there was a second easter egg. The Island Stallion Races featured aliens from another world and their nefarious mission: horseracing! To my disappointment, the author never continued his science fiction ideas and this single offering is his only sci-fi novel. The storyline was enough to make this particular Walter Farley book one of my favorites. (Sorry Alec)

I would love to see the Island Stallion stories made into movies as the Black Stallion books were. The stories are every bit as compelling as the more famous works by Walter Farley. If you are looking for science fiction in an unexpected place, give The Island Stallion Races a try. It is a family-friendly book that will make you and your horse-loving child smile.

The Island Stallion Series:

The Island Stallion (1948)
The Island Stallion’s Fury (1951)
The Island Stallion Races (1955)
The Black Stallion and Flame (1960)
The Black Stallion Challenged (1964)

Book Review: The Mirror of Her Dreams

Book Name: The Mirror of Her Dreams
Author: Stephan R. Donaldson
First Published: 1986

Stephen R. Donaldson was born in 1947. He spent much of his youth in India due to his father’s work as an orthopedic surgeon in that country. He attended the Kodaikanal International School. Later, he would gain a bachelor’s degree from The College of Wooster and a Master’s from Kent State. He currently lives in New Mexico.

Donaldson is best known for his long-running series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a fantasy about a man who suffered from leprosy and was called to an alternate world to save it. His stories are characterized by a sense of moral bleakness, complex psychological reasoning, and a fondness for arcane vocabulary. Mordant’s Need is a two-part series, a long novel that was broken up into two parts, and features a unique magic system and court intrigue that rivals the “Game of Thrones”.

The author’s stories show a wide range of influences, such as the operas of Richard Wagner, Mervyn Peake, C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien. The largest inspiration for The Mirror of Her Dreams must come from Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, of which the author is known to be a big fan.

“The story of Terisa and Geraden began very much like a fable. She was a princess in a high tower. He was a hero come to rescue her. She was the only daughter of wealth and power. He was the seventh son of the lord of the seventh Care. She was beautiful from the auburn hair that crowned her head to the tips of her white toes. He was handsome and courageous. She was held prisoner by enchantment. He was a fearless breaker of enchantments. As in all the fables, they were made for each other.”
― Stephen R. Donaldson, The Mirror of Her Dreams

The Mirror of Her Dreams is the story of Terisa Morgan, a young woman that feels as if she is fading from existence and has doubts that she is real. To help her establish her own reality, she lines all the walls of her apartment with mirrors. By seeing her reflection, she assures herself that she is alive.

One night, Terisa has a dream where she is hounded by men on horseback. A young man steps in to protect her. The following night, she has a bout of fear that she is fading from the world. To counter this, she sits in front of one of her many mirrors. That is when the man from her dream crashes through the mirror before her. He is Geraden, a bumbling Apt who has failed to become an “Imager” after ten years of study. He comes from a mystical world called Mordant and is in search of a champion to save it. Geraden is convinced that Terisa is that champion, even though the girl is not quite what he was expecting to find. He pleads with her to come with him through the mirror to Mordant and Castle Orison.

Starting as an ordinary shy girl from New York City, Terisa transforms into the center of palace intrigue. The court of Mordant is divided about her. Some believe she is a powerful “Imager” because she was discovered in a room of mirrors and could see her own reflection without going mad. They view Terisa as a potential ally or threat. In Mordant, magic comes from mirrors. The mirrors show only one place and time and no one sees their reflection in them. The powerful “Imagers” use the magical mirrors to see into the future or parallel worlds. The other half of the court is convinced that she is just another mistake of Geraden’s and do not take her seriously.

Terisa must deal with the puppy-dog earnest Geraden, a senile King and his strong-willed daughters, a mad Adept, Geraden’s well-meaning brothers, and the factions of Imager masters that belong to guild known as the “Congery”. The threads of the story twists and turns and little is what it appears in Orison. There is a plot to depose the King, a rogue Imager sends magical creatures to cause destruction in the kingdom. It all is overwhelming to a doubting Terisa who can hardly make a decision of her own due to her debilitating passivity. Can she overcome her inner fears and become the champion of Mordant as her friend Geraden remains firmly convinced?
The Mirror of Her Dreams Book CoverI first read The Mirror of Her Dreams when it first came out in 1986. I blush to say it, but the striking cover of the girl looking into a mirror and a man gazing back at her from the glass caught my eye and intrigued me. I had read Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant books and was pleased to see that he had branched out into a new world.

What struck me first about the book was the unusual heroine, a girl that had been abused by her parents that she was passive enough that it could endanger her, even in our own world much less that of a fantasy realm. I found myself having sympathy for Terisa Morgan, although there were times when I wanted to shake her and tell her to wake up. Women today may have trouble with the passivity of this heroine for she is not a strong female and does tend to lean on the men around her.

The first half of the book does drag due to the long information dumps about Mordant’s past and world building description. I feel that the author might have found another way to convey this information. However, the court intrigues, the constant danger that Trisa and Geraden find themselves in did keep the story interesting enough for me to finish the book and then go on to its sequel. I also enjoyed the mild romance between these two characters.

Where the book shines is in the details of the Imagers and their guild the Congery. The magic system is rather unique, but has a strong basis in previous fantasies, with hints leaning toward Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or Zelaney’s Prince Corwin of Amber.

There is much to like about this fantasy novel and its sequel, A Man Rides Through. While the first novel is a bit slow, the second is action packed and a very satisfying read. Be warned, The Mirror of Her Dreams ends in a cliffhanger, which at the time was hard on me since the second book did not come out for a year, but now both books are available. You will not have to wait a year to learn the conclusion of this tale as I did! Mordant’s Need has stayed with me down through the years and I view it as a solid classic of the fantasy genre.

Mordant’s Need

The Mirror of Her Dreams (1986)
A Man Rides Through (1987)

Book Review: The Mists of Avalon

Book Name: The Mists of Avalon
Author: Marion Zimmer Bradley
First Published: 1982
Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (1984)

Marion Eleanor Zimmer Bradley was an American author of fantasy novels such as The Mists of Avalon and the Darkover series, often writing with a feminist outlook and even, under a pen name, gay and lesbian titles. She was born on a farm in Albany, New York, during the Great Depression, to a father who was a carpenter and farmer and a mother who was a historian. Bradley first attended New York State College for Teachers from which she dropped out after two years. She returned to college in the mid-sixties, where she graduated from Hardin-Simmons University in Texas with a Bachelor of Arts. Bradley moved to California soon after and went on to pursue graduate studies at the University of California, Berkely. She trained not only as a psychologist but also as a parapsychologist. In the end, she became a drop-out once more from not one, but three departments of education, “owing to deep disillusion”. Bradley also trained as a singer, and at one time, in her younger days, worked as a target for a knife thrower in a carnival.

Married twice, both of Bradley’s unions ended in divorce. Her first marriage to Robert Bradley in 1949 lasted fourteen years and they had one son together. Her second marriage to author Walter Breen in 1964 resulted in a son and a daughter, but ended badly in 1990. She had been separated from him for many years before the divorce was finalized.

During the 1950s, as a young wife with a small son, she became involved in the phenomenon known as science fiction fandom, writing for a variety of fanzines for nothing, but in time moved up to sell to professional science fiction digest magazines. It was here that she gained her writing chops and moved on to create novels of her own, becoming a professional full-time writer and editor by the early 1960s. Her main novel series featured a sword and sorcery themed world known as Darkover, but she also wrote short stories, articles and books in other subjects.

As an author, her most popular novel was The Mists of Avalon which was later made into a major motion picture starring Angelica Houston. The book is a retelling of the Camelot legend from the viewpoint of the female characters.

Bradley died in September of 1999. The year after her death, Marion Zimmer Bradley was posthumously awarded the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

“There is no such thing as a true tale. Truth has many faces and the truth is like to the old road to Avalon; it depends on your own will, and your own thoughts, whither the road will take you.”
― Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon

The Mists of Avalon is a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the perspective of the female characters. The protagonist is Morgaine, a priestess of Avalon who is King Arthur’s half-sister. When Morgaine is eleven years old and her brother is six, there is an attempt on the young prince’s life. Viviane, known as the Lady of Avalon, and aunt to both Morgaine and Arthur, advises King Uther to have the boy fostered away from court for his safety. She also takes Morgaine to initiate her as a priestess of the Mother and to groom her as the next Lady of Avalon.

Time passes and both Morgaine and Arthur become adults. Arthur claims the throne of Britain and defends his kingdom against the invading Saxons. The Lady of Avalon gives him the sword Excalibur that is enchanted to help him gain victory over his enemies. In return, Viviane asks for Arthur to honor the old religion, to which he agrees.

Morgaine becomes a priestess with the full power the title bestows, being able to open the gate between our world and the fey world of Avalon. Morgaine conceives a child during a fertility rite and learns to her horror that the masked father was actually her own half-brother and that the escapade was arranged by her Aunt Viviane. In Viviane’s Pagan mind, the child’s royal blood on both sides is acceptable, but Morgaine was raised by Christians and she is appalled by the act. Morgaine leaves Viviane and Avalon, wishing to have no more to do with the ancient druid religion. She fosters her son Gwydion with her Aunt Morgause and King Lot, then joins her brother’s court.

Being a former priestess, Morgaine has a reputation for “magic”. She has visions and knowledge of herbal medicines. The childless Gwenhwyfar, Queen to King Arthur, asks Morgaine to create a fertility charm in order to help her conceive the son and heir she longs for. The charm works, but not in the manner that Gwenhwyfar expects. Arthur himself invites his best friend Lancelot to join he and Gwenhwyfar in bed as a threesome. This way, a child might be made “in the king’s bed” and thus still any talk that the child would be illegitimate. The Queen is in love with Lancelot and welcomes the chance to have him, but when the union does not result in a child, she grows angry. Gwenhwyfar rejects pagan magic and turns to Christianity to give her the desired heir. From that point forward, she is an advocate to Arthur to bring Christian values to Britain and to forsake the druidic past.

Eventually, Arthur learns that he has a son and he longs to bring the boy to Camelot. However, Gwenhwyfar will not hear of it. To try and create peace for the knight, Morgaine tricks Lancelet into marrying Gwenhwyfar’s cousin Elaine, which angers Gwenhwyfar further. In retaliation, the Queen schemes to marry Morgaine off to a Welsh King to remove her from court. Morgaine believes she will be marrying the king’s youngest son, Accolon who is a Druid priest and warrior, and agrees to the marriage, Later, she finds herself married to King Uriens himself, a man that is old enough to be her grandfather. Trouble ensues and eventually, Morgaine leaves King Uriens court and Wales forever.

Gwydion goes to the Saxon court when he is grown to learn of warfare away from his father’s notice. The Saxons name him Mordred, which means “evil counsel”. When he joins Arthur’s court in Camelot, he introduces himself as Morgaine’s son and Morgause’s foster-son with no mention of who his father might be. Due to his close resemblance to Lancelot, many in the court believe that he is the knight’s son and do not suspect that he is King Arthur’s heir. Gwydion wishes to earn his place without preferential treatment and challenges Lancelot to single combat during a tourney to prove his mettle. Lancelot and the King are impressed by his skills and Lancelot makes Gwydion a knight of the round table, naming him Mordred.

Mordred is not content with being a knight and eventually, he causes King Arthur more problems. You will need to read the book to learn the final outcome of this engrossing tale.

The Mists of Avalon Book CoverI first read The Mists of Avalon when I was in my twenties and it has stuck with me down through the years. I enjoyed the movie that followed and own a copy in my collection. Bradley’s prose is not the strongest, but her descriptions and characters are compelling. In Morgaine, Bradley has created a sympathetic character who makes mistakes, hopes and dreams of a better life and ultimately is swept away by the events of her times.

The central theme is the fall of the old Druid religion and how it was replaced by Christianity. Bradley is not complimentary toward Christians in her book, and normally I would find this to be a detraction, but the unfolding description of Pagan religion is fascinating in its depth. The isle of Avalon felt much like a character with its symbolic dissolving into the mists as the old religion faded from the hearts of the English people.

The book is extremely feminist in theme from the matriarchal Pagan society led by the Lady of Avalon, to the relationship struggles of the various Queens and their control over their Kings. I liked experiencing Arthurian legend via the eyes of its women, it was a unique viewpoint and not something that had been done before.

While I personally enjoyed The Mists of Avalon, I do not know if I would recommend this book to everyone. To men that prefer action and deeds, I fear that they would find this book to be slow and as full of relationships as a romance novel. To Christians who are strong in their faith, I would also be hesitant. The anti-Christian sediments of the author run strong. For people that enjoy a feminist message with fantasy elements, for there is true magic in the book although it is subtle, this novel will have a high appeal.