Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

My Rating: 1.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.50 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.10 / 5.00

Morgaine, half-sister to the legendary King, is the central character in this epic retelling of the Arthurian legend.

I have to admit that I approached this title with huge expectations. It is repeatedly given rave reviews for its feminist take on the Arthurian legend and is often held aloft as a classic of the Fantasy genre. It was also highly recommended during the Women in SF&F month at Fantasy Cafe. Add into the mix the fact that I am quite fond of the Arthurian legend and its retellings in literature, and I find it very difficult to truly express how massively disappointed I was by this title.

I once heard someone talking about watching Wagner’s operas, saying that you feel as if you have been listening for three hours and then look at your watch to find that only ten minutes have passed. I felt something very similar when I began to read the somewhat daunting brick that I borrowed from the library. I read and read and read and looked up to find that I was still on page eleven. After several more hours of self-imposed torture I had staggered to approximately page sixty, at which point the remaining eight hundred pages looked like a cruel and unnecessary punishment to inflict upon myself and I gave up. Sometimes life is just too short to spend so much time being miserable!

So, what was my problem: why could I not force myself to read this much beloved tome? It certainly was not the length of the book. I am currently half way through the fourteen volume monstrosity that is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and am happily hurting my wrists wrestling with the one thousand page door stop that is The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. No, I am quite happy reading long books: in fact many of my favorites are mammoth tomes that almost knock me out if I let them fall onto my face whilst reading in bed.

I have to admit that I was severely disturbed by a plot point early on, where there is reference to Christianity arriving in England before the Romans. Even if one discounts the invasions led by Julius Caesar in 55-54 BCE, there is little chance that Christianity could have arrived before the Emperor Claudius began his conquest in 43 CE. There was also mention of the raiding Scots, even though that term was not applied to any of the tribes living in what is now Scotland: the Scotti tribe were actually from modern day Ireland. These are points of historical knowledge that would probably not bother other readers, but they made me lose a great deal of confidence in the author and her research.

However, my biggest problems with this title was the writing and the horribly weak female characters that I encountered. I have read plenty of dense historical texts and convoluted biochemical pathways laid out as a wall of text, and I am afraid to say that this book was on a similar level for its ease of reading and absorption. I am a slow reader, and yet even I am not familiar with taking over five minutes to read a single page. This slowness was not because I had to reread sections to understand them, but because the language was so dense and detail-laden that it simply took me that long to physically move my brain through the information that it was trying to absorb. If you think Tolkien that is dry to read, then I heartily recommend that you avoid this title all together. The prose is so convoluted and over-worked that reading it is almost like wading through treacle. Not only is the writing difficult to work through, but it is also stuffed full of pointless, boring details. I do not really care what exactly Igraine is wearing every time we see her, or what everyone else is wearing or what they eat, etc., etc. We all know that life was harsh and the women spent most of their time raising children or running their household, so I really do not need to know what shade of brown she is wearing each day.

Considering that this is supposed to be a feminist tract, I had rather hoped to see a great deal less of the boring day to day tedium and explore a little more of how these women were exerting their power over their own worlds. Only we do not get a sense of that at all. Igraine is thoroughly down trodden and really rather wet. She was married off to her husband because that was what the Goddess wanted. I know that she was only sixteen or so when she married him, but that was not all that young at that time. The Empress Livia was already pregnant with her second child when she met and wooed the man who would become the Emperor Augustus. She divorced her existing husband and married Augustus soon afterwards at the grand old age of twenty. We forget that, in this period of history, a woman of fourteen was just that: a woman.

I got no sense that Igraine was anything other than a teenager: petulant and yet ineffective. She openly states that she refuses to obey the next demand from the goddess but is swept along by fate, agreeing to go to Londinium and strangely attracted to the man that she is supposed to seduce in order to conceive Arthur. No doubt she falls under his spell and gives in, otherwise the story would have been much shorter, but I did not feel as if she truly felt compelled by the wises of the Goddess or that she was actively trying to avoid the fate laid out for her. This seemed like a real misstep, because Igraine commits adultery to conceive Arthur and I would have liked to see some purposeful decision-making from her one way or the other.

In short, this was a very disappointing experience for me and has led me to remove this title from my list of books for the Worlds Without End 2014 Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge. I have replaced it with The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent, in the hope that will I have more fun with that title.

For those of you looking for alternative versions of the Arthurian legend that are well worth a read, I can suggest the excellent Arthur Books by Bernard Cornwell as well as The Arthurian Saga by Mary Stewart.


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