October 20, 2016

(++++) BY THE GODS

Gifts from the Gods: Ancient Words & Wisdom from Greek & Roman Mythology. By Lise Lunge-Larsen. Illustrated by Gareth Hinds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

Celestial Battle, Book Three: Black Jade. By Kylie Chan. Harper Voyager. $7.99.

     A fascinating foray into linguistics by way of mythology, Lise Lunge-Larsen’s Gifts from the Gods, originally published in 2011 and now available in paperback, is an unusual and very successful melding of storytelling with educational explanation. Lunge-Larsen takes various names of ancient Greek and Roman gods and shows, through stories, what their personalities were – then explains how their names have stayed in circulation to the present day, with meanings derived from the old beliefs about the gods and their behaviors. She introduces each story with a short quotation from a modern children’s book, in which the word that will be in focus appears. That means, for example, using Beverly Cleary’s Emily’s Runaway Imagination in connection with “fortune” and Lemony Snicket’s The Slippery Slope to introduce “fate.” This is more than clever – it is offbeat enough to pull in readers who may know the quoted books but have not focused on the specific words that are the topic here. And the stories themselves are gripping. The chapter on “fury” starts with Gareth Hinds’ appropriately macabre illustration of the three Furies, with snakes used to fasten their robes and blood dripping from their black eyes; then explains how the Furies hounded three murderers to madness; and then discusses the modern words “infuriate,” “furious” and “furor,” whose derivation from these goddesses makes perfect sense. There is an interesting chapter on the two-faced god Janus and the way his name appears not only in “January” but also in “janitor,” and a chapter explaining that the Muses not only gave us the word “museum” but also gave us “music” and “musical.” A few elements here need more explanation than the book has room for, such as the fact that the personal spirit in which Romans believed, a Genius, was identical to what the Greeks called a Daemon – but the Roman concept came down the ages as a positive one and the Greek concept as a negative (the detailed reasons for this, relating to early Christianity, would be far too complex for this book, but a brief hint about them would have been possible). Lunge-Larsen is generally a fine storyteller – helped, to be sure, by the fact that the Greek and Roman myths are such wonderful stories. And it is both revelatory and a lot of fun to learn that, for example, the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos, gives us the word “hypnosis,” while the identical god as named by the Romans, Somnus, gives us “insomnia.” Gifts from the Gods is a fine gift of knowledge for contemporary mortal children.

     Black Jade, the long-awaited conclusion of Kylie Chan’s Celestial Battle trilogy, is about a whole different set of gods and is a wholly different sort of story. It is written for adults and intended as a grand and sweeping series finale. But this (+++) novel, while a must-read for those who have already gone through Dark Serpent and Demon Child, is disappointingly bland after all the build-up that has come before. There is the requisite doom-and-gloom through much of the book’s early part, as the good guys lose and lose again and have one bad thing after another happen – but any reader will know they will triumph eventually, so this goes on too long. There are nine final chapters concerned mainly with knitting up loose ends, which makes for a rather dull, if necessary, narrative. But some crucial elements of the complex plot are simply dropped – for example, much has been made of the lost, damaged “stones,” and they are talked about at considerable length here, but Chan never says what happens to them. Emma, who narrates the book, is carried along by events rather than being a prime mover of them; this weakens the entire plot line. She does get married – twice – but she is mostly someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes them happen. There are also some tying-it-up elements that are just plain sloppy: the Eastern Demon King is eventually killed simply because he is caught off-guard by a character he has underestimated. That is an anticlimax, not a climax. Indeed, in many ways Black Jade as a whole is anticlimactic. It may have been asked to carry far too much weight: in some senses it concludes not only Celestial Battle but also the previous trilogies, Dark Heavens and Journey to Wudang. And in other senses it is no conclusion at all: its final chapters open up new vistas for several characters, and it seems inevitable that Chan will spin out additional trilogies now that this one is finished. Treaties, impersonations, grand battles, one-on-one duels, politics, family issues – they are all here, and fans of Chan’s earlier books in Celestial Battle and her other series will not be disappointed in the pacing and much of the activity here (although the climaxes in general, not only that of the Eastern Demon King, tend to be on the mild side). But on balance, this is a workmanlike conclusion to an epic, not one showing much spark of inspiration – it does the job of finishing things and paving the way for the future, but lacks the sort of sit-up-and-take-notice intensity that one would hope to encounter at the end of a gigantic series of battles involving demons and gods.

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