bookish posts reading notes reviews

Josephine Tey reading notes: Brat Farrar

This month’s Reading Notes series is on books by Josephine Tey (the better-known pen-name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). The first post is all about Brat Farrar which is one of my two favorite Tey books. There will be spoilers! (But this matters less with Tey than with most mystery writers.)

brat farrar Brat Farrar does not begin with Brat at all. It begins with a small estate in England, with the family who lives on that estate gathered around for breakfast. Tey is always good at writing settings and characters, but the Ashbys and Latchetts are probably my favorite.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. My favorite is Aunt Bee. I love her. I love more more than anyone else in this book, including Brat. (And I definitely love Brat.) I am not at all objective on the subject of Bee, who I think is a darling and I would like to give her a hug because the rest of this book is going to be wonderful and horrible for her and I love her.

At any rate, throughout Brat Farrar, Tey writes the texture of this small, known, family place, with its quiet and rich history, really well. I find myself having equal and opposite reactions to it: being totally charmed, and at the same time, feeling wary of the essential conservatism inherent in it. After all the thing that drives this book is the idea that there must always be Ashbys at Latchetts. This does get complicated by the end, and yet–and yet.

Into this benign family picture, a small bomb is dropped in the person of Brat Farrar himself. Brat is an orphan who grew up in a Children’s Home and who bears a striking resemblance to Simon Ashby–the Ashbys, it is established, having a strong family resemblance in general. Brat just happens to meet a former neighbor of the Ashbys and is argued into taking the place of Patrick Ashby, the oldest child of the family, who committed suicide after the death of his parents.

We maybe really shouldn’t like Brat, but I really do. Perhaps because Tey takes pains to compare Brat to Patrick–both are quiet, kind, essentially gentle and lovely human beings. Brat himself becomes partisan on Patrick’s behalf. As he takes Pat’s place, he also genuinely comes to care for the other Ashbys, especially Bee, Eleanor, and Jane.

(I will say here and now that I do not believe that ending with Eleanor at all. I just fundamentally don’t believe it. I would quite willingly read Brat as asexual; he cares a great deal about people but I just don’t see him being romantically interested. It feels like a tacked-on sop to convention and I dislike it a lot.)

What’s missing from this book for a good portion of it is a mystery. Patrick Ashby died and Brat has taken his place. There’s perhaps a minor kind of mystery within the story as Aunt Bee and Mr. Sandal (the family solicitor) try to determine if Brat is actually Patrick or not. But for quite a while, we’re simply given this lovely family story, perhaps with some semi-ominous undertones.

And then Brat has some worries about Patrick, and what did actually happen, and then we’re told a good 100 pages from the ending exactly whodunnit, if not exactly how. It’s a peculiar setup, and yet it’s oddly effective. Because a large part of this book is about the lengths people will go to to avoid the truth. The fact that Simon Ashby has been cruel and self-absorbed for most of his life is explained away again and again by those closest to him. It takes Brat, a stranger who also has a connection to the family, to see the truth and act on it.

In a way, this is a story about a certain kind of male pride–one of the key clues to Simon’s real character is the fact that he drops a girl he was interested in as soon as she has a good horse and the chance of beating him. As Brat thinks, “What kind of creature was this Simon Ashby, who could not bear to be beaten by the girl he was in love with?” It’s the way that pride operates within the kind of excusing, “boys will be boys,” culture which allows Simon to get away with it for so long.

And yet, I would hardly call this a feminist book. It’s pretty cruel in places to some of the women portrayed. It also suffers from some of Tey’s ongoing flaws: a propensity to insert Tey’s own views into the mouths of characters who would never say such things, and a dogged persistent racism and xenophobia that mar all of her books to one degree or another.

Although these flaws are real and present, I also do find myself helplessly in love with Brat, with Bee, with the Ashbys and Latchetts. I think it’s most of all because of Brat–because despite the situation he has a kind of reluctant and yet steadfast integrity that keeps him from accepting a comfortable, poisoned existence.

The book ends with a kind of bittersweet hope. Brat survives; Simon does not; Latchetts survives; Bee and Brat leave. For all the worry over keeping an unending line of Ashbys at Latchetts, everyone seems to accept that Eleanor and the younger girls will stay there. The hope lies mostly in Bee and Brat making a new life and a new place together, in Brat’s being given his own place in the family, in Patrick’s finally being given justice. It’s a less positive ending than many mysteries of that era, and yet I find it all the more memorable for that.

Book source: personal library
Book information: 1950; adult mystery

Looking for my other Josephine Tey posts? 

The Daughter of Time

A Shilling for Candles

Miss Pym Disposes; The Singing Sands; The Man in the Queue; To Love and Be Wise

bookish posts reading notes reviews

Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: The Empty Kingdom

In June, I’ve been looking at Elizabeth Wein’s Aksum series. This is the last published book in the series, which continues from The Lion Hunter and concludes that arc.

The Empty Kingdom opens with Telemakos still in disgrace, and yet–because he’s Telemakos–trying to get a message to his aunt and father about Abreha’s betrayal. It’s an amazing scene, that shows both Abreha and Telemakos in a complicated light. As a reader, I can see Abreha’s desire to both honor Telemakos and make him his own. Telemakos, I think, can sense this without quite seeing it.

I mentioned the Scions in my last post, and in this second book we see the payoff of their companionship with Telemakos. This book is full of quietly heartbreaking scenes, but the two when the Scions, at some personal risk, declare themselves are among the most powerful. There’s an understated bravery here when Inas tells him, “We are with you. We are all with you,” which in turn gives Telemakos hope and courage.

There’s a running theme of Telemakos being compared to his uncle, Lleu, the lost Prince of Britain. And it happens again here, almost immediately. A visiting Roman (Byzantine) legate tells him, “You put me in mind of Lleu…[who] had a backbone of steel beneath his winning charm.” This is one of the clearest and most personal comparisons, and it’s very true, both of Lleu and Telemakos.

One of the other major themes throughout the series is the question of trust. And in this book that really comes to the fore. The conflict between Abreha and Telemakos is really one of trust. Does Abreha trust Telemakos to be loyal to Himyar? Does Telemakos trust Abreha to have his best interests at heart? Unlike the past books, Telemakos faces an antagonist who isn’t truly an antagonist, who wants Telemakos to like and respect him. You could write a mirror image of this book from Abreha’s point of view and it would be almost as true.

Because, of course, they’re both manipulative and conniving, and fairly ruthless. Telemakos is at this point a practiced spy and is so used to being secretive that at one point he thinks, “It was wonderful to be damned. You did not have to guard yourself at all.” If that isn’t a revealing statement, I don’t know what is. And Goewin warned Telemakos of Abreha’s cool ruthlessness like a book and a half ago; we see him again be both kindly and cruel. He takes everything away from Telemakos, and then holds him during a nightmare, ” clasping him firmly hand in hand and stroking his hair.” (HANDS AGAIN.)

But there are two other characters who in their own way are also part of this dance. Medraut, who shows up in a scene that’s heartbreaking but also the moment I like him most in the later books because he is finally present, using his strengths in defense of his children and not lost in regretting the past. And Athena. It’s so easy to see her as only little and to forget whose child she is, to forget that Telemakos himself was sneaking through the palace just a few years older than she is here. The moment when she shows herself is so viscerally heartbreaking. It reminded me not just of her relationship to Telemakos and Medraut, but Goewin too.

Underlying the outward political issues, there’s also the recurrence of Telemakos’s fear and the anger and hatred he feels stemming from it. It’s a weakness that Abreha both uses and tries to train out of him, but it’s not until he comes face to face with Anako at the end of the book that he’s truly freed. There’s an arc from fear and hatred to pity and mercy which is shown almost as miraculous: Telemakos thinks, “In the end all my fear is gone. How can it have happened? but there’s only pity left.”

I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s after this moment that Telemakos begins to act, rather than react. We see him take authority over himself, rather than being a tool in the hand of powerful adults (he’s always been an uneasy tool, but still). We see him find himself again, when he’s been everything but just Telemakos Meder and has been so far from home. (I love the moment when Priamos greets him: “Peace to you, Telemakos Meder. You’ve been lost.” That greeting has been used to great effect throughout the series, but nowhere is it more emotionally resonant than here.)

I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s after this that he and Abreha finally coming to a wary understanding with each other, that we discover Abreha’s threats were hollow all along and Telemakos is heir to three kingdoms. Both have misjudged and mistrusted the other; both have been strict where they could have been kind. And yet in the end they manage to reach a kind of stalemate, but also a new appreciation of each other.

All of this finally leads up to the ending, which I love dearly. It leads to Telemakos going home, to Athena calling him by name. It’s all hopes fulfilled, when they were lost. “She did not walk. She ran.”

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2008, Viking; YA

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Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: The Lion Hunter

lion hunterThis month I’m looking at the Aksum series by Elizabeth Wein; I’ve already talked about A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird. This post discusses The Lion Hunter, which is the first of a two-part sequence within the series. Please note that there are spoilers!

This book opens with the birth of Telemakos’s baby sister, and a catastrophic attack by the lion he loves. These two interwoven events set up a kind of cascading effect that ties together many of the plot threads and themes from the previous books, and sets up new complications.

So it’s only right that siblings are one of the things that run through the book. Medraut and Goewin; Goewin and Medraut and Lleu; Telemakos and Athena; Abreha and Priamos (and their dead and absent brothers). And, although it’s not stated in this book, nor does Telemakos know this is the case: Gwalchmai and Medraut (which becomes significant later). While Athena and Telemakos are the most obvious sibling pair, the relationship between the other siblings I mentioned all have their own complexity and place in the story.

It’s also right that much of the book deals with what are called at one point, “wounds to the soul.” Turunesh, Medraut, and Telemakos all suffer in their different ways with what we might call post-partum depression and/or PTSD today. This was generally treated with sympathy and depth throughout the story, and I appreciated that a lot. I also liked the “wounds to the soul” phrase as something that both fit the characters’ understanding of the world and was not horribly ableist.

But what this book sets up and builds toward is really Telemakos’s leaving of childhood. In the past two books, he has been extremely competent, resourceful, and wise, but he has still been a child. Now he is growing up, which I think is symbolized by the loss of the lions he captured when he was younger.

This means that Telemakos is so much in a transitional stage–at one point, Abreha says, “I expect he does not yet have the measure of his dominion” and this is true on several levels. There’s a running theme throughout this book and The Empty Kingdom of Telemakos being almost literally unable to see himself as others see him. For instance, he seems to truly believe that people call him Morningstar to laugh at his fair hair, whereas a reader might see the real affection and respect that others feel for him. I suppose this belief does keep him from being insufferably arrogant, however.

It’s also quite interesting to note what other people name Telemakos. Telemakos Morningstar, Lij Bitwoded Telemakos Meder, Beloved, Bright One, Sunbird, Boy. The different names and titles have varying resonances throughout the book, but it’s interesting to note how many of them are how others see Telemakos. None of them, even Athena’s Boy, are necessarily how he thinks of himself, although to me Morningstar felt the most accurate. (As is the case throughout the series, there are some comparisons to Lleu, specifically via the title of Bright One.)

Both Morningstar and Bright One are nicknames given to Telemakos after he and Athena arrive in the South Arabian kingdom of Himyar, which is ruled over by Abreha Anbessa, who is himself Aksumite and the brother of Priamos. Abreha is a fascinating character to me; Goewin calls him a “manipulative political serpent” and he is. But Telemakos also sees his kindness, before he learns to see what Goewin does. Abreha is really, I think, quite a bit like Telemakos: clever and kind, but also utterly ruthless in defense of what he loves.

One of the things that Himyar gives Telemakos is a sense of companionship. He is used to being set apart from other children, but this changes from his first meeting with Iskinder to his later dealings with the Scions. “Never in his life had Telemakos felt so loved, and so at ease, with others more or less his own age.” And this companionship pays off later.

The last major thread that I noticed is of maps, tracking, navigation. He’s given Ginevra’s cross-staff, he has his father’s skill in tracking, and he is sent to be an apprentice to Abreha’s Star-Master. The maps that he copies are a plot point, but they also have a deeper resonance. So much of this story is about Telemakos learning to find his way, both literally, and symbolically.

However, this book is not the entire story. The ending shifts from the sense of warmth and companionship that has typified Abreha’s court, into a sudden reversal of betrayal (arguably on both sides) and distrust. It’s not quite as bad as the ending of The Two Towers, but not by all that much. I’ve never successfully managed to read it and not begin The Empty Kingdom as soon as possible. So I don’t quite have a conclusion, because there isn’t quite a conclusion; there’s an ending, but that’s not the same thing. It’s not until the second book that the build up begins to pay off and Telemakos comes into his own. Also, spoiler: I cry many tears. Next week I’ll talk about why.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2007, Viking/Firebird; YA

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Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: The Sunbird

the sunbirdThis month I’m looking at the Aksum series by Elizabeth Wein; I started with A Coalition of Lions, which is technically the second book but I do what I want. This post focuses on the next book, The Sunbird. Please note that there are spoilers!

The Sunbird marks a shift in the series–up until now, the books have been first person from Medraut’s perspective (The Winter Prince) and first person from Goewin’s perspective (A Coalition of Lions). Now, and for the rest of the series, we switch to third person limited perspective, seeing the world from Telemakos’s point of view. I don’t have any grand theory about the effect of this switch, except that third person seems to fit Telemakos in a way that first doesn’t.

This may have something to do with age. Goewin is, I think, about nineteen in A Coalition of Lions, and here Telemakos is about 10 or 11 (I’m a bit confused about the chronology of these books but have not yet resorted to making a timeline). Nonetheless, he’s quite young and yet about to become one of the most important people in the kingdom.

That all sounds so coherent and English-essay-ish, and really I just want to say, UGH THIS BOOK. I love Goewin and A Coalition of Lions so much (and I think it’s a huge mistake to overlook its importance in the series) but I also love Telemakos. And this is the first of his books, and in some ways the most intense. It’s so much about being a child and being so clever and so quick and so brave–and yet still so powerless against the physical strength of adults.

(I hate Anako. I hate him a lot.)

Although I didn’t reread The Winter Prince this time through, I kept thinking about Lleu, drugged and helpless against Medraut and Morgause, and yet never truly without strength. I don’t think this is a coincidence; Lleu haunts this book as he haunts all of them in this series and Telemakos is compared to him several times. Telemakos has that same mixture of physical helplessness and great inner strength at several points in this story.

And I think Lleu and Telemakos would have similar reactions to Medraut’s self-absorbtion. Telemakos, maybe more clearly than anyone can see how Medraut’s refusal to speak and engage with those around him is selfish and destructive. He challenges Medraut to move beyond his own self-recriminations several times in the series, which is an interesting dynamic.

As a total side-note, Kidane, Telemakos’s grandfather, has ivory chessmen! I feel suspiciously sure that this is a quiet Sayers reference, if only because I know Wein is a fan.

We see a kind of mirror image to Telemakos in Candake’s daughters, Sofya and Esato. They have a different kind of powerlessness, and I like that we see the ways in which Telemakos is more free than they are, because he is a boy, and the ways in which they are more free than he is, because they are really royal. Sofya, who is actually one of my favorite characters in the series, is especially interesting here because she is as clever and determined as Telemakos, and yet she is less rewarded, which I don’t think is an accident.

(One of the things that pops up several times is who notices Telemakos and his ability. Goewin is the main one; she has been able to see what he can become since A Coalition of Lions, but Sofya notices him as well. I noticed on this read through how Sofya and Goewin seem to be quietly compared at several points.)

I know I keep harping on connection, but it is also a major theme that runs through this whole series. And it’s so present here: horrible things happen, but also quiet kindness. About halfway through the book, Goewin tells Telemakos the story of Lazarus and says a phrase that echoes both forward and backward through the story: “That is the moment when his friend saves his life.” We see it in Yesaka crying for Telemakos in the salt mines, in Sofya and Goewin scheming and using their shreds of power to save him. It would be easy to see Telemakos as a hyper-competent, heroic figure, but in fact we’re told explicitly that it’s those around him who allow him to succeed.

Also, I have to mention that I cried at least several pints of tears over Yesaka’s statement at the end of the book: “If I kept silent, it meant I was an agent for the emperor as well. We were comrades, even if you did not know it. If I held silent, I was your conspirator, and neither one of us was alone.” On top of being in several senses the emotional fulfillment of this book, it reminded me so much of the epigraph of Code Name Verity, “Passive resisters must understand that they are as important as saboteurs.”

There’s an interesting image running through this book in particular of tombs, being buried, but also of resurrection. Anako (who I hate) calls himself Lazarus, but he does so falsely. The importance of the Lazarus story, as shown here, is that your friends save you, and that it’s a moment of great, unlooked for joy and wonder. There are moments in this book when it seems impossible that the story could end happily; that it does, with that same sense of unexpected joy, works because we have seen throughout that interweaving of terrible things, and beautiful things.

It works because of Telemakos’s refusal to let anything alone: his father, the emperor’s challenge, the job that he knows he has to do. His stubborn integrity is in many ways more like Goewin’s than Medraut’s, and it’s a large part of what makes him so appealing, what keeps him from simply being an appalling prodigy. He undertakes tremendous tasks, at great risk (and the consequences aren’t shied away from) but he also refuses to take the easy road, and in so doing makes possible the reward at the end.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2004, Firebird; YA