Books (and a play)

THE STORY OF THE GLITTERING PLAIN Or, the Land of Living Men was William Morris’s first fantasy novel, in which a young knight follows his kidnapped fiancée into the title kingdom of ageless people, where he discovers he’s been manipulated to marry the king’s daughter and forsake his true love. Good, though as in The Wood Beyond the World there’s little explanation of some of the magic, which may reflect the frequent unexplained wonders in the medieval works Morris admired.
After years of reading the “Wolves Chronicles”—Joan Aiken’s multiple sequels to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase—I took advantage of Durham Library’s selection to finish it up, starting with DANGEROUS GAMES, in which London street urchin turned crown agent Dido Twite arrives on a tropical island to bring back an explorer to the court of James IV, only to find herself coping with sorcery, killer snakes, a reclusive king and a scheming usurper. Entertaining, but not the best in the series.
The sequel, MIDWINTER NIGHTINGALE, takes place later enough that Richard IV has replaced James on the throne (the timeline here is somewhat different—the Stuarts never lost power) and ailing himself, plans to pass the crown to Dido’s friend Simon, which poses something of a problem as both men have vanished, a Burgundian army is ready to invade and an aging werewolf is plotting to take the throne. The separate plot threads never knit together successfully, and I never really get the feeling the fate of the nation is at stake (the Gothic tone feels more like someone plotting to steal an inheritance than a kingdom) and it’s annoying the lycanthrope is so ineffective. A weak one.
The final volume, THE WITCH OF CLATTERINGSHAWS, has much of the whimsy I expect from this series as King Simon leads an army against Wendish invaders (“No foreign verbs!”), Dido hunts the Lost Heir to the throne (“Then Simon can go back to painting.”) and the eponymous witch battles evil with a golf club. The book implies that with Simon’s royal duties gone, Dido will be up for marrying him, though that wouldn’t have barred more adventures if Aiken had lived, of course. A good finish.

HENRY IV was a local production that actually fused both parts into one (and follows up with Henry V the following night. The story of how wastrel Prince Hal (who assures the audience he’s only posing as a hedonist so that when he shapes up, his subjects will be that much more impressed) rises to the challenge when Welsh rebel Owen Glendower and nobleman’s son Harry Hotspur seek to overthrow Hal’s father was nicely staged and solidly performed (with Michael Winters from Gilmore Girls as Falstaff). A shame that scheduling forced us to skip Part Two and go home after one. “There are only three honest men unhanged in England, and one of them is fat.”

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