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Tag: mythology

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Publishing a review that has been lounging in my drafts unnoticed:
“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.” 
Had you met me three years ago, you would have found me at the height of my Trojan War obsession. That was the time I devoured The Iliad and many retellings and novelettes based on the myths. The Odyssey did not capture my attention quite as much as the other Homeric epic, but I did read it, for the great beauty of verse that only the Robert Fitzgerald translation can offer.
I lost much of that rapture for these stories sometime in the last three years, and it was invigorating to revisit them with The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Ever since I finished reading it last night, I have been thinking about it – enough to burst into pressing soliloquies (speaking to myself, much like writing, helps me think) in the confines of my four walls. It’s a cleverly written book, quite a Odysseus-like trickster in plot and wordsmithery.
The Penelopiad is the story of Odysseus and his wife Penelope through her eyes, instead of his. But get this – the story is set in present-day, when the Penelope has been dead for thousands of years and speaks to us from beyond the River Styx, from the netherworld of Hades. She has spent her time reassessing the events that took place before and following the now mythical Trojan War and she wants to get word out of what really happened: her defense. You see, Homer’s Odyssey ends with great bloodshed, and among the dead are twelve of Penelope’s maids, whose death Atwood feels was most unfair and offensive, and the one tragedy in the Odyssey that has gone ignored for too long.
The Odyssey begins after the Fall of Troy, when the Greeks have set sail for home. In the Odyssey, while Odysseus is on his way back to his land, Ithaca, his wife Penelope is coaxed by many suitors, young princes who wish to take advantage of the lonely woman and the treasures of the empire. Upon Odysseus’s return, the suitors have gone too far, and raided the palace for food and spoils and have raped the maids and even tried to force themselves upon Penelope. He enters the palace disguised as a beggar, unbeknownst to even Penelope, outwits the suitors and wins her hand in marriage. He then orders them all to be killed. And, Penelope’s maids, whom he believes to have been traitors in cahoots with the suitors, are hanged by Odysseus’s son Telemachus, a meer teen at the time of these events.
These maids of Penelope sing of their plight and fling accusations at the heroes of the book, the author and history for forgetting about them. It is a tricky book, and the running chorus of the maids, which forms a large part of the book, is only one of its tricks. The maids sing their chorus in myriad forms – a folk song, ballad, iambic verse and so on. They say: 
we danced in air
our bare feet twitched 
it was not fair 
with every goddess, queen, and bitch 
from there to here you scratched your itch 
we did much less 
than what you did 
you judged us bad
With the Penelopiad, Atwood tries to add to the Homeric epics what time and the bard failed: women characters with some semblance of agency. In the original Iliad, Penelope waits and even her smallest attempts at cleverness fail – she does not recognize Odysseus, her own husband whom she’s been awaiting, when he enters their palace. In this book, she does, but for reasons critical to Atwood’s twist ending, chooses not to reveal this information. In Atwood’s story, Penelope is not simply waiting, you see, but plotting her own way out of her dilemma. She’s sent out search parties for Odysseus and has instructed her maids to work for her. It is unbeknownst to her that the maids are brutally murdered by Odysseus – and even now, centuries later, Penelope sits in the netherworld and repents for his actions. The maids still haunt her. 
This is one of the many misconceptions explained by Penelope of history as we know it. The other major discrepancy in historical writing is the innocence of Helen. In an at once dry, bitter and biting tone, Atwood’s Penelope characterises Helen of Troy as a woman who uses her beauty to get away with anything. Helen is Penelope’s cousin and in appearance, her complete opposite, strikingly attractive. Penelope also considers her vain and seeking the attention that men give her, basking in the wars she causes. Her unfairly strong condemnation of Helen is possibly her way of acquiring narrative justice, but also seems to show this spirit of feminine rivalry that Helen may have caused in the wake of her decisions. The epics only talk of the effect on men of Helen’s beauty, we can only yet imagine the female perspective. Atwood has strong opinions on female relations. Even so, the flow of double-standards from Penelope’s tongue is unpalatable. It surprises me that a book that heavily addresses the vulnerability of women in the time of men and gods has no sympathy for Helen. 
Another problem with the book is that I somehow don’t buy it – while the epics do lack with women with any kind of active power, Penelope is one of the stronger prominent characters of Homer. I do not believe she needed an update. That said, The Penelopiad is somehow brilliantly written. The wry sarcastic sort of voice that I have somehow begun to associate with Atwood (though I’ve barely read two or three of her books) is interesting. It frequently elicited chuckles from me. And it definitely made me marvel at Atwood’s clever use of narrative techniques. Would like to see the play some day!
All in all, an interesting book, but not nearly my favourite in the Canongate Myths series. I somewhere that Atwood was originally working on a retelling of the Norse myths for the same series. Glad she did not take it up. This is provided in the series by A.S. Byatt’s retelling of the Norse apocalypse in the most brilliant and underrated book titled Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. A real treasure, that book is! My favourite myth retold though is not a Canongate book, but is Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, a retelling of Psyche and Cupid, from the point of view of Psyche’s sister – a haunting tale. What about you? Any retellings of myths or fairy tales that you would recommend?

On Translation and reading The Iliad by Homer

I spent this entire morning snuggled up in bed reading the final fifty pages of The Iliad, aloud, to myself, because out loud is the only way the book should be read, trust me on this. The blog has been in a slump through December and I can’t think of a better way to revive it than by sharing impromptu musings on my new-found respect for translators and a glimpse at the best reading experience of my life – yes, that’s what it’s been. It’s The. Effing. Iliad.

In all honesty, a part of me wanted to read The Iliad for the same reason you’d want to read Proust – so I could say I’ve read it. I was looking at attending university, studying literature and hardly well versed as I am in classics, I thought being legitimately able to insert “When I read the Iliad…” into conversation would tip the scales in my favour. Of course, that was only one reason. Another was just trying my hand at reading an epic. I chose The Iliad because it was a History Channel film on Helen of Troy I’d seen as a kid that had first sparked my interest, if a dull spark back then, in mythology.

Choosing the translation was a difficult business. This was back in July; I spent days perusing Wikipedia’s English Translations of Homer page. I did not want to pick something too heavy or clunky to get through and end up abandoning it. Finally, I narrowed my choices down to the post-1950s translations by Richmond Lattimore (most recommended,) Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald. Sampling their translations on Amazon, I found Fitzgerald the easiest to follow and the most poetic. Interestingly, my copy arrived with a blurb on the back cover by Atlantic Monthly that says,

“Fitzgerald has solved virtually every problem that has plagued translators of Homer. The narrative runs, the dialogue speaks, the military action is clear, and the repetitive epithets become useful texts rather than exotic relics.”


I won’t get into what I thought of the epic. It is still far too fresh in my mind for that. But reading this book has completely made me question an initial unthinking stance on translators and here’s why. Homer is not easy and Fitzgerald just plays with words. The writing is beautiful and I cannot stress enough how smoothly the writing flows, how rhythmic it is; how deceptively with-ease he makes rhymes. It retains the conversational-recital tone of the epic, and it can be experienced, as is appropriate, without academic help.

Reading The Iliad made me realize and accept the very critical and influential role of a translator in literature. Not as the commonly described “bridge between reader and writer,” which attempts to sound all profound but is basically a definition of the job. A translator is an interpreter and giver of new / deeper meaning. A good translator should peel back the layers of a narrative, maintaining or adding aesthetic quality, sure, but mostly – making a text more accessible to his intended audience. And that is something that I never thought about before, the simple idea that a translator may have his own intended reader that might not be the same as the writer’s. Translation is maybe not a strict replacing meaning-for-meaning work that has everything to do with language. Taking focused liberties with a piece could make a great translator out of a good one. 
I’ve come to realize recently that I think as I write which makes me often end up in winding lanes of thought and incomplete corners. But that’s how I am. So, I’ll leave this characteristic half-formed idea with a far more coherent comment (which I hope it’s okay to repost) by a fellow blogger, Viktoria, on my review of Translator Translated by Anita Desai
I have noticed when it comes to poetry that they like to use the word interpretation instead of translation. Which makes sense. I really think of all translation as interpretation, and come to think of it, I think the act of reading, whether across language borders or not, is interpretation. I have been in enough book discussion groups to know that my reading can differ a whole lot from my neighbours reading. Actually, I think what makes literature great is its capacity to contain and express my own experiences. It´s like writing is the art of embracing and affirming every potential reader. So, I would argue, there is an art to reading that is kin to the art of translating. Its mother, perhaps.

Something to chew on. I’ll post more on reading The Iliad later. It’s good to be back. 

Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov

I read a lot these days, putting all my spare time into it. What I need to catch up on is my reviews. This is an interesting book I read the other day that I’d highly recommend to mythology and language buffs. I mean, look at the cover, wouldn’t you like to know where all those words came from?
I had a couple of hours to kill at the university the other day, so I wandered into the Mythology and Religion section of the library, which these days has turned into a default response to free time. A slim book caught my eye, Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov.
The book is just what the title says, an account of Greek (and Roman) myths and the many words coined from them. The book begins at the beginning, with the first thing that ever came into existence, which the Greeks called Chaos. From the void came the deities, like Gaia (Roman Gaea) and Ouranos (Roman Uranus.) Their children were the Titans. Kronos, the most powerful Titan, revolted against and drove away Uranus. The Titans were followed by the Olympians, when Zeus tricked his father Cronus, defeated the Titans and imprisoned then. The book then retells the stories of demigods and monsters, the tales of men and heroes and lastly, the legend of the siege of Troy. It’s a simple but detailed account, nice for those not familiar with the myths and not too long to bore those who already are. 
Asimov spends a long time listing all the planets and stars named after the Greek mythical beings, but since I’m no expert in astronomy, I could only comment that I found it interesting. What I really liked were the little bits of information, from the obvious like all geo- words being derived from Gaea, to the fact that there is an atlas bone in our body, which is aptly the one our head rests on. Eos, sister of Hyperion and goddess of dawn, gave us the word ‘east.’ The Roman god of sleep was called Somnus, as in somnabulist, and his son was the god of dreams, Morpheus, as in morphine. Pan was a son of Hermes, and had hindquarters, legs, ears and horns of a goat. The Roman equivalent of Pan, the spirit of nature, was Faunus, who gave us both ‘fauna’ and ‘faun.’ Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruit trees, which is where pomegranate comes from, as does Pomona Sprout!
In the chapter about the siege of Troy, which obviously was my favourite part, Asimov retold the Iliad myth, pausing to name the many phrases derived from it. I was thrilled, because the only one I ever knew was “Achilles heel.” But I did have a feeling that some of them were a bit stilted. Tell me if you’ve seen any of these used, “the apple of discord,” “to sulk like Achilles in his tent,” “I fear the Greeks, even when they come bearing gifts.” Other phrases not related to the Troy myth that Asimov mentioned included “to cut the Gordian knot” from a story of Alexander the Great, “to throw a sop to Cerberus” inspired from the three-headed dog guarding hell.
Asimov has also written the book Words from History. I can’t wait to get my hands on that! 

Shadow on the Sun by Richard Matheson

My next read for R.I.P. IX. Thanks, Delia, for the recommendation. I loved the book.

He started as a fire brand seemed to burst forth from nowhere. He saw it moving in the darkness like a flaming insect. 
Then the bonfire was ignited and its stacked wood flamed up with a crackling roar.
Now he could see the Apaches gathered in a giant circle around the mounting fire, all of them seated  cross- legged, their faces reflecting the flames like burnished oak, their dark eyes glowing as they stared at the fire. Who were they? he wondered. What were they thinking? Once again, he felt completely foreign to the moment, trapped in some unearthly vision.

Summary: Southwest Arizona, a century ago. An uneasy true exists
between the remote frontier community of Picture City and the neighboring
Apaches. That delicate peace is shredded when the bodies of two white men are
found hideously mutilated. The angry townspeople are certain the “savages” have
broken the treaty, but Billjohn Finley, the local Indian agent, fears that
darker, more unholy forces may be at work. There’s a tall, dark stranger in
town, who rode in wearing the dead men’s clothes. A stranger, who is incredibly strong, looks neither white nor Injun, who has a scar around his neck, a stranger who may not be
entirely human.

My thoughts: I’ve always felt that all horror works on suspense, not
knowing what comes next, not being able to understand what happens; that causes fear. Shadow on the Sun by Richard Matheson shows the
difference between suspense and intrigue.
The plot of this western, as you can see, is fairly
straightforward. About six pages in, and with one glance at that first cover, you can guess what should have been the
biggest mystery of all – what mauled the two young men and how is it related to
that strange man with the scar around his neck? But that’s the thing about this
book. Knowing who is behind the killings, knowing how a man is able to brutally
mangle his victims, the knowledge that the crux of the mystery lies in
Native American mythology doesn’t make the story any less scary. Suspense – uncertainty of fact – is one quality of horror. If wielded
effectively, intrigue is a much better tool. You have all the answers you could
ask for and yet, every time the stranger steps onto the page with his scornful smile you find yourself shuddering. 
Shadow on the Sun is about a clash of cultures. About the suspicion with which we view every new thing, the evil inhuman intentions, the capacity to swiftly lay blame, the misplaced high mindedness that lies at the heart of every colonization. That the young Harvard graduate officer Boutelle, or the vengeful brother of the two victims believe the murders are the work of the savage Indians shows a terrible conviction that humans are capable of every bit as much horror as a supernatural demon. It makes you wonder how we think so little of ourselves.

(Spoiler!) Billjohn Finley is the bridge between the two cultures and you can see him struggling to make sense of the savagery to the sceptical Boutelle – the fact that Little Owl died of fear, that his remains would be burnt inside his house, that Braided Feather and his tribe would perform a cleansing ceremony to dispel the work of evil forces. The dreamlike scene when Boutelle witnesses the ceremony and learns the story of the son of Vandaih, the man-eagle, is important because that’s when a part of his mind opens up to the possibility of some truth in the myth, because all the details start falling neatly in place, the man and his scar, the shaman, the Night Doctor, the mutilated bodies, the Indians’ obvious uncontrollable fear of the stranger, the inhuman shrieks in the forest. (end of Spoiler!) 

The stranger, the tall large man with the scar around his neck, from his physical description and his alienated behaviour, his desperation, his unthinking ruthlessness, is reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster. The fact that he’s looking for a Night Doctor only strengthens the impression. Whether he carries the blame for what he was turned into is not a question to address in this story, but the likeness could not be unintentional.

The thing that makes this book special, like the other two I’ve read by Matheson, is the clean-cut precision of the story. It begins mid-action and ends on just the right note, leaving us to conjure up a suitable tying up of loose ends. The plot is crisp, the mood evocative, and every word seems deliberately chosen to make you shiver. A nice, short read by a great writer – recommended by Stephen King as the author who influenced him the most as a writer – what more could you want?

Ransom by David Malouf

Reminiscent of: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

Summary: The Iliad begins with Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest strength, refusing to fight for them, for Agamemnon, who insulted him. But he is the only one who can defeat the Trojan prince Hector. One of the greatest stories of The Iliad is Achilles’ final vengeful slaughter of Hector, his darkest moments that follow, and King Priam’s daring un-kingly attempt to ransom his son’s body from the cruel Achilles. The unlikely meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, in the middle of a Greek camp, at the centre of an unending war, makes a beautiful story of loss.

“If the last thing that happens to me is to be hunted down in the heart of my citadel, and dragged out by the feet, and shamelessly stripped and humiliated, so be it. But I do not want that to be the one sad image of me that endures in the minds of men. The image I mean to leave is a living one. Of something so new and unheard of that when men speak my name it will stand forever as proof of what I was. An act, in these terrible days, that even an old man can perform, that only an old man dare perform, of whom nothing now can be expected of noise and youthful swagger. Who can go humbly, as a father and as a man, to his son’s killer, and ask in the gods’ name, and in their sight, to be given back the body of his dead son. Lest the honour of all men be trampled in the dust.’’
My thoughts: So: did I mention I’ve been on kind of a Troy-high lately? I’m halfway through the Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad and have been catching up on my Greek mythology; reading novels based on the Trojan war, because there’s no better way to learn stuff than through stories. Last week, I wrote about The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s a book full of glamour and passion, but this book is the complete opposite. I’d read and appreciated Ransom by David Malouf before, but this reread has me inspired. This book is amazing. Brilliantly composed. 
The author adds character to the myth, life stories and feelings. We see Achilles in the ruthlessness that even he can’t comprehend. Angry and impulsive Achilles who leaves the war, then rejoins it to avenge his friend’s murder, kills Hector and mercilessly drags around his bones for days to follow. But he’s burning inside; even as the Myrmidons begin to resent their leader’s bold cruelty, we find him not cruel, but pitiful.
And then we see Priam, ransomed from slavery by his sister through Heracles, we meet his sons and daughters and Hecuba, his Queen. Ransom is about a King – a symbol – and about the man behind that image, a man who finally breaks through to do right by his son. In a time when all was left to the will of the Gods, we see the one man who took fate in his hands, a ruler who exercised his free will and set out to plead to his enemy, Priam who put his life in the hands of chance. Guided by Hermes, in a cart drawn by mules, belonging to a poor stranger, Priam sees the real Troy for the first time. 
And the story is also about the cart driver, a stranger who is hired to play the part of Priam’s herald for one journey, an old man whose views about the world make all the difference to Priam’s actions, an old man who witnesses in one night a great chunk of history and, throughout his life, even after the fall of Troy, retells it to a thousand disbelieving ears. His presence in this novella makes you wonder about stories and the true truth. It reminded me of Odysseus’s speech in The Song of Achilles about how there is no telling who earns immortal fame and whose glory is lost in time.
Masterfully written, Ransom by David Malouf is packed with wit and emotion. It’s 5/5, incredibly highly recommended.

In his own world a man spoke only to give shape to a decision he had come to, or to lay out an argument for or against. To offer thanks to one who had done well, or a reproof, either in anger or gentle regret, to one who had not. To pay a compliment whose decorative phrases, and appeals to vanity or family pride, were fixed and of ancient and approved form. Silence, not speech, was what was expressive. Power lay in containment. In keeping hidden, and therefore mysterious, one’s true intent. A child might prattle, till it learned better. Or women in the seclusion of their own apartments.


But out here, if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn’t silence at all, it was a low, continuous rustling and buzzing and humming, as if each thing’s presence was as much the sound it made as its shape, or the way it had, which was all its own, of moving or being still.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (which, incidentally, J. K. Rowling loved) is a re-imagining of the Trojan war from the point of view of Patroclus, whose minor appearance in the Iliad has the greatest consequences. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about stop reading when I say, “Spoiler!”)
Overall impression: I’d rate this book a 3.5 / 5. It’s an engaging read, recommended to those interested in Greek or Trojan mythology. That being said, there are countless interpretations of the Iliad, and it may be unfair to expect it to do something that hasn’t been done before. It’s not a retelling. It rarely strays from the original, but will be a good introduction to the myth. 

Summary: As a young boy, Patroclus is one of the princes present at the time when the beautiful Helen chooses to marry the red-haired Menelaus. Along with the other warrior men, Patroclus takes the oath, proposed by Odysseus, to honour Helen’s choice and defend her husband against anyone who’d take her from him. All princes present are enviably handsome, powerful and gifted, while Patroclus is a little boy, feeble, unpromising and a disappointment to his father. One day, at the age of eight, Patroclus accidentally kills a boy who bullies him, and confesses. His father, infuriated by his un-princely humbleness, exiles him to Pythia, a small country ruled by King Peleus. Peleus’s son, sired from the sea-nymph goddess Thetis, is prophecized to be Aristos Achaion, the best of the Greeks. Achilles.
Ignoring all the boys who fight for his attention, Achilles chooses Patroclus as his companion. Their friendship blossoms into love. Even Achilles’s mother finds Patroclus unworthy of her son, and they struggle against all odds to be together. During their apprenticeship with Chiron, king of the Centaurs, news arrives of Queen Helen’s abduction from Sparta and Agamemnon’s appeal to sail to Troy to rescue her. Achilles, unable to trick his fate, and Patroclus, bound by his vow, are recruited to join the Greeks. With the prophecy hanging over their heads, certain that Achilles would die in the war, after the death of Hector, the Myrmidons, commanded by Achilles, set off for Troy.

What I didn’t like: Flitting tenses are annoying, but that’s just me. Patroclus’s narration is often maudlin and he seems infatuated with Achilles and absurdly unaware of his own potential, until the moment it’s revealed to us (surprise!) that Patroclus is the best of the Myrmidons. Patroclus’s descriptions of Achilles are garish and repetitive, and the love scenes are sometimes laughably awkward. At some of the key moments, the purple prose strives to invoke a reaction and we lose the profound simplicity such scenes demand.


What I liked: The Song of Achilles is aptly titled and looks at Achilles in all his glory and terror with an unbiased honesty, that only a lover can show. The story and the point of view turns the hero or the villain, as he’s bound to be either extreme in most interpretations of the myth, into a person. The characters of this book are charmingly fleshed out, my favourites are Odysseus, Thetis and Briseis. The floweriness of Patroclus’s descriptions doesn’t extend to the dialogue, which has a good flow and gives each character his distinct voice.
The all encompassing quality of this book makes it special. It strings together countless stories of all the men of Greece and Ilium and all the Olympian gods, capturing the essence of an epic. It’s clear that a lot of research went into this book, and that makes the absence of information dumps all the better. 

(SPOILER!) From the very first page, beginning with Patroclus’s first person narration, I wondered what would happen after he died. It would be weird if the narrative just stopped after Hector killed Patroclus and the book ended with Hector still alive. No book about Achilles would skip his final revenge. And a shift in point of view so close to the end would be too jarring. So what Miller’s done is use a risky literary device and let the unburied spirit of Patroclus shadow the rest of the war, invisibly watching Achilles’s death and the fall of Troy. It sounds hard to pull off, and seems too contrived at first, but the ghost-narration is wonderfully executed and the book ends on an impossibly happy note. (end of SPOILER)
Favourite conversations:


(a young Achilles, full of hope, in spite of his godly destiny)
“Name one hero who was happy.” 
I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason’s children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus’ back.
“You can’t.” He was sitting up now, leaning forward. 
“I can’t.” 
“I know. They never let you be famous AND happy.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you a secret.” 
“Tell me.” I loved it when he was like this. 
“I’m going to be the first.”


(Chiron, on the futility of war)
Chiron had said once that nations were the most foolish of mortal inventions. “No man is worth more than another, wherever he is from.”  
“But what if he is your friend?” Achilles had asked him, feet kicked up on the wall of the rose-quartz cave. “Or your brother?  Should you treat him the same as a stranger?”  
“You ask a question that philosophers argue over,” Chiron had said. “He is worth more to you, perhaps. But the stranger is someone else’s friend and brother. So which life is more important?”
We had been silent. We were fourteen, and these things were too hard for us. Now that we are twenty-seven, they still feel too hard.


(Odysseus and Pyrrhus on the randomness of glory)
Odysseus inclines his head. “True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another.” He spread his broad hands. “We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?” He smiles. “Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.”
“I doubt it.”
Odysseus shrugs. “We cannot say. We are men only, a brief flare of the torch. Those to come may raise us or lower us as they please.”

Innocent Blood by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell

Innocent Blood by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell has to be the most engrossing, thrilling, fast paced book I have read this year. It is action packed and so, so interesting. The book is the second part in a series titled The Order of the Sanguines, but offers enough background info, detailing on the events of Book #1 (The Blood Gospel), to work as a standalone. It is like a paranormal version of a Dan Brown novel, with vampires, angels and prophecies. 

Summary: A modern scientist, a highly secret eternal spiritual order, and a terrifying power must join forces to bring down a ruthless and cunning enemy and prevent the Apocalypse. 

While exploring a tomb hidden for centuries in the depths of Masada, Israel, brilliant archaeologist Erin Granger began an incredible journey to recover a miraculous ancient artifact tied to Christ himself. The quest introduced her to a diabolical enemy determined to discover the book and use its powers for his own dark ends. It also led her to an ancient and highly secret Vatican order-known simply as the Saguines. Though she survived, the danger has only just begun…

An attack outside Stanford University thrusts Erin back into the fold of the Sanguines. As the threat of Armageddon looms, she must unite with an ancient evil to halt the plans of a man determined to see the world end, a man known only as Iscariot.

My thoughts: People judge vampire fiction far too quickly these days. This book is neither young adult, nor paranormal romance nor anything that would make you roll your eyes and go all skeptic. In a word, Innocent Blood by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell is awesome, so don’t dismiss it as just-another-vampire-related-book.
What I liked: The standouts were: the uniquely sinister take on vampires; the characters picked out of history and mythology, I specially liked the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory; the character development despite the swift pace; the adventure spanning over the world and the ages; the attention to detail. The story was horrific, thrilling, tragic and (here’s a rarity in this genre) quite insightful. And the touch of science fiction, with those ingenious mechanical insects capable of fatally poisoning vampires: wow. The book has left me in complete awe. That it is part of a series and there’s more to come is the icing on the cake.
What I didn’t like: Nothing. The book was as close to perfect as can be! I give it a four star rating, because, not having read the first book, it took me a while to get into context. Some terms were unfamiliar; like the strigoi – the vampires, the Sanguines – the reformed (sort of) vampires priests or the blasphemare – these animals turned into nightmarishly strong monsters after being infected by the blood of the strigoi. I also had to read up on a lot of the Christian elements and the Biblical references, though they were pretty basic and the extra reading was just for me. I don’t know if the themes could be construed as offensive by religious readers, but they were very intriguing and as far as I’m concerned, amazingly unique…  What I’m trying to say is, READ IT.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis

I first started reading this book almost a year ago. I’m glad I didn’t continue reading it back then, I’m sure I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much then as I did now.
Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche and if you haven’t the slightest clue what it is, it’s a good idea to read up on it (that’s what I did) before reading the book. The book is also the last novel C. S. Lewis ever wrote and the only thing I’ve read by him. The book has two parts. The first is the story, as narrated by Orual, Psyche’s half-sister, a woman with a disfigured, unpleasant face, which she hides under a veil. Orual bitterly accuses the Gods of being unjust and writes her side of the story as a complaint against the Gods, even a challenge of sorts. 
Orual is the eldest daughter of the King of Glome, a city not far from Greece. The goddess of Ungit (whom the Greeks call Aphrodite) is jealous of the little Psyche’s beauty and is infuriated by the godly status, which the people assign her. The King is convinced of the existence of a curse and is commanded to sacrifice Psyche to save his kingdom. She is sacrificed to the “God of the Mountain”, Ungit’s son (Cupid is only alluded to in this story), who is supposed to devour Psyche, but instead, falls in love with her. He meets her in secret, however and Psyche is not allowed to look at her ‘husband’. In the original story, when Psyche’s sisters visit her new palace, they get jealous and plan to destroy Psyche’s happiness. They coax her into finding the identity of the God (or what they believe is a monster.) Cupid flees when Psyche sees him and she is put through a series of horrible tests to win back her love. In the retelling, Lewis shows us how it is impossible for the sisters to have seen the palace, when they simply didn’t believe. Telling the story from Orual’s point of view gives it a new… face, for lack of a better word. It poses all the questions that would come up in a mortal’s head after reading a story like this one. The second part of the book does a wonderfully unexpected job of answering those questions, with what could be called a re-retelling. Anything more I say about the second part, would just spoil it. And no, all this did not spoil the book (hence no ‘spoiler alert’.)

It’s a finely written book, which has a lot to say. I’m not sure I understand all of it, or if I ever will. But I do like how it made me really think; think for two days before I went ahead and wrote this post. The first part was interesting, in the way all mythology is, very crude and insanely fascinating; disturbing and beautiful at the same time. But it was in the second part (not Part II but the second half of the book) that it became smart, you know: that’s when you realize the whole point of having a retelling. It’s not a Peter Ackroyd retelling, the whole idea of which is pretty much to make things more ‘accessible’ or easier to read. The revised story here makes a point, the new perspective has a purpose and it’s a good one. The book adds the human aspect to a myth, expands on feelings, thoughts and dialogues and makes the myth all the more real. You can hardly relate to mythology, I mean, come on. But here you really can put yourself in Orual’s shoes and that’s one of the things I liked (or understood… I think?) about the book.

Here are a few lines I liked from the book: (*some contain details, which may spoil the reading experience for some of you and those of you’ve now been duly alerted.*)

“I, King, have dealt with the gods for
three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out
of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be
said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength,
not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin
like water, but thick and dark like blood.”

Now mark yet again the cruelty of the gods. There is no
escape from them into sleep or madness, for they can pursue you into them with
dreams. Indeed you are then most at their mercy. The nearest thing we have to a
defence against them (but there is no real defence) is to be very wide awake
and sober and hard at work, to hear no music, never to look at earth or sky,
and (above all) to love no one.”

I was not a fool. I did not know then, however, as I do now,
the strongest reason for distrust. The gods never send us this invitation to
delight so readily or so strongly as when they are preparing some new agony. We
are their bubbles; they blow us big before they prick us.”

“A fat fly was crawling up the doorpost. I remember thinking
that its sluggish crawling, seemingly without aim, was like my life, or even
the life of the whole world.”

It
was the hardest work I’d ever done, and, while it lasted, one could think of
nothing else. I said not long before that work and weakness are comforters. But
sweat is the kindest creature of the three— far better than philosophy, as a cure
for ill thoughts.”

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at
last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years,
which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll
not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us
openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they
hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till
we have faces?”

Have you read Till We Have Faces?

P. S. This is another read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. My next book for the challenge is on its way: The Ocean at the End of the Lane. That’s right: Gaiman’s latest novel, I can’t wait to start reading it.

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

I must say, this was a great start to Once Upon a Time VII. Join the challenge here.
When I saw this at the book store, I immediately bought myself a copy,
even though I knew nothing about Ragnarok (the Norse Armageddon) and very
little about Norse mythology in general. Why? Well, firstly, it’s part of a series of books on mythology, of which I’ve read the first introductory book; The Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong. Secondly, well, it’s written by A.S. Byatt, who has grown to be one of my favourite authors, and not without
reason. Byatt is a brilliant writer, a wordsmith. Her prose is rather
poetic; a combination of apt imagery and beautiful sounds, which
together with the strong emotions that her stories invoke in you, leaves you
enraptured.
If you’re a mythology fanatic or an expert, you might find this
book a little too basic, as some of the Goodreads reviews seem to suggest. But
if all you want is a general glimpse into the Norse myths, without having to
struggle through a reference journal, the book is perfect. It is far from scholarly, and that, somehow is the magic of it. Throughout the book, Byatt maintains these careful inconsistencies, even with the names; because, she says, myths are always changing, there is no right or wrong, no accurate version. Where you’d have footnotes and in depth analyses of the different allegories, you have a thin young girl, who has had to move to the English countryside with a war raging around them, reading and shaping her world according to a book she loves called “Asgard and the Gods“. It draws parallels to our world, at every step, through the mind of that little girl, who likens her father being away bombing the enemy’s planes to Odin’s Wild Hunt. 
At the same time, it’s just a story, of how the world was fashioned by the gods from the Giant Ymir’s corpse, of the creation of Ask and Embla, the stories of Odin or Wodun, Thor and Baldur the beautiful God, who was killed by his blind brother. We also read about Loki or Loptr, the playful shape-shifting fire God and his spawn; Jormungandr, the giant sea serpent, Hel, ruler of Niflheim, where the dead go and Fenris, the monstrous wolf. We experience, finally, the eponymous end of the gods, the terrible Ragnarok. With her writing, Byatt brings the myths alive, to the point where we don’t only find Loki interesting, but want to read further to find out what happened of him. It’s not informative, as an academic book about myths would be, instead, it’s engaging.
All of Byatt’s writing is heavily influenced by mythology, I’ve read enough of her books to recognize its hold on her. The thin child is based, after all, on Byatt herself, as a young girl, first finding her way to these myths. In her Booker Prize winning novel, Possession, one of the main characters is a poet called Randolph Henry Ash. These lines are from the epic he writes about Ragnarok. 

And these three Ases were the sons of Bor
Who slew the Giant Ymir in his rage
And made of him the elements of earth,
Body and sweat and bones and curly hair,
Made soil and sea and hills and waving trees,
And his grey brains wandered the heavens as clouds.
These three were Odin, Father of the Gods,
Honir, his brother, also called the Bright,
The Wise and Thoughtful, and that third, the hot
Loki, the hearth-god, whose consuming fire
First warmed the world, then grown beyond the bounds
Of home and hearth-stone, flamed in boundless greed
To turn the world, and Heav’n, to sifting ash.
(Chapter 13, Possession by A.S. Byatt)