Daily Archives: July 26, 2017

Review of Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood

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As I have spent the past couple of years writing and re-writing Miranda’s Tempest, my follow-up to Shakespeare’s The Tempest after teaching it as part of the GCSE syllabus, I was intrigued to find out how such a respected author would tackle this one.

The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion — starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.

In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself – and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever.

This book starts just as Felix is retreating, licking his wounds after having been ejected from this prestigious post of Artistic Director. What will he do next? In third person viewpoint, we follow Felix as he struggles to come to terms with this latest body blow in a life punctuated by tragedy. As a response, or perhaps even a retreat from his grief, Felix has thrown himself into his work by creating increasingly edgy and challenging productions. While his ever-ready assistant Tony, is all too willing to attend the boring meetings and charity functions that come with his post in his stead.

This apparently straightforward tale is a joy to read – particularly if you have a detailed knowledge of The Tempest. During the parallel retelling, there are all sorts of echoes and nods to the original text which I very much appreciated – all the more because Atwood leaves it to us to play that particular game. For the usurping brother Antonio, who deposes and exiles Prospero, read Tony the double-crossing assistant for instance. It takes twelve years for Felix to regroup, before putting on this keynote play and decide to make a move against his enemies, just as Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, languish on the enchanted island for twelve years before the tempest strikes, bringing Prospero’s enemies to him… It goes on throughout the book and is great fun to spot.

I very much liked the prison setting and the fact that Felix decides to give the prisoners an annual project of learning about a Shakespearean play, rehearsing and preparing it and then filming it. Atwood’s story very neatly reflects all sorts of themes that run through The Tempest such as the idea of imprisonment, revenge and the healing power of forgiveness – and what happens when there isn’t sufficient forgiveness. I’m aware I have talked at some length about the similarities between the Shakespeare play and Felix’s journey after losing his career – what this isn’t is some dry-as-dust, semi-academic treatise on a classic play by some long-dead playwright. This is a vibrant, interesting story about a sympathetic protagonist down on his luck and who gradually manages to retrieve his sense of self-worth and a place in society after years of privation.

You don’t need to know a thing about The Tempest in order to enjoy the story, though there are all sorts of enjoyable little extras if you do. Atwood is known for her rather grim endings – so I was rather dreading the end as I’d grown unexpectedly fond of Felix, which was a surprise as I loathe Prospero in The Tempest. However, Atwood very satisfactorily brings his story to an appropriate conclusion, after my favourite part of the book – when each prisoner playing the main part had to give a report on what he thinks happens to his character after the play ends. I thought their ideas were brilliant and quirky – but then this is Atwood. So of course it’s brilliant and quirky.

I shall remember this book with great affection for a long time to come. Very highly recommended.
10/10

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Review of KINDLE Ebook Sweep in Peace – Book 2 of the Innkeeper Chronicles by Ilona Andrews

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Back in February, I read the first book in this entertaining series, Clean Sweep – read my review here. At that point, Himself bought the other two books in the series so far and tucked into them, but I don’t like reading books from the same series back to back. However, I hadn’t planned on leaving it quite so long before returning to this world.

Dina DeMille doesn’t run your typical Bed and Breakfast. Her inn defies laws of physics, her fluffy dog is secretly a monster, and the only paying guest is a former Galactic tyrant with a price on her head. But the inn needs guests to thrive, and guests have been scarce, so when an Arbitrator shows up at Dina’s door and asks her to host a peace summit between three warring species, she jumps on the chance. Unfortunately, for Dina, keeping the peace between Space Vampires, the Hope-Crushing Horde, and the devious Merchants of Baha-char is much easier said than done. On top of keeping her guests from murdering each other, she must find a chef, remodel the inn…and risk everything, even her life, to save the man she might fall in love with. But then it’s all in the day’s work for an Innkeeper…

Dina is on a mission. Her parents, along with their magical inn, disappeared without trace some six years ago and despite an exhaustive search, no one has seen any hint of them. She has now decided to settle down and run her own inn – though she has also posted pictures of her missing family and watches every guest’s reaction as they walk through the door, hoping that one day someone will offer valuable information – or betray a shocked jolt of recognition. However taking on this particular mission is doing things the hard way.

I loved the sense that Dina is plunged into a situation well over her head and scrambling to keep up, often several steps behind. She is a likeable protagonist – steady and determined, particularly when under pressure, but with the ongoing vulnerability of constantly missing her parents.

Andrews is also good at writing animals – Dina’s little dog is suitably annoying and yappy, except when he… isn’t. And when a cat makes an appearance, I was also convinced – I get a bit fed up when pets are depicted with too much treacly sentimentality. But what sets this intriguing fantasy/science fiction mashup apart is the originality of the premise – and how effectively Andrews raises the stakes. We are left in no doubt as to the high cost of this terrible war raging between two warlike species – and the impact on everyone, those taking part as well as those caught between them.

In addition, Dina finds her own happiness held hostage as to the outcome of the peace conference. Andrews’ pacing and handling of the narrative tension is spot on as she steadily ramps up it up with a mixture of the domestic mundane with a twist of fantasy – the galactic superchef produces wonderful meals and Dina has to spend a lot of time and magic ensuring each delegation’s needs are fully met – with the crucial details we need to understand exactly how important it all is. This is all deftly done, producing a smooth, enjoyable read that covers all the epic consequences of this nasty war through the fallout in Dina’s magical inn.

I have the next book in this entertaining series – One Fell Sweep – and I won’t be waiting so long to get to it and if you are seeking an interesting fantasy with a sci fi twist, then this series comes highly recommended.
9/10