Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Grey King: Navigating the Grey Area Between Love and Hate

image from randommusingsofabibliophile.blogspot.com

I should clarify that I did not hate Susan Cooper's The Grey King (1975), but I also didn't love it. More than anything, I didn't get it. There's a kid named Will who turns out to have some ancient power and he makes friends with Bran, who has a mysterious past. They go see some ancient kings - I'm not clear how that happened - and then get a harp which they are supposed to use to wake the Sleepers. And some bad man shoots Bran's dog.

It wasn't over my head, but it didn't grab me enough to give it the attention it needed for me to catch all the information I needed. I've pondered why this happened and don't have any one definite conclusion, but have developed a few explanations as to why this Newbery-winning book didn't work for me.

The first challenge is jumping into the fourth of a five-book series. It seems odd to give such a prestigious award to what amounts to only part of a greater story. Of course, even books in a series should stand on their own. In that sense, this book does have its own self-contained story with a beginning and end. The difficulty comes in trying to get up to speed with references to events and characters which occur prior to The Grey King.

Another challenge is the genre - fantasy. I loved The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings back in my middle-school and high-school years. After the movies were made, I reread them with my son. They had suddenly become more tedious. A common characteristic of fantasy is to overload the story with references to great gods and warriors and legends - all of which are lifted up as having monumental importance. After a while, the reader is overwhelmed by the levity of it all. I realized one of my difficulties in reading fantasy is its frequent inability to be light-hearted, to have a change in tone which lets the reader relax and not always feel like the world is at stake.

My third challenge in reading this book is essentially one brought on by the first two. In reading a sequel which eludes to great moments of importance, I became less invested in the story almost from the start. Since I already felt like I was behind, I had a difficult time embracing the story enough to want to really grasp what was going on. That meant that a book I should have finished in a week or two stretched out to nearly two months.

The lesson for me to take away from this as a writer is to always put the story first. A book must stand on its own and intrigue the reader, regardless of genre and regardless of whether or not it is part of a greater story.