Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Blog Fantastic 039: Prince Caspian Review (Unread 015)

When I read the first book of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, I had a lot of problems with it. I enjoyed myself while reading, but once the book was done and I thought about it a little bit, it felt slight and weightless. There wasn’t much substance for me to hang on to and the experience I had with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe soon drifted away. Just like the Pevensie children, I knew I would one day return to Narnia, mostly because I had already bought all seven volumes from Bay Used Books – a matching set, no less. I’ve decided to read the series in publication order so the second book I picked off the shelf was Prince Caspian.

I mentioned in my review of the first book that I enjoyed the writing style and that the plot had little tension or thrills to offer, my reaction to Prince Caspian is eerily similar. The plot isn’t thrilling, not much happens and what does happen is accomplished with far too much ease. Worst of all, I had a more difficult time reading the second volume because the writing style annoyed me for most of the book. I found it to be pandering and patronizing. Why I enjoyed it with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and not with Prince Caspian I can only blame on my mood while reading this book. This time around, I found that the writing style pulled me out of the story, provided too many interrupting commentary, and not enough plot momentum. If anything, it slowed down the story. It also surprised me just how little dialogue this book has. It’s a clear example of how breaking the storytelling rule of “show, don’t tell” will make for a shitty reading experience.

Prince Caspian starts out slowly, very slowly. There are, essentially, two beginnings. The first beginning deals with the Pevensie siblings’ return to Narnia. They rediscover where they are, who they are in Narnia, and even when they are. The second beginning is about the titular Prince Caspian, who he is, what he’s done, and the changes that have happened to Narnia in the thousand years since the now legendary Pevensie children ruled as Kings and Queens. It’s a lot of introduction and it doesn’t end until shy of the halfway point of the novel. One beginning would have been plenty, or at the very least combining both stories into one in a way that is less awkward. As it is, they literally follow one another in big blocks of 3 to 4 chapters each. It seems weird to me that Caspian is the name on the cover of the book but Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are still the main protagonists. Making their point of view the dominant one, and the point of view shared by the reader, it’s hard to get excited or even care for Caspian’s war for his rightful inheritance.

It struck me that Narnia was less magical this time around. There wasn’t as much depth to the fictional world as I remembered from the first book. What was fresh and exciting in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe no longer seemed fresh at all. It’s quite surprising because I was familiar with the narrative of the movie and that familiarity helped me further enjoy the book. I’m completely new to the story of Prince Caspian (having never seen either the TV or movie adaptations) and it was underwhelming. Narnia in this book is no more than a pseudo-medieval land populated by slightly oversized and anthropomorphized animals that have the ability to talk. The history of Narnia is also rather limited. Very little is mentioned about what occurred prior to or since the events of the first book (which is set one year previous in the human world and 1,000 years previous in Narnian history).

Even characters inside the book are disappointed by the plot. For most of the book the dwarf Trumpkin is sceptical of everything he encounters. He’s willing to help Caspian regain his kingdom but he doesn’t think they will win. He doesn’t believe in the return of magic to Narnia. Even when Susan’s magic horn recalls the Pevensies to Narnia, even when he sees magic in action, he’s underwhelmed. What? These four children will defeat the armies of the false king Miraz? Trumpkin is the most obvious Christian allegory in this volume. He takes arms against earthly (or more accurate Narnian) evils not thinking that victory is ascertained. He operates on blind faith and by the book’s end his faith, hard work, and determination are rewarded.

Trumpkin is one of the better parts of the book but there are other good ideas spread out. Some of them are character driven such as the moment where Edmund votes in favour of Lucy’s plan to search for Aslan when she’s the only one who is able to see him. He’s trying to make it up to her for not believing Lucy’s story when she first discovered Narnia through the wardrobe.

Despite some nice moments, the book falters because it suffers from an incredibly slow pace and a noticeable absence of engaging action sequences. To be fair, a fantasy novel doesn’t need action to be good, but when a story takes place during a war between a false King and his nephew Prince, action should be part of the mix. There is only one action scene worth mentioning and it’s Peter’s one-on-one duel against King Miraz. Other than that, the book is rather dull in terms of entertaining scenes.

After finishing Prince Caspian, I watched the movie trailer for the Disney film adaptation and that two and a half minute long video was far more exciting than the book in its entirety. There isn’t enough action in the book and far too much walking around, with how-do-you-do’s, and silly talking animals (as opposed to serious talking animals, maybe). Having Liam Neeson as the voice of Aslan in the movie adaptation also helped to win me over to the trailer. I haven’t seen the movie but after seeing the trailer, I’m convinced it would be an enjoyable way to spend an evening. I’ll have to keep my eyes out for it.

Similarly to the last Redwall book by Brian Jacques I read, I think I’ve outgrown the Narnia series before I ever had a chance to read it. I doubt I’ll ever like it as much as other readers who first entered the world of Narnia while still very young. Unlike Redwall, I think I’ll continue reading The Chronicles of Narnia. They’re still considered classic fantasy books, even fifty years after their publication. They’re also much shorter than any of the Redwall books and their shorter length makes them easier to read despite my regular frustration with the writing style. At the very least, my growing familiarity with the series will help me manage my expectations before reading the following volumes. Next up, we’re on a boat in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

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