13 May, 2010

The Wings of a Falcon

{Note: This is a review of a book I hated, so it's pretty biased and hotly written}

Title: The Wings of a Falcon
Author: Cynthia Voigt
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 1 out of 5

The good: I enjoyed the style of writing, and there were plenty of plot twists.

The bad: All right. I did not like this book at all. It's not that the plot was too slow, or that the characters too boring, but it was that everyone was behaving badly and generally acting as if they were jerks, IMO. Oriel (the main character) is so pompous and stuck up I wanted to throw the book through a glass window. He just kept doing things that were put-downs and saying things that were ridiculous. I might have liked Griff, but he was too weak and let others push him around.

Let me explain.

For example: in Selby, Oriel and Griff are staying with the Saltweller. (He takes salt out of briny water and sells it.) He has a daughter, and at only 10 years old she decides she wants to marry Griff when she's 13. But Oriel is all "Oh, she'll change her mind" and she does. Griff is passive about it all. He follows Oriel around loke a dog an does exactly what Oriel tells him to do.

Oriel is well-known in the town of Selby. He's the leader of this sort of resistance movement against the ruling family. But when the Saltweller comes up with a good idea, Oriel is literally mad at him for thinking of something he hadn't.

When the Saltweller's farm is attacked by Wolfers (nasty people who get wives for how much booty they bring to the king Wolfer) the girl Tamara shouts "I'm not worth it!" as Griff and Oriel are about to try to fight the Wolfers. Now, that is typical. Noble people shout that at the people they admire.

But Oriel says to Griff, as if an epiphany had hit him, "She's not worth it."
Me: *O.O
My first reaction was JERK. And Griff doens't protest because he's wound around Oriel's little finger. Later in the book he starts to form different opinions than Oriel, and Oriel says that he feels "as if his hand had started to move on its own".

And later on, when Oriel meets this 17-year-old named Beryl he sleeps with her, and then leaves her. Just like that, and goes off to become the Earl of Sutherland and marry this Lady Merlis. He is going to compete in a "Tourney" where the winner gains the position of Earl and lands, and the Lady Merlis. When he sees Merlis (and Beryl is just a distant thought in his mind, despite the fact she's pregnant with his child) he falls in love with the Lady.

As it turns out, however, she'd secretly married Tintage, another contester in the Tourney, and Tintage murders Oriel in front of everyone when Merlis cries his name. She then clings to tintage as Oriel lays there dying with a blade in his back. And Oriel had been about to do the most decent thing he'd ever thought of in his life--give the Earl's lands back to the Lady.

But she never gave him a chance, and he dies without doing many good deeds. Griff--his lifelong friend--takes over the Earldon since it was Oriel's dying wish, and marries Beryl. Who's still pregnant with Oriel's baby.

Merlis runs away with Tintage into exile, but Yaegar, Tintage's father wars with Griff, Tintage is killed, and Merlis hangs herself out of grief for his death.

Women are treated like objects in this book. They can't run businesses, they're slept with and treated like their sole purpose is to marry the men who are idiots. Beryl has no freedom, Merlis has no freedom (she doesn't deserve it, thought) Tamara has no freedom, the Wolfer's wives have no freedom. Polygamy is rampant.


Why can't someone act reasonable for once. Like someone says on Amazon:
"It's a good thing it's out of print".

Recommendation: NONE.

And so concludes this book review. (I'm sorry if it was a bit rant-y, but I needed to vent my thoughts about this book. I have no idea what Voigt's other books are like, but I took another one of her's out; maybe I will have more positive things to say about that one.)

-----The Golden Eagle


♥Bleah♥Briann♥ said...

wow...seems a like a...uhhh, explicit book. The story line sounds a bit interesting and intriguing but the stupidity of it all kinda deters me immensly. :P

Thanks for sharing!

With Love and Blessings,
Bleah Briann

Harley Bishop said...

If I might, I would like to offer a defence for Wings of a Falcon.

I know different people get different things out of a book. But I would like to mention some reasons for why I enjoy Falcon very much. I think that it has a fair amount to say about relationships, heroism, feminism, and morality (in no particular order), and hopefully my rambling explanation can convey some of that reasoning to you.

One of the things that immediately struck me about Falcon was the way in which heroism is presented. In my view, Oriel is not really a hero; if anything, he is a subversion of that kind of archetype. He is strong and charismatic, but he has nothing in the way of morality. If he acts boldly or bravely, it is because he either wishes to impress people, or because he behaves that way naturally without thought or consideration.
This itself is an interesting statement. If a person is born with no sense of fear, surely they are not really brave – rather, they are deficient, lacking a healthy terror of dangerous things, whereas someone who is naturally cowardly but overcomes their fear to act boldly has a much greater claim on Bravery. Likewise, can someone really be called a hero if they are simply born superior, as opposed to someone who is born ordinary (like Griff) and rises against the odds to act heroically and triumph? What does it mean to be strong, when no possibility exists for weakness – what does it mean to succeed, when no possibility exists for failure?
I feel this is an important distinction to make when looking at the book. Oriel is born to be a hero, but he does not choose to act heroic, and lacks the moral grounding which a good hero should have. (Peter Parker’s uncle might say, he has the power but not the responsibility). In some ways, he is very frightening as a character. He is aware of his own potential to be just about anything that he desires, and there is really nothing (except Griff) to stop Oriel from becoming a villain rather than a hero. That makes Oriel interesting to me, as well as a surprisingly tragic figure.
Look at how Voigt first introduces us to Oriel: He has no name. Only after they escape the island is Oriel given a name, but up until that point neither does he need one. He is different. He is strong. He is a force of a nature, he is potential in the flesh, the essence of human strength – but not yet a person, and certainly not a hero.

Harley Bishop said...

On the flip side, let’s examine Griff. He is a character that you categorically list as being weak, and consider him to be passive. I would disagree, although he is initially quite passive. While Griff initially lacks the “qualities” that Oriel displays (charisma, natural leadership, strength, determination, resourcefulness), I would have said, categorically, that he was the far more heroic of the two. What Griff possesses in spades is morality. He behaves as Oriel’s moral compass. When Oriel is tempted to become King of the rapacious and violent Wolfers (a path he can foresee himself going down), he is held back by one thing – the knowledge that Griff cannot abide that awful lifestyle. Oriel can distance himself from cruelty and misery, but Griff cannot. He is deeply in touch with people, in contrast to Oriel’s almost spiritual connection to the land. When given power or authority, Griff is always reluctant to wield either, but simultaneously dedicates himself into working for the good of all given to his care. And rather than seeing him as passive, I would have said that Griff has the wisdom to know what he can and cannot change (but that is largely subjective I suppose).
I definitely think that Griff starts out being something of an attachment to Oriel, but by the end he is a fully fleshed out character in his own right, and I think that is intentional. But more on that much later/further down.
In answer to the specific example you gave, where Oriel says to Griff (regarding how they sacrificed themselves for Tamara): “She isn’t worth it” – a few lines later Griff firmly answers, “But she IS worth it.” And Oriel, while calculated enough to decide that the life of a 10 year old girl might be less valuable than the lives of two “heroes”, is quick enough to realise that Griff is right – the relative value of a life, even if it can be measured, is irrelevant. They have saved Tamara because it was the right thing to do regardless of anything else or any other factors, and he is at peace with that, even though he fully expects to die at that point. Because of Griff, Oriel has made the correct decision, and learned something from it.

Harley Bishop said...

All of this, of course, might beg the question as to what Oriel and Griff see in each other. But to even start answering, it is necessary to first ask a much broader question – what do ANY of the characters see in each other? This brings me to the next issue; relationships in Falcon.
It has been my personal experience that love has nothing to do with worth. As Tad Williams said in one of his short stories: “Love does not do sums, but makes choices, and then gives its all.” We love people for a variety of reasons – either because they conform (to some degree) to an ideal that we have, or they fill a lack that we feel, or because they were kind to us. While the reasons for love do not diminish the strength of the emotions, it remains a fact that people often have very poor reasons for engaging in the relationships that they are in, and I think that is very much reflected in the characters of Falcon.
Consider Griff & Oriel: In a very real sense, Griff and Oriel love each other. They are friends who are closer than brothers; their friendship has a kind of intimacy born of shared pain that excludes all others, including the women in their lives. As much as Griff loved Beryl, she was certainly no replacement for Oriel in his life. And yet I find their relationship to be very strange. Griff, as I have said before, is someone that seems to me very morally conscious, and you might have thought he’d be disgusted with some of Oriel’s actions; likewise, one might have expected Oriel to overlook Griff, or eventually dismiss his opinions as trivial.
I think I would cite here the example of Hitler and Eva Braun. Not that Oriel is Hitler by any means, but the point is that Hitler is/was considered a pretty terrible person. That didn’t stop him from genuinely having affection for Eva Braun, however, and vice versa. Something that a lot of books (fantasy or otherwise) seem to forget is that even the most awful of characters/people can feel very deep and touching emotions, including compassion and love, for other people. The reason is because I think we don’t tend to judge the ones we love by how they treat others so much as we judge them by how they treat us. Eva Braun judged Hitler (presumably anyway) by how he treated her, and the crimes he committed were probably rather unreal to her.
Again, not that Oriel was anything like Hitler, and not that Griff was right to love Oriel, but I think the love that existed between them as friends likely stemmed from a respect for how each had treated the other. Griff always stuck by Oriel, and Oriel appreciated that faith, that lack of betrayal. Regardless of their disagreements (which were admittedly few, on Oriel’s end; Griff I’m not so sure about), that love maintained. Similarly, because Oriel always saved him, Griff remained vigilantly loyal.

Harley Bishop said...

Given what was said above, Beryl’s love doesn’t make sense in that context. Although Oriel is at least loyal to Griff, the same can’t really be said for Beryl. In fact, Oriel treats her pretty poorly. Now, there are a couple things I’d like to discuss about Beryl + Oriel. The first ties into the previous statement: from our viewpoint, Oriel isn’t very loyal or considerate, but from Beryl’s viewpoint, that isn’t what she is looking for. Beryl is a witch, an outcast among her own people for the crime of being literate and competent and having rudimentary medical knowledge (oh noes!). She expects ignorance and fear from Oriel and Griff, even though she saved them; she is gratified, instead, when she receives understanding and acceptance.
Even though Oriel does not value the “heart” that Beryl gives to him, and treats her without much consideration, he nonetheless knows her – really understands her as a person – and accepts her without question. It never even crosses his mind to condemn her for being a spaewife, and he doesn’t really understand the people who do so.
That to me, is a fairly realistic reaction from Beryl. Afterall, she isn’t perfect. She seems to be lonely and slightly insecure, and desires that kind of acceptance; when she finally meets someone (admittedly someone enigmatic, charming, seemingly gallant) who gives her that, she then presumes that this person will also conform to other aspects of her ideal.

As for Oriel and Merlis – well, now that’s an interesting one. From Merlis’ perspective, Oriel is just another stricken suitor. For Oriel, Merlis represents the one thing he hasn’t encountered: rejection. EVERY person in the book, including Oriel’s enemies, have at the very least some respect for him, even if they despise him, although on the whole he is roundly admired as a hero (non-heroicness aside). But Merlis doesn’t like Oriel and doesn’t respect him in the slightest. She hates him, and doesn’t want him. Good or bad, right or wrong, I honestly believe that is what Oriel sees in Merlis: she rejects him, therefore he finds her interesting and desirable. Pretty standard male reaction, am I right? ;)
This is a trend for all the relationships in the book. Beryl loves Oriel because he conforms (partially) to an ideal which exists in her mind, and fulfils her need to be accepted and understood as an equal; Merlis loves Tintage because he represents something similar – forbidden love, freedom, irreverence (but ultimately, he treats her far worse than Oriel did for Beryl). (“The lady Merlis was fierce in her heart, like a falcon, and she saw men as her prey.”) Tintage himself has rather odd motivations, but the closest I can think of describing it is dominance; Tintage is a weak person who is lorded over by his father and brothers, but when it comes to Merlis he’s the one calling the shots. And Oriel – well, Oriel “loves” Merlis just because he can’t have her.
Essentially, in every case the relationships portrayed are unhealthy. The people in them desire something that is either unrealistic or irrational, and usually with a view to compensating for a lack in themselves. While you certainly might fault the characters for their flaws, I myself cannot fault the author for writing about them. In fact, it is an aspect of the book that I think is very well done, especially given the reading level and target audience it is intended for.
Likewise, the complex relationships themselves don’t bother me. Most people have pretty fucked up lives, and I think it’s reasonable for the characters in this book to reflect that, especially if you look at Voigt’s other (non-fantasy) books which have strong themes revolving around broken families, etc.

Harley Bishop said...

Relationships aside, however, the women of the story are an issue all on their own. I feel it worth mentioning at this stage that Voigt herself is a feminist, and I often see this influence in her works; Falcon is the only book in the series to not feature a female protagonist as the main character. Most of those female protagonists are often struggling against the limitations that their gender imposes on them in their society, and although Oriel and Griff definitely take the spotlight in Falcon, women still dominate the scene so to speak in the latter half of Falcon.
Let’s quickly revisit the Tintage/Merlis/Beryl/Oriel/Griff tangle. First of all, it was Beryl’s idea for Oriel to marry Merlis and become the Earl. What exactly Beryl thought this would do for her I’m really not sure. She is young and perhaps naïve, though, so it is possible she thought that it would magically work out and/or that Oriel would somehow choose her over Merlis. In fairness, he was about to set Merlis free before Tintage knifed him, so who knows what would have happened. Either way, it is mentioned in the book that they discussed early on the fact that Oriel would be marrying Merlis. Beryl made no comment on this fact, and ignored it.
Again, you could offer a variety of explanations for her ignoring this. It’s possible that like many people in real life, Beryl was refusing to live up the reality of what was going on. It’s possible (like I said above) that she assumed it would work out, or that she hoped Oriel would choose her instead ultimately. Perhaps she felt it didn’t matter, or didn’t believe that it would matter until the moment of crisis – as in, because she loved Oriel, she may have initially felt it was enough to simply help him achieve his goals, without realising until too late that she wanted more than that from him.
I certainly wouldn’t have classed Beryl as an object, though. She is strong minded, competent, has medical knowledge, educated, runs her own business just fine (her house is an Inn during the summer months, after all). It is BERYL who initiates a relationship with Oriel, and while he perhaps should have been wise enough to turn her down, it was still her choice. It is BERYL who comes and goes as she pleases, who is capable of manipulating nobles and peasants as if they were part of her audience; it is BERYL who, for the first time ever, motivates Griff into developing into his own person with desires that contradict those of Oriel’s; it is BERYL who gets to make the call when Griff humbly asks her to live with him – not to rule or own her, but because he is desperately concerned for the safety of her child; and finally it is BERYL who graciously accepts but still calls the shots in their relationship, holds sway over Griff, and is eventually invited to sit on the ruling council, an equal to the Earl and his coterie of nobles, with power over the land and its people.

That does not sound to me like a weak and powerless woman with no freedom.

Harley Bishop said...

Merlis, on the other hand, is a totally different story. In fact, Merlis is one of the few things I really dislike about Falcon. Her parents are dead, and she is not allowed to own or rule the land that is rightfully hers by birth. Instead, her land is auctioned off to a group of men, who will be selected not on the basis of their education or suitability to rule, but on which one of them wins a fight – in essence, it will be given to the one that is the most ruthless and willing to kill for it. Sounds like the makings of a great leader, right?
Additionally, Merlis must marry this man, even though she is already in love with Tintage and would happily have married him instead. But she isn’t allowed to choose Tintage or marry him, even though he is one of her “suitors” – and thus eligible to potentially win the land anyway! Finally, in the end, not only does Merlis lose her lands and title and the man she loves (she herself is sent to exile), but the total stranger from a different country who casually “won” all her worldly possessions off her by essentially sweet-talking the king had the bad grace to die and give it to his best friend, another stranger from a different country with whom she has even less connection, rather than giving it back to her.
Oh, and might I add that all this situation was brought about by the law that stated that daughters cannot inherit. Yet a year later after Griff has taken over, he declares that Oriel’s child (who isn’t even his) will be the legitimate heir of Sutherland, regardless of gender, and that he is declaring the law changed. (As we know from later books, the child was indeed a girl). Nice of Griff to say so, but you would have thought that someone could have changed that law for MERLIS, so that, you know, the actual daughter of the Earl could have inherited?!
Pure stupidity, and I certainly felt very sorry for her. Okay, maybe she should have been a stronger person, maybe if Beryl had been in her place the whole situation would have worked out differently, but I’m not sure I can hold it against Merlis for feeling, well, normal. I felt it was a rather contrived set-up though, in an otherwise very enjoyable book.
But moving on - you’ve said that you feel Merlis doesn’t deserve freedom (I guess only women who are sufficiently “good enough” deserve freedom? That’s a scary thought…) but I find that to be a harsh judgment of her. At what point does a person quantify or qualify as being deserving of freedom?
For the other criticisms, where is polygamy rampant – and why would it be a problem in of itself? The Wolfers are based on Viking/Scandinavian society, raiders who ventured out to rape and pillage and then return home to loving families. That’s perhaps dark, but not exactly anti-feminist. The characters have complex and fucked-up relationships, but sleeping around isn’t the same as polygamy, and is just as characteristic of our world as theirs. If the people in Falcon don’t act reasonably, that’s likely because people in general don’t act reasonably, and the book is commenting on that as much as on anything else.

Harley Bishop said...

Anyway. I’d like to wrap up the defense by looking at the conclusion of the book, which is a fitting conclusion for this argument: the choices made by characters towards the end.
Specifically, I’m referring to the murder of Oriel by Tintage for Merlis, and the subsequent eclipsing of Oriel’s role by Griff.
I said at the very beginning that I felt Oriel was a force of power without guidance, and that Griff was essentially guidance without power. Though each is separately flawed, the two of them combined are able to form a heroic presence that they would otherwise lack as individuals.
This all changes when Oriel dies. Up till this point, it would be difficult to point to a time where Oriel has actually made a moral choice independent of Griff’s influence. It is not until Oriel has successfully convinced the other young contenders to surrender (thus winning the Earldom without bloodshed) that he realises he should also allow Merlis to go free, if she so desires, rather than insist she marry him against her will. It is, as far as I know, the only good and right thing that Oriel does without some other ulterior motive (or Griff’s urging). It marks a change in his character, and the passage from “force of nature” into human hero.
Of course, before Oriel can ever voice his good intentions, he’s murdered, by Tintage. The tragedy is that perhaps he has become a “good” person too late. And yet, although I did find it quite sad, I couldn’t really imagine the novel going any other way. Afterall, it is a coming of age story, almost allegorical even, and perhaps the main point (as far as Oriel goes) is that Oriel had learned to be the hero that he wasn’t.
And of course, without Oriel dying, Griff could never have come into his own. Whereas Oriel lacked the morality that Griff possessed, Griff could not develop the leadership that Oriel had as long as his friend was still leading. Griff’s story could not really begin until Oriel’s had concluded. I could say more, but this response is running VERY long and I’m sure you get the idea.
All of that last section was purely about narrative structure of course. Within the story, I’m sure the characters would rather the others didn’t die.

Regardless, that’s some of my thoughts as to why I think the book is engaging and, to me at least, very thought-provoking, despite being a YA fiction with a relatively low reading level. It has a lot of offer readers of all age groups.
But I suppose the best defence I can suggest is that it made you angry at all; the best a book can hope for is to provoke strong reactions, even if they are negative.