I bought this book because writing Bard brought to mind a particular Arthurian retelling I’d read as a child and, while scouring the internet to figure out which one it might have been, I came across a summary of this book and thought it might be interesting. Unfortunately, while the concept was everything it seemed from the one-line Wikipedia summary, the execution was a let-down, and I ended up more frustrated with the book than I’ve been with any book recently.
World’s End tells the apocalyptic story of ancient mythological beings (primarily of the Celtic variety, though with elements of other legends and belief systems) returning to reclaim the modern world, and all the drama that ensues.
I’m not usually that fussy about Celtic-inspired literature: you’d think studying ASNaC would make me a purist, but on the whole I’m pretty chill about it. I guess there must be a difference between YA fiction drawing on Celtic stuff for paranormal inspiration and the direct use of legends, though, because this somehow rubbed me the wrong way, though, and I ended up yelling at my Kindle every time something was particularly out of character / style.
(Anything involving Cernunnos is a biiiiiig red flag for me these days. It’s a long story. As for the Ogham script…)
I really wanted to like this book. It brings in elements from medieval and older literature that you don’t often see represented in popular books, drawing on ideas I’ve come across in Cath Maige Tuired and other Irish texts that I read for my dissertation. The characters are looking for four talismans or precious objects which are mentioned right at the start of good old CMT, so conceptually that’s pretty solid. It even has some wacky combinations, with the Dagda’s cauldron being metaphorically linked to the Holy Grail and thus to Arthurian literature.
Not only are these pretty solid, interesting references, but I also liked how Chadbourn used Arthurian material without subscribing to the idea of Arthur as an actual person, instead treating it as a representation of the land and of ideas or powers from time gone by that had been solidified into a person of legend. I thought that was an interesting way of treating it and, again, I’m a little wary of anything that treats pseudohistorical characters too literally, so I was glad that this avoided that.
And yet. I didn’t like it. I actively disliked it. I sped through the last twenty percent as fast as I could because if I had read anything else this week that I could review, I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it, and it’s only because I wanted to be able to write this that I got to the end.
So here are a few things that bothered me:
- The writing is weak. It constantly states the obvious, so after telling me that characters are shaking and sobbing, it then says that they’re traumatised or scared. I can see that. I’m not unintelligent. Please don’t underestimate me as a reader. The one unnecessary sex scene was entirely unappealing and pretty poorly written. A lot of the narration is just overdone in a clumsy, heavy-handed manner. Chadbourn both shows and tells, which makes me feel like I’m being patronised. I’m sensitive to that in life and as a reader, and it also made the book really long-winded and so it’s pretty much the only thing I read this week. I just kept getting bored.
- The representation is … not so great. Bearing in mind this book was published a while ago (I think in the early 2000s? Going by the technology and references to London architecture), I’m willing to accept there wasn’t such a movement towards diversity in publishing. But the only gay characters are camp and referred to as ‘queens’ (is that even acceptable anymore? No one of my generation uses it), the only Indian character as all spiritual and takes magic mushrooms and has visions — in fact he’s pretty much the only non-white character — and as for the female characters… well, when one of them discovers her potential as a wisewoman or witch, let’s just say he takes the broomstick metaphor WAY TOO LITERALLY and it’s gross and sexualised and I didn’t like that at all. Most of these things, barring the last, wouldn’t have been a problem if they’d not been the only characters belonging to that minority, but because they were they seemed very stereotypical and unrealistic.
- OGHAM IS NOT AN ANCIENT MYSTICAL WRITING SYSTEM IT WAS INVENTED IN LIKE THE 6TH CENTURY AND WAS BASED ON LATIN.
- DON’T GET ME STARTED ON CERNUNNOS AND THAT WHOLE ‘GREEN MAN’ FIASCO BECAUSE WE WILL BE HERE ALL NIGHT.
- It took me a really long time to get attached to any of the characters and I still wasn’t sure why I was supposed to care about them by the end, since only Laura seemed halfway engaging or witty and she spent most of it winding the others up.
On the whole, it was an interesting concept. I liked how Chadbourn clearly knew his Cath Maige Tuired, which most folks haven’t read (and there was a fair bit of Lebor Gabala hEirenn in there too, forgive my poor spelling because I can’t be bothered to look it up). I liked the reference to lesser-known bits of Irish literature.
But concept couldn’t make up for execution, and it ended up being a book I found frustrating to read because of its weak writing, stereotypical portrayals of minorities, and sexist treatment of its female characters (THE BROOMSTICK PART THOUGH), plus a few massive mythological red flags for a nerd like me. If you could get past the writing style, it’d be a fun enough story for someone less invested in medieval Irish literature, but since I was writing my dissertation on the Tuatha De Danann and have some pretty strong ideas about them, it just … didn’t work out.
So I’m slightly annoyed that I spent more than five quid (WHY) and several hours of my life on this, and I’m hoping that the Peter Ackroyd retelling of Morte Darthur than I picked up in a Calgary bookshop today will be more satisfying on my quest for good Arthurian literature.