Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

Logo designed by the wonderful KMont

In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.

This month, for the second ever Old School Wednesday Readalong, we’re discussing The Naming by Alison Croggon!

For every readalong book, we’ll structure this a little bit differently than our usual Joint Review faire – first, we’ll give our (brief!) opinions regarding the book, then we’ll tackle some discussion questions. Finally, we’ll ask YOU to join in.

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The NamingTitle: The Naming

Author: Alison Croggon

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Publisher: Candlewick
Publication date: March 2006
Paperback: 492 pages

In the classic spirit of epic fantasy comes this glittering saga of a young girl who learns she possesses an uncanny gift—and is destined to use it to save her world from a terrifying evil.

Maerad is a slave in a desperate and unforgiving settlement, taken there as a child when her family is destroyed in war. She doesn’t yet know she has inherited a powerful gift, one that marks her as a member of the noble School of Pellinor and enables her to see the world as no other can. It is only when she is discovered by Cadvan, one of the great Bards of Lirigon, that her true identity and extraordinary destiny unfold. Now, she and her mysterious teacher must embark on a treacherous, uncertain journey through a time and place where the forces of darkness wield an otherworldly terror.

The first book in a projected quartet, Alison Croggon’s epic about Maerad and her remarkable yet dangerous gift is a beautiful, unforgettable tale. Presented as a new translation of an ancient text, The Naming evokes the rich and complex landscape of Annar, a legendary world just waiting to be discovered.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Books of Pellinor series

How did we get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): eBook

REVIEW & DISCUSSION

Ana’s take:

I’d seen The Naming around Goodreads and was intrigued by it but not enough to actually pick it up. I was glad when this showed up in the OSW recommendations.

The Naming was a weird book for me to read. It had tons of potential: tropes and scenarios I am familiar and comfortable with plus the fact that the main character was a girl (when often boys happen to be Chosen Ones). But I had a really hard time with the book because it was so boring and I just couldn’t get into it exactly because it was so familiar to the point of being derivative. There were things that could be considered “subverting” these familiar tropes (more on that later) but they were perhaps too minor or too superficial to mean anything of substance. That said, The Naming was an important read for me because it served to highlight and reinforce what I kind of already knew: how tired I am of the Chosen One trope, how much I dislike overly descriptive books and how I am might be over Epic Fantasy for now.

Thea’s Take:

Like Ana, I’ve had my eye on The Naming for a while now. This is a book I frequently see lurking on shelves at my local bookstores and across the interwebs, and until recently, it has been one of those pick-it-up-read-the-blurb-put-it-back kind of books (love the cover and title, but there was never anything particularly OOMPH-y about the book that compelled me to buy it in the past). When this book surfaced on our OSW readalong poll list, I was thrilled because finally I had a reason to get into the Pellinor series.

And…I’m a little ambivalent when it comes to the actual book. I enjoyed certain aspects of the novel (and the story, when it is moving along and not just focused on the mind-numbingly mundane minutia of walking through the countryside and eating biscuits and berries and such). And, like Ana, I appreciate that the book attempts to subvert familiar tropes by instituting an unapologetic female character as its heroine and the Chosen One Who Will Save The Land From The DARK. That said, the book is needlessly protracted, the main character is (obviously) unparalleled in terms of abilities and power, and the story is a little bit reductive and familiar. The Naming isn’t a bad book – but it’s not a particularly memorable one, either.

Discussion Questions

1. Clearly, THE NAMING has some familiar, old school fantasy influences – which influences were the most apparent to you? Did this heavy reliance on traditional fantasy work in your opinion?

Ana: It’s funny how I saw so many influences from favourite books (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings the most obvious one) but those left me cold here. I think this book was far too derivative, the world-building far too close to that of Tolkien (I mean, there is even an honest-to-Goddess Galadriel replica) for me to be able to enjoy it. The writing style, the long pieces of description and the “let’s walk all the way to Mordor” all reminded me of LoTR. It actually made me seriously wonder if I would be able to read (and enjoy) LoTR if I attempted a re-read now and I suspect the answer would be “no”.

Thea: There’s a fine line between homage and mimicry, and while The Naming has a few interesting ideas in terms of worldbuilding, the heavy Tolkien influences (and a little bit of GRRM, Susan Cooper, and J.K. Rowling) did not work to the book’s credit. The Naming borrows too heavily from its influences and works too closely to these older classic motifs, framing this book as a blandly predictable LOTR/Dark is Rising/Harry Potter rehash. There’s the entrenched and increasingly corrupt fellowship of Bards that refuse to Read the Signs that the Dark is Rising; there’s the downtrodden, orphaned girl who does not understand the Great Power she wields or her illustrious past and destiny. And to Ana’s point, not only is there a Galadriel figure in The Naming, but there are also “dark bards” called Hulls and an old evil king that has become a paradigm of evil (named Sardor). There’s an honest to goodness sorcerer who has turned to the Dark and resurrected the Evil. There’s even an analog of Rivendell hidden deep in the forgotten places of this particular magical world.

And, at one point, someone actually says “Winter is coming.”

2. In the same vein, let’s talk fantasy tropes. THE NAMING employs the old Chosen One standby – one foretold to staunch the rising darkness and Save The Land. Discuss the tropes in this book – what worked? What didn’t? Are you a fan?

Ana: Well, there is not only the Chosen One trope, but also its ultra familiar packaging – i.e. the Chosen One who is an Orphan and a slave who never knew or suspected her background.

I think that my apathy toward the novel was somewhat mitigated because the Chosen One happens to be a girl here. The potential was immense especially considering how there were attempts to talk about it within the story. Maerad is always questioning her role as a Chosen One as well as her background. One of the few positives was how the enemies of the Chosen One completely overlooked Maerad because to their minds the prophecy could not be about a girl. So in a way, the fact that the main character is a girl is not an accident – I feel there is definitely a feminist point being made here and I wonder if this aspect will be more developed in further installments.

That said: is the fact that the Chosen One is a girl subversive enough to compensate for the fact that she is still a Special Ultra Powerful Person who doesn’t even have to learn to use her Ultra Special Powers? I don’t think so.

It seems then that I am not a fan.

Thea: You know, I’m not intrinsically opposed to the Chosen One trope. Like most fantasy standbys, when it is done well, this trope is a beautiful thing (see everything from Harry Potter to Star Wars). Unfortunately, The Naming doesn’t really do enough with the tropes it employs to shake the oppressive mantle of formulaic blandness. Like Ana says, the fact that Maerad is a young woman and the Chosen One is, on its face, a good thing. The fact that Maerad questions herself, her destiny, and her abilities is also a very cool thing – not to mention the fact that she is growing up from child to woman (gets her period for the first time, struggles with desire/attraction) is also an interesting and different dynamic than the usual male Heroes that play this role in epic fantasy.

Of course, this is exacerbated by the fact that Maerad is not just the Chosen One, BUT she possesses unparalleled magical powers, she has the sweetest most beautiful singing voice and bardic abilities, she is effortlessly beautiful and everyone (except those that are Evil) loves her instantly. She learns how to read in a single lesson, she thwarts unbeatable evil with a single phrase, and… well, you get the picture. THIS to me is the most irritating part of the book. I like Maerad as a considerate, questioning, intelligent heroine (which humanizes her character), but I hate the fact that she is so exceptionally powerful and perfect (which de-humanizes her character and reduces her to a stock character).

3. Let’s talk about worldbuilding: this first book of Pellinor introduces a new fantasy world in the Western European paradigm, with a system of Bards and the threat of the Dark (dark bards called Hulls, and fearful creatures called wers, and Wights). What are your thoughts on the world of Annar? Well developed or underdeveloped? Memorable or forgettable?

Ana: I guess the answer is “Well developed” but “forgettable.” It’s well developed in the way that it well thought-through: the author obviously spent time creating her own mythos, her own world (considering the appendixes as well as the introduction). But again, it is so derivative and familiar and concerned about descriptions of random things and scenery that it ends up being forgettable. At least, that’s how I felt about it.

Thea: I love the idea of a society of magical Bards and the power of music and stories in The Naming and this fantastical world. The idea of that the world of Annar has different cultures and competing schools of Barding is a little Harry Potterish, but in a good way. I also like the idea of a young person coming into their power by discovering “The Speech” – that is, usually by conversing with animals (again, Harry Potter, anyone?). That said, all of these different worldbuilding nuances are lost in a bloated story and the more derivative, familiar aspects of the book.

4. On the character front, how does Maerad stack up as a heroine? How about Cadvan, her teacher and companion? What other characters did you like or not like in THE NAMING?

Ana: I am conflicted on this point: I kind of liked Maerad but because the writing or the execution of the story didn’t appeal to me, she ended up being rather non-descript. Her early dynamics with Cadvan when the two first meet almost drove me up the wall especially when he was horrible to her, telling her to “catch up” and I just wanted to punch him because the girl spent her life to that point as a prisoner/slave without ever knowing who she was and the potential for magic she had.

I read this one week ago and can barely remember any other memorable character and that’s a problem in itself.

Thea: When you separate Maerad from her awesome abilities and powers, I appreciate her more as a heroine. She has a sharp, inquisitive mind, and I like that she questions the people around her and her own role in this great future of saving the land and whatnot. I also appreciate the fact that for all Maerad’s unparalleled strengths and uniqueness, she’s not a badass warrior and struggles with violence.

I generally liked the supporting characters in this book, although they all seem to fall into helpful generous benefactor roles – the motherly Sylvia and smitten scholar Dernhil fall firmly into this category. The tortured Cadvan is an interesting mentor to Maerad – I do like that others question their relationship, and that you never really know what Cadvan is thinking (although his frequent patriarchal exasperation with Maerad is annoying, especially in the early chapters). AND of course, there is the late addition of the rascally Hem as a character – whom I enjoyed, even if his introduction to the story felt AGAIN very “All the Stars are Aligning as the Prophecy Foretold.”

What is your favorite thing from this book? What weren’t you enthusiastic about? And, most importantly, will you continue with the series?

Ana: Hummm…I am sorry to say I was not enthusiastic about anything. I was bored out of my mind and do not plan on reading the series any further.

I do have one last question I want to throw out there: would you consider The Naming a good introduction to Epic Fantasy to younger readers? Are there good enough aspects of the novel that would appeal to those who haven’t read a lot of Epic Fantasy yet?

Thea: The strongest parts of the book, to me, lie with Maerad’s characterization and the worldbuilding – although these elements are not without significant drawbacks (Maerad’s uniqueness, the world’s utter familiarity). There was one particular aspect of the book that bothered me that we haven’t discussed here – that is, there were parts of the book where the regular western fantasy speech would turn into crazy archaic speech, complete with “thee”s, “thou”s, and so on. (Talk about overkill and an entirely jarring experience.)

I think on the whole, I’m feeling a little more charitable towards The Naming than Ana, but I do think the book suffered from the most fatal of flaws: banality. This book is entirely too similar to other fantasy books that did it first and did it better. As I said before, this isn’t a bad book. It’s just not a particularly memorable one, either. I probably won’t be reading the next book in the series (unless someone can tell me that it gets REALLY GOOD).

Rating:

Ana: 5 – Meh

Thea: 5 – Meh, but leaning towards a 6.

June Readalong: Sorry we are so late with this but we will be opening for voting next Wednesday and the readalong will take place on June 26!

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Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with the questions (and our answers), come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!

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15 Responses to Old School Wednesdays Readalong: The Naming by Alison Croggon

  1. I’ve been wondering what the two of you would think of this, so it’s great to know I’m not alone with the feelings that this is really derivative of other works. I made a comment about it on Twitter, and the author kind of jumped on me, so I thought maybe it was just me who felt the presence of tropes and obvious influences from other fantasy novels.

    This was one of the first YA fantasy books I read when I was much younger, so it will always mean a lot to me. But looking at objectively after reading more widely, it’s interesting to note the similarities.

  2. Eli Deckert says:

    To my delight, I have just discovered your website. I agree with your assessment on the influences that governed this story. It is good and a right thing to build upon the canon of great literature; it is a travesty to pull together pieces from other works and simply stitch them together. Such an exercise produces a literary Frankenstein monster that lives as a body with no soul. This book lacks a soul in its attempts to reanimate it influences.
    I just completed the first book in my new Peter Black series. In the book, as in the series, one may easily identify influencing works: Lord of the Rings, Paradise Lost, Harry Potter, etc. Of course those works are derived from their influences as well: Das Nibelungenlied, The Iliad, and Canterbury Tales(among other influences). The key is that the work is a part of you; only then can you write with your voice and give soul to the work you are animating.

    Just a thought – Eli

  3. de Pizan says:

    I made it up through the third book in the series a few years ago, but it doesn’t get much better. They aren’t terrible books, but I would forget almost everything about them as soon as I finished.

  4. Lindsay says:

    Oh, whew, it’s not just me! I found this book utterly dull, to the point that I didn’t even finish it. The main character was far too perfect, the world and the story were far too exactly like things I’ve read before.

    I did kind of like the older female character in the city of the Bard meetup and the relationship that began to form there between her and the main character. But that was not enough.

    As an aside, I did re-read LOTR about a year and a half ago, and loved it all over again. This? This is everything that steers me clear of the majority of recent (anything post 2000 feels recent to me) YA fantasy.

    A bit more ranting is here: http://bluefairysbookshelf.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-naming-first-book-of-pellinor.html

  5. Amanda says:

    Oh, my first divergence from your reviews! How exciting, and also booo! :) But not really.

    I really enjoyed the entire series. In the 2nd book Maerad makes some really awful decisions…in the 4th book there’s some awesome bargaining with Old Gods in frozen ice caves…there’s an evil but also chillingly appealing Ehiru… and I feel like if I continue naming the ‘trope-y’ things I so enjoyed about the next few books I’ll be giving stuff away, so.

    The things that are boring other people are the things I most enjoy about this series. It’s slow moving. The world-building is familiar, as is the trope–just different enough to make me feel comforted by an old favorite-feeling, but interested in the characters and the final outcome.

    I like being able to make the connections between Croggon’s probable inspirations and her own work. It’s rewarding for me, not irritating, to say, “Oh, that reminds me so much of Rivendell,” or “This part is just like Earthsea,” etc. I’m wondering whether my enjoyment can be attributed to my lack of exposure to books in this trope. I’ve only read a handful to completion, and I’ve chosen them so carefully that I haven’t felt like I’ve had a bad egg, yet. I suppose if I had to review them, I might start losing interest. This is what happens to me with most YA paranormal fantasy at this point. Hmmm…

  6. Hannah H says:

    Oh, thank God, I was afraid this was just me.

  7. Sara says:

    I happened to check out the entire series from my library since it was available and though I did think the first book somewhat sluggish in pace I gave the rest of the series a chance and I really liked them. I think they get progressively better. Sorry to hear you were underwhelmed.

  8. Linda W says:

    I read the first two books in this series, but then lost interest. I didn’t mind the chosen one trope, but I did mind the almost limitless power of the main character.

  9. Emily says:

    Haven’t read this, might stay away. Slow books can be good, if they are done properly. Unfortunately some aren’t, and from the way you describe this, it’s more of the latter. Maybe I’ll try it if I’m bored.

  10. Eliza says:

    I didn’t finish the book in time for our read-along. I’m not sure if it was the book, the timing, or a combination of both. I love reading about everyone’s different reactions to the book(s). Sorry that I can’t add much to the discussion.

  11. Shay says:

    I remember reading this, but the plot is so mixed up in my mind with this book:
    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/489612.The_Singer_of_All_Songs
    ….I think this was the better one too^. :)

  12. I’m fairly on the Ana side of things. I bought the book on the strength of the awesome cover and then bought the second one in the hope it would get more original, and the third one because it switched to showing her brother… and that is still on my TBR pile and not likely to ever be read. I need to pass those books on. Not easy when no one in my real life really reads English fantasy (with girl protagonists at that).

    OH for a middle grade intro to epic fantasy you can’t go wrong with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence! Just AWESOME! But the end of the final book is massively bittersweet.

  13. Katy says:

    I think it would awesome, if possible, to do a post at Kirkus in the similar vein to the one you posted for Strangelets, Thea. If I remember correctly, you also felt frustrated with that book because other books had handled its tropes so much better. Then you went on to make a list. I think it would be great to see a similar fantasy list develop from your frustration with banality of this book. What books were the originators of the tropes found in The Naming? What other books have developed them better? Just food for thought.

  14. Amanda says:

    Katy I really like that idea… I’d also love to see that list!

  15. lulasamson says:

    The initial books of this series are interesting to read but later on,it becomes boring.

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