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Charles Vess – The Book of Ballads

April 28, 2009

46. The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess, with Terri Windling, Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Sharyn McCrumb, Midori Snyder, Lee Smith, Elaine Lee, Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint, Jeff Smith, Emma Bull, and Ken Roseman (2004)

Length: 192 pages

Genre: Graphic Novel, Fantasy (well, folklore), Poetry (kind of)

Started: 19 April 2009, during the wee hours of the read-a-thon
Finished: 19 April 2009, after I’d gotten some sleep

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 20 February 2009
Verdict? Keeper.

Writing poetry…
about a book… about songs…
seems a *bit* silly.

Summary: The Book of Ballads is not your typical graphic novel – maybe a graphic poetry collection? In any case, there are thirteen entries, each based around a traditional British or Scottish ballad. For each, a different author wrote the text of the story, and the inimitable Charles Vess provided the artwork. The text of the original ballad is included for each, as well. There’s also an introduction explaining the sources and history of ballads in general, and a discography providing listings of artists who have recorded versions of each of the ballads in this collection, for those who want the music to go along with the words and pictures.

Review: Some of the stories in this collection worked better than others for me; a fact that’s likely to be true for every collection, but which is unique here, because what worked for me was not the writing or the story or the characters, but the degree to which the author reinterpreted the ballad into an actual story. Ballads are almost always little out-of-context chunks of story lacking most of their history and motivation; we don’t know what the lady fair was doing riding alone, how the knight came to be keeping consort with a witch, or why the witch was feeling so witchy in the first place. In the better stories in this collection, the authors created a backstory for us, making it a re-telling of the ballad instead of just a telling.

The ones that didn’t work so well for me were the tellings. Several of them even made extensive use of the original text of the ballad within the story, without even re-writing them… and at that point, I had to wonder what the point of having an author collaborator even was – surely Vess could have storyboarded them on his own, if that was all that was required? Vess’s illustrations are wonderful, full of emotion, hope and fear and love and hate and life and death and horrible dark things and wonderful bright things… all of the things contained in the ballads themselves, basically. They’re not quite enough to carry the weaker stories on their own, but they’re lovely, and definitely make this book worth seeking out. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Recommended to fans of fantasy, fairy tales, folklore, poetry, and graphic novels.

Also, I highly recommend reading it (or re-reading it) along with some of the music listed in the discography – this is an interesting idea for a book, but it’s hard to take the music away from an art form that’s inherently musical and still make the same impact.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

– Introduction by Terry Windling
– The False Knight on the Road by Neil Gaiman
– King Henry by Jane Yolen
– Thomas the Rhymer by Sharyn McCrumb
– Barbara Allen by Midori Snyder
– The Three Lovers by Lee Smith
– Tam-Lin by Elaine Lee (I know I have at least two retellings of this story on my TBR pile. Exciting!)
– The Daemon Lover by Delia Sherman
– Twa Corbies by Charles de Lint
– Sovay by Charles de Lint
– The Galtee Farmer by Jeff Smith
– Alison Gross by Charles Vess
– The Black Fox by Emma Bull
– The Great Selchie of Sule Skerry by Jane Yolen
– Discography Notes by Ken Roseman

I didn’t realize when I was reading the story, but when I got to the discography it dawned on me that Nickel Creek’s song “House Carpenter” (which I love) is a distant descendant of “The Daemon Lover”. Other than that, none of these were familiar to me before I read this book – but the CD selection at my local library has gone a long way to fix that.

(the video’s nothing special, but the sound quality’s the best I could find – plus there’s an excellent extended instrumental solo in the middle)

Links: Charles Vess’s publishing website

Other Reviews: Books and Other Thoughts, Stuff as Dreams are Made On, Stella Matutina, Rhinoa’s Ramblings, Libri Touches, The Written World
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: A tale from Scotland’s Isle of Skye relates how music first came to those lands.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Shanra permalink
    April 28, 2009 1:10 am

    *low whistle* You just said everything I felt was a pity about the book too. Except more precisely and concisely. ^-~ My favourite is probably the de Lint retelling of Twa Corbies, though. (Put otherwise, that’s the one I remember clearest, first and without prompting.)

  2. April 28, 2009 1:46 pm

    I just love Charles Vess’ illustrations. He did all the ones for The Faery Reel anthology. I’ll have to see about picking this one up thanks!

  3. April 29, 2009 1:09 pm

    Shanra – I think my favorite was Sovay, although it’s my favorite for reasons that totally contradict everything I said in my review – namely, that I really liked the story. :)

    Ladytink – I haven’t seen that one, but I did love the issues of Sandman that he did.

  4. May 2, 2009 9:30 pm

    Charles Vess was the whole reason that I picked this book up in the first place!

    This is why I shouldn’t take computer breaks, I am back in April catching up on posts!

  5. May 3, 2009 8:56 am

    Kailana – Heh, I think the worst I’ve let my Google Reader feed get is a week and a half…. well, I’ve let it get longer than that, but chickened out and just hit “mark all as read”. Kudos to you for powering through!


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