I'm a huge fan of fantasy - I always have been. I'm also a huge fan of Disney, and there's nothing better than finding out that a Disney movie you enjoy (The Black Cauldron) is also based on a fantasy classic (Well, actually two, it's loosely based on The Book of Three and the second book in the series The Black Cauldron). So I scuttled over to the nearest library and checked out the audio book (because dang it, I'm taking a summer class and I have NINE books I'm supposed to read for that, but I'll listen to whatever I please when I'm driving to and from work). Again, my luck with audio-books holds (not counting my brief encounter with Doctor Zhivago).
The Book of Three is the first of a five book series by Lloyd Alexander called The Chronicles of Prydain. Please enjoy a brief summary of its contents (lifted directly from the back cover): "Taran is bored with his Assistant Pig-Keeper duties, even though his charge is none other than Hen-Wen, Prydain's only oracular pig. He's rather be doing something more heroic, like making swords and learning to use them. When Hen-Wen escapes and Taran goes after her, he finds himself farther from home than he's ever been. Soon he begins to realize that heroism is no easy task. With the dreaded Horned King of he loose and King Arawn gathering the forces of evil, Taran must look past his own dreams to warn the population of Prydain - before it's too late."
It's a generally accepted fact that all fantasy written after 1955 must inevitably be compared to The Lord of the Rings, so let's just get that comparison out of the way. Is it as good as LOTR? No. Do some parts kind of feel like LOTR? yes. However, this books was published in '64, when Tolkien's influence wasn't quite so pervasive, so any similarities largely stem from the fact that Tolkien and Alexander were both influenced (to varying extents) by Welsh mythology. Lloyd Alexander's books stand on their own in terms of quality. The Book of Three doesn't have the sort of epic scope that Tolkien achieves, on the other hand it's not trying to. What it's trying to be is just a good High Fantasy novel, and it is.
So, if you are a fan of fantasy, and/or good books, this is a great one to read. The characters were what really sold this story for me. The plot kind of rambles a bit, but the characters are just so well-drawn that you are perfectly content to ramble about with them. Taran is a fantastic hero. He's very young in this book (I think about thirteen or fourteen), and Lloyd Alexander manages to capture really well what it would be like for a fourteen-year old kid to suddenly find himself on an adventure of this sort. He makes mistakes, comes to realize that being a hero is a lot harder and less glamorous than it sounds, and has to wholly rely on the help of his friends. The ending does have kind of a LOTR feel to it (in more of a thematic sense than an event sense), which I really enjoyed. The cast of supporting characters were what really did it for me though. Princess Elonwy is hilarious. She's exactly what I've always wanted from a female character. She's feminine, but also really well developed. She's feisty but also kind, and has a very peculiar way of speaking that I thought was great. She's practical, but also 14 herself (I'm making that up, I have no idea how old they are exactly) and not that great at everything she tries her hand at. And also, Doli the dwarf, and Fflewddur Flam, and Gurgi are all my favorites. I would go on about them, but it would take pages, and you should just read and experience them for yourself.
I'm so glad I found this series, and each book is better than the last. It's been a long time since I found books that were so captivating. I actually want to drive places now so I can find out what happens next (which if you know me is a big deal). It's well written, with engaging characters, and a rich mythology of its own. On another note, I know that the book is always better than the movie, but after reading these, and going back to watch the Disney film I couldn't help but feel a little sad. I just couldn't enjoy it anymore, the book was just 8 million and ten times better. Do yourself a favor and get a hold of this seriously underrated fantasy series.
***Note*** I know some people are a bit hesitant when it comes to fantasy books because of magic. For a fantasy series I can honestly say this doesn't have much magic, and what magic it does have is the kind you would find in Arthurian legend. There's a pig who can see the future, a minor character is a sort of Merlin-esque figure. There are evil enchantresses (who never actually do any magic funnily enough), and things like that (and monsters called the cauldron born who are basically warrior zombies, but we don't like them, and they're unequivocally evil). If you're ok with King Arthur, then these books shouldn't be a problem.