Friday 13 December 2013

A Different Kingdom by Paul Kearney

Book Cover
A Different Kingdom is the tale of Michael Fay, an orphan boy growing up on a farm in Ireland. It's a time when rural life still feels eternally static, but is actually on the cusp of big changes. A farmer in his village buys the first tractor, and while horses are still the most popular beasts of burden and means of transport, there are cars, too...

But that is backdrop. Really, it is the story of a boy stumbling towards, into, and out of, an eternal, mythical forest. At first, Michael notices things in the woods around his farm, and by the river, things glimpsed only momentarily out of the corner of an eye. He's still a small boy then, and though he gets into trouble, that trouble mainly takes the form of a beating for ruining clothes while falling into mud.

The other place (and the creatures from that other place) initially have very strong competition for Michael's attention: his aunt Rose is a girl / young woman, a sensual, unabashed one, and even though he is very much a child, he is fascinated by her. It's only when Rose disappears from his life that the forest begins to claim him in earnest. And in the forest, there seem to be wolves...

The narrative is split: we read about Michael gradually moving towards the Different Kingdom, intercut with scenes of Michael as an older man, working his way back towards Ireland / home, from that different kingdom. And then we get his journey through the kingdom, intercut with a narrative of Michael's later life in London.

There are many books about characters who stumble into other worlds. Few treat the matter with as much seriousness (and thought) as A Different Kingdom. It's the sort of novel which could probably be marketed as `literary' or among the most ambitious of the fantasy genre. It's rich with themes like adolescence, first childhood sensuality, fascinations, and it treats the journey into another place as something with a real and lasting psychological impact. The prose is masterful, drifting into a rich mythical voice in the other world (and when its characters speak), but grounded in real Ireland (and later, London) when it needs to be. And the characters are complicated and believable.

It's a novel reminding me of Alan Garner's work (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service), and of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood - eminent classics. I do believe A Different Kingdom will take its place among those, and I could easily imagine it winning awards. It does not feel quite as self-conscious as Mythago Wood though: Different Kingdom is not a tale of scientists investigating myths, analysing myths, being absorbed by myths. It's a tale of a boy/man having an adventure with and through a mythical environment, which are simply treated with seriousness and respect.

Its richness does mean that it commands your attention, and its narrative structure is not optimised for thrills and pace. It's a gradual, immersive novel, but definitely not a thriller. (After all, you almost always know that Michael will survive, simply because of the way the story has been intercut from different timelines). It's also a novel with a protagonist who is not always impressive. Michael the orphan boy has our undivided attention and sympathy. Michael the teenager is a bit full of himself. Michael the quest obsessed man is stubborn, wilful, and not the most cheerful company. Michael, the tired Londoner is not the hero type. It's a novel where the gradual erosion of likeability of the protagonist works against the flow: it's uphill reading. It's definitely worth persevering with, but it's not simply a cheerful little piece of escapism. Perhaps because of its complexity and less than perfect hero, this novel feels real and authentic, despite its mythical beasts and lands.

Rich prose, thoughtful plotting and intelligent writing make this a worthwhile read, but also a bit of an acquired taste. I'd recommend it for fans of Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock and Jo Walton.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday 10 December 2013

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games Trilogy is the latest YA novel fad to make gazillions on cinema screens. If it hadn’t been for a £1.99 special offer on Amazon Kindle, I would never have bought them, but at that price, I figured I’d give them a chance.

Well, it’s certainly a lot better than Twilight. That’s hardly a compliment. There are cowpats with more brains than Twilight.

I’ve seen the Hunger Games movie, and found it fairly forgettable but entertaining enough. Re-watched it just before reading the novels, and so it was quite fresh in my mind when I read the book. The movie is very close to the story, with only relatively minor alterations. Nevertheless, the book was gripping: as the books are told entirely in first person, you never get the same overview that the movie occasionally offers. Certainly the motivation and methods of the Games Makers are a lot less transparent in the book.

After all this preamble, a brief summary: In Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, kick-ass teenager who poaches in the (forbidden) forest, volunteers to take her little sister’s place at the ‘Reaping’, when one boy and one girl from each of 12 districts is selected by a draw to represent their district in a gladiatorial death match in a gigantic arena, for the entertainment of all, and as a punishment for a rebellion of the districts that happened generations ago. After a bit of mentoring and training, she’s put in the arena and battles it out with the other teenagers.

Of course, the action bits are only half the story. The other half is a love triangle, and in particular, the star-crossed lovers angle, as the male tribute from her district, Peeta, is hopelessly in love with her.

The Girl on Fire is the tale of how Katniss has, through her fame, become a bit of a threat to the rulers of her world, so they throw her into the Hunger Games a second time.

The Mockingjay book is then a tale of revolution, which Katniss experiences as a figurehead / symbol, manipulated by power brokers.

I’ll be honest, the unputdownability ended with Hunger Games. The other two books were increasingly grim and a bit unpleasant, with much less narrative tension and drive. They were still very readable, but not really all that exciting, not in a popcorn entertainment way. You get the sense that the books want to say something meaningful and make a point, but simply don’t have anything really important or new to say. Politicians are devious and selfish. Dictators are cruel and evil. Our consumerist society is shallow and selfish and blind to suffering around us. Oh, really?

The books make me get all analytical. And grumpy. I can’t help thinking that we are witnessing the beginnings of a new literary era, the rise of a female hero with a thousand faces. Except, the skeleton is different when compared with the male hero, and I don’t like it much.

Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces is a fairly simple template: young man, emerging from adolescence, receives the news / gift / finds something which makes him special, a chosen one. (The Force. A dragon’s egg. A treasure map. A magical ring) Along with the gift comes a mentor figure (Obi Wan. Gandalf. Yoda.). His all-too brief guidance is cut short and the mentor taken away. Is our hero ready to face The Big Bad? Well, of course, it turns out that he finds within himself the resourcefulness and wisdom that his mentor tried to spark, and so he defeats the baddie (and usually wins a girl as a reward, unless he’s Frodo, in which case he wins Sam). It’s the template for Star Wars, Eragon, Lord of the Rings, and about a million other male-hero-tales. It’s simple to the point of being rather dumb; women don’t really feature except as damsels to be rescued or as prizes to be won. To this day, it’s still used frequently by writers and storytellers and film makers, because it tends to be financially successful.

Up until now, the only female template that I can think of which matches its popularity would be the Cinderella story, which, let’s face it, kinda sucks, from a gender equality point of view. (Cinderella being passive, docile and hard-working: it’s only through the magic gifts of a fairy godmother and the perseverance of a prince chasing after her that that story ends well. Cinderella's main achievements are household chores and an inability to keep the time properly, and a slight fascination with shiny shoes.)

Hunger Games and some other recent stories (including, I suspect, the Twilight series, though I’ve only read one of those) are starting to establish a female equivalent of the hero with a thousand faces. Here’s a rough outline: kick-ass beautiful girl, emerging from adolescence, receives the news/gift/finds something which makes her special, a chosen one. (Become a tribute. Smell really delicious to vampires. Being a shy interviewer of billionnaires). Along with the gift comes a love triangle: at least two men desire her most desperately. She can’t make up her mind, so she strings both of them along. There’s some ass-kicking, and everyone keeps saving each other’s lives a lot. Eventually, our heroine vanquishes the Big Bad after plenty of personal sacrifices along the way, and chooses one of the men who have been fawning over her (usually, two main ones, with perhaps a few lesser ones showing temporary interest).

It’s definitely a better template than cinder-f***ing-ella, in terms of the confidence it is meant to imprint on its female readers (look girls, you can be kick-ass, too!). But here’s what I hate about it: the sentence that says ‘she strings both of them along’.

Oh, sure, Hunger Games comes up with a convenient world where suddenly her life (and that of both her aspiring lovers) depend on her stringing the guys along, but that’s just writers dressing up the underlying structure that is slowly settling in. 0-21st century men are taught that real heroes battle evil and win a girl. 0-20th century women were taught that heroines are good little home makers and let themselves be conquered by a charming prince. 21st century women are taught that perfect heroines are desirable women who string along various men until they can pick from a buffet... out come the make-up, the figure-revealing dresses and presumably some shoes (to its credit, Hunger Games never features any noticeably obsession with shoes; sadly, the same cannot be said about dresses)

It’s lady-porn, isn’t it? It’s the female equivalent of those music videos where some up-himself pop star is surrounded by dozens of women prancing around in their underwear, except that women are supposedly more responsive to emotional stimuli rather than visual ones, so our up-herself heroine gets to be surrounded by dozens of devoted men (who may or may not prance around in their underwear, but who certainly get all vulnerable and gooey around her, unless of course they're billionnaires, in which case they get all kinky).

The male hero with a thousand faces is not a romantic hero, he’s an action hero. The female one is not really a romantic hero either – being manipulative, emotionally promiscuous and disloyal is hardly the stuff of romance – but it is dressed up as such, and, one presumes, interpreted as such by its readers. So, on a very fundamental level, I don’t like the template, and I can’t say I found this trilogy entirely enjoyable reading.

But the writing is competent, simple, and mostly pacey (very pacey in the first, a bit slower in the second and, pace-wise, borderline cumbersome in the third), so it's diverting enough.

I rather liked the angry, ugly cat: by far the most appealing character of the entire saga.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday 13 October 2013

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

The Republic of Thieves is very much the story of Locke Lamora and Sabetha. In the first two Gentlemen Bastards novels, Sabetha is a name which is mentioned, a presence without ever making an appearance. It is the sort of foreshadowing that means her actual entrance has to be quite impressive to live up to all the anticipation. I'm happy to report that it does, and then some.

Locke (our whip-smart but short & weak hero) and Jean (his big strong bestest buddy friend) start the novel holed up in a city: Locke has been poisoned and is slowly internally bleeding to death. Jean means to save him. Things look bleak, and it takes quite a good chunk of text before the real story starts. So, the beginning of Republic of Thieves took some effort. It also felt unusually grim and a bit slow. Once the story moves, Jean and Locke are tasked with arranging an election victory, and find out that their opposition has hired Sabetha to do the same.

The story is told in two intersecting paths - Locke and Sabetha in adulthood, and then, intersecting with that, their childhoods / young adulthoods. The parallel narratives work so well, I can barely imagine the novel being told any other way. Once Locke and Jean are recruited into their task and arrive to start work, the pace just never slackens at all. The novel becomes a stunningly enjoyable, exciting and quite playful tale.

In fact, playfulness is at the very heart of the novel: if romantic tales were generally this playfully fun, I think I could be converted to read more of them. And the novel even contains large chunks of a perfectly authentic sounding (to my ears) Shakespeare-style play: hats off to Scott Lynch for carrying that one off.

What makes Republic of Thieves stand out is that it feels like the writer is conscious, perhaps too much so, of the shortcomings /criticisms of... well, pretty much every other fantasy novel featuring female characters, and pretty much every other tale pitching a male lead to compete with a female one while romantic entanglements ensue. It's as if someone really intelligent had sat down, thought hard about gender issues in fiction and genre tropes, noticed all the flaws in boy vs girl stories (Mr and Mrs Smith, That Girl Friday, etc etc), and then decided to write a sensitive, well-planned, post-postmodern, positive-about-women-gay-people-and-everyone response.

In short, sometimes Locke's & Sabetha's interactions feel just a smidgen too utopian. Sure, they run into problems. But then they talk about things, and do so frankly, honestly and with insights into themselves (and each other). They have feelings and irrational moments but can step back and express themselves coherently and discuss them and deal with stuff. Also, Sabetha is intelligent, strong, uber-competent, and without any discernible weakness or flaw: she is written to be the perfect woman. When it comes to Locke, Sabetha and Jean, they're all just a bit too perfect and wise and eloquent, and too self-analytical and communicative.

As flaws go, that is a minor one. But it did make me wonder whether the previous novels already had such worthy philosophies underneath. I do have some memories of female characters (a pirate captain, and, after much racking of brains, an underworld princess), but none which left quite as lasting an impression, nor do I remember there being nearly as much 'talking things through' in those books. But then, it's been years since I read them.

Anyhow, a lot of my commentary above is not so much about the book as analysis of themes in the book. There are two simple reasons: I don't want to give much away, and I'd be left exclaiming one superlative adjective after another: the book is just too much fun, so I'd end up calling it "great" and "fantastic" and "delightful" and "terrifically enjoyable" and other similar things, which sounds all too fluffy.

(However, like the preceding novels, Republic of Thieves does not end with an unmitigated happy ending, and does leave off with an opening for the next in the series).

If you've read the other two, get this one and read it NOW. If not, get the other two first, read them, and THEN read this one. (Without reading the others first, this one will probably struggle to stand on its own) This book alone is worth reading The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies for, just to have the pleasure of reading The Republic of Thieves.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday 8 October 2013

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

I wish I remember how I came to buy An Instance of the Fingerpost- I have a vague suspicion it might have been an Amazon recommendation, but I am not entirely sure.

At any rate: I bought it. I read it soon after buying it. I found it incredibly rewarding and enjoyable to read - one of the best books I've read, even though much of it went over my head.

An Instance of the Fingerpost is a historical novel. Many - indeed, most - of the characters are historical figures. Some of the key characters are fictitious, or heavily fictionalised versions of real people. And the events in the book are using history as a springboard rather than a millstone - much of the plot at the heart of the novel is entirely imaginative, rather than factual.

The book comprises of four narratives, one after the other. Each narrative recalls the same period of time, in Oxford, when a series of events happened which left their mark on all the narrators. The first story is that of a man called Marco da Cola, a rich merchant's son from Venice, in England to look after business interests and try his hand at experimentation and discovery. Drawn into the lives of an elderly woman and her daughter by accident, he tries to act as a physician for the (badly injured) old woman, and, in the course of his story, does an experiment which he wishes to regain credit for - because, through betrayal, his role has been written out of history. And then there is a suspicious death, and the plot thickens...

The second and third narratives are written by much more sinister men, with evil deeds they admit to (and suspicions about others). Each reveals a new layer of the events covered in the first. The final narrative tries to pull it all together, and present a new picture entirely...

Each of the narrators is unreliable. Each, of course, thinks he has the monopoly on truth, righteousness and rightness. And each fills in the gaps of things he does not know with assumptions, guesses and suspicions. The second and third narratives are positively dripping with paranoia an venom. The first is comparatively more jolly, and the final one more keen on facts and less keen on interpolation. That said, the final narrative is by far the most... fantastical, shall we say?

The writing is masterful, in my opinion. The tone is perfectly plausible and authentic enough to give the story atmosphere, without being slavish to 16th century language. There is significant wit and a very dry, dark sense of humour in the telling of this tale, made all the more delightful because none of the characters are being intentionally funny - they merely have conversations and make observations which a 21st century reader would be very very amused by, while being perfectly earnest. Punchlines are never delivered at the end of a sentence or paragraph, but in the middle of the flow of the dialogue or narrative, and so the overall effect is much more witty, in my opinion.

In terms of historical characters, I confess to knowing next to nothing about all of them. I have a very vague inkling of Cromwell, but no real understanding of that period (or any period) of English history. The religious jostling is perfectly beyond me: I have no idea even today what the big differences between Christian denominations are. Oh, I know Anglicanism was founded to permit divorce, and Evangelism / Protestantism a backlash against the centralised Catholic church, and I know there are some differences (confession, Lent, yadda yadda yadda), but to me as an outsider, it is inconceivable that all these minor details would matter in the least. So when the narrative speaks of Catholics, papists (the same, I gather), Anglicans, Protestants, Jesuits, Methodists, Quakers, etc. etc. etc. - I simply do not understand the religious differences, nor do I always follow the historical import of any particular faction's actions / conspiracies. That is probably why the second and third narrative are less engaging than the first - these are the big political sections. The first and last are much more focused on a life-or-death drama about individual characters that earn the reader's compassion, empathy and care. The second and third narratives, while involving individual struggles, are much more about blinded, furious men with bitter hearts, hot obsessions but coldness where any notion of compassion might be...

Much as I loved the writing, and the authentic detail, there were bits when I skim-read and got a little bored. Each narrator spends time swearing his honesty and trying to win over the reader to his view of events, and the wheedling, authentic as it may be, grates. Similarly, sometimes characters would start philosophising about stuff which matters little to me / the reader, and those sections, too, can tire. The constant one-upmanship of using quotes from the Bible between different characters is diverting and amusing at first, but by the end, you sort of want all of them to think a little more about the world and a little less about which quote is the most useful riposte...

Even though I did not always understand every nuance, I believe I understood most of the plot. The number of characters was so staggering I often lost track of which named person was suspected of which deed in which conspiracy, but I think that did not detract too much from the tale, for the paranoid bits are a bit frantic in their suspicions anyway. The real heavy lifting, in terms of reader engagement, are done by the first and the final narrative, and I will admit, the first left me with a night of very poor sleep as its conclusion was quite harrowing. The final narrative and the way the story is pulled together is ... definitely elegant, and pleasant to read, but also quite difficult to reconcile with this particular reader's willingness to suspend disbelief. I guess I can just assume that our final narrator, too, is unreliable - as unreliable as all the others, and merely presented as the most convincing because his is the final account, and because he is able to address things mentioned in the other three narratives and put the final word to it.

I would certainly count this as a masterfully written novel, and a masterfully executed concept / idea, and one of the best novels I have read. I found it very rewarding, even if not all aspects appealed to my own sensibilities.

Rating: 5/5

Friday 6 September 2013

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Looking back, I wonder why I pre-ordered The People in the Trees. I guess the marketing blurb must have worked. I like to think that I can be enthused about "challenging and visionary literary fiction", that an "astonishingly gripping and accomplished first novel" would excite me, that "an anthropological adventure story that combines the visceral allure of a thriller with a profound and tragic vision of what happens when cultures collide" would be the sort of book I could enjoy.


Part of the problem is the way all the major plot points are revealed in advance. If you read the blurb and the prologue / preface / start of the framing of the story, you will know every significant story development before the first bit of narrative starts. That is not the way of thrillers, and it is not the best way to tell of adventures. (Some adventure stories do give you a gist in advance - but they leave enough details for the main story to thrill you with. This book does not leave such room for excitement: it really does give you everything that's interesting in advance)

So, forget about narrative tension, forget about wanting to find out what happens next: you already know what happens next, pretty much all the way to the final page.

Fine. It must be the writing voice, then, which bewitches and seduces you, takes you away from your own life and into another. Right?

Well, our narrator is a scientist. He's a callous, hard-to-like, arrogant and judgemental man. But his tone of voice is matter-of-fact and the reading experience is roughly comparable to reading a very long Wikipedia article. (A summary at the start, and then fact upon fact upon fact). Don't get me wrong: there is craftsmanship involved in creating an authentic-sounding piece that could have been written by a scientist, and the writer of this novel has achieved a well-crafted, authentic-sounding work. It just isn't all that enjoyable as a reading experience.

Our protagonist, meanwhile, is exactly the sort of scientist that non-scientist creative types like to imagine. He's judgemental and arrogant, but without actual merit - his Nobel Prize winning discoveries are through pure luck rather than skill. In fact, his skill at science is very mediocre and he is not very academically gifted. He's dedicated to logic and thinking and sense, but unable to understand himself. He's callous, a force of devastation and faintly sadistic: early on, he describes working in a laboratory, on experiments he does not understand, as lowly undergrad doing menial tasks. Of these tasks, it is killing the mice which he enjoys most - flinging them in circles by their tails until they are dazed, then breaking their necks with his hands - and he describes, with some glee, how he used to kill them in bulk by swirling many mice simultaneously. It's the sort of nonsense that breaks the suspension of disbelief - not because I cannot believe in casually sadistic men, but because I don't think that this method of killing mice would be particularly popular, nor even that it would be particularly easy to accomplish. It simply reads like a fantasy of someone who distrusts, resents and secretly envies scientists.

Despite its lack of enjoyable qualities, the novel is a detailed character study. Much of it feels authentic, and the number of scenes when authenticity is missing entirely are fairly limited. (Of course, these scenes revolve around the medical mystery, and the 'science' inside the novel is ludicrous beyond belief)

So, writing of decent craftsmanship, lots of detail, some authenticity, but no joy, no thrills, not much adventure - and nothing particularly visionary or thought-provoking. This is not the novel I expected from the blurb, and it is not a novel I would recommend.

(For some reason, the entire book kept putting me in the same mood as The Testament of Gideon Mack, so if you like Gideon Mack, then chances are, you may also appreciate this novel. It might also appeal to fans of Measuring the World)

Rating: 3/5

Friday 16 August 2013

The Volunteers by Raymond Williams

The Volunteers starts with a bit of a bang - the shooting of a politician in St Fagans National History Museum near Cardiff. Our narrator, a journalist working for a fictional equivalent of Newscorp / BSkyB, is sent out to follow the story. He's chosen because he has a past as left wing agitator / protestor, and because, as an ex-insider with some street cred, he might be able to connect with violent left-wingers.

The rest of the novel follows him as he comes up with theories about the events, and stumbles into something which may be a larger conspiracy.

It sounds like a political thriller, and it really very much wants to be. But, with a ruminating writing voice, a tendency to meander, and long descriptions, the story does not read like a thriller.

As things develop, you get a sense of the weaknesses of the book. The author has no good ear for dialogue. Most interactions our reporter has with people are described in some detail - we get descriptions and analysis of verbal manoeuvrings that read a little bit like a sporting commentary, a sort of tactical analysis, each dialogue a little skirmish, but at the same time, a lot of the dialogue is opaque and about not speaking plainly. Often, as a reader, I think I know what people are being circumspect about, but sometimes, I don't. It makes for an odd experience - getting a blow-by-blow tactical analysis without always being sure what was actually being talked about or implied.

The central premise, meanwhile, is just too laden with wishful thinking. It's a novel that is painfully aware of the ineffectiveness of the fringes of political classes at effecting change, so it dreams of mastermind tacticians and grand plans.

The book kept me engaged and interested all the way through, but by the end, it was hard to feel invested in any characters. Everyone was so clearly an idea, a concept, a theory, rather than a human being, that I did not really believe in any of them, and did not much care about any outcomes.

It is not surprising the book was written by an academic - it does have a very aloof feel to it, when it does not go into a journalistic, blow-by-blow account of a serious event. Those bits are quite well-done, but the meat and bones of the novel are rather less well-cooked than the set-piece scenes.

That said, I loved reading a book set in places I recognised (St Fagans! Cardiff! London! Finsbury Park!) and infused with political people and a political Welsh identity that is not just about being Welsh for the sake of being Welsh, but about class war, Unions, communities and industrial conflict (interestingly, without a persecution complex, unlike the grand lament of victimhood that is Cwmardy) - a national identity that seemingly perished a generation ago, by now replaced by a fairly shallow, red-rugby-shirt-wearing hangup about "not being English", with no other distinctions, a sort of boil-in-the-bag cultural identity... as someone who wasn't around in the 80s and who lives in Wales now, reading about a very different Wales was quite interesting.

As a novel, it's certainly a lot more fun to read than Cwmardy.

Rating: 3.5/5

Monday 12 August 2013

Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Libriomancer starts out at a galloping pace and never really takes a breather. Fire spider, library, VAMPIRE ATTACK, rescue, GANDALF HAS DISAPPEARED, WAR IS ABOUT TO START, RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN.

(I say Gandalf. I should say Gutenberg).

The writing is decent, the pacing solid, but somehow the story never really bewitched me, it never lulled me into that magical sense of being totally engrossed. It never absorbed me in the way that great fiction does. It's not The Neverending Story, it's not Inkheart, and it took the book about 150 pages before I actually started to like our hero. It's not that he is anything less than a decent guy, it's just that he isn't anything more interesting than your average guy either (until he finally unleashes some librarian-powers and starts doing detective work through means of research). Basically, everything is done well enough to be solid B-rate fantasy.

I suppose one of the big factors in not quite making me happy is the central conceit: that books are magical and magicians can pull things out of books, but the things have to fit through the space of the book's pages, and not be living intelligent beings. Which sounds interesting enough, except mostly, our hero pulls out guns or swords or, at a stretch, healing potions. It reads like books are a storage system for weapons and potions in a video game. It's a very utilitarian approach to "the magic of reading", and quite disappointing. (Later in the book, things get more interesting, but it takes about half the novel before things start to intrigue at all).

It's readable, well-paced light entertainment. Not terribly absorbing, but pleasant enough.

Rating: 3/5

Friday 26 July 2013

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a novel about a chef who is kidnapped by a female pirate captain, forced to become her personal chef cooking a nice meal for her once a week, while she continues her obsessive pursuit of a mysterious individual and a vendetta against an evil corporation.

The writing is authentic enough, feeling similar to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in tone. That also means it is not necessarily very lively: Victorian writing tends to be quite wordy and not very streamlined. Just like Doctor Frankenstein, our hero is a rather whiny fellow. The story is told in diary entries, so many chapters start with a breathless "I can't believe I just survived these perils" type sentence - which tells you that he survives and that there is little need to worry or fear for our narrator's safety.

The most notable thing about the story is that it reads like a complete gender inversion of a typical Stockholm Syndrome pirate romance tale. Dominant captain kidnaps verbally spirited, but physically weak and generally unwise person. Kidnap-ee plans their escape, verbally opposes the captain (by whinging, mostly), occasionally gets up to some mischief causing themselves problems and a bit of havoc on board, but is ultimately exempt from the ship's otherwise harsh discipline because the captain has a weak spot and keeps the weakling under their personal protection. Over time, the weak kidnap-ee develops feelings of loyalty and devotion towards the strong, dominant captain. Except this time, the weak kidnap-ee is a man, and the dominant captain is a beautiful red-haired woman. It's Mills and Boon, only backwards.

I like the idea, but I found that it was often unconvincing: male leads are supposed to be protective of female protagonists. That's chivalry. When it's reversed, it is an inexplicable and alien favouritism that seems unconvincing and a bit wrong. Also, a female kidnap-ee on a ship full of men stands out because she is female (rendering her in more need of protection). A male kidnap-ee on a ship of men does not stand out and does not seem to warrant extra patience. Basically, it turns out a complete gender reversal just feels strange, forced, and unconvincing, even borderline unpleasant. Perhaps the dominant-character-kidnapping-weakling and weakling-falling-for-their-abductor plotline is a bit toxic, no matter what the gender assignments are.

There is more to the plot - it also deals with the Opium Trade and British Imperialism etc. - so there's something quite educational about the story. The steam-punky obsessive captain in pursuit, with hot air balloons, rockets and crank-powered machine guns, on the other hand, seems much less authentic.

In terms of swashbuckling adventures, there's plenty. Some beggar belief (a person survives without boat in the ocean for two days and is then, through dumb luck, picked up by another ship, which happens to be a very important ship to the plot...), but for the most part, the adventures are on a grand scale and just this side of believable.

All in all, it's not a bad novel. It's just not very good, either...

Rating: 2/5

Saturday 20 April 2013

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

In Great Waters is a speculative fiction novel set in an alternative Britain where merpeople (known as deepsmen) are real. They are not really like humans: fiercer, more direct, more blunt, essentially, very intelligent animals. Related to dolphins, they are not unlike chimpanzees in personalities. They can interbreed with humans (which results physical and mental differences). And thus we meet Henry, or rather, Whistle, a crossbreed who is born in the sea and ultimately grows up among humans on land.

I don't want to give too much away. This is a novel where great care is taken: the world building is immersive yet gradual. It's detailed and carried out with great writerly craftsmanship.

Tension - and plot - builds up very gradually. The reader gets to absorb this world, become a part of it, and understand it (and its characters) before the story starts gaining momentum. In a way, the book gives you a chance to experience intrigue at the settings and characters, before the plot becomes intriguing, and once the plot starts creating tension and pace, it turns genuinely thrilling, with several twists and turns that are authentic and not too far-fetched. And giving away too much of the setting and plot, to me, would detract from the reading experience. What I would say is that, if you can persevere through the gradual start, the book is very rewarding.

There are some big events, about three quarters of the way into the book, and after that the big central plot tension is partially relieved, yet the story continues, tidying up plotlines (with a few more tense episodes). I do feel that the book allowed itself a somewhat more gradual ending than most readers will be used to, and perhaps it could have been somewhat shorter.

However, the imagination and craftsmanship is stunning and truly immersive. The book actually made me think about some things with a different perspective (royalness and bloodlines are an important part of the book, and, once you accept the central conceit, you start to look at our own world with new eyes, and may find our own world more baffling and illogical than the one in this novel). And last but not least, it is a thrilling novel, with large sections of page-turning pace and tension.

I would absolutely recommend this novel, and I don't think I've read anything quite like it. Glad I stumbled across a review of the book by Jo Walton (author of Among Others): In Great Waters deserves a lot more attention.

Sunday 24 March 2013

Jordan by Carole French

I am currently planning a trip to Egypt and Jordan. The departure and return dates are fixed, but how I divide my time between these two destinations is not yet decided.

As I read the guide books (a copy of Egypt by Lonely Planet) and this Bradt guide to Jordan, I feel myself allocating more and more time to Jordan, to my surprise. I'd thought the pyramids and valley of the kings in Egypt would dominate my trip. Some of this changing emphasis is because Jordan appears to be a fascinating, welcoming country with a lot that merits seeing (and because it seems to have more potential to surprise me).

But if I am honest, I have to admit that the other reason is the relative merits of the guide books. This is only the second Bradt guide I have ever read, but, like the first (a guide to Malta & Gozo) which was an order of magnitude better than the other guide book I'd bought about the same islands), it is not just rich in detail, but also written with more flair, more affection for travelling, more heart and enthusiasm.

When travelling solo, a good guide book can be a little bit like a companion or a friend. Reading a Bradt guide is unusually rewarding: there is personality in the writing, and visiting places described in the book with the book in hand is almost a little bit like a shared experience.

Or, to put it another way: other guide books tell you all you need to know about a destination. A Bradt guide will tell you more details, and it will actually make you love your destination. I cannot think of any other guide book publisher whose books achieve such quality.

Addendum (after the trip): I still hold this book in high esteem, and it has served me well. However, there is one inaccuracy in there - the Zara Cliff Walk from the Dead Sea Panoramic Complex does not in any way match its description in the book. I am not sure whether this is because of a change on the ground, or because the path has never been completed as planned, or because there is confusion (I was told by a taxi driver that there is a different Zara Cliff Walk, in a quite different location, that matches the description in the book more closely). But for other readers of this book, I thought I'd highlight this: the Zara Cliff Walk starting at the Dead Sea Panoramic Complex is only about 200m / 600ft long, and not particularly worthwhile (as of March 2013).

Rating: 4.5/5

Wednesday 13 February 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

The Best of all Possible Worlds is a slightly strange novel. I suspect that I did not quite comprehend everything that's in it. The back story is treated as so incidental that I occasionally felt a little lost.

The novel begins with a bit of a shock: a disaster / genocide has befallen a race of humanoid aliens. One branch of the remnants from the disaster is now starting a colony on an Earth-like planet that is a kind of refuge for races and nations from across the universe. All are human(ish), and they either live in little colonies and settlements on the frontier, or in big urban cities. There, we meet Grace Delarua, a bubbly civil servant / scientist / researcher, who liaises with the newly arrived aliens. After a while, they decide to form an expedition to sample and meet many of the colonies on the frontier, to check for genetic and societal compatibility, in order to start a breeding programme to revive the near extinct race.

All of which sounds bewildering and high-concept and somewhere outside my usual reading zone. But, truth to be told, this is not really a novel about plot. Or rather: I ended up finding the plot incredibly incidental. The start is slow and confusing. Most of the middle is taken up with an episodic "meet culture, experience reaction, move on" or "have travelling adventure, experience reaction, move on" type chapters. It's a bit like watching a slide show or a nature documentary. Curious, but not perhaps hugely memorable. Some people seem to be very taken with the fact that the Fair Folk make an appearance of sorts, but I had no reaction to that chapter whatsoever. I think part of the reason is that our main characters are scientists, and therefore a little detached, even when in the middle of a grand adventure. The mood of the book is, at times, a little like the music video to the song "Little Talks" by the band "Of Monsters and Men": wide-eyed wonder and joyful adventuring, but with a sense of detachment.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the plot is this: it reads like a sightseeing tour, a record of explorers, travelling and encountering people. There are no heroes, no villains, and even though there is nominally a point to the explorations, there is no sense that this is a quest.

Where the book really comes together is in the relationship between the explorers on the expedition. Richly realised, complex, grown up and human. Characters are drawn with a light touch and huge writerly elegance. More importantly, this is a piece without villains, so while there might be occasional tensions, and some characters don't really like each other all that much, they all work together, they're all mostly professional (with occasional human moments), and they all have, for want of a better word, souls.

But even the story of character relationships is not some operatic tale: it is a very mellow book, with very mellow developments and movements. There are many very human moments in the story, little, endearing, amusing moments, and also disturbing and cruel moments. Dialogue sparkles. There is genuine rapport between characters, and authentic frictions that don't always have specific reasons. Occasionally, characters fall under the influence of stimulants or telepathy or other factors, and I can honestly say that I am in awe of the writing skill in creating these scenes, where the narration becomes a little less reliable, and where the reader is left to reconstruct and reinterpret things by themselves after the scenes have taken place. The book trusts readers' intelligence, and it deserves multiple readings.

The prose is excellent. The characterisation is excellent. The plot is not perhaps for everyone - it is quite mellow and never really builds up great tension - but the episodic, exposition-rich nature of it is carried out very well.

There are things I am still unclear about - I don't get the (title) reference to Candide, some of the races and their motivations / characteristics befuddle me (What are the taSadiri again? And who did what to the Sadiri and why?), and some of the mythology towards the end felt a little forced and pointless to me, but despite all that, it is a fantastic novel, showing great craftsmanship in its writing and great humanity.

I am sure that I will re-read this book in future to get a better sense of all the background and references that I did not quite absorb properly in my first reading. But I am also sure that the novel is an acquired taste: it is very subtle and mellow for a science fiction novel. However, rest assured that it is never pretentious and a pure joy to read.

Rating: 5/5

Thursday 3 January 2013

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

I don't know whether Karen Lord has read any books by Neil Gaiman. What I do know is that it feels like she has (perhaps accidentally) written one.

Redemption in Indigo is a fairy tale with its own mythology. It does not read like an ornate, pretty, romantic-era literary fairy tale, but a traditional orally told fairy tale that just happens to be quite long. The start and finish allude to this oral tradition.

This is the story of a young woman who's run away from her gluttonous husband, and who is given a strange gift by eternal beings - a chaos stick. The chaos stick has been taken from another eternal being, as punishment for his behaviour, and he wants it back.

The tale is told with great pace (like all oral narratives), with characters sketched in such vivid and economical ways that they manage to own the stage when they're on it, and moments and scenes that could belong in any folk tale. Some bits are episodic: her gluttonous husband has three misadventures when visiting her village, the mysterious eternal lord shows her three things... just like old folk tales, there are elements of repetition and archetypal characters and episodes.

The setting appears to be Africa, but the era is cheerfully uncertain, giving the tale a certain timelessness.

Comparisons with Neil Gaiman's work were occasionally on my mind for a number of reasons. One was the Trickster - the spider, Nancy, the same trickster God that appeared in American Gods and Anansi Boys, who is not a very common character in Western / European narratives and whom not many readers might know about. The other reason is the shadowy eternal beings that are having duties and a conflict and that, in so many ways, are a bit like the Endless from the Sandman series. So the story feels a little bit like what would happen if you squeeze Sandman through American Gods and Anansi Boys and filter it via Stardust (Neil Gaiman's fairy tale for adults): beautiful, sweet, with depth and richness and a real sense of stories and myths. If Karen Lord has not read any Neil Gaiman works, she has somehow managed to distill his lighter essence into a short novel through sheer magic. (Redemption in Indigo is not as dark as some of Gaiman's stories get).

This book turned me into an instant fan of Karen Lord. It was an absolute delight to read and I'd recommend this book to anyone.

Rating: 6/5. It's that good.