Sunday 21 December 2014

The Eye of Zoltar by Jasper Fforde

The Eye of Zoltar (third book in the Jennifer Strange series) continues the adventures of Jennifer Strange and her wizardly companions more or less where the previous book left off. It starts in the middle of an action sequence (a Trafalmasaur has escaped, and guess who has been selected to act as bait in a risky scheme to catch it again...) and keeps up a brisk pace and hilarious sense of humour throughout.

This time, Jennifer is off to the Cambrian empire (Mid-Wales), where she has to try to retrieve a magical relic (the Eye of Zoltar, a ruby), negotiate for the release of a wizard, all while trying to evade the perilous dangers of the land, including carnivorous slugs (presumably inspired by the fact that the only new species ever discovered in Wales is, in fact, a carnivorous, nocturnal GHOST SLUG, so don't think this part of the story is too far-fetched...), wild Trafalmasaurs, aggressive cannibalistic taxidermy enthusiasts and other dangerous tribes. The satire / farcical absurdity is great, the sense of humour witty, and the story is richly enhanced by the presence of a princess and a tour guide who both add much to the plot.

Where The Eye of Zoltar differs from the previous novels is that it has a somewhat higher body count. Or maybe it just seemed that way to me. I found it a little baffling how many people were killed as collateral damage of the various adventures and incidents, and this somewhat callous approach to life and death detracted from my enjoyment of the story. It made perfect sense to take an unsentimental approach to things in some contexts (where it fit the ultra-perilous adventure tourism / fatality probability satire), but at other times it seemed a lot more dubious to me. (The comment about honour being weaponised manners is very funny, but the result is quite sad).

If you've enjoyed the other Jennifer Strange novels, there's every chance you'll enjoy this one too. I certainly did (even if it was a little darker than I felt comfortable with).

Rating: 4/5.

Friday 19 December 2014

Defeat Terrorism: Support Education

Reading is important to me. But current affairs and politics are, too. So, another off-topic, non-book-review blog post.

The terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar was a horrifying event.

I don't for a moment believe that it is not within the power of mankind (or just the Global North / Western Powers / wealthy nations) to solve the problem of terrorism. They've simply been doing it wrong. So, what would I do if I ran the USA / EU / UN?

Whenever some despicable excuses for men (or, theoretically, women) massacre school children or students for daring to get an education, I'd pump truckloads of funding into humanitarian projects that build, run, fund, and provide safe education. I wouldn't promise in advance how much (after all, I would not want to end up setting a bonus price on killing kids), but I'd be very vocal afterwards about how much money is going to region X to fund things as a result of the attack. And I'd make damn sure that any child's life lost would be repaid with 100, or even 1000 disadvantaged children getting a quality education.  Because education is what the terrorists are really afraid of. Education gives people prospects, questioning minds, and some agency towards determining their own futures. It isn't a magical cure for poverty, oppression and despair - but it's the most powerful tool we have. Terrorism thrives on despair: that's why those who dedicate themselves to terror fear education, and why, disproportionately, they target schools. (Especially girls' schools have been subjected to many, many attacks)

I don't run the USA, EU, or the UN. Still, even as nothing more than an individual citizen, I'll make a start. I solemnly pledge that, henceforth, each time I hear of an attack on kids seeking education, whether in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, or anywhere else, I'll donate money to a charity that benefits education in that area. I'll donate as much as I can afford at that time. In this instance, I am giving to the Malala Fund. Please join me, or share the idea.

It's only a tiny drop in the ocean, but big things can start with small seeds. People power can make this grow. Sadly, I am very, very short on whuffie, but when an idea is ripe, others will think alike.

If you read this blog post, and you agree with it, please share it, or the Huffington Post article, and/or please consider giving money to a charity of your choice. Allow yourself to dream: what if hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of people gave a small amount of money after each attack? What if, collectively, we decided to fight back against guns and rabid insanity with safe spaces and text books for the next generation? I'll tell you what would happen. Despair would fade, poverty would reduce, and the age of terrorism would pass.


  • Malala Fund is US-based, so if you live in the UK, you may want to seek out a UK charity to boost your donation via GiftAid. Something like Learning for Life would be a good alternative, but their links with Pakistan and Afghanistan are historical & their current focus is in Bangladesh and Nepal... if you know a charity focusing on education work in Pakistan, please suggest it in the comments. For regular donations & child sponsorship, Plan might be worth considering.
  • I'd also recommend the following article: Who is responsible for the Pakistan school massacre? It makes a lot of interesting points. Some of it is a little far-fetched (the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs funded report seems a bit paranoid / convinced in big evil conspiracies), but even if you disregard those bits, there are very strong indications that US funding and policies in that region have been counterproductive (to say the least). 
  • I can't claim coming up with the idea of counteracting terrorism with funding charities that, in the long run, will help reduce terror: I was partially inspired by the citizens of Wunsiedel and their response to annual Nazi marchers, who decided to stop fighting evil protests with protests of their own, and instead fund good (anti-evil) causes whenever the evil march takes place, thereby making evil counter-productive.

Don't Despair

At the start of the week, Malala Yousafzai collected her Nobel Peace Prize. As painful as it was to hear of the events in Peshawar, this week actually began with a Pakistani teenage girl campaigning for children's rights and education in front of the whole world

It's worth remembering that, too.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library starts out with aplomb. Irene, our protagonist, is an Undercover Librarian. That’s it, I’m already sold on this book. She’s on a secret mission to retrieve a rare and unique book from the library of a wizards’ boarding school. Seriously, if you aren’t immediately putting this book in your shopping basket after that sentence, there is something wrong with you. Her heist - yes, a full-blown heist with booby-traps and tight timings and a great big chase and a narrow escape - is fast, thrilling, witty, and only the first chapter.

After returning to the Invisible Library (a mysterious, huge, timeless entity, existing between dimensions and parallel worlds; a library where people can travel for days among the bookshelves to get from one area to another, set inside an even more mysterious city that the Librarians never enter, occasionally glimpse from their windows, and know nothing about), Irene suddenly finds herself given a new, urgent assignment in different universe, and her first ever apprentice. Oh, and she actually has a personal nemesis among her Librarian colleagues. 

The Invisible Library is great fun to read. A brisk pace, a sense of humour, and a likeable protagonist make this a near-perfect novel for grown-ups whose inner kids (and inner young adults) are alive and well and thirsting for tales of adventure.

I’ve seen it compared to Doctor Who, I’m sure it’ll be compared to Harry Potter, and it’ll probably get compared to every Anglophile novel full of vim and fun that’s ever been written. These comparisons will all be well-earned: it’s a highly pleasurable read. Big adventures, clever detectives, magic, fey folk, cyborgs, dragons, zeppelins, secrets, conspiracies... and best of all, it has unlimited potential for future novels.

Let’s put it like this: if you like Paul Magrs’ Brenda and Effie series, or Indiana Jones, or Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, or Inkheart, then I think it’s a fairly safe bet that The Invisible Library will be right up your street, too.

Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday 14 December 2014

How Much for Just the Planet? By John M Ford

How Much for Just the Planet? is a rare thing – a Star Trek farce.

I’m not a Trekkie, and only now watching the original series on Amazon Prime, so it’s still a fairly fresh universe for me.
Star Trek is not without a sense of humour, and there’s plenty of gentle ribbing between some crew members (Kirk teasing Spock, McCoy and Kirk teasing each other, and occasional flirtations between women characters and Kirk / McCoy). But the comedy is almost entirely made up of repartee. In this Star Trek novel, the comedy is farcical, and while there are a few witty dialogues, it’s the skeleton of the plot itself that is beset with whimsy. Much of the comedy is at the expense of Kirk and his Klingon counterpart, which is not quite that common in the Star Trek things I've seen so far.

The story starts when the Federation and the Klingons simultaneously discover a planet full of Dilithium, an extremely rare and valuable mineral that is needed to power both fleets of starships. The planet is so full of Dilithium that it could power either fleet for generations. The planet is inhabited, and due to a treaty / limitation imposed by Organians, the Klingons and the Federation cannot engage in open warfare. Instead, they have to convince the local population that they would be more “efficient” at managing the extraction process. It is the locals who are supposed to decide who gets the planet.

Of course, the local population is not all that keen on being taken over by either side, so they invoke "Plan C"…

I’ve only just watched the first appearance of Klingons and Organians in Star Trek Season One, and I must admit, the Klingons were a lot more human and jovial than I expected them to be. I’d always assumed the Klingons were meant to be villains (and later, reformed villains with a slightly pompous and serious air to them, like growling Vulcans with anger issues), but the ones I have seen in that episode (and which feature in this book) are all-too-human, with just a slight tendency towards talking admiringly of violence (but not a whole lot of actual aggression - dogs that bark, rather than dogs that bite…)

After a bit of action and adventure at the start, the Enterprise and a Klingon ship find themselves orbiting the planet, both sending down crews to negotiate with the locals. The landing parties are accommodated on different floors in the same hotel, and after a few farcical encounters, the parties are split and find themselves having independent adventures. Each member of a landing party is matched by opposites from the other, and they have different styles of adventures. Uhura and her opposite find themselves embroiled in a Hitchcockian chase; Scotty, Chekov and their counterparts are embroiled in a war satire through the medium of drinking, golf, and landmines (think M*A*S*H);  Kirk and the (female) Federation Ambassador and their counterparts get involved in a comedy of errors that would delight Shakespeare, Mozart and Gilbert and Sullivan.

Oh, and for inexplicable reasons, most of the people on the planet have a habit of breaking into song when telling their stories. Some of the songs are easy to recognise from the lyrics, others almost certainly match famous librettos of Gilbert & Sullivan operas, except I don’t know them well enough to recognise all the tunes.

To be honest, part of me would love to see this book adapted and performed as a movie or theatre piece. The sense of whimsy is strong in this one, but the physical comedy is so exuberant that it would definitely work in a visual / dramatic medium. It (just about) works in writing, but inevitably the pacing is different…

Where it falls apart slightly is the way the narrative intercuts between the different adventures and episodes. Somehow, the plot lacks glue – each adventure is interesting enough on its own, but they feel so unrelated that the different scenes might as well be from entirely different books. Terry Pratchett is a master of handling different comic adventures that interlink and form a common whole - sadly, How Much for Just the Planet? could learn a lot from Discworld, as it is a bit too putdownable.

On the whole, I’d recommend giving this a try if you do like whimsy and musical comedy. I could imagine Hillesque enjoying it (and especially enjoying it as a stage adaptation, if anyone were to produce one)

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: this is one of the few John M. Ford books that can be obtained as ebook / which remains “in production” so to speak. The bulk of his work is now out of print, with no prospects of reprints being issued for the foreseeable future, due to his death & those managing his estate apparently not being interested in keeping his legacy alive.

Friday 5 December 2014

A brief interruption for some current affairs pondering

A brief interruption for some current affairs pondering

I started this blog by copying lots of the reviews I write on Goodreads into blogger. I wanted it to be a book blog, with minimal or no other things. Reviews, reviews and nothing but reviews. 

But if I'm publishing a blog anyway, sometimes the need to think aloud, or even rant, might be too hard to resist. So I guess be warned: it could happen in future.

It's happening today.

Unarmed black people being killed by police in the USA (and the police getting away with it) has been a very unhappy theme this week. It's horrible. Race has become a big issue again, and it is absolutely right that people talk and think about race, and justice.

It's also right that not everyone will have the same opinions and thoughts about everything, and I decided to do some thinking below.

The Shooting of Michael Brown

I tend to get most of my news from the BBC, so here's a summary of the testimonies and different narratives about the shooting which I read:

Of course, the testimonies don't agree about every aspect, but there are some things that seem to be fairly incontrovertible:

  1. Michael Brown stole something from a convenience store, became physical with the shop owner, and left with a friend.
  2. The police officer drove past the two young men and told them off for walking in the street.
  3. Shortly thereafter, the convenience store theft was reported on the police radio, and the police officer drove back to confront the teenagers.
  4. A physical confrontation occurred: the police officer inside the car, Michael Brown outside, the window open. 
  5. Accounts vary: The door was either aggressively slammed into Michael Brown or Michael Brown intentionally tried to block it from opening. There was some pulling and pushing through the open window. 
  6. The police officer shot Michael Brown several times through the window.
  7. Michael Brown and his friend ran away.
  8. The police officer, gun drawn, pursued them.
  9. Michael Brown turned to face the officer.
  10. Here, accounts vary: he either raised his hands in surrender or started to run at the police officer.
  11. He was then shot several more times and died.

Protesters see a martyr in Michael Brown because they choose to believe the version of the story which claims he raised his hands and shouted "Don't shoot" and "I don't have a gun". They raise their hands and see this incident as a clear cut murder, an execution of an unarmed teenager for being black or for having dared to resist a police officer (whilst being black).

Maybe that is what happened; maybe it isn't. I don't think any trial jury would ever have come to that conclusion "beyond reasonable doubt". I certainly wouldn't come to that conclusion at that level of certainty.

But, after all, it wasn't a trial jury, but a Grand Jury that decided not to charge the police officer.

The Grand Jury

This is where this BBC story becomes useful:

"The grand jury was deciding whether Officer Wilson should be charged with any one of four possible crimes: 

  • first-degree murder (any intentional murder that is willful and premeditated with malice aforethought according to Wikipedia)
  • second-degree murder (an intentional murder with malice aforethought, but is not premeditated or planned in advance according to Wikipedia) 
  • voluntary manslaughter (any intentional killing that involved no prior intent to kill, and which was committed under such circumstances that would "cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed". Both this and second-degree murder are committed on the spot, but the two differ in the magnitude of the circumstances surrounding the crime. For example, a bar fight that results in death would ordinarily constitute second-degree murder. If that same bar fight stemmed from a discovery of infidelity, however, it may be mitigated to voluntary manslaughter. according to Wikipedia)
  • or involuntary manslaughter (stems from a lack of intention to cause death but involving an intentional, or negligent, act leading to death. A drunk driving-related death is typically involuntary manslaughter according to Wikipedia)
It also had the option of charging the policeman with armed criminal action, if it could prove he was carrying a loaded firearm with the intent to commit a felony. 
Nine out of the 12 members of this jury would have had to vote yes to indict Officer Wilson."

So, how would I have voted?

First-degree murder: No point in charging the officer. The prosecutor would have to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the police officer had premeditated the killing – i.e. decided to kill the robber when turning his police car around and driving to him. He'd have to prove that the police officer slammed the door into Michael Brown as an act of aggression, not to get out, but to assault him, and the killing thereafter would have to be a pure execution. I don't think such a version of events would be provable.

Involuntary manslaughter: no point in charging: there was no lack of intention to cause death. A police officer shooting a man in the head twice is clearly intending to kill.

Where things get tricky for me as someone unfamiliar with the legal system is this second degree murder / voluntary manslaughter business. I can understand "intentional killing", but find myself totally uncertain how someone can have "malice aforethought" without it being "premeditated". To my layman's ears, that sounds like a mindboggling contradiction of terms. The notion that a bar fight is somehow less likely to cause a reasonable person to become emotionally disturbed than a declaration of infidelity – that too seems bizarre to me. 

Why is there no crime for "intentional killing without malice aforethought or premeditation"? Why is this system assuming that a person either has "malice aforethought" or is "mad with passion" when killing someone on the spot? ("I'm going to take this criminal off the streets" is not exactly malice aforethought...)

Personally, I would have voted that there is a case to answer for either accusation (can jurors vote for each accusation, or do they have only one vote? If only one vote, second degree murder would narrowly win out over involuntary manslaughter in my book). 

But, to play devil's advocate, could there ever have been a conviction, beyond reasonable doubt, under either? 

Let's have a look at this article:

There's a lot that didn't happen. Force continuum? Doesn't sound like it. "You would only use that weapon in a situation where you felt your life or the lives of civilians in the area were in danger." – Arguably, neither was the case, so the police officer very very obviously should not have used his firearm.

But later in the article, there are some sentences about the police training that become worth thinking about:

"When law enforcement officials do shoot, they shoot to kill."

In other words, the decision to kill Michael Brown was effectively made during that scuffle at the car door. The next paragraphs explain how "shoot to wound" would be a very bad idea, and all the training is about shooting to kill, partially in order to make it easier to aim ("aim for centre mass"), and partially to minimise gunplay and end the fight as quickly as possible.

If you train police officers that, once they fire at a suspect, they are supposed to kill them, doesn't that make it more likely that some will keep shooting until the suspect is immobile on the ground?

And then comes the corker: After a police officer shoots someone…

"In the large majority of cases, no charges are brought against the officer. That is in part because in a case of reality versus perception, the police officer gets the benefit of the doubt. 
"Maybe he wasn't in danger, but if he reasonably believes he was, he would be justified in shooting," says McCoy (a professor of criminal justice)."

This is where all the testimonies come back in. 

The police officer's version of events emphasises his own perceptions – that he was in danger during the scuffle by the car door, that the teenager was very strong, that the teenager was charging at him after the pursuit. Any reasonable person would argue that shooting and killing an unarmed teenager is a disproportionate response to whatever crime he may have committed, and to the resistance and scuffle that occurred. Any reasonable person would agree that a grievous wrong has been done and a tragedy occurred.

But in the context of differing testimonies, and with the way police in America are trained, and considering the police officer only needed to think he was in danger, rather than actually be in danger… I don't think I'd be able to conclude he was "guilty beyond reasonable doubt". And while that, again, is the trial jury's job, not the Grand Jury's, I can imagine members of a Grand Jury thinking along similar lines.

At a Grand Jury, no defence attorneys are present. It's just the prosecutor, the judge and the defendant, and the jury can ask questions. It happens behind closed doors in secret. If I sat on a Grand Jury, and found that the prosecutor did not convince me beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty, then why would I vote to indict? If the prosecutor can't convince a jury while there is no professional defence present, what would be the point of indicting – the following trial would be sure to fail, end in a "not guilty beyond reasonable doubt" verdict, and waste huge amounts of money.

A lot would ultimately rest on that question: how convincing was the prosecutor, behind closed doors? 

It is quite possible that the prosecutor only put in a token effort. [Edited, on 18/12/14: It now looks as if the prosecutor didn't just make a token effort, but went out of his way to present the defendant's case, rather than the prosecuting case, to a point where he included a discredited, white supremacist / fantasist among witnesses. I find myself completely and utterly disgusted and appalled.] It is quite possible that, with nine white jurors and three black ones, inherent racial bias is the reason why they did not indict the police officer. It's even possible that the majority of jurors did vote to indict, but not enough (9/12) to succeed.

Still, without knowing how things played out inside that room, I can imagine scenarios where I would have voted not to indict, even though I absolutely believe that the shooting of Michael Brown was wrong, and not just wrong, but a wrongful act, and very probably a crime, based on the evidence that is in the public domain. I don't believe so beyond reasonable doubt (based on the public domain evidence), and I imagine some of the jurors must be feeling pretty awful about the aftermath. I don't know that they did anything wrong by not indicting that police officer, so I don't feel I can protest about their decision.

(Protesting against police training ideologies and brutality, or for body cameras, however, and I'll happily attend)

The Death of Eric Garner

Compared to the shooting of Michael Brown, the death of Eric Garner has a lot more evidence available, thanks to this video:

Based on the definitions of different crimes earlier in this post, it seems very obvious that what is happening is an involuntary manslaughter.

Of course, the "reasonable doubt" question would arise again – and the fact that Eric Garner was overweight and unhealthy would be exploited by any defence lawyer, and is even being put forward as cause of death by a Republican politician. (Never mind that the coroner ruled it was a homicide: we are conditioned to believe that "fat people die young, of heart attacks", so if a young fat person dies of heart failure, some people will cheerfully disregard the choke hold, the handcuffs, the restraints, and blame the victim's lifestyle exclusively, or at least "reasonably doubt" that the police actions were the cause of death)

Even though I firmly  believe that an involuntary manslaughter occurred, I can imagine a jury coming to a "not guilty" verdict because of "reasonable doubts". Therefore, even in this case, I can imagine reasonable people on a Grand Jury choosing not to indict the police officer (although I find it more galling than in the Michael Brown case). 

Another thing which is going through my mind is that, in the video, Eric Garner is being restrained a surrounded by half a dozen police officers. Yes, one applied a banned choke hold and then pushed his head against a wall, and that is clearly disgusting. But all the police officers kept him restrained, they all ignored his pleading. They all let him die.

Eric Garner was the victim of an involuntary manslaughter, but the perpetrator was not one police officer; it was all of those present. 

(If there's one positive thing about this tragedy that is being revealed about America is that there, citizens can record police actions. In Britain, the guy holding the camera would be arrested immediately and his camera confiscated: they don't let people take photos of, or film, police actions over here)

But was it an avoidable involuntary manslaughter? 

Once, I witnessed someone being arrested against his will in Cardiff. The man resisted. The police applied similar levels of force to those in the video. The man started shouting "I can't breathe". The police ignored him. All the bystanders walked past (including myself), no one recorded it. My overwhelming impression was that the police are used to people shouting "I can't breathe" when being forcibly restrained.

There are several possible reasons. Maybe some people lie and shout this as a final form of resistance, or to induce others to record the arrest with a view to using it in their defence or for lawsuits. That would be the most cynical interpretation. Maybe restraining someone against their will is a highly stressful situation: maybe people being arrested in this way frequently suffer panic attacks in the process. Maybe some of the force during the arrest tends to shock the solar plexus and induce cramps in chest muscles, leading to breathing difficulties. The latter two scenarios don't tend to be lethal for healthy strong people if they happen (though they are very traumatic). Maybe it's a combination of these.

My point is: I suspect that police officers are very very used to ignoring pleas of "I can't breathe". I suspect that many police officers routinely assume that all the people who shout "I can't breathe" are lying (the first of the three scenarios I speculated about). That means that it becomes inevitable that some people die while being restrained – because the police probably always ignore it, and they always ignore it because someone, somewhere decided that they can't ever treat it as a medical emergency, or it would be open to exploitation. So it may have been an unavoidable involuntary manslaughter. It's certainly not the first time a black man has agonisingly choked to death, surrounded by witnesses, while being restrained by security ‘professionals'. (That UK case did not result in any prosecution either)

None of this makes what happened to Eric Garner right, or even remotely acceptable.  But I can understand that even a non-racist jury of reasonable and decent people could come to a "not guilty" verdict, or even a refusal to indict. I find it harder to stomach than in the Michael Brown case, but I can imagine decent people coming to the decisions that both the Grand Juries reached; I cannot know for certain that either jury was made up of decent people, they may have included despicable ones. But I can imagine it, and so I choose not to direct my anger at the juries.


I think the real villain of these cases aren't (necessarily) the jurors, but the systems and policies and practices that are in place in American policing & judiciary.
  • Eric Garner clearly posed no danger to anyone. If he has committed an offence (and it is not clear that he has), then nothing about the offence he's accused of warranted a non-consensual, physically violent arrest. 
  • I believe (non-consensual) arrests should only happen if there is a threat of serious further crimes, a threat of escape after a serious crime, or at the end of an investigation leading to an arrest warrant. Police should not be allowed to arrest people willy-nilly based on nothing but their own testimony, as the police are no more worthy of the public's trust than civilians.
  • Michael Brown did not pose a lethal danger to anyone. He was a criminal, there was a cause for arrest (risk of flight and risk of further serious crimes), but he was unarmed.
  • Police training should therefore only be allowed the use of firearms if the suspects have a weapon – a firearm or, if they are closer, a knife or baseball bat etc. 
  • The definition of voluntary manslaughter should explicitly include "lethal defence of self or property against a person posing a non-lethal threat". It's simply ridiculous that white people get to shoot unarmed black people, claim "self defence" and too often get a "not guilty" verdict or no indictment. There has to be a proportionality to any claim of "defence", and there have been too many instances of people using lethal violence in instances that do not warrant it. (lethal self defence against rape is OK in my book, but lethal self defence against a petty thief or someone resisting against being arrested against their will… there should be a defined crime for that!). 
  • I don't live in America. Those that do, tell me that "race" is still a big issue, that institutionalised racism is still widespread, and I believe that, even if I can't know for certain that it was the deciding factor in either of the cases that have triggered these protests and responses.
  • From over here, across the pond, it looks as if one of the biggest reasons for the too-frequent killings of unarmed suspects is that American ideology values (defence of) property over lives. (Police would rather shoot a petty thief than let him escape unpunished, once they have started the chase). Police forces value their need to enforce a decision once made over lives. (It is more important to them to go through with an arrest, once they announced they're arresting someone, than preserving the life of the suspect). If the individual police officers in these cases are not "guilty beyond reasonable doubt" of involuntary manslaughter, then the police forces themselves, their training methods, policies and ideologies are, in my opinion, "guilty beyond reasonable doubt" of fostering a culture that leads to involuntary manslaughters - i.e. the authorities themselves should be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter.
  • Grand Juries seem a strange idea. The decision whether to indict or not should be made by a professional, identifiable and accountable person. (A judge, magistrate or whatever). And if a Grand Jury has to be involved, why a 9/12 majority rather than a simple majority? Members of the jury should probably not just include peers of the accused, but also peers of the victim… 
  • ideally, grand juries should be abolished.

That's my $0.02 of thoughts on the matter...

Sunday 30 November 2014

Jasmine Nights by S.P. Somtow

Jasmine Nights is a coming-of-age novel set in 1963 Thailand. It’s the (first-person narrated) story of Little Frog / Justin, a 12-year-old boy with a very rich family, living in their own private Eden - a fenced estate in the middle of a city, connected by road and canals.

Justin speaks and thinks English, he has an English breakfast every morning, and even though he now understands Thai, he chooses to keep that to himself. He’s spent the last few years playing by himself in an abandoned house on the estate, perusing the library, reading Greek (and other) classics, developing a very posh and wordy sense of self. One might describe him as precocious, I guess, but he is quite different from other literary precocious-child narrators (T.S. Spivet, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close): Little Frog is not actually annoying. He feels genuine and authentic: he might have a big vocabulary and an amusingly grown up demeanour, but he's utterly convincing as a child throughout. 

One day, he discovers that he has not been alone - his great grandmother lives in the house he thought abandoned, and has observed him. She encourages him to start playing with other children, to come out of his shell and become socialised with his contemporaries...

The novel starts in a somewhat clunky way, as our narrator recalls events in a series of snapshots, like polaroids. Fortunately, the narrative soon becomes more fluid and engaging. It is a story touching on race and racism, finding out about sex, Thailand and the periphery of the Vietnam War, different social classes, but above all else, it is the story of a somewhat lonely boy becoming slightly less lonely and growing up a bit. Fortunately, it is also a very funny novel, so all the serious issues do not weigh it down into something too worthy and sincere for its own good.

In fact, if I had to think of any other novel matching this one for its mixture of warmth, humour, and issue-tackling, it's To Kill a Mockingbird that springs to mind. Jasmine Nights is that rare thing – a novel on a par with To Kill a Mockingbird, with the added benefit of being set in a place and culture somewhat less familiar to Western readers.

Very enjoyable, very funny, very smart, and with a warmth about it that makes it a joyful read.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday 22 November 2014

Court by Cat Patrick

"For more than 400 years, a secret monarchy has survived and thrived within the borders of the US, hiding in plain sight as the state known as Wyoming."

My brain must be quite strange. That sentence on the cover of Court hooked me: it set up all kinds of expectations. Together with the antlers on the cover and the old fashioned character names, it made me expect something mysterious. Perhaps faerie, perhaps conspiracy, perhaps both. Is the monarchy running in parallel to the state, or is it there a link into the system, wherein the candidates for senators / governors / representatives are all from a cabal of courtly families, hiding their bloodline legacies and power structures by manipulating / downright cheating state democracy? Or is this 'kingdom' the tale of a people living separately from the regular population, perhaps like a gypsy kingdom, a different world view sitting next to our own? I even felt reminded of Emperor Norton when I read the blurb - and his appearance in the Sandman comics - so I wondered whether this might really be a tale of outcasts living parallel lives.

All that, from a single sentence. I was so, so wrong.

In Court, Wyoming is not a US state, but an absolute monarchy. Its  citizens live in a dictatorship that makes some effort at being benevolent (its healthcare system is better than that of 'the democracy' = the rest of the USA, and education is more or less universal), while also being fascist and oppressive (leaving the state requires expensive exit licences, the population is monitored, the state punishes the relatives of those who break laws, etc.). Everyone in Wyoming knows they live in a different nation. Everyone outside the state has no idea what goes on in Wyoming.

Basically, it's not so much "hiding in plain sight". It's really a "daft premise defying suspension of disbelief".

Why bother with such a convoluted, hard-to-swallow premise? Well, it's a novel aimed at young adults, and its plot is basically "lots of teenagers struggling with their hormones are intensely nosy about and interested in each other, gossiping a lot, and having petty intrigues, all while looking forward to a big social party / prom". If that sounds familiar, then you've probably attended High School or something similar.

Yup, Court is basically a novel about High School, only to make it more compelling and add drama, a kingdom and aristocracy / commoner split are thrown into the mix.

Unfortunately, it's a mix that simply doesn't work. Haakon, the crown prince / future king, is a 17-year old who has become an alcoholic a few years ago and overcome alcoholism. I'm sorry, what? Why am I suddenly imagining Mickey Rourke instead of a 17-year-old? Alexander, his best friend, is struggling with his homosexuality, and assigned the task of being Haakon's bodyguard in the aftermath of the king's assassination, because he's not bad at playing football. Again, I beg your pardon? There's been an assassination and a 17-year-old with no real experience becomes the bodyguard of the future king?

The female characters are a little more down-to-earth: Mary is a commoner who has a horse (Carrot) and who is a bit spunky. Gwendolyn is the princess betrothed to Haakon through family arrangements, and all she wants to do is sneak out, play roller derby with a bunch of girls in the democracy, and flirt with a cute hockey player. Okay, so the arranged-marriage-plot is dramatic, and Mary gets a mysterious-stranger-in-the-woods plot, but generally there's less of a problem with the suspension of disbelief in their stories.

The novel starts with the king's assassination, the rest is just teenagers gossiping, flirting, scheming, sneaking out, manipulating, being manipulated, gossiping some more, and getting ready for prom. The greater politics of the kingdom are laboriously set up, clearly intended to form the backdrop of a lengthy series (possibly inspired by Game of Thrones), but there's minimal use of it all in this book. The machinations for power between the four big families have barely begun by the end of the book, and there's not a whole lot to differentiate between any of the families and their motivations. There's certainly no Llanister-like clan of devious psychos, no Stark-like clan of principled honest noblemen, no Tagaryen-like clan of slightly mad power-hungry outcasts… some of the individual teenagers have different personalities, but there's no real tribal level characterisation going on at all.

It feels a lot like wish-fulfilment-literature: teenagers wishing their high school intrigues had meaning and importance in the real world might appreciate it.

In the end, I was not the target audience for this book. Had the promise of a kingdom within the USA not intrigued me, I would probably never have picked it up.

Rating: 2/5

Sunday 16 November 2014

Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

Foxglove Summer departs from the other books in the Peter Grant series of London-centred urban fantasies in a number of ways. For one thing, his boss, The Nightingale, is barely in the book at all. The training wheels are well and truly off, and Peter Grant is policing largely on his own. For another, the story takes place in the sleepy rural lands of Herefordshire, stretching the “urban” in “urban fantasy” well beyond its usual meaning. And thirdly, there are a few glimpses of understanding of some of the things that had been hitherto entirely mysterious (Ettersberg, Molly).

Oh, and the Faceless Man plot isn’t really a big thing in this book, either, which is a good thing. The novels which are Faceless-Man-heavy (Moon over Soho, Broken Homes) tend to be a bit confused and unsatisfying, while the ones with their own plots (Rivers of London, Whispers Underground and Foxglove Summer) are much more streamlined and engaging.

If you haven’t read Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series yet, then I strongly recommend you do. They are great books, thoroughly entertaining, funny, thrilling, and the best urban fantasy novels in the world, full of interesting and likeable characters, and interweaving the fantasy into modern times in a way that actually seems believable and authentic in all the ways that Harry Potter, Harry Dresden, Neverwhere, Kraken, et al do not. Also, they have a rich atmosphere that uniquely realises the full potential of urban fantasy, blending the rich and the mundane with deftness that no other book I've read comes close to.

Foxglove Summer starts with the disappearance of two pre-teen girls near Leominster. Peter Grant is sent out to do a routine check of a nearby hedge wizard, just on the off chance there’s anything supernatural about the case. After deciding that no, this wizard probably had nothing to do with it, Peter decides to stick around anyway and offer his assistance to the local police. Unusually, they welcome him and find him tasks to do, and pretty soon, there are hints that something not quite normal might be going on, after all…

Tackling child disappearances lends this novel a very strong plot, which is consistent, coherent and engaging. The previous novel was a bit more hodge-podge in its central mysteries. Foxglove Summer is almost on a part with London Underground, the strongest novel in this series. There is fortunately plenty of light relief and wit in the dialogue and narration, so even when dealing with missing children cases, Peter Grant does not lose his sense of humour entirely. And, through it all, the aftermath of the big plot twist that ended the previous novel leaves its shadow in Foxglove Summer – managing to be simultaneously heartbreaking and a little too lightweight.

If you’re an existing fan of these novels, Foxglove Summer is a must. If not, go out and become a fan – these books are superbly entertaining.

Rating: 5/5

Bordergame by National Theatre Wales


I’ve heard someone bemoan that National Theatre Wales has sucked all the funding for drama in Wales into itself, leading to the “sad” demise of many a small local theatre. Having attended two NTW productions by now (and wishing I had attended several others), I can’t help disagreeing: NTW does interesting, exciting things, the likes of which I have never before seen in theatres. If the price of that is the demise of all other funded theatre productions in Wales, then it is still a fair price to pay.
NTW’s ethos is that Wales itself is the stage. So if they do Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the production takes place in an aircraft hangar, and the audience walks around following the actors and battles (and stepping out of the way of cars). Other plays have been staged in a fake German village built for military exercises, in the homes of Cardiff’s Somali community, and in Port Talbot.

Bordergame takes place in Bristol and Newport. It’s presented as an interactive play about immigration, but really, it’s hard to describe it as a play at all. There are two audiences – one, admission-paying, starts in Bristol Temple Meads. These are the wannabe immigrants. The other audience, admission-free, is sitting at home at a www-connected computer. These are the volunteers who help the border agency to watch the migrants and make decisions. If that sounds more like a social experiment than a stage play, then you’re not entirely wrong. The performance certainly takes inspiration from various influential psychology experiments of the past.

I’ve now partaken both ways – first as immigrant, then as border-watching volunteer. Both experiences were interesting, but in very very different ways. As participant trying to make your way from Bristol to Newport, you never really have a full overview. You get two emails before the event (one on the day itself), with instructions for picking up an envelope in a locker at the station. Once you’ve got the envelope, things quickly get quite stressful, as your interactions with the actors may well take you out of your comfort zone. (I suspect it’s a little less scary if you go in a group). The adventure itself is scripted only in part – it’s cheerfully non-linear, and different people get different opportunities and instructions. You literally never find out what everyone else got up to, and it’s all too easy to believe that some people might never have made it even as far as Newport. Those who get there are bound to meet the border agency, which is intimidating in quite different ways.

For the home-audience, the adventure starts with a little quiz, and then, at the appointed time, a chance to watch feeds from cameras watching the migrants. There is a chat room where volunteer border agents can discuss what they see, and there are instructions and a few choices along the way. There’s more of an overview (though not a complete overview: some people fall through the cracks), with a cheerfully governmental feel. It’s not at all stressful.

The tone of the experience is quite satirical, not Monty-Python-satirical but Four-Lions-satirical. For the people at home, it’s all satirical. For the people on the ground, the satire is delivered with a little more steel – but during the train journey, the tension dissipates and everyone’s quite relaxed by the time they get to their destination. This makes the adventure feel quite safe and playful. I can see why the production strikes this particular tone – without it, the paying audience might feel very uncomfortable indeed, especially if the train journey had been omitted – but it robs Bordergame of some of its bite. It ends up being an amusing night out. I am not sure it ends up making anyone think very much about anything.

Of course, it’s unlikely these playful shenanigans would ever appeal to the BNP / Britain First / UKIP / Nazi crowd, so perhaps ‘making people think’ was never really top of the agenda. The audience mostly comprised of students, GROLI types, lefties of various ages and a few theatre aficionados of indeterminate political leaning. In short, it was an evening of entertainment, rather than mind expansion.

If things were just left at that, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a little bit exploitative (“Hey! Let’s play at immigrants and border guards for a laugh!”). In fact, while taking part I felt reminded of a rumour I heard last summer, that wealthy Mexicans can now have “adventure holiday experiences” where they play at trying to be border-crossing poor people, facing all the sort of obstacles illegal immigrants encounter. Fortunately, things get tied up at the end in a way that punctures any accusation of exploitative entertainment / poor taste. The final phase was, however, quite confusing.

I'd highly recommend taking part, if you can. It might not be seminal, but it is a strong hint at the future direction of theatre - and I certainly hope there will be many more projects like it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Other Reviews:

Experience Report (CONTAINS SPOILERS)

I’ve outlined in broad strokes what this performance is like. Now, SPOILER WARNING, here’s a complete experience report.

After booking the ticket, I received an email from “Miki” (presumably, a sibling) that told me travel had been arranged on my behalf, through an agency called Escape Migration (, and that $1000 in cash was on its way to me. There was a brief mention that “a bribe is a last resort”. On the website, I had to register and upload a photo for my ID card.

A second email arrived on the day, telling me to approach a woman dressed as a traffic surveyor, near a set of lockers, at Bristol Temple Meads railway station, to get details of my locker number and access code, and to be there for 8pm sharp. 

My train into Bristol was a bit late – if I had been supposed to catch a train at 8pm after picking up things from the locker, I would have missed it. So, naturally, I was a little nervous. (Having read on Twitter that someone had been executed on the Bordergame the night before had not helped my nerves at all!)

The envelope in the locker included a map, $1000 in toy money, and instructions to meet a man wearing a daffodil under a tree by a zebra crossing at a very specific time slot. I had a few minutes, so I hung around. Other people seemed to be hanging around too, but I wasn’t sure whether they were part of the game, or people waiting to be met by friends and acquaintances. At the appointed time, I approached him, using the special phrases (like in a spy movie). He was short, dark-skinned, with a strong accent and a serious, shifty demeanour. He made me wait out of sight, but no one else showed up, so, quizzing me about UK trivia all along the way, he took me to a dark corner to hand over my fake ID. (The ID card is magnificent by the way, I have it still & wonder whether I could get on a domestic flight or buy alcohol with it: it’s a lot more authentic than I thought it’d be! I’m surprised this sort of thing is legal.)

This is where we had a misunderstanding: I’d read the original email to mean that everything had already been paid for and the cash was to start a new life / use as bribe in Cymru, but, re-reading it now, it actually said a deposit had been paid and I’d have to pay the rest in cash. So when he asked for $500, I was taken aback and tried, in my meek way, to argue with him, which I should not have and which annoyed him. Anyway, I failed. He got the full $500 out of me, but I then did not buy the Welsh currency he was offering me at a “good rate” because I had incorrectly concluded that this character was a scam artist. 

Next, I was taken to the back of a van, where I got to sit on a blanket in the dark. Periodically, the door would open and other migrants would be rushed inside. It was a bit scary, as it suddenly seemed possible that we might be smuggled into Wales in the dark back of a van – maybe we had been selected for a different people smuggling operation. Eventually, a very intimidating (white) man turned up, shouted and growled at all of us, and gave us citizenship test books, vaccination documents, daffodil-bearing beanie hats and umbrellas, along with instructions and mobile phones (we had to switch our own off). And he took more of our money. One person protested that he’d already paid, and was left behind, locked up in the van, never to be seen again…

After passing through a very brief ‘customs’ check, where another person was held back, people made their way to the platform. I  noticed that my ID lacked a signature, and my vaccination document had no personal details in it, so I borrowed a pen and filled in the latter. The former was plastic, so the pen could not write on it.

There was a wait for the train – 15-20 minutes or so, and then a 25-minute train journey. This was the bit where the tension eroded. During that time, everyone got lots of text messages meant to trigger actions, amuse, or create tension, but mostly people treated these as diversion while chatting to each other. (It became clear that everyone had been offered different things to trade, but no real trade developed on board the train)

Then, at Severn Tunnel Junction, some of the hat-wearing people got off. I thought they might have made a mistake. Later, I’d realise they (probably) hadn’t: the game is so non-linear that there are, I think, at least three different paths to the end, and people have received different instructions.

In Newport, we were told to head to a specific exit. There, the “border agency” organised us into a queue and divided us into people who were let in, and people who failed and were suspected of being illegal. (Or claiming asylum)

I was among the illegals. I couldn’t sing the Welsh anthem & my passport had been flagged up by Interpol. So I was among those who were bussed to the border agency offices. There, people were again divided – some were interviewed extensively about their attempts to claim asylum. Some (including me) were taken to a sound lab to do a test to see if our accents matched our ID cards. And one was never seen again…

At the end of it all, we were taken away to “our people” and told “Thank you for taking part in Bordergame”. “Our people”, it turned out, were genuine asylum seekers and we met them in a basement somewhere. This is where some of us had no clue what to do, or what was expected of us. People stayed for a few minutes, some had conversations, but despite efforts to make us feel comfortable by serving dhal and squash and so on, the theatre goers weren’t on the whole to keen on hanging around. I did have a conversation with one young man, and sooner than I expected found myself among the last guests left. 


That is what happened. Here are some thoughts about different aspects of the experience:

The actors were excellent.

The movement and immersiveness was great.

The events in Bristol were great – all the way until we were left to catch our train.

The non-linearity with different paths and outcomes was an interesting choice – but as it seemed to be largely random / predetermined and felt disconnected from our own choices and actions, it felt artificial and unearned and a little frustrating.

The politics was bonkers, and not in a good way. The basic premise is that the UK has split and that Cymru is doing better than the NewK (it was never clear whether this meant England, or England and Scotland). Disease is rife in the NewK. So, Cymru wants to stop illegal immigration. But it was never clear whose shoes the audience was stepping into. I guess the idea was that we were migrants from elsewhere who were already in England, but unhappy there & deciding to upgrade and move to Wales, but this was never explicit. It was certainly odd for all of us (mostly British people) to be pretending we were British in order to get into Cymru,

Unfortunately, there was no internal logic at all. For example, we were continuously quizzed about silly UK trivia from the citizenship tests. However, British people don’t know that sort of stuff. Given that we were all pretending to be British, it was irrelevant: no one does a pop quiz of Brit-Trivia at the border: that sort of stuff is something you experience if you want to naturalise and become British, not as a test of your authenticity at a border. As for the Republic of Cymru / NewK split: it was shoddy. If British IDs were still valid until 2017 and English people can enter Cymru, then why were any of us going to people traffickers? Worst of all, there was not a huge deal of clarity about what exactly was supposed to have happened / be the reality on the ground, so I kept feeling like I did not understand who I was meant to be.

Here’s what should have been different:

We should have had a little more background & intro to the scenario.

Our choices should have had a direct impact on our paths through the narrative. Perhaps the coyote should have hustled for extra bribes, offering a different route at the end. Perhaps the trading should have been organised by actors on board the train – offering different items, and each of us choosing what, if anything, to buy to make our entry into Cymru easier. It should have been possible to run out of money entirely – and there should have been a consequence to that (e.g. an entry visa administration fee).

I think the experience might have been improved if there had been (more) scripted events, within sight / hearing of the audience, but without interaction, to build up a sense of threat and urgency. You know, like the things you encounter when playing PC games like Half Life - things that enhance the plot, but you can't affect. The migrants in the border agency detention facility could have been led past locked rooms with people demanding to be let out on the other side. Someone could have been arrested and dragged off in handcuffs. We could have been given newspapers on the train, with headlines telling us more about the world we were meant to be inhabiting & fleeing from, rather than citizenship test revision handbooks. And it would have been really useful to have some kind of a catalyst at the start of the journey - something to make the audience really want and need to get away to Cymru. 

The sorting of legal / illegal people in Newport should have been more systematic and less played for amusement. Yes, the border guards were a little scary, too, but it strikes me that every white actor had a role that was slightly tongue in cheek, while the dark-skinned actors who we met in Bristol had roles that were the most individual, and the most serious of them all. So somehow the dark-skinned actor (even though he was physically shorter) ended up being scarier than all the white skinned ones – simply because the tense interactions with him were individual, serious, and not made safe by tongue in cheek satire. I know the organisers of Bordergame would not have wanted it to have any racist undertones, but I think that, unintentionally, it did. 

The politics should have made sense. Here’s what it should have been: UK has had an EU referendum and independence referendums at the same time. Cymru has become independent and stayed in the EU. England has left the EU. The EU has punished England by not letting it in the EEA and imposing customs duties etc. English businesses have moved to Wales and Scotland to make use of the single market, leading to crisis in England. Banks have collapsed, the state has gone bankrupt, and healthcare is only available for those who can afford it. England First have started burning down mosques, synagogues, Quaker houses of worship and gay bars. 

In that scenario, to get into Cymru, the audience has to pretend they are European. They are issued with documents listing various different countries, and they have to pass muster as coming from Austria, Slovenia, Portugal, Poland, Croatia, Czech Republic etc. – by knowing a few very basic facts about whichever country their document says they are from, and perhaps having a suitable accent. Not all Brits know the birthday of the Queen, or how many people are in prisons in England and Wales (two things we were constantly quizzed about). But anyone should be expected to know the capital city, president, and political party in government of their home country. And those of the people seeking asylum could do so because they are Quakers, Muslims or queer. All of a sudden, there is some internal logic (when I was asked to sing the Welsh national anthem, I should really have said “of course I can’t, I’m English!”). All of a sudden, there is no special reward for speaking Welsh (one of the theatre goers was particularly attention-seeking and started interjecting comments, and later, conversing with the guards in Welsh to be able to get into Cymru: to my mind, that’s cheating)

Finally, our encounter with the genuine asylum seekers should have been a bit more structured. Left to our own devices, people just didn’t really know what to do, how much to interact, when to leave. I wasn't sure whether I was in a set or someone's home. I've seen another review claim it was a real safehouse, but I don't know whether that's true. There should have been someone to explain where we were, what was going on, and then yes, some chance to talk to people. But there really should have been some framework to understand why we were there and whether we were still role playing or not.

As for the interactive / home volunteer audience, there were some technical issues (feeds kept hanging), but the really important one is that the choices and instructions should have been sent to actors, rather than certain members of the migrant audience. The actors would then presumably have actually acted on them, and done so convincingly and professionally. And there should have been a bit more to guide our choice on who to suspect of terrorism than photos, names and ages. (This is where giving choices consequences could have come in – by giving the monitoring audience access to specific moments and choices the migrant audience members make, and perhaps some more data)

Basically, Bordergame should have been a bit braver, a lot more logical, a bit more realistic, and a bit more intelligent / less shallow. I still think it was a great idea and well-executed project – but with some tweaks, it could have been spectacular.

Friday 7 November 2014

Horns by Joe Hill

I’ve been noticing movie posters for Horns recently. Daniel Radcliffe with Horns, in posters that look more or less like Twilight-clones. But then the tweets and Facebook posts of publishers and scifi fans & writers seemed to suggest that a) the movie is quite good and b) the book, somewhat different from the movie, might be worth reading.

So I bought it, read it, and… found myself wondering what all the fuss is about.

Horns starts with Ig, the protagonist, waking up after a night of drunkenness. There are horns on his head. Pretty quickly, he learns that other people enter a sort of hypnotic state when they see the horns, and start revealing their guiltiest thoughts to him – which, quite often, are hateful thoughts. Ig, after all, is the only suspect the police ever linked to the rape and murder of his girlfriend, one year ago. There are some other magical powers, too: when Ig touches anyone, he suddenly knows all the darkness within them. Oh, and snakes are rather fond of him now...

I read Horns wondering what contemporary horror novels are like. The answer, apparently, is not particularly scary. The premise is executed well enough, but it reads like a thriller with a strong fantastical element and religious themes. There is a good dose of hatefulness and unpleasantness, but the horns are really just a tool to unravel a murder mystery – and to arm their bearer in the conflict this causes. There is some sense of humour, too, as it's hard to take things entirely seriously once Ig starts carrying around a pitchfork...

It’s not a boring novel. The pace is good in the present but not so much in the lengthy flashbacks: the oh-so-perfect coming-of-age-with-romance Americanah back story is hardly groundbreaking, and the turning-into-a-psycho flashback has little new to offer, either. There is at least one scene along the way that very effectively pulls at reader heart-strings, so the novel packs some emotional punch, too. But it never terrifies or scares the reader - I can honestly say that the end of the first quarter of An Instance of the Fingerpost left me much more horrified and traumatised than anything Horns had to offer. And the latter is a historical novel, rather than horror...

A half-decent read, but I had hoped for something more unsettling.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday 31 October 2014

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

Update: I've posted a somewhat more coherent review on Amazon. The review below gets a bit ranty and spoilery in the second half.

I thought I’d love The Slow Regard of Silent Things. Unfortunately - and to my own surprise - I didn’t. I feel kinda guilty about that. Not least because I dismissed Pat’s warning that “you might not want to buy this book”.

So, before I start reviewing, a strong word of advice: if you are not an existing fan of the Kingkiller Chronicles, don’t buy this. At least, not yet. Go out and buy The Name of the Wind. Right now. It is amazing. Then, read The Wise Man’s Fear, which is pretty good, too. And after that, if you’re addicted to Pat’s amazing way with words, maybe you’ll be the sort of fan to also enjoy The Slow Regard of Silent Things. I was not that fan.

So, Auri. One of the most bewitching and adorable characters of the Kingkiller Chronicles - and perhaps the second craziest (after Master Elodin), this is a girl who lives in the tunnels, crypts and sewers beneath the magical university, an area which she calls The Underthing. She flits in and out of Kvothe’s story with great charisma and greater endearingness. An entire novella about her sounds like it should be AMAZING.

What is clear from Slow Regard of Silent Things is that Pat, like his readers, is in love with Auri. Who wouldn’t be? She’s the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl, only more manic, a huge dollop more pixie, and plenty dreamy, too. It’s also clear that Pat hasn’t lost his knack for beautiful, playful, musical prose-wizardry. Seriously, the man can write and enchant like no other. But, as Pat himself points out in the afterword (full of anxiety and worries), he has not written a story. He has written a 30,000 word vignette. And that takes some adjusting to.

If you think you’d enjoy a 30,000 word vignette with minimal plot about Auri, then you know what? Give it a try. You might (other reviews suggest that most fans of Pat’s work do) love this book. If you can buy it in a way that benefits Pat’s fantastic Worldbuilders efforts, you should.

Now, if, after you have read it, you find yourself wondering why anyone would not like this book, then read on. But be warned. This is the point where the review is going to go off all spoilery and grumpy. And if you happen to be Pat, or a friend of Pat’s, stop reading now: I would never be as unkind in real life as I’m going to get once I start ranting on teh interwebs. And I would never wish you to suffer the unkindness of having your feelings hurt.

Plus, I’m about to get all scatological! Beware!

SPOILERY Grumpy Bits:

I didn’t enjoy it, because rather than enhancing Auri, this book somewhat eroded her, for me. There were a number of things which I had mixed feelings about. Top of the list is that it turns out Auri’s manic-pixie-dream-girliness is better deployed as a character cameoing in the Kingkiller Chronicles, and less well served by a full length book. When she appears in Kvothe’s story, you get a strong sense that this is a person, with her own life, and yes, some dose of endearing crazy, but ultimately an independent being. She might be enchanting, but she flits in and out of the books like a hummingbird, shining and magnificent and magical because we know that she lives in her own world.

When the reader is thrown into that world for a longer run, suddenly her adorability starts grating away at the suspension of disbelief, because she seems to see herself in the same adoring tones that the reader sees her in. For me, that is a no-no. It feels inauthentic. All the manic pixie dream girls I've encountered in real life might see the world through spectacles of cutesy, but they don’t see themselves through the same specs - not permanently. They might be able to switch on that perspective, briefly, but they all have a very different perception of themselves most of the time. Others might adore them, but they do not adore themselves. Others might glory in the light of their magical glow, but inside that glow, they tend to not catch their own shining light in the same way.

I’m not saying Auri loves herself in a smug, proud, egocentric way. No, not at all. But when she prances around nekkid and in her altogether for quite a few pages, when the narrative voice constantly highlights her tiny hands and her tiny feet and the way she washes her face, her hands, her feet… well, that isn't a real person's perspective of herself. That is the author playing with a very cute doll living in a very enigmatic dollhouse.

It makes me think that if Auri caught a cold, she'd be making dainty, tingly little sneezes. There would definitely not be any snot anywhere near her tiny little nose. And on the rare occasions when she has to relieve herself, she'd be making the most endearing little pellets of poo, like a rabbit or a deer… good thing she does not catch a cold or have a poo in this novel. (She does eat, two or three time over the course of a week, so she's probably very constipated and only has to leave Auri-droppings somewhere once a week. And yes, I imagine they are an assortment of little round pellets, odourless and dry. She might dive into the sewers, but Auri would never get the sort of tummy bug that results in diarrhoea, oh no….)

A gorjuss girl. Not Auri
The thing I've been trying to express with my scatological diversion is this: Auri does not feel quite real when she's the only thing in a story. She seems more like a gorjuss cartoon character. An endearingly crazy cartoon character, accessing her subconscious consciously, with some obsessiveness but mostly some sort of supernatural wisdom… but not a real woman, or girl. And that bothered me.

The second thing that bothered me is that, rather than setting Auri up as an independent character with a life and purpose of her own, Slow Regard of Silent Things somehow manages to cement the impression that she exists mainly for Kvothe. The entire novella is a countdown of seven days until He will come to see her. It turns out that Kvothe is the epicentre of Auri’s life. Yes, she has various obsessions, and a peculiar way of relating to the world around her (and a quirky way with words), but throughout the text, it’s the anticipated meeting with Kvothe that bubbles to the forefront of her thoughts, again and again. I think He even gets capitalised, as if he were a God. Somehow, I had hoped there would be more to Auri than cutesiness and awaiting Kvothe. Somehow, I had expected her to have a bit more autonomy in her purpose…

And the third thing bothering me was the allusion to rape (or near-rape). Huge spoiler, I know. But you were warned.

If you’ve read other reviews of mine, you’ll know that rape is not a topic I feel comfortable with as a reader. When it’s handled in a matter-of-fact way, it startles me. When it intrudes on a story I expect to be wholesome and joyful, it repels me.

Until fairly recently, I would always expect any rape to be the character-destroying and character-shaping thing, for the victim. And this turns out to be the case for Auri - there is a strong hint that a rape or near-rape was the thing that shattered Auri’s mind and made her flee her previous life as a student and take up residence in the tunnels - but now this bothers me even more than rape handled as a matter-of-fact, unpleasant but not life-determining event. Why? Because I hate the idea that rape turns sane women into adorable manic pixie dream girls. (If it did, should someone go out and rape all the ladies to make them more adorably quirky? If we like pretty broken things so much, do we really condemn the breaking of pretty things, or do we see it as par for the course?)

Okay, those last few sentences were pretentious and very very unfair. Really, it’s the rape-in-a-story-that-was-supposed-to-be-comforting-and-wholesome thing all over again. Writers: do not put the raping in my light entertainment!

So, three things that bothered me, and a text that feels more like Pat wrote a fanfiction to his own novels rather than a story with its own two legs: you would be forgiven for thinking that I hated this book. I did not. I adored the prose. At times, I delighted in spending time with a delightful character. But in the end, the things that did not work, or that left a wrong aftertaste in my story-eating-mouth, outweighed the joys of the prose. So, if you know me in real life and wonder whether this book is likely to be under the Christmas tree for you, the answer is sadly no.

Saturday 25 October 2014

Riding the Unicorn by Paul Kearney

Willoby is a middle-aged prison guard, a husband and a father. But at heart, he still pines for his days as a soldier. His job is not his calling, there is distance between him and his wife, and his teenage daughter resents him. When he starts having visions and seizures, his first fear is that losing consciousness would be very dangerous in his job. For the first time ever, he takes time off for sickness. Then, his visions start to affect not just his job, but his family life.

In his visions, he is pulled into another world, first as an observer through the eyes of a prince, but then physical transfers between worlds start to happen. The other world is medieval, filled with a people who have just fled from their former homelands across icy mountains into a new land, keen to start new lives. But intrigue is afoot, and for complex reasons, the bastard prince Tallimon needs an outsider. He needs Willoby.

Riding the Unicorn is not your average fantasy novel, nor even your average person-from-our-world-goes-into-fantasy-world novel. For one thing, our protagonist is a flawed man. He's quite rough. In fact, he is a thug, and not just because his language is tough and he works in a prison.  In fantasy novels, you don't get many working class protagonists who occasionally hit their wives.

The world he enters, meanwhile, may have some fantastical elements - some magic, some monsters - but the magic is understated, the monsters just fauna, really. Today's readers might be tempted to compare this world to Westeros, except this novel was originally published before Game of Thrones, so it definitely isn't derivative.

This is an intelligent, authentic novel. Willoby is not the type to have a mid-life crisis, but his glimpses of that other world trigger one: suddenly, his own life seems pale by comparison. He's afraid that he is losing his mind, but even more worried about the prospects of talk therapy and psychiatrists. His feelings for his family are decidedly mixed - there is fatigue and exhaustion, but also a stubborn determination to make it work. Meanwhile, in the other world, there's intrigue and powerplays and politics, and the sort of scheming we have come to expect from gritty, realist fantasy fiction (all the more impressive for having been written 20 years ago: the book must have been way ahead of its time).

Riding the Unicorn is never boring. It's very readable, consistently entertaining and intelligent. It could just as easily be marketed as "lit-fic" as fantasy - there is enough focus on characters, character development, and thoughtful treatment of all kinds of serious themes in this novel to satisfy even readers who never touch 'escapist' fantasy literature, while there's enough swashbuckling adventure and grit for fantasy fans not to get bored. This book truly has the best of both worlds - but it is a serious novel, steering clear of comedy or light relief.

The title, however, is poorly chosen. No unicorns appear in the book at all. (Apparently, 'Riding the Unicorn' is a colloquialism for 'going mad'). Putting a unicorn in the title of a fantasy novel might set up the wrong expectations in readers: this is not a frivolous novel of sparkly merriment.

Rating: 4.5/5

PS: You can read an excerpt of Riding the Unicorn online.