Saturday 29 March 2014

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris

The Gospel of Loki is a decently entertaining retelling of Nordic myth from the perspective of Loki.

It's long been on my to-do-list to read up on the original myths of Odin and Loki. They seem to have inspired many writers, and made appearances in quite a few works that I've read. Classical education, however, favours the Greek and the Roman canon (although even that is abbreviated to a point of executive summary in school), so the Nordic canon is somewhat... fresher... and less familiar to this reader, despite having encountered various authors' takes on Odin and Loki.

So, The Gospel of Loki: a chic lit author's retelling of Nordic myth. The biggest danger, perhaps, is to project the Marvel movie Loki onto the mythical one, and onto the one in this novel. They are not the same: Movie Loki is a quipster and a witster more than a trickster. Mythical Loki is presumably much less a character of one-liners...

The Gospel of Loki tells you from the outset that it is a biased narrative. It is, after all, told in the first person. It's told with sprinklings of wit, but few chuckles and no belly-laughs. The events and scenes do echo things I have read or glimpsed in other tales, so, without being actually familiar with the source material, I still suspect it is a faithful retelling of the myths. So faithful, in fact, that I am not sure how great its bias is / how unreliable the narrator is supposed to be. Yes, he gives excuses and justifications for his actions, but the book still seems to present a story that seems as if it isn't fundamentally different from the myths.

One thing I suspect might be different is the background canvas of order and chaos. Much as I hate to use the word 'paradigm' (it's pretentious as hell), is it just me, or is there a paradigm in speculative fiction these days of drawing great conflicts - especially creationist, god-conflicts, as being between chaos and order rather than good and evil? Having recently read Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn novels, that, too had a chaos-vs-order conflict at its heart, and I am sure I've seen / read / heard similar tales before, in recent years. It certainly beats good-vs-evil on the complexity & ambiguity front, but it's beginning to feel like it's lost its originality. At any rate, it seems a very 20th/21st century theme, and therefore not entirely likely to be from the original source material.

The writing voice, by the way, is definitely 20th century. (Not 21st: there's no faffing about with tweets and interwebs and nonsense like that). What I mean by that is that Loki is basically paraphrasing all dialogue into modern language and concepts. There's no attempt to angle for pompous sentence structures and ye olde vernacular. Loki tells his story to contemporary ears, in a contemporary voice.

It's a breeze to read through, and fairly pleasant. There are some bad habits (repetition! There's only so many 'your humble narrator's and 'yours truly's a man can take before it grates), and Loki seems a little less witty and smart than I'd have liked. The overall story is a series of episodes, each a myth of its own, but the links between episodes are not terribly strong: the source myths must have been a series of tales, without, perhaps, the strongest of story-arcs. I feel a bit reminded of Fritz Leiber's 'Lankhmar' in that regard.

It's a pleasant novelisation of myths. It's not quite as rich nor as memorable as the beautifully designed book, and it could have benefited from a bigger injection of wit and humour and hijinx, and it definitely leaves Odin as an unknowable presence, but it's pretty entertaining and worth a read.

Rating: 3.5/5

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is the story of a condemned woman, spending a few months living on a farm in Northern Iceland while the local officials await final confirmation of her death sentence.

It does not sound like the sort of book I'd usually read, but somehow, the blurb got me. The subject matter is inherently dramatic in just the ways that movies about condemned people aren't. I have never felt empathy with movie characters waiting for executions, but this book got me close to weeping. (As did In Cold Blood, but that is another story). Books are simply better at this: you spend more time with the characters, you spend time in their heads, you project your own imagination onto them, and that makes them a part of you, so you somehow have a share in their protagonist's fate.

It's a very fast read. At the start, it's easy to like some characters (Agnes, because we get first person narrated scenes with her, and the novice priest, and the awkward but honest sister), and to dislike some others (the gossip, the district commissioner, the prettier, socially less awkward but more judgemental sister). As the story progresses, Agnes gains in complexity - and so do some of the other characters. (Not all of them: but enough of them to make the book worthwhile).

The book evokes 19th century Iceland, and life in rural isolation, very well. It has seasons, and claustrophobia, and a real sense of a tiny island nation.

It's a n engrossing book, written in atmospheric and rich prose. When we are in Agnes' head (her scenes are written in first person), we encounter a poetic mind, describing the world and events and thoughts deftly and richly. Those who are wont to cry "purple prose" at the slightest provocation might need to be a little wary, but for me, the prose seemed beautiful.

All in all, it's a beautiful, very well-written novel. Engrossing, emotionally exhausting, atmospheric, and for the very biggest part, authentic and believable. I wouldn't recommend it for light, fun reading, but if you're in the mood for something hard, cold, and beautiful, then this novel is definitely worth a read.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday 2 March 2014

The Quick by Lauren Owen

The Quick is a novel set in Victorian England, mostly in London. The book starts with an atmospheric chapter about two children growing up in an almost-abandoned mansion near York, looked after by a servant while a distant father is mostly an ominous concept, rather than any reality. A wonderfully dramatic series of events with just the right level of mystery and scariness occurs. The chapter is full of rich descriptions, atmosphere and the children are perfectly set up to be the heroes of a tale...

...only then the narrative skips, and they are adults, and we're not following the girl, but the withdrawn, aloof boy, and there's so much less drama and atmosphere as he goes to University, finds himself, meanders around the edges of high society without any purpose or drive...

...for ages and ages and AGES...

...until there are a few plot turns, first all about society and relationships, and then, only then, after a very long time, does the narrative drift into a slightly more Gothic Victorian tale.

And then, for some more ages and ages and ages, it switches perspective, as we read the scientific diary of a man who will become Doctor Knife...

As you can guess from my review thus far, the book struggles badly with pacing (or the lack of it). Perspectives shift quite frequently, and the characters it shifts to are not always interesting. Still, for each, we get a whole back story (decades of it), and this is a book which really believes in concluding things, because even after the climactic confrontations, we still get ending after anding after ending, until we know for almost every single character what they did with the rest of their lives.

A looooong intro and a looooong outro: not the hallmarks of modern novel pacings. Perhaps that makes it authentic - I did not love Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. Perhaps the author was trying to emulate that novel and its contemporaries, and perhaps she succeeded.

For me, the novel quickly drifted from "descriptions which add to the atmosphere" into "details that I really did not care about". People make tea, eat, think about domestic matters, run into other people and scenes that have no dramatic energy at all. Sometimes, there are things revealed about characters (a woman, sleeping in another woman's bed, notices the smell of sweaty hair, the general untidiness and unVictorian lack of primness), but at other times, the books is just filled to the rafters with filler descriptions and filler scenes and meaningless padding.

There is a time in this novel when it actually has pace and energy - when Shadwell and Adeline appear. Of course, this is first sabotaged, by being given their entire back story in great detail, but once they're actually doing stuff, the novel actually gains a bit of momentum, for a while.

The novel struggles with some serious mistakes: It gives us too much detail about the wrong characters - or perhaps the characters it gives a lot of detail about instantly become boring because they lose their mystique. Charlotte is interesting, but spends a good chunk of the novel hidden away and disempowered inside her mansion, while her brother, basically a bit of a wet blanket, goes to uni, not doing anything interesting at all for ages. Dr Mould is not the most interesting of characters - there is very little complexity in him. Liza is okay as a character (again, not exactly an original one, but at least vaguely interesting to encounter), and Adeline and Shadwell have at least some semblance of an interesting dynamic, but the characters which intrigued me were all the ones with a little mystery left to them. Rafferty, Makeweight, Mrs Price...

In the end, I think people who like Fin de Siecle, original Gothic novels (Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, etc.) might enjoy this evocation of that literary genre. But people like me - who enjoy the aesthetic but want a bit more pace and adventure, and less description and fewer backstories - are not going to enjoy The Quick.

Rating: 2/5