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August 07, 2006

Reading Roundup

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Reading Roundup

Being somewhat busy for the last couple of weeks, I haven't had a chance to post anything, particularly not reviews the last load of books I've read. However, rather than post individual review, I've decided to take a different approach. Looking back, it seems that with most of the books I've reviewed, I really haven't had anything particularly interesting to say. Particularly not for the mediocre fantasy novels I devour by the ton. In addition, during the period I've been posting reviews, I've accounted for more than half of the book reviews posted on the whole Warwick Blogs network. Which seems a little excessive, and probably a bit boring for anyone who actually reads them. (Incidentally, I have no idea whether anyone actually reads what I write about any of these books – but that is after all the whole point of blogs…)

So instead I'll post a roundup every week or so, in which as well as giving a star rating and a few comments I'll try and make some sort of general summary of what I've learnt. This way anyone who reads my blog but is sick of the bloody book reviews can skip over it in one go for the occasional post of interest. Unfortunately it's a bit hard this time, as I've left it two weeks and I'm faced with quite a selection:

Robert Harris – Pompeii
Peter Barry – Beginning Theory
Tad Williams – Tailchaser's Song
Terrance Dicks – Timewyrm: Exodus
Mark Thomas – As used on the famous Nelson Mandela
Jonathan Carroll – The Wooden Sea
Tim Powers – The Annubis Gates
Martin Meredith – The State of Africa
Benoit B. Madelbrot and Richard L. Hudson – The (Mis)behaviour of Markets
Naomi Novik – Temeraire: Throne of Jade

So first let's pick out the obvious theme: history.

Now The State of Africa is a "pop" history of Africa since independence, with particular attention given to the generally dismal record of African leaders. (It occured to me that this book might well stir up criticism from the sort of critics who take western writers' criticising anything African as Cultural Imperialism At Work, but I didn't take it that way at all.) This is not a particularly cheerful book. In fact, Meredith dwells for so long on the suffering caused by various dictators that the book degenerates into something of a hard slog. His habbit of jumping from country to country and leader to leader means that I at least soon lost track of just who was who. What would have been particularly helpful would have been a list of countries with chronologies of leaders. But that's nitpicking what is a fascinating and comprehensive history of modern Africa. There's not a country ignored, and although some receive scant attention – the relatively successful Botswana rates about five pages, for example – Meredith strikes a good balance between historical narrative and specific anecdotes. This really is a book that should be read by anyone interested in Africa, as even if the details don't necessarily sink in, it gives an excellent overview of the tumultuous years since independence. I give it 4 stars, very nearly 5.

From a history book, we move to Pomeii, a historical novel set in the time of the famous eruption. Unfortunately it doesn't measure up to the standards set by Harris in his other books. It's not that it's bad, just unexceptional, and coming from Harris, this is a disappointment. It's easily readable, but the plot, concerning a young engineer sent to maintain the acquaduct, is predictable; the largest portion of the book is given to build up to a climax already known by the reader; and the characters aren't amazing either. Actually that's not entirely true, I did like the portrayal of the Plinys , the Plinies , the Elder and Younger Pliny. Coming from anyone else, this would maybe, maybe, get three stars, but I know Harris can do much better. Two stars.

Moving from history to alternate history, we have Temeraire: Throne of Jade, the second in a trilogy of books set in Napoleonic Europe. With dragons. In book one, we learnt how the eponymous Chinese Dragon Temeraire was captured as an egg from the French and turned out to be very important indeed, and in this book, the Chinese want him back. So Temeraire and his handler, the impecably polite Captain Laurance, travel to China to plead the case for Britain keeping him. The result: (reasonably well thought out, if unoriginal) political machinations and (lovingly described) sea battles galore. This is not great literature, but it's highly readable, mainly because Novik uses a style I'm at a loss to describe, but that calls to mind the tone used by one's elderly maiden aunt to address the town council. She also does a good job with the dragons, thinking through the various social and political effects. I'll be a bit generous and give it three stars.

Now, I will add that Temeraire requires a rather interesting suspension of disbelief. I'm not talking about the dragons themselves, it goes without saying that they require a suspension of disbelief, but this is fiction, after all. And to a certain extent they can be logically posited in a way that the Emperor Napoleon cannot. To refer to an essay the title and location of which I've long since forgotten, positing a point of departure in history from our current timeline logically requries every event that takes place in the temporally downstream light cone of the point of departure to be affected by said change. In other words, if one were to hypothesise that, say, a child of Queen Anne survived her and inherrited the throne, everyone in Britain, and to a certain extent the rest of the world, would be affected to the point where two centuries hence, even if the social structures remained comparable to our own (and this is obviously highly debateable), the individuals could not possibly be the same. In other words, to hypothesise a world with dragons is reasonable (if one comes up with a tenuous expanation of how they can be so big heavy and yet fly), and hence SF alternate history (Harry Harrison does something fairly similar in West of Eden, in which dinosaurs survive (with appropriate evolutionary changes)) but to posit a world with dragons, hence a point of departure, what, millenia into the past, which contains the Emperor Napoleon fighting the very same Battle of Trafalgar, but with dragons, is just, well, silly. So this is one of the very few fantasy novels I've read that is not merely impossible, but intrinsically logically impossible.

It's still a good read, though.

From alternate history, three books about time travel: Timewrym: Exodus is a Doctor Who New Adventure, ie a story writen for a novel, not a novelised tv script. It's the second book in a linked series of stories, and the reason I bought it is because I found it in a charity shop and mistook it for the rarer, and more valuable, fourth book. It reads like a particularly good Target novelisation (not that anyone reading this will have read a Target novelisations, but hey), but Terrance Dicks, as always, aims for easy mediocrity, rather than attempting anything ambitious. So we see the (seventh) Doctor and Ace thrawt at attempt by an Alien Entity to take over Adolf Hitler and win the second world war for the Axis. Fun. Two stars.

Slightly more intellectual is The Anubis Gates, where a 20th century Coleridge expert finds himself in the middle of the eighteenth century, caught between a time travelling tycoon and a bunch of Egyptian sorcerors. I said slightly more intellectual. Powers writes an extremely entertaining tale, if one is prepared to overlook the more implausible plot twists. Varying from ridiculously predictable to totally unexpected the many twists and surprises kept me gripped, and this is a book that really does deserve every page it uses, which makes for a nice change in fiction. I liked it, anyway. Four stars.

More intellectually pretentious is The Wooden Sea, in which the protagonist finds himself caught up in a plot involving his younger self, a dog that won't stay burried, and mysterious higher entities. Unfortunately it soon degenerates into incoherence. God only knows what the author was getting at. Two stars.

Well, that's the easy link done. The other three books resist easy classification, but there's not much to say about them anyway. Beginning theory is a very readable textbook introduction to literary theory (four stars), As used on the famous Nelson Mandela is a mildly amusing exposť of the arms trade (three stars), and The (Mis)behaviour of Markets is an attempt by Mandelbrot (as in the set) to apply chaos theory to financial markets (four stars).

Acually, I will say a bit about the last two. As used on the famous Nelson Mandela will either be enormously popular or sink without a trace, so I should probably write something about it, but it really didn't make that much of an impact. Maybe I'm just too cynical to be shocked of the dodgy politics and legalities of the arms trade. And for a book by a commedian, it's not that funny. Give me Mark Steel's history of the French Revolution, any day.

The (Mis)behaviour of Markets, on the other hand, is fascinating, but sadly likely to appeal only to those interested in both chaos theory and finance, a group that, in my experience, includes only myself. And I'm not that interested in financial markets. I would, however, reccomend it to the non-scientist who enjoyed James Gleick's Chaos – as there are lamentably so few books on chaos theory for the non mathematically knowledgable reader.

[Good grief. The number of tags I'll have to apply to this post is ridiculous. Maybe this isn't such a good idea…]

July 18, 2006

Bright Young Things from Gollancz: 3/3

5 out of 5 stars

And here we are, with the third and final new author from Gollancz. This book comes plastered with favourable comments from George R. R. Martin, Richard Morgan, and Hal Duncan, no less, and for once it lives up to them. Lynch has delivered a excellent book, written in an engaging style, with a fine cast of characters.

Locke Lamora is the leader of a gang of thieves, the Gentlemen Bastards who pass the time in intricate plans to rob the nobles of the city of Camorr, a Venice ten times more impressive than the orignal. The careful balance between the underworld and the nobles is threatened by new faces, and Lamora is caught up in a frantic battle to keep on top of a growing web of plots and nefarious doings.

For a first novel Lynch has delivered a remarkably well polished work. The style is nicely suited to the work, not too serious, but still capable of packing a punch. There were one or two passages that made me laugh out loud, but this book is clever, rather than slapstick. Characters are well rounded, albeit in the "lovable rogue" mould. Lynch is not afraid to kill them off, either, and twists and turns in plot took me by surprise. There's barely a wasted moment in the book, and although the interspaced flashbacks to Locke's earlier life sometimes feel a little clumsy, the pace easily carried me through 300 pages in one sitting.

This is not great literature, but it's highly entertaining, and reasonably original, at least for a fantasy novel. I just hope Lynch manages to maintain the tone for the rest of the series, a predicted 7 books. I'm already looking forward to the second. Five stars.

July 17, 2006

Bright Young Things from Gollancz: 2/3

2 out of 5 stars

Well, here we are with the second of the highly rated new authors, Tom Lloyd with The Stormcaller. It's a young–hero–coming–of–age book that tries to do something new. It nearly succeeds.

The main man: Isak, a young "white eye", a mutant gifted with superior strength, vitality, and lifespan; at the price of a violent, brutal nature that he must learn to control. The book's off to a swift start as he becomes the chosen heir of Lord Bahl, also a white eye, and has to quickly establish his place and learn to understand the political intrigues that surround his new position. And so it goes, with Isak quickly thrust into battle against "elves".

I put the quote marks in because Lloyd's elves aren't the standard Tolkienesque type. They're more brutal savages than fey bards. Cheryl Morgan in her review in Emerald City compares this book to Moorcock, and to me it reads like an attempt to fuse the dark glamour of Moorcock's world with the complexity of Steven Erikson. The Stormcaller is full of dark gods, dark heroes, complex series of races, Magical Weapons of Great Import, ancient heroes, and enough general paraphernalia for half a dozen Dungeons and Dragons games. Oh, and a dragon. And some Ancient Prophecies, too.

Unfortunately, where Llyod falls down is on the characterisation. Isak is too much the brutal killer to fit into the mould of farmboy–turned–hero so beloved of many, but too sympathetic and soft to fit the harsh world Lloyd puts him in. The book has to stand or fall on Isak alone, none of the other characters are more than bit players, and Isak just isn't a strong enough character. Althoug the (rather good) ending handles the whole prophecy issue quite well, this book reads too much like Eddings with a bit more gore.

The writing is unexceptional, and really this book just fails to stand out. I'd like to give it more, but I don't feel it deserves more than 2 stars.

July 15, 2006

Song of Kali

2 out of 5 stars

Dan Simmons is perhaps better known for his science fiction, particularly his Hyperion saga, but this is one of his earlier works, crossing the fantasy / horror boundary. Unlike his somewhat unwieldy SF works, it's tightly written and compelling to read. Unfortunately, in tone it perhaps tries a little too hard for suspense and moves into the realm of melodrama.

Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered. Calcutta is such a place. Before Calcutta I would have laughed at such an idea. Before Calcutta I did not believe in evil – certainly not as a force separate from the actions of men. Before Calcutta I was a fool.

Written in 1985, it also seems to me to play to strongly on the idea of India as some strange exotic & otherworldly place, to succeed today. So not really a Fantasy Masterwork, as it claims to be. But not totally bad, the pacing is good, racing through to a climatic ending. Two stars.

July 12, 2006

bridge of birds

4 out of 5 stars

This is a lovely little book, a story set in a mythical china, where yong Number Ten Ox is sent out from his village to find a cure for a mysterious plague that has afflicted the children. Together with a wily old sage Li Kao, who has a slight flaw in his character, he goes on a quest for the mysterious ginseng root.

Although at first their adventures may seem a little repetitive, as they encounter a series of villains on their quest, towards the end all is tied together into a wider story. This is primarily a children's book, but hey, it kept me entertained for a couple of hours!

July 03, 2006

Bright Young Things from Gollancz: 1/3

3 out of 5 stars

Curiously enough I find myself with three new fantasy books by three new authors this month. All published by Victor Gollancz publishers, and all praised to varying degrees by reviewers – at least in the SF/ Fantasy world, the mainstream press, as always, ignores this sort of thing. Three new authors, three chances to either churn out yet another second rate cardboard cutout epic, or, with any luck, to make a mark in the fantasy world with something superior.

We begin with Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, book one of The First Law (No indications yet as to how long the series will be). Praised on the cover as "upredictable, compelling, wickedly funny, and packed with unforgettable characters, The Blade Itself is noir fantasy with a real cutting edge." In fact it's a mildly amusing, competantly written start to what looks to be an Epic Quest. This book concerns itself almost entirely with set up for the rest of the series, bringing together a band of Mismatched Heroes, ready to Save The World from a Dire Threat. Well, there's a bit more to it than that, but not much.

Our Heroes are introduced and they make for an unexceptional bunch. Logen Ninefingers is the barbarian tiring of senseless slaughter, Bayaz the Magus is the suitably enigmatic wizard, Malacus Quai is his inept apprentice, Jezal dan Luthar is the young arrogant nobleman who will no doubt mature by the end of the series. Mild interest with Ferro Maljinn the Young Angry Woman, but the only really unique character in the book is Sand dan Glokta, a crippled Inquisitor–come–torturer with a heart of gold.

It'll be interesting to see what Abercrombie does with his characters in successive books, becuase in this one, he doesn't do much. What makes a book almost entirely devoted to setting the scene bareable is the tone and style of the book.

A note on style. There seem to me to be no other genres where bad writing is so tolerated as Fantasy. This is not to say that good writing doesn't exist, of course, merely that much of what is sold, read, and, more irritatingly, publicised, is literary tripe.

Different styles in fantasy obviously exist, but when one rules out the more "high" fantasy (i.e. Tolkien, Eddison, Wolfe, etc, and their pale immitators), the more "realistic" fantasy (yes, I know that's probably a contradiction) ranges from the embarrassingly bad (Robert Newcomb), through the merely very bad (Terry Goodkind), up to the ok (Robert Jordan), to the fairly good (George R. R. Martin), to the very good (Scott Bakker), but rarely do we see any differentiation among writing style and tone. It's difficult to explain this, probably because I lack the literary vocabulary, but The Blade Itself, while not being exceptionally good, had something extra in the author's voice that told of a different approach to the genre.

Oh, I don't know. If you've read anything by K. J. Parker and liked it, you'll probably like this. If you read K. J. Parker and didn't like it, you probably won't. For the vast majority of people who've never heard of K. J. Parker, here are a couple of quotes to at least try and illustrate what I'm talking about….

Our hero enters the city:

West had often told Jezal that the Northmen found in Adua, usually skulking dishevelled by the doccks or dirty drunk in gutters, were by no means typical of their people. Those that lived free in the far North, fighting, feuding, feasting, and doing whatever Northmen did, were of quite a different kind. A tall, fierce, handsome people, Jezal had always imagined, with a touch of romance about them. Strong, yet graceful. Wild, yet noble. Savage, yet cunning. The kind of men whose eyes are fixed always on the far horizon.
This was not one of those.
Never in his life had Jezel seen a more brutal–looking man. Even Fenris the Feared had seemed civilised by comparison. His face was like a whipped back, criss–crossed with ragged scars. His nose was bent, pointing off a little sideways. One ear had a big notch out of it, one eye seemed a touch higher than the other, surrounded by a crescent–shaped wound. His whole face, in fact, was slightly beaten, broken, lop–sided, like that of a prize fighter who has fought a few bouts too many. His expression, too, was that of one punch–drunk. He gawped up at the gatehouse, forehead furrowed, mouth hanging open, staring about him with a look of near animal stupidity.
Bayaz stolled out of the tunnel an into the open air, looking smug as ever. 'So Inquisitor,' he said breezily. 'How did you find your trip into the House of the Maker?'
A twisted, strange and gorrible nightmare. I might even have preferred to return to the Emperor's prisons for a few hours. 'Something to do of a morning,' he snapped.

Anyway, The Blade itself is nothing amazing, but Abercrombie does show promise. And it's a hell of lot better than other stuff that's being published, believe me. It would be four stars, but as the plot's a bit weak to support 400 pages, three.

June 30, 2006

The Gold Falcon

3 out of 5 stars

[First time I've ever had the wrong book cover come up. Don't ask me why. It doesn't really matter but the english edition has a slightly less garish cover..]

First off, given that this book is book four (probably of six) of the Dragon Mage series, itself sequal to the the four book Westlands Cycle in turn sequal to the four book Deverry series, any review of it will probably contain spoilers for any of the preceeding 11 books. Given that I read the preceeding two books about 5 years ago and the ones before them about 8 years ago, I can't be certain….

Kerr is not content with a simple series you see, her celtic inspired masterwork she herself described as resembling a celtic knot, in which seperate strands turn out to be all part of a greater single strand. So what she writes is a tapestry in which various characters are reborn in various times, bound by "Wyrd" (i.e. Karma, more or less) partly in response to the actions of their previous lives. So one particular character has remained fairly constant in character, but has mellowed from being dislikeable to merely irritating… This is not the complication of the series: that is that Kerr doesn't start with the chronolgically first time period and move forward, but instead centers a particular series on a later time period and makes random jumps back in time to tell other stories. A table of reincarnations is provided in an initially somewhat futile attempt to help keep the reader up to speed on who's who.

By this stage, however, it's rather more comforting to the reader to encounter the same old people, albeit with different names and faces. Rather like a soap opera, in fact, only with magic and dragons. In this book, we've got Ned and Branna, formerly the great "dweomermasters" (i.e. sorcerers, or something similar) reborn just in time to face another invasion by savage tribes.

Kerr is nothing if not thorough in her world building. The land of Deverry is worked out with history, politics, and religion, every bit of it grounded in reasonable assumptions. This is celtic inspired, but towns are suitably squalid, peasants suitably wretched, and lords arrogant and closed minded. (Xenophobic) Elves exist, complete with long lives, they can be killed just as easily as the next man. Magic ("Dweomer") exists, but miracles don't, the protagonists have no short cuts to amazing powers. In fact, with a genuine dark age approach to hygiene and medicine and marriages arranged at 16 with a high risk of the man dying in battle shortly afterwards, Deverry is not a particularly nice place to live.

It is a great place to set epic tales, but unfortunately The Gold Falcon falls into the middle of one. It fails to live up the climax of the preceeding book, and really just sets things up for the next two. It's a necessary part of the series, but really emphasises the need to consider the series as a whole. The plotline functions well enough on its own, but there are some nice bits there's nothing spectacular here. Five stars to the series, but three to this volume.

June 26, 2006

Charles Stross – The Family Trade

3 out of 5 stars

Something we've seen before this, a character from "our world" discovers a pathway to an alternate world. She turns out to be a long–lost member of a powerful family, and her rise to power seems certain. Stoss writes well, but there's not much outstanding here.

(Incidentally, a few other books that have done the same thing are Roger Zelazny's Changeling, J. V. Jones's The Barbed Coil, Phyllis Eisenstein's Shadow of Earth, and most recently Tad Williams's War of the Flowers. The last is probably the best I've read on this sort of theme.)

Miriam Beckstein is none too pleased at finding she's meant to be living another life. At 32, she's got a successful career as a journalist, and has no wish to go off and live in a draughty castle, particularly if it means marrying to cement an alliance. She's none too happy with her family, either, founded on an import/ export trade between worlds, an business in which drugs play an important part.

The alternate world is barely out of medieval ages, and a judicious use of modern technology allows Beckstein's relatives to keep control. The prospects for development don't look good, but she's determined to try and improve the lot of the populace. Stross does a competent job in portraying the political intricacies involved.

"Miriam… You're strong, but you don't know what you're talking about. I've been trying to resist the pressure for years. It doesn't work. The Clan will get you to do what they want you to do in the end. I spent years trying to get them to do something – land reform on their estates, educating the peasants, laying the groundwork for industrialization. All I got was shit. There are deeply entrenched political groupings within the Clan who don't want to see any modernization, because it threatens their source of power – access to imported goods."

This is better than most idealistic portrayals of one person changing the course of history in a couple of years, but The Family Trade still lacks a certain something. It's still a pleasant enough read, though, and maybe the sequal will be a bit more ambitious. Three stars.

May 29, 2006

James Lovegrove – Worldstorm

3 out of 5 stars

Worldstorm is a fantasy novel by an established author, set in a world where people are born with elemental "inclinations" and the appropriate elemental powers: some fire inclined people can conjure with fire, some earth inclined have "indestructible" skin, and so on. Think the kids from Captain Planet gone mad.

Despite the somewhat comic–strip inclined premise, Lovegrove manages to write a fairly mature novel. Two of the (three) point of view characters are born disadvantaged by their powers, both shunned by their family or community for deviating from their lineage. Communities of stone inclined are exploited by fire inclined bigots, and air inclined academics disdain the world from their mountaintop refuge. That's the backdrop: the three storylines concern the two youngsters and the machinations of a near mad wandering scholar with the gift of foresight: all the strands come together at his preordained death.

Where a less ambitious author would be content with a fairly standard quest plot, Lovegrove is determined to use his world to discuss Issues, with a capital I. So many, in fact, that it's sometimes a little difficult to see exactly what he's getting at. Aside from participating in inclination fuelled xenophobia , the main characters find time to consider questions of religion, social exclusion, madness, economic justice, language, and so on and so forth, all amongst the constant issue of predetermination and free will. As a result, a great deal is raised and then dropped some pages later, and the book skims over rather than considers themes in depth. It's an ambitious approach, that Lovegrove doesn't quite manage to pull off. Despite this, it's a fairly good read, with a nicely satisfactory, if predictable, ending. Three stars.

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