Monthly Archives: October 2010

Review of Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik – Book Five of the Temeraire series

Standard

If you enjoy alternative histories and have a weakness of dragons of any size and shape – then this is a must-read series. Novik revisits the Napoleonic era, with its wars and resulting widespread social dislocation – but also includes into the mix dragons that are bonded to humans from the moment they hatch, and then trained to become part of the French and English fighting machine.

The main protagonists in her series include a rare, highly prized Celestial dragon, called Temeraire, who was snatched from a French victoryofeaglesship as an egg. His handler, Laurence, was destined for a distinguished naval career – until he accidentally happened to be present when Temeraire hatched and was chosen by the dragon to be his companion. Together they have experienced a variety of adventures in different surroundings with plenty of fighting – both set-piece battles and skirmishes – and both characters have become ever closer and more aware of each other. In this fifth book, Novik does it again. She gives her fans yet another completely different twist to the ongoing tale – a feat not always successfully achieved by multi-book authors.

It is a bleak time for Temeraire. Banished to the breeding grounds from active military service and constantly missing his human companion, Laurence, he finally begins to count the cost of his decision to help the French dragons. While his captain, Will Laurence, has been condemned to hang for treason. However, their fates pale into insignificance against the desperate conditions that Britain now faces. As Napoleon’s forces breach the Channel defences and invade southern England, it is clear that Napoleon intends to occupy London. So when Temeraire and Laurence once more serve King and Country, it is in the knowledge that their support is only tolerated – and that in certain quarters they are held indirectly responsible for the whole mess, anyhow…

As the story rolls over almost without a break from the previous books, I recommend that you read them all before embarking on this latest volume, which will be a joy if you haven’t yet encountered this very popular series.
While not as high-flown or wordy, Novik does nod in the direction of the more effusive manner of the 18th century style of writing. I am aware that this has hampered the enjoyment of at least one would-be fan, but I personally find the style eminently in keeping with atmosphere Novik has engendered. And as I was brought up on such staples as Pilgrim’s Progress, Jane Eyre and The Children of the New Forest, it wasn’t going to bother me, anyway. However, I give it a mention so that those among you who like your prose pared to the bone will know what to expect.
In amongst the swash-buckling action, Novik has some interesting themes running through her work. Temeraire, as a Celestial dragon, is highly intelligent and capable of fluently speaking a number of languages, reading and writing. However, he is officially regarded as a piece of military equipment by the English authorities, who are much slower than Napoleon or the Chinese to give their dragons any kind of special consideration. Novik interweaves this strand with the anti-slavery arguments of the day – with Temeraire discussing the issue with Wilberforce. Along with Napoleon, both Nelson and Wellington pop up in this book. While this historical time isn’t my speciality, my husband, who’s a military history enthusiast reckons that Novik has done a particularly good job on Wellington. In my humble opinion, she’s done a particularly good job on this outstanding book in a fine series.
9/10

Review of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes

Standard

This is an interesting collection of short stories, connected by the recurring theme of survival. Several are linked to the tale of Noah, which starts the book. However, this particular version differs in many ways from the Biblical account, not least because it is told from the viewpoint of one the ark’s passengers. His funny, jaundiced narration of Noah and his family’s behaviour during the Flood immediately raises issues about the truth. He directly challenges our knowledge of the event, claiming that the Biblical version is a cover up, a gloss on the inept, often disgraceful conduct of Noah and his family.
This classic postmodernist stance runs through the book, like the recurring elements surrounding Noah’s tale. The second story, The Visitors, is also set at sea and is also an account of survival, told from the viewpoint of a history lecturer. His role in the unfolding drama, once the ship is boarded by a group of terrorists, becomes increasingly compromised as he attempts to keep himself and his current girlfriend safe.

The next tale, The Wars of Religion, is the weakest one, in my opinion. Barnes indulges in a recreation of medieval court records for historyoftheworldthis story. As Barnes notes in the back, this story is based on a true trial set in France. Because it is told through the supposed official records with more than a nod at the fairly convoluted language of the time, the reader doesn’t build a relationship with any of the protagonists and I found myself skimming through it. It could have been effectively told in half the time, and I feel that its inclusion doesn’t really add anything to Barnes’ argument, but has been included because the whole notion caught Barnes’ imagination. However, once we get to the ‘oh my gosh’ moment, there isn’t really anything else to keep this reader’s interest.

The Survivor is a grim tale told in first person point of view by Kath, who attempts to escape the effects of a nuclear conflict and an unhappy relationship by taking a boat to sea with two cats. During her voyage, she becomes delirious and dreams of being kept in a hospital by annoyingly intrusive doctors, who wish to understand the source of her delusions. By the end of the story, we are left to decide for ourselves whether Kath is really at sea with her two well fed cats, or in a hospital room.

The next story, Shipwreck, is another one based on historical fact. In 1816 a small convoy of four vessels set out for Senegal. When one of them, a frigate, ran aground on some reefs, those aboard constructed a raft. However, the whole plan went horribly wrong, with provisions washed away as the raft became waterlogged in heavy seas, leaving the survivors adrift with not enough to eat or drink. Men were murdered, some thrown overboard and finally the remaining corpses were eaten, before a mere fifteen survivors were rescued. This grisly tale, told in omniscient viewpoint, is immediately followed by the second part of the tale. This section deals with the painting that was made of the event and discusses where it deviates from what happened and why. The tone is scholarly, as if discussing this work in an academic essay. There is even a colour reproduction of the painting included in the book.

The Mountain is an account of Miss Fergusson and Miss Logan’s expedition to Mount Ararat during the reign of Queen Victoria, to the monastery that was built on the site of where Noah’s ark finally ran aground as the flood waters receded. Miss Fergusson is a spinster struggling to come to terms with her father’s death and it is one of his final comments that sends her on this quest. She embodies the spirit of the age, with her determination to continue on the journey, whatever the obstacle and her narrow-minded, but wholly sincere belief in the rightness of her particular religious viewpoint. The story’s ending is abrupt and dark.

Upstream is an epistolary account of Charlie’s experience on film location in the Amazon playing the part of a missionary priest. His series of letters, notes and telegrams to his girlfriend back home provide us with his version of events, once again leading up to an unexpected and violent climax. There is humour in this story – unlike the previous four – but it is undeniably dark.

Parenthesis is my favourite story. This, presumably, is the half-chapter of the title. Barnes seems to be writing as himself, musing on the nature of love, the shape of hearts and exactly what the organ represents, as he lies alongside his sleeping wife. There is a quality of tenderness in the writing that I find deeply moving, especially when juxtaposed with some of the searing irony and bleak outcomes of previous chapters. The quiet, fervent love expressed towards his wife shines out of the book like a beacon.

Project Ararat recounts the life story of Spike Tiggler, onetime astronaut, who upon his return to Earth after throwing a football on the Moon, announces that he wants to discover Noah’s ark. We learn of Spike’s background and his wife’s misgivings when he first embarks on this project. There are interesting and disturbing echoes between Spike and Miss Fergusson in their joint desire to find the ark. The ending of the story is ironic and darkly humorous – if you enjoy a good laugh at the blacker end of the spectrum.

The final chapter in this book is an account of heaven told from the viewpoint of an unnamed man. We learn of his initial delight at the wonderful breakfasts, the shopping expeditions and the superb rounds of golf – and what he does next to survive eternity. Like the first story, this tale is plain funny and had me laughing aloud in places.

I found this book a real mixture of light and dark. The theme of survival, snaking around the metaphor of Noah’s ark, was intriguing. Barnes seems to be saying that those who grit their teeth and hang in there are not necessarily the best or nicest. Just determined. That Barnes is a superlative writer is a given. This book showcases his ability to write in a variety of styles, convincingly portraying both men and women through a number of experiences and timescales. I suspect that I will be musing upon the ideas and characters in this book for a long time – but I do have a niggle.

This is a novel like no other – provocative, superbly funny, a wonderful and most original work… gives the reader a sense of ebullient, whooping joy

This is a direct quote from the blurb on the back of the book. The Guardian reviewer who penned such fulsome praise was right in many respects. It is provocative. It is original and very well written. But superbly funny? Gives the reader a sense of ebullient, whooping joy? Not this reader. I enjoyed the occasional shafts of humour, but found the darkness running through the book didn’t leave me even slightly joyful. I’m not convinced that Barnes actually intended anyone to skip away from reading it with an extra spring in their step. There is too much in there designed to shock and jolt us out of our comfort zone. So once more, I’m up on my soap box, having a moan about misleading blurb. This thoughtful, uncomfortable and well-crafted book deserves better than to be tossed aside in disgust by a reader searching for a light-hearted ‘joyous’ romp through history.
9/10

Review of The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks – Book 1 of The Night Angel trilogy

Standard

It seems that 2008 was a cracking good year for quality fantasy novels. Over the last couple of years I’ve found myself knee-deep in the critters – and Weeks’ debut book certainly joins the list.

For Durzo Blint, assassination is an art. And he is the city’s most accomplished artist, his talents required from alleyway to courtlywayofshadows boudoir. For Azorth, survival is precarious. Something you never take for granted. As a guild rat, he’s grown up in the slums and learned the hard way to judge people quickly – and to take risks. Risks like apprenticing himself to Durzo Blint.

But to be accepted, Azorth must turn his back on his old life and embrace a new identity and name. As Kylar Stern, he must learn to navigate the assassins’ world of dangerous politics and strange magics – and cultivate a flair for death.

This is classical stuff – if you enjoy Greg Keyes and Kate Elliott, then don’t pass up on the opportunity to read it. Told in third person POV, the main characters are compellingly complex and the plot is suitably twisting with a handful of shock-surprises near the end to persuade you to immediately turn to the second book and read on. Without doubt, though the book
sizzles with action from start to finish, for me Weeks’ strongest achievement is his characters – particularly his depiction of Durzo Blint. Weeks continues peeling away the layers surrounding his master assassin with the same slow relish that I feel on unwrapping a box of Turkish Delight…

If I have a niggle, it is that the narrative strand containing Durzo and Azorth is by far the most engrossing, particularly in the first two-thirds of the book. And I’m prepared to bet that Weeks found it the most interesting to write. I think it’s revealing that the blurb on the back cover of the book doesn’t mention the rest of the storylines, despite their importance to the overall plot. And if you skim these other plotlines, you will lose the sense of the narrative and eventually have to stop and go back and reread them. (I know this, because that’s what I did…)

Eventually, I did engage with the other characters and their stories, which although eclipsed by the glowing three-dimensional glory of Blint and Azorth, helped to whip the story along at a smart clip. The world-building is well-crafted and Weeks’ descriptions of a flawed society where the gulf between the haves and have-nots is nearly as grittily portrayed as Joe Abercrombie’s filthy stews in his First Law series. All in all, The Way of Shadows is a worthwhile addition to the latest tranche of classic fantasy and marks Brent Weeks as an author to follow.

8/10

Review of Men of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong

Standard

Kelley Armstrong was the first paranormal fantasy author I read – and I picked this off the shelves just to check out whether she is as good as I thougmenoftheotherworldht she was, back then. Men of the Otherworld is – apparently – a series of short stories narrated by Clayton, charting his earlier life, before he makes an appearance in Bitten. If you’re a fan of the sub-genre, but somehow managed to avoid Armstrong’s series, then I recommend them. Armstrong’s strength is her characterisation – you care about her protagonists, even when they don’t behave very well. Which is just as well, in Clayton’s case.

Clayton is a young, neglected child who is bitten by a werewolf and Changes. He survives by scavenging in dustbins and living rough. By rights, he should be tracked down and killed. That is the fate of all mutts who live outside a Pack. But he has a saviour – Jeremy Danvers, who finds him, takes him home and tries to civilise him. Can he succeed in taming Clayton sufficiently? Because if he doesn’t the Pack Alpha will decree his death, something even Jeremy’s role as the Alpha’s favourite won’t allow him to disobey. The clock is ticking…

Armstrong has made a very good job of welding these stories together into a coherent whole and if you’re not a short story fan – many people aren’t – don’t let that put you off. If it wasn’t mentioned at the start of this book, I don’t think you’d know. If you’re lucky enough not to have read Armstrong’s series, I would highly recommend starting here, before going onto Bitten. It gives a really good introduction to the world and give some intriguing background on the key characters you’ll encounter, later.

As ever, her depiction of her protagonist is spot on. So often, successful authors disappoint when they attempt to go back and embellish an already established world. Not so in this case. There is plenty of tension, as we follow Clayton’s fortunes and Armstrong successfully manages to whip the narrative along at a decent clip, while developing her characters and their world. The book did nothing but enhance my understanding of what comes later and reminded me all over again, why I got so sucked into the sub-genre of paranormal fantasy. I blame it all on Kelley Armstrong!
8/10

Review of the Crown of Stars series by Kate Elliott featuring:

Standard

Volume One – King’s Dragon
Volume Two – Prince of Dogs
Volume Three – The Burning Stone
Volume Four – Child of Flame
Volume Five – Gathering Storm
Volume Six – In the Ruins
Volume Seven – Crown of Stars

crownofdragonsThe word ‘epic’ is slung around far too freely, in my opinion. Any fantasy or science fiction story that overflows to more than one volume seems to attract the word. Which is a shame when you finally trip over a work that really does deserve the appendage ‘epic’. And surely a seven-book marathon that successfully manages to keep hold of a large cast of characters; produce sufficient twists in the long-running plot without overwhelming the reader and manufacture a sophisticated world should be right up there as an epic. This series has been seriously overlooked as a shining example of classic high fantasy.

The action largely revolves around the kingdom of Wendar, although as rebellions and betrayals multiply, princeofdogsneighbouring countries move to take advantage of King Henry’s troubles. As the fighting intensifies, we have a detailed insight into the machinations of the plotters as they jostle for power. Elliott has written that she took medieval Europe as a template for the political situation – and I think it shows. Amongst the shifting alliances and set-piece battles, the world, along with its customs, history and religious practices, is clearly portrayed without any appreciable check in the narrative pace – a cool trick to pull off as those of us who write speculative fiction know only too well.

burningstoneSome of the main themes addressed in the series include the nature of love – when does legitimate affection tip into obsession? What happens when duty and love conflict? The price of power, both natural and supernatural, is also explored – and the conclusion seems to be that those with the greatest mastery also suffer the most lethal consequences. A rule which takes the plot in some interesting and unexpected directions… Varying attitudes to religious dogma are also examined, along with the different motivations for fanaticism – an uncomfortably pertinent theme these days.

A wealth of engrossing sub-plots wriggle throughout the series involving an impressive number of memorable childofflamecharacters, without any resultant annoyance or confusion. And this is from someone with such a low tolerance of multi-view adventures, I hurled George R.R. Martin’s Storm of Swords across the room in fury…

Any particular favourites among the seven volumes? As it happens, I found the second volume, Prince of Dogs, particularly engrossing. The encounter between a couple of the main protagonists and the resulting riveting outcome had me reading till the wee small hours. All the books make compulsive reading – but that particular one will lodge in my memory for a long, long time.

gatheringstormThroughout the series we follow the fortunes and disasters of Sanglant, King Henry’s bastard, half-human son who becomes a target when the King clearly shows his preference for him over his three legitimate half-siblings; Sister Rosvita, court advisor and chronicler who finds herself unwillingly swept up in the thick of the fighting; the beautiful and mysterious Liath, who spent her childhood fleeing an unknown, terrible enemy; Hugh, whose thirst for forbidden knowledge is nearly as fierce as his passion for Liath; and Alain, a foundling raised in humble circumstances, whose fortunes become completely entangled in Wendar’s woes. All these characters – and a host of others, are depicted with pleasing complexity. Each one has strengths and weaknesses that impact on the overall story. If I have a niggle – and it is a small one, given the overall strength of the series – I would have liked to have seen more of Anne and her motivations. She is the only character vital to the storyline that I feel could have been more developed.

In addition to the human world, other races include the exiled Ashioi and my personal favourite – the amazing Rock Children and intheruinstheir war leader, Stronghand. The system of magic in the Crown of Stars is pleasingly original and detailed – especially with the steadily increasing tension as the lead characters struggle to make sense of the growing threat to the world.

crownofstarsOf course, you also have to feel the investment in time, emotional energy and the sheer labour of reading seven hefty volumes pays off in a suitably satisfying ending. This was, I confess, a growing concern of mine as I got to the seventh and last book – it happens to be a real personal bugbear. However, Elliott manages to tick that box, too. The characters and storyline reach a variety of conclusions that succeed in tying up the multitude of loose ends. All in all, if you enjoy becoming totally immersed in a complex, well written world, peopled with a wide-ranging set of characters that moves along at a fair clip, then the whole series represents a solidly rewarding five star read.

Review of Swahili for the Broken-Hearted by Peter Moore

Standard

When Peter Moore visited the West Sussex Writers’ Club to talk about his travels and the books he wrote about them, I bought a copy of Swahili for the Broken-Hearted.

Peter embarked on his African adventure in an effort to escape his misery after his long-term girlfriend and former travelling swahiliforthebrokenheartedcompanion dumped him. He decided to travel overland from Cape Town to Cairo by using a combination of public transport and lifts from people he met along the way. He is good at befriending people.

I’d expected to read a series of adventures delivered with the author’s laconic Aussie understatement that would leave me chuckling – while deeply grateful that it wasn’t me out there experiencing them. Well, that part was right. The sheer physical rigour of travelling in knee-buckling heat over cratered roads that wouldn’t look out of place on a battlefield in an overcrowded bus or train for hour upon hour, shouldn’t be underestimated. And I bring it up because, while Peter gives those facts a mention – his toughness means that conditions get really dire before he starts moaning about them. And the book is generously sprinkled with amusing tales – like the indignation of his drinking buddies in a South African township over his choice of beer when buying a round. Apparently, he’d bought them a woman’s drink so they thought he was insulting their manhood.

I was impressed by his deft, insightful character sketches and his sympathetic, unsentimental account of the grinding poverty and corruption he encountered. And there is an awful lot of poverty. Like the pavement sellers weeping when forced to part with their wares at prices they couldn’t afford. Things we take for granted – like adequate safety standards on public transport – are non-existent. To the extent that many Africans were shocked on learning that he was travelling on local buses and would warn him they weren’t safe.

Every so often, events would slide from the farcical into the outright dangerous – like the riot that Peter nearly walked into in Addis Ababa where he escaped by hiding in a coffin-maker’s shop while the mob outside destroyed a Toyota pickup truck.

The spare writing style ensures the book moves along at a brisk pace, with quick, clear descriptions as each new scene unfolded along the journey. My one niggle is that I would have preferred a few more word pictures throughout the book. It is, after all, a tale of travelling.

Those of you who attended the meeting will already know that Peter possesses sufficient self deprecating charm to stop a charging rhino and his amusing anecdotes left me slightly unprepared for the sombre undertone running through the book. As you’d expect of someone fleeing a broken heart, his mood is rather melancholy – which aptly reflects the appalling plight of many Africans in their daily lives. I was struck by the Zimbabwe man who told Peter that Jesus would soon be coming again as described in the Bible – as we were living through the end-time of war, plague and famine.

I had picked up the book anticipating an amusing romp through a part of the world I’d known as a child. What I actually got was a far more thought-provoking account of a continent in crisis – without any moralising or political harangue. It’s a neat trick to pull off and Peter Moore ably manages it. I think the jokey blurb on the cover sells this book short and despite the fact that travel books aren’t normally among the piles beside my bed, I shall be looking out for his other work.
8/10