Tag Archives: unreliable narrator

Review of My Real Children by Jo Walton

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This is the latest offering from one of my favourite fantasy authors – would I like it as much as her other work?

The day Mark called, Patricia Cowan’s world split in two.
The phone call.
His question.
Her answer.
A single word.
‘Yes.’
‘No.’
It is 2015 and Patricia Cowan is very old. ‘Confused today’ read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War – those things are solid in her memory. Then that phone call and… her memory splits in two.

my real childrenThis book is different from anything else that Walton has written – but then books with a storyline like this aren’t exactly crowding the bookshelves. By a spooky coincidence, I’ve recently read and reviewed Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which is the nearest book to My Real Children that I’ve come across – although there are some important differences. Patricia’s life apparently divides at a particular point in her life, when a single event and two decisions cause two different futures to come to pass – so this is more Sliding Doors than Groundhog Day.

There is also a real sense of ambiguity about the whole business – Patricia is suffering from dementia and has been battling with it for some time. So… is this a complex illusion brought about by a damaged brain? At this point, the two alternate lives seem to collide – she gets muddled as to which nursing home she is living in and although she hasn’t yet mixed up the children, she knows it will only be a matter of time. The impact of her different lives doesn’t just affect her family – the world is quite a different place and I found this to be a fascinating consequence. Intriguingly, it wasn’t the life where she was fulfilled and happy that had the best outcome…

This isn’t a doorstop-sized tome, so of necessity – given the span of years that it covers – Walton has had to skim over quite a lot of important events in order to fit it all in. But I didn’t feel that I’d been short-changed in any way. Like Life After Life, there are some bleak, miserable periods and terrible events interspersed with shafts of happiness and examples of human goodness. Unlike Life After Life, the worst of the savagery isn’t always visited upon Patricia. Walton is excellent at summoning up the feel of an era and I was intrigued to note how nostalgia steadily drifts into alternate history, as political events increasingly diverge from our own timeline. Focused as I was on Patricia’s personal story, it took a while for the penny to drop – but when I went back and reread the sections, I was able to appreciate the subtlety Walton employs with occasional mentions of events, before the shock of the major crisis which changes the whole political backdrop forever…

Walton always writes with intelligence and coherence, giving this story an interesting twist at the end arising out of her misery when trapped in her miserable marriage, thus making a remarkable and memorable read even more so. I found it fascinating that Patricia’s greatest contribution was when she was most oppressed – a stark contrast to all those feel-good lifestyle coaching gurus, whose starting point is that in order to fulfil a destiny, we need to be personally fulfilled and happy. If you enjoyed Life After Life, track down My Real Children – it is every bit as engrossing, with a stronger more convincing ending. Walton just goes from strength to strength and this book establishes her as one of the foremost and most interesting writers of her generation in any genre.
10/10

Review of The Islanders by Christopher Priest

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Christopher Priest’s work is always a challenge. He regularly pushes the envelope with his beautifully written prose, as in The Separation, which I reviewed here. And this offering is no exception. So would I enjoy this book more than I enjoyed The Separation?

islandersThe Dream Archipelago is a vast network of islands. The names of the islands are different depending on who you talk to, their very locations seem to twist and shift. Some islands have been sculpted into vast musical instruments, others are home to lethal creatures, others the playground for high society. Hot winds blow across archipelago and a war fought between two distant continents is played out across the waters. The Islanders serves as an untrustworthy but enticing guide to the islands, an intriguing multi-layered tale of a murder and the suspect legacy of its appealing but definitely untrustworthy narrator.

Whether this book could be called a novel is a matter for debate – the overall narrative spine of The Islanders is a visitor’s guide to some of the islands within the Dream Archipelago with a series of short, factually concise guides to a range of islands. At the same time, we become increasingly aware that this task is doomed to failure. Because of temporal anomalies that are now routinely used by aircraft to shorten flights, it is very difficult to accurately map large sections of the Archipelago. It gets worse – even trying to standardise the names of these islands proves a challenge as there are frequently anything up to three alternatives names for each one. And at least one of the poorer, less attractive islands appears to have appropriated the name of one of its more prosperous, popular neighbours in the hope of attracting a section of their tourist trade.

Who has embarked on this project of writing a gazetteer? We are never told. At least we are on solid ground at the beginning of the book – the famous novelist, Chaster Kammeston has written the Prologue – an oblique and rather qualified approval of the whole undertaking. However, one of the sections near the end of the book describes Chaster’s death – so how can he have read and approved of the manuscript sufficiently to have written the Prologue? Again, don’t expect Priest to provide any answers.

If the book had merely contained a series of tourist guide details about a bunch of non-existent islands, it would have joined my growing pile of DID NOT FINISH books on the grounds that Life is too short. But Priest is a fine writer – and mixed in amongst the clipped, impersonal island descriptions are a number of vivid characters, some amusing, some dark and some plain sad. A handful of these characters, including Chaster, constantly keep appearing and reappearing, building up a drifting, insubstantial plot that shifts as soon as you start to rely on it as the thread that will pull this book into a coherent whole. Even the chronology jumps around – nothing is certain.

So… did I enjoy The Islanders? Oh yes. Priest’s evocation of a vast, shifting population of islands that are resistant to any firm cataloguing is a temptingly attractive backdrop to his flickers of characterisation and drama. I will be thinking about this book for a long time to come.
10/10

Review of Glasshouse by Charles Stross

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I’m a fan of Charles Stross’ writing – his work is intelligent, sharply witty, often funny and always enjoyably engrossing. So when I unexpectedly came across this offering on the shelves, I snatched it up with delight.

When Robin wakes up in a clinic with most of his memories missing, it doesn’t take him long to discover that someone else is trying to glasshousekill him… It is the 27th century: interstellar travel is by teleport gate, and conflicts are fought by network worms that censor refugees’ personalities and target historians. Robin is a civilian now – demobilised following a civil war – but someone wants him dead because of something his earlier self knows.

Fleeing from his ruthless pursuer, he volunteers to participate in a unique experimental polity, the Glasshouse. It seems the ideal hiding place for a posthuman on the run, but in this escape-proof environment, Robin will undergo even more radical change, placing him at the mercy of the experimenters – and of his own unbalanced psyche.

If that seems rather a lot of blurb, it is. Because this book carries a large amount of backstory that immediately impacts on Robin’s current plight. Problem is, he cannot exactly recall what it is about his past his would-be assassins are objecting to, because he has undergone memory surgery…

Posthumanity regularly crops up in far-future science fiction and the problem I generally have with it, is that these very old, highly evolved beings often appear so alien and different I find it difficult to really care about them. Not so Robin. He is short-fused, argumentative, judgemental, occasionally violent, amusing and suspicious of everyone to the point of paranoia. He is also very damaged. In order for Glasshouse to work, we have to care for this tricky protagonist, because in a shifting, difficult world full of secrets and treachery, it is Robin who guides us through this landscape. And I found myself immediately drawn into his worldview, his problems and this apparent solution.

But the Glasshouse isn’t all it seems, either. Neither is Robin… I’m not going to continue as I’m allergic to spoilers and the plot to this book corkscrews off in all directions. Maybe other cleverer souls who read it realised where it was going – but I regularly found there was yet another shock as the storyline revealed yet another layer of surprise. Robin finds it hard to keep up, too. And the damage he has sustained becomes all too apparent just at the time when he needs to be at his shiny best – and he isn’t. So as well as a flawed uncertain world, reeling from the savage wars when reality itself melts taking with it the pockets of humanity caught up in the folds, Stross also provides an unreliable narrator through whose first person viewpoint we access this world. It’s an almighty big task – and in many ways, Stross manages to pull this off.

I really cared about Robin – and when he undergoes major physical and gender changes, while the depiction isn’t as visceral and raw as Richard Morgan’s sleeved protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, there is still a strong sense of confusion and anger. It was interesting to note that Robin never seems fully comfortable in a woman’s body, any more than he is happy wearing silk, which s/he describes as ‘bug vomit’. The steady trickle of amusing asides, while Stross ridicules our way of life through future eyes, adds to the pleasure of this thriller as it steadily builds towards the climax.

If you’re sensing a but, you’d be right. As to the major plot denouement, I have no problem – the climax and reveal are all enjoyable and satisfying. If only the final couple of pages weren’t there… For me, Stross’ final solution to Robin’s misery strikes an entirely false note and seemed utterly unrealistic. We’re into major spoiler country here, so I won’t go into details. But suffice to say, given Robin’s history, where he ends up and with whom simply didn’t convince me, which was a real shame.

With many other books, this would be sufficient to have given the book a 5 and not bother reviewing it – I don’t review books I don’t like – but despite the wrong ending, there is so much about this novel that is excellent, I’m still going to recommend you track it down and read it. Who knows? Maybe you’d even like the ending…
7/10

Review of Worldstorm by James Lovegrove

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Elder Ayn doesn’t really know why the Worldstorm comes to wreak devastation on the world any more than the next man. But, being a previsionary, he does know the exact time and nature of his death. He will be murdered and he will do nothing to prevent the killing blow.  Elder Ayn also knows why he has left the splendid academic isolation of Stonehaven and gone out into the world. He knows where his quest will take him. But he’s not about to tell his scribe, Khollo.

And meanwhile the world’s order is breaking down. In the country of Jarraine, war is brewing between the Earth and Fire Inclined, james-lovegrove-worldstorm-hbkbetween people who can shake the ground with a fist or pull fire out of the air with a simple thought. A storm is coming.

This being Lovegrove, the classic Fantasy template is tweaked more than a tad – so before you roll your eyes at the clichéd old Quest plotline that emerges from this intriguing world, I’ll reassure you that Lovegrove is a far too talented and original writer to fall into this overused trope without knowing exactly he’s doing. Elder Ayn is definitely the main character in this tale – again – a spin on the setup that has our plucky young hero mentored by a wise, all-knowing scholar/wizard who supports him because said scholar’s Second Sight has divined that this particular individual is crucial to the success of the mission… Ayn is driven by his previsionary powers to collect up Yashu and Gregory, the other two protagonists and is so convinced that he has the answer to the problem of the Worldstorm, that he also decides to hire Khollo for his powers of absolute recall to record the trip for posterity – as he also knows it will end in his murder.

Needless to say, the journey is uncomfortable and, at times, dangerous. But no one other than Yashu and Gregory will suffice – and I’m betting right now, that scenario of staple Fantasy fare is sounding very familiar.

Lovegrove depicts a fascinating conundrum surrounding these superhumans – Ayn is able to deceive Yashu and her lie-detecting skills by simply avoiding telling an outright falsehood. And increasingly, as we hear Ayn’s self-important justifications regarding his interference in Yashu and Gregory’s already difficult lives, the reader is encouraged to wonder about the extent of Ayn’s previsionary powers. Just how much of this adventure is fuelled by his drive to leave his mark on the world? We are left in no doubt of his drive, knowledge and supreme self-confidence – but how much of his belief that the Worldstorm is caused by the rise of humanity’s extra powers is based on his ability to see into the future, rather than the need to find evidence to fit his favourite theory?

Ayn is the classic unreliable narrator – and, as the plot unfolds, we begin to realise that Khollo also has his own agenda. Indeed, the interaction between Ayn and Khollo gives rise to most of the humour in the book – which is also counter-balanced by some of the graphic action scenes during the battle. I’m conscious that so far, I’ve managed to give the impression that this is a rather dry book concentrating on the characters’ motivations and Lovegrove’s subversion of the classic Fantasy tale. However, the staple of said Fantasy tale is adventure and Worldstorm provides it in spades – right down to the evil villain whose selfishness morphs into obsessive madness. The plot whips along at a clip, only slowing for Ayn’s narration to Khollo – which is just fine. Ayn is a wonderful character whose moods ranging from complacent smugness to grumpy annoyance leap off the page.

Any niggles? Well, when Lovegrove switches viewpoint several times, he reprises some of the events in the new point of view. Given that he’s already successfully established the characters along with their differences and conflict points, all this serves to do is silt up the narrative pace and undermine the importance of the one or two occasions when this ploy is actually necessary near the end of the book.

Apart from that, this book is an utter joy. Lovegrove is an intelligent, perceptive writer who delivers a cracking adventure, and (mostly) assumes that his readership can cope without having all the dots joined up. My one sorrow is that this is a stand-alone book as the world is a wonderful one with so much further potential.
9/10

Review of The Separation by Christopher Priest

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I’m a fairly decisive person. But, very occasionally, a book has me seriously conflicted. The Separation is one such novel. Priest is an interesting and powerful writer with a very individual voice. He is fascinated by the notion of an unreliable narrator – and he doesn’t regard himself as a science fiction or fantasy writer. He’s best known as the author of the book The Prestige, which was made into the successful film. Here in The Separation are many of the themes that we found in The Prestige – a double-hander between two close-knit people bound by ties of love, envy and eventual hatred.

Set against the background of World War II, this book explores the wartime experiences of the Sawyer twins, who had won a bronze at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Both with the same initials, their story is researched by Stuart Gratton, based on primary source material given to him by Angela Chipperton. Gratton’s interest is sparked by a comment he comes across in a memo from Winston Churchill, who mentions J.L. Sawyer, who is both a conscientious objector and RAF fighter pilot. It isn’t until a long time into the book, we realise that it shouldn’t be possible for Angela and Stuart to meet, as they are both from different timelines. What they do have in common, is that their father is J.L. Sawyer…

theseparationAnd that’s as much as I’m going to say about the plotline. Did I say plotline? Hm – the word tangle would be more accurate. Priest certainly weighs in on the literary end of the genre – and although I’ve seen the book described as science fiction, for my money it’s probably the heftiest attempt at alternate history/ies I’ve ever read. There isn’t a single alternate strand running through the book, rather a series of them. Priest constantly reprises the confusion between the twins with other major characters – Churchill has a double to perform his morale-raising public appearances and there is also confusion surrounding Hess and his identity.
As the war progress – in one timestrand, it ends in 1941 after Churchill signs a Peace Treaty with Hess – both men find the constant, bruising conflict frays at their ability to cope. They seem to surface from a nightmarish swirl into pools of lucidity, which constantly shift, throwing up alternatives. I was gripped with the need to find some resolution in this morass of confusing parallel worlds – and I give you due warning, there isn’t one. Priest doesn’t toss his bewildered readers any kind of lifeline. It’s up to you to make up your own mind as to exactly what is going on. Is this some kind of mental hallucination brought on by the brothers’ traumatic experiences? Or a dystopian view of multiple realities, all with their own grim denouement?

What Priest does provide in super-abundance, is detail. Loads of it. We have sheafs of documents from Churchill and his office. There are letters and diary entries from all the main protagonists. Joe and Brigit’s isolated cottage; Jack’s experiences as a fighter pilot; Joe’s time working with the Red Cross – these are all described minutely. Priest’s sense of the time is pitch-perfect and he obviously has extensive knowledge of what was happening during the War. Repeated phrases and events, in different contexts with different outcomes cycle and recycle through the book, making it almost impossible to keep track of exactly how many alternate realities actually surface. If you have an interest and knowledge in the period, you might like to play games at spotting exactly which point Priest deviates from the historical reality.

For me, a big problem with this book is that the twins are prickly, quarrelsome, rather aloof and not terribly likeable – despite their undeniable courage and strong moral standards. And because of the impenetrable plot, you don’t really ever get a real handle on the supporting cast. Brigit, Joe’s German wife and the cause of the twins’ feud, came closest to eliciting my sympathy. But even her actions towards the end of the book seem rather random and unexplained. And this is the book’s weak point. This is a demanding read – and on an emotional level, there isn’t much reward.

However, it certainly provides much brain-food. Priest’s formidable, rather cool intellect is on display in crystalline clarity throughout this book. Has he succeeded in pulling it off? My honest answer – I’m not really sure… I would have liked to care more about the Sawyer twins; I would liked a tad less complexity and cris-crossing of timelines; I found the ending overly abrupt and not entirely convincing – there were other timelines that provide a more satisfactory conclusion to the book, in my opinion.
But I’m willing to bet that I shall still be mulling over this book when many others will have faded into the furniture. Particularly the malign effect of the war on the brothers, which I feel is a powerful, rather under-reported theme running throughout the book. Priest is fond of using a sudden, shocking breakdown of order as a catalyst to some of his temporal confusions in his work – and WW2 certainly provides that in spades…

So, is it a great, if flawed book? Or a good book, overloaded with too much plot or detail to make it anything more than a hefty, rather confusing read?

7/10 or 9/10? – I simply cannot decide!