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Thursday, 19 January 2017

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

After a good dose of depressing Russian literature, I was in the mood for something a bit more comforting. As such, here comes another Discworld review! It was going to happen eventually, especially with my husband encouraging me to pick up the series again. 


As a young boy, the prince of Djel is sent to Ankh-Morpork in order to learn how to be an assassin, and possibly earn back some of the money that their ancestors spent on building pyramids. Upon completing his assassin training, the prince Teppic is called back to his home country to take on the role of King. In attempting to be a good and progressive monarch though, he is foiled at every turn by the traditional High Priest Dios. And in the necropolis, the pyramid that is being built for his father's mummified body is starting to cause strange, possibly quantum, phenomena. 
I found Pyramids to be kind of average actually. Now don't get me wrong, Pratchett is his usual very funny self, with some truly awful names cropping up and barely a page going by without the writing eliciting a laugh or a smile of some kind. And there is a lot about it that is quite clever and interesting in regards to the world-building. I just can't get excited by the main character. I really wanted to like Teppic, and in the first part of the book I honestly thought that he could be a quirky main character who would be a joy to follow. I mean, his first appearance is him getting ready for the final exam that will allow him to join the Assassin's Guild in Ankh-Morpork; having strapped on everything that he can think of to help him, he falls over from the sheer weight of it. The parts where Teppic gets to show off his assassin skills are by far the best part of it, but for maybe two thirds of the narrative he doesn't get to use it. Instead he sits around while his country is run without him even being necessary, which, while frustrating in-character for him as well, isn't exactly what I was hoping for out of a main character. In addition, it means that when he clashes with Dios, to the point where the High Priest is actively threatening to kill him, the fact that Teppic doesn't automatically go to kill his obstacle is kind of bizarre. I suppose that there may be some Assassin Guild code that I'm missing involving only inhuming people under certain circumstances, but even so. What's the point of making the main character an assassin if he never actually inhumes anyone directly? 

Overall, kind of average for Pratchett, but that's still quite a bit better than most other people's average. It's a stand-alone novel within the wider Discworld series, so possibly a good one to start with or see if you like Pratchett's style. And of course, if you're looking to read all of the Discworld series, then you can hardly leave this one out. 3.5/5 

Next review: From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

So my last experience with Dostoyevsky was not brilliant to say the least. But I still had just under half of the book left to go, so there seemed little reason to abandon The Gambler just yet. In any case, the subject matter of gambling looked to be less dry than The House of the Dead, so I was hoping that it wouldn't be a total waste.


The Gambler follows a tutor by the name of Alexey Ivanovitch as he accompanies the family that he works for to a German spa town. Whilst there, he is witness to the damage that roulette can do to a family, eventually falling prey to it himself. Combined with his unhealthy passion for his employer's beautiful but cruel step-daughter, Alexey finds himself succumbing to a mania that overrules all other interests.
If there had been no names listed with these novels, I would never have guessed that The House of the Dead and The Gambler were written by the same person. Whereas the former was dry and poorly constructed, The Gambler is clear and engaging. The fact that the majority of the plot is the kind of social backstabbing that I love was a real bonus. It's not quite the quality that you can find in books like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but it's still entertaining to watch everyone desperately making plans around money that might or might not be available. The protagonist Alexey isn't really likeable or unlikeable, but that's not such a huge problem in this kind of plot. The only thing that I would criticise is that the plot itself is a bit on the simple side, but that's made up for by the characters, the scheming and the engaging description of gambling addiction.

The far superior novel in this collection, The Gambler is a fascinating look at the dangers of gambling, as well as the kind of social scheming that I'm a great fan of. Perhaps a bit simple at times, but well constructed and engaging. 4/5

Next review: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 6 January 2017

The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

If you have any interest in reading the classics, then Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a name that will eventually come to your attention. The problem in trying to pick up his work is that most of his well-known works seem to be roughly equivalent to a breeze block in size. As such, when I found a book that was a collection of two of his lesser known works, The House of the Dead and The Gambler, I thought that this might be a good place to start with.


The House of the Dead is a semi-autobiographical novel about life in the Russian penal system. Taking inspiration from the four years of hard labour that Dostoyevsky spent in Siberia, the plot follows Alexandr Petrovich Goryanchikov after he is arrested for murdering his wife.
If I were to sum up this book into one overarching impression, the word "meandering" comes to mind. And when you're writing something that is supposed to be criticism of your country's penal system, slow and considerate is sometimes not the most effective way to express your concerns. The writing itself is decent enough, but when the subject keeps changing track whenever the narrator has a new train of thought it becomes difficult to form a definitive picture of what happens when. Additionally, the narrator will go into great detail about certain prisoners several chapters before their presence actually becomes important, so it gets interesting trying to remember exactly which of the largely faceless horde the narrative is referring to. And it really bugs me that this is the case. As I said before, the writing is good, but it's brought down by the mild tone and seeming inability to tell the story in chronological order. If it could focus more, then it could have been a truly powerful and striking narrative. As it is, The House of the Dead is interesting, but very slow-going and ultimately a bit lacking in bite. There did also seem to be a bit of internal inconsistency as it would appear that the main character is later referred to as a political prisoner, which conflicts with the assertion that he was arrested for murder. Not that his crime actually makes any actual difference to the narrative, so it isn't necessarily a huge issue.

Overall, The House of the Dead was a bit on the disappointing side. For something that was inspired by his own imprisonment, I had hoped for something with a bit more passion. What I got was a meandering, timeless mess of recollections that left practically no impression whatsoever. The writing was good, but if the structure isn't there, then it leaves a lot to be desired. 2.5/5

Next review: The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Along with Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, my fiance has been rather forcefully recommending that I get around to reading Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series. Fond as I am of him and willing as I would have been to take a look because of that, I had already been intending to read the Dresden Files as I had tried and failed to read Storm Front at least three times before I got to it this time. Nothing was going to stop me this time.


The main protagonist of Storm Front, Harry Dresden, is something of an oddity in his home city of Chicago. He is an openly practicing wizard, even going so far as to advertise his services in the local phone directories. While most of the people who call his office do so to find out if he's serious or not, he does indeed have some magical skill. So when he is called in by the police to consult on a grisly double murder, it means that something is profoundly unnatural about the whole situation. Having started investigating the crime, he finds that whoever is behind the crime doesn't want him to get any further, and they won't pull any punches in trying to impede his search.
I honestly have no idea why I couldn't previously finish Storm Front. There wasn't a single thing about this book that I disliked.
First, the main protagonist. Harry seems quite the likeable main lead, with an unusually grim backstory that we have only so far gotten hints of. He's very much an old fashioned gentleman type of character, willing to let his adversaries play fair before going in seriously, which is nice if occasionally frustrating. There are a few side characters introduced that I could see being quite important later on in the series, Karrin Murphy, Gentleman Johnny Marcone and Susan Rodriguez in particular, but because of the way that the plot proceeds it does become something of a one-man show. As such, I suppose it's a good thing that his character is so strongly written. Admittedly, I will say that his bad luck with women seems to be a bit arbitrary considering that from what the reader is shown, there isn't really anything that strikes me as obviously repelling about his personality. As such the vaguely romantic stuff does seem a bit out of place and not as confident really. I hope that he stays single for the rest of the series, because romance does not at the moment appear to be Butcher's forte.
As for the plot, it's a pretty solid crime story with a fantasy twist. While I wish that I could have learnt a bit more about where the magic in this universe stems from, so that I could get a better picture of what is and isn't possible for one wizard to achieve, I thought that what was included was pretty solid. Mostly it was stuff fairly familiar from European ideas of magic throughout history, things like the power of true names and casting spells using a person's hair or blood, but then the whole thing seemed to come together well enough that there wasn't much that needed reinventing. In particular I liked the potion-making scene, where the ingredients are more vehicles for symbols of what the potion should do than a specific recipe. I thought that was a nice touch. Additionally, I liked the hints of things that have yet to become important in the series. I'm told that some of these things get extra explanation and context, so I'll be looking forward to that.

A great start to a series, all things considered. Storm Front does well by creating a likeable protagonist and loading his world with all kinds of interesting magic that I am keen to learn more about. The writing does get a little clunky with regards to Harry's relationship to women and romance, so I'm hoping that further into the series Butcher either gets better at it or just abandons the romantic angle altogether. More than happy to recommend the series to fantasy readers or crime fans willing to suspend their disbelief a little further. 4.5/5

Next review: The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce

Now this was one hell of a nostalgic book to re-read. Wild Magic was a book that I first bought while I was in high school, and it has been revisited enough that the front cover is almost more crease than card at this point. After the intense and not wholly pleasant experience that was reading Stalkers, I needed something familiar.


Following the deaths of her mother and grandfather at the hands of bandits, Daine Sarrasri decides to make a fresh start in the country of Tortall. Signing up with Onua, horse trainer for the elite soldiers known as the Riders, she soon finds that what she always assumed was a knack for dealing with animals may in fact be a magical talent known as Wild Magic. With supernatural creatures returning to Tortall and the threat of war from overseas, Daine must master her newly discovered abilities and confront the possibility of madness if she wants to protect her new friends.
I've had Wild Magic in my collection for around 10 years now and I've re-read it multiple times within that decade, so I'm hardly going to write a negative review of this. Daine is a wonderful main protagonist, both headstrong and willing to speak her mind, whilst still retaining the kind of uncertainty and lack of confidence that a lot of girls her age exhibit. It's nice that she just kind of falls into the whole role of hero, as opposed to actively seeking it like a lot of protagonists do. All she's trying to do is get by on her own and so her acquisition of power feels more like the kind of self-improvement that you naturally go through as you grow and mature.
Since animals are a big part of this particular series, I think it would make sense to briefly mention how they are depicted. There's very much an emphasis on people and creatures acting according to their inherent nature, and that comes out very well with the animals that turn up. There's a battle scene towards the end of the novel, where Daine is given a warning about encroaching enemies by a collection of bats, but when the other characters ask her to get some more precise reconnaissance she opts for consulting with owls, who are less naturally skittish. There's enough detail to make the animals seem intelligent in their own ways, but not to the point where they could be mistaken for human or supernatural characters. The exception to this is Cloud, Daine's mare, but then the two of them have been together long enough that Daine's magic has made a significant impact on the horse's mind. And Cloud is delightfully sarcastic and stubborn, so I'm not especially bothered by her unusually human-like intelligence.

Wild Magic is one of those books that I will always go back to when I want to read something comforting and entertaining. The characters are charming and likeable, the animals are portrayed really well, and it makes a great set-up for further adventures with Daine. 4.5/5

Next review: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Stalkers by Paul Finch

It's been a while since I've read any police procedural novels, mostly because my tendency when buying is to drift towards cosy or historical mysteries first. My mum, on the other hand, is very much a fan of police procedurals, so I ended up stealing this book off of her once she'd finished reading it. Which raises the question, have I been missing much in the genre?


The last thing that Mark Heckenberg needs to hear from his superiors at work is that the case that he has spent years building is to be shut down. When said case could potentially find almost 40 missing women who had no reason to disappear, he is even more unwilling to just let this lie. So he ventures out on his own, soon attracting the attention of Lauren Wraxford, the ex-army sister of one of the missing women, who forces herself into his investigation. Unfortunately, his investigations also attract the attention of the dangerous group responsible for these disappearances.
Right, so I have some mixed feelings about this. On the surface, Stalkers is a very competent thriller. It has a tense premise, with some very intimidating villains and the tension is kept high throughout. I guess the thing that kind of bothers me about Stalkers is the way that the subject matter is handled. You find out pretty quickly that the women abducted by the main villains are targeted to be raped and murdered, after being picked out by a rich man close to them. Considering how sensitive a subject rape is, and how often it involves specifically female victims, it has a weirdly "she had it coming" vibe at times. While the rapists involved are rightfully depicted as the scum that they are, the victim that the narrative follows at first has a line of thought that is distinctly male. She's going through her daily routine and thinking to herself how fortunate she is that she can rely on her looks to put her above women who are just as qualified as she is. Speaking from my experience, that does not sound believable. Women don't really think in that way, and honestly, if a woman is attractive enough to garner sexual attentions from their boss or coworkers, that shit is often entirely unwelcome. For the victim to be portrayed even slightly okay with her male coworkers leering at her invites the reader to think that she unwittingly encouraged her attacker. That will never be an acceptable attitude for me. So while Stalkers does get a lot right, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, because it introduces an element of grey into rape, which should be as black and white as it gets.

While technically a good thriller, it portrays the victim as "encouraging" her attacker, and for me that just isn't acceptable. Maybe you might be able to overlook that, but it just leaves a bitter taste in my mouth that ruins what would have been an otherwise tense thriller. 2.5/5

Next review: Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Batman: The Dark Knight: Golden Dawn by David Finch & Jason Fabok

It's been quite a while since I read any comics and am thus quite behind with general lore, but since my sister was kind enough to get me this as a gift, I figured that I could try it and see how well it read. And considering it's a Batman comic, one of my favourite superheroes growing up, at least it's a hero that I can try and get invested in again.


Batman is on a new case, looking into the disappearance of beautiful socialite and childhood friend of Bruce Wayne, Dawn Golden. While he soon finds that Killer Croc and the Penguin are involved with her disappearance, there is something stalking the streets of Gotham that is far more dangerous and is inextricably linked to Dawn Golden. Can he find her and unravel the mystery in time to save her?
Golden Dawn just left me so unsatisfied, which is really disappointing considering that I really do like Batman, as well as the fact that it was a gift. So, where to start.
I guess I will start with the fact that despite this apparently being the beginning of the Batman The Dark Knight series, I was left really confused because despite needing a fairly in-depth knowledge of Batman the book doesn't really try to bring new readers up to speed at all. For me, this was primarily the presence of the character Etrigan. Up until now, I had never come across anything where he was a prominent character, so to just drop him into what I was expecting would be a Batman-only story was most disconcerting. To more DC-savvy readers, his presence might make perfect sense, but to me it was like "and now, a demon in your regularly scheduled Batman comic". And considering that it turns out that the whole demon thing is really important to the main plot of finding Dawn Golden, it does make proceedings that little bit more confusing. It might just be me though, I can never quite get my head around Batman having magical enemies. I can accept that he lives in a world with magic, but usually that stuff gets sent to characters like Wonder Woman or maybe Zatanna. To put Batman against a demonic cult just seems jarring and inappropriate somehow.
Additionally, I'm not quite sure why the writer thinks that I will be especially concerned about Dawn Golden's fate. I mean, ignoring the fact that her name is all kinds of awkward and irritating in the light of the comic's subtitle, there isn't really anything there to latch onto with her character. They try and raise the stakes by having her be one of Bruce Wayne's childhood friends, except that there's only one scene of the two of them as children and all it told me was that she was a sullen girl who loses her friends' toys. Thrilling stuff. Her secret backstory is told later in one rushed, uninteresting splurge that didn't really add much to her as a character.
The final thing that bothered me was an art issue. While the general quality was very polished, the artist seems to have an issue when it comes to drawing women. At one point, a woman steals the Batmobile and for several pages I could have sworn that it was Dawn. It was only when Batman found Dawn that I realised my mistake. When your character faces and designs are that indistinguishable from one another, it doesn't matter how pretty they are because you have just hobbled the clarity of whatever your story-telling is trying to achieve.

Really, this disappoints in pretty much every way. The story is confusing and poorly laid out. It sets Batman against a magical enemy, that still feels jarring to me. The missing woman is so colourless that it is difficult to care about her one way or another. And there is no differentiation between the female characters' designs, which is just lazy really. 2.5/5

Next review: Stalkers by Paul Finch

Signing off,
Nisa.