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Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

I at least had some expectations of Mr Pratchett's work coming into this, having read The Colour of Magic a little while ago. It wasn't the spectacular I was expecting from my friends' descriptions, but there was definitely a lot to enjoy. So how does The Light Fantastic measure up? Well, things have definitely improved since his last effort. Oh, and just so you know, this review will contain some spoilers for the ending of The Colour of Magic, not that I think people will care much, seeing as I must be one of the few people who has only just started reading Discworld.

The Light Fantastic carries on from where The Colour of Magic left off, with Rincewind plunging over the edge of the Disc to what can be assumed to be certain doom. Except that it isn't. Instead of dying in the vacuum of space, he finds himself falling to the base of a tree. It turns out that the great spell lodged in Rincewind's head has saved him in order that he still be around to say it. The reason for this is that the turtle upon whose back the Disc is situated has its current course directed towards a star, generally not a healthy place for a world to be; in order to prevent the Disc from being destroyed the eight great spells of the Octavo must be recited at exactly the right time. So Rincewind must journey back to the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork in order to recite all eight spells in time. At the same time he also has to avoid the schemes and plots of Trymon, a wizard that wants the glory of saving the world for himself. This more focused storyline definitely works better than the odd jumping around that there was in The Colour of Magic, as it means that we get much more of an understanding of character and time span as well as there being more of an incentive to continue reading. My one real complaint about The Light Fantastic is that it occasionally introduces characters that either aren't all that necessary (Lackjaw the dwarfish jeweller) or are interesting but are only there for a few scenes and then never seen again (Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan).
In regards to characters, my comments from my review of The Colour of Magic still stand for Rincewind, Twoflower and the Luggage; although I will add that my soft spot for the Luggage may have grown. The three main characters that are introduced are Cohen the Barbarian, Bethan and the aforementioned Trymon. Cohen the Barbarian is, as far as I can gather, supposed to mock Conan, although considering I still have yet to read any Conan the Barbarian, I say that with some uncertainty. In any case, he is presented as the Disc's greatest hero who has managed to continue working as a hero well into old age. As such, he is formidable in battle, but occasionally has to pause while he tries to recover from putting his back out. He's quite likeable and pretty much the only intentionally competent fighter in the book. Second is Bethan who is essentially the sane one out of them all; saved from being a human sacrifice, she's initially resentful of the group for having interrupted an important ceremony in her culture, but she quickly decides that since she's in the role of rescued damsel, she might as well put her all into it. Finally there's Trymon, a character that I'm all too glad to wish defeat on, simply because he irritates me; he seems to be based on those bosses that attempt to sound business-savvy by changing policies that worked just fine as they were and by promoting things like 'synergy'. I sincerely hope that my wrath is understandable.

Overall, a definite improvement over The Colour of Magic, but I think that there is still a lot of room for it to get better. I look forward to eventually reading the next instalment of the series. 3.5/5

Next review: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

Signing off,

Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

As a Fantasy and Science Fiction fan, I feel somewhat guilty that this is essentially my first foray into what you could consider to be one of the Science Fiction greats, Philip K. Dick. I suppose that up until recently, their collective reputation sort of scared me away a bit. But when The Man in the High Castle turned up at a book give-away last year at University, I decided that because of my implied increase in maturity as a University student I would do well to read some classic Science Fiction. So, can I consider this to be a book worth grabbing on a cold morning on my way to the bus stop? Maybe, maybe not, I'm not quite decided yet; at the very least I can tell you that it was interesting. 

The set-up is a simple but intriguing one: what would the world be like if the Allied Powers hadn't won the Second World War? In this re-imagining of history, America has been split into Japanese and German territories, the genocide of undesirables has continued unabated to the point that Africa has been wiped out entirely, Italy seems to have been largely forgotten and Nazi Germany is now technologically advanced enough to start colonising space. The last point I find utterly ludicrous, especially since the implication is that this takes place before 1970. The other points hold up for the most part. The story follows several different plot-lines as it examines the lives of several people living in San Francisco as controlled by the Japanese, and through these different individuals this new society is examined in contrast to our own. Now this complete change in philosophy and values in this new society is what I find most interesting about this book; the value of discretion and formality in the Japanese controlled society, the tensions between Japan and the nutters still focused on racial purity in Germany, and particularly the odd mix of freedom of speech and censorship. That last point is where the eponymous Man in the High Castle comes in: this is a nickname for an author who wrote a book called 'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy', which details how life would be if the Axis hadn't won World War Two. As well as providing a nice bit of metafiction, it details the differences between the new superpowers of this world; while the Japanese have released it to the public without comment, Nazi Germany is utterly livid about the book, banning it in their territories and even going so far as to send assassins after the author, ignoring the fact that both of these things would serve to make the book more infamous and desirable. But then I suppose these are the Nazis we're talking about, so not exactly the most rational of groups. In any case, this new society is very interesting to be sure, but there is one thing that I'm a little puzzled about: the widespread use of I Ching. Okay, that's not quite accurate. I can understand the use of the I Ching in Japanese territory, seeing as they would have appropriated it from China. What I'm confused about is the ridiculous accuracy of the answers that it produces. While I have never used I Ching before, I am familiar with other methods of divination, mainly tarot cards, and I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that you do not usually get answers quite that accurate; in any one spread or session of divination there will be certain points where you see connections to whatever your situation is, but there will also be about as many if not more points where you will not understand what possible connection there could be to your question. Furthermore, those times that you do see a connection, well humans are sense-making animals, so there is probably a lot of work going on in your own head. So maybe I Ching is vague enough to let people make their own connections to reality and I'm just being picky? That would be a nice thought, if only the answers they come up with weren't so scarily plot relevant; there is one moment where the I Ching tells a Japanese trade official that his client is actually a spy, a fact that we don't have confirmed for several more chapters. Apart from that point that still boggles the mind, the set-up is definitely a strong one. 
The characters are unfortunately not as well crafted. While the characters were all distinct from one another, I had no real desire to really get to know them particularly well. It just felt like the characters were simply methods of moving from set piece to set piece, in order to look more deeply at society. I would probably talk on this more, but to be honest I can't help but be overcome by apathy whenever I think of these characters. 

Let me make this clear. This is not a book that appeals to our emotions. For me at least, this was a purely intellectual read, with the characters being ultimately superfluous to the set-up and the theoretical look at society in the years after World War Two. I would recommend it if you're looking for an interesting hypothesis to argue over and/or you're feeling emotionally drained after another book. 3.5/5 

Next review: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett 

Signing off, 

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

I've given in to peer pressure with this one. My best friend and my boyfriend are both huge Terry Pratchett fans, and as such have been bugging me to read his Discworld series for as long as about eight years (in the case of my best friend). Wow, I just realised how long I've been putting this off for. No wonder she was getting tired of nagging. In any case, I figured that I might as well start at the beginning, so that I wouldn't get caught by continuity problems, hence my decision to borrow The Colour of Magic from the boyfriend; he even threw in The Light Fantastic, which was nice of him. So, has the hype been deserved? Mostly, yes.

The Colour of Magic follows the adventures of an inept and cowardly wizard named Rincewind as he finds himself having to chaperone Ankh-Morpork's first tourist, Twoflower. There are a couple problems with the plot in this book; don't get me wrong, it's entertaining and funny, but not without issues. The first thing that I noticed was that the flow was rather jumpy. The overall plot is split into four basic sections: Twoflower's arrival in Ankh-Morpork, their detour through the Temple of Bel-Shamharoth, an adventure involving dragons and what they find at the edge of the Discworld. That's fair enough, shows a natural progression through their world. My problem was that it felt more like four separate novellas or short stories that happened to involve the same protagonists and were in sequential order. The only real thing that connects the stories other than the protagonists is the colour octarine, a fluorescent greenish-purple, the eponymous colour of magic that only wizards can see. The other main problem that I had with the plot is the knowledge that various details of it are ret-conned in future instalments of the series, which I was warned about. To be honest, that bothers me less, seeing as this was the first of the series, so there were presumably various elements about the world-building that needed a little fine-tuning. Overall though, these are very enjoyable stories with a lot to recommend them, namely the protagonists.
The main characters that I'll be touching on are Rincewind, Twoflower and Twoflower's sentient luggage. Rincewind is a wonderfully pathetic main character: he's a wizard who only knows one spell and it's one that he dare not enchant. He is as cowardly as they come, only walking into adventures because he was forced to. He could be a little bit dull at times though, which is probably why Pratchett paired him up with Twoflower here. Twoflower is quite possibly insane. He comes to Ankh-Morpork as a tourist from a land where gold is extremely common and has thus lost a great deal of it's value. Because of this, he walks around giving out huge gold coins all willy-nilly, making him a quick target for thieves. He also has a nasty habit of wanting to witness horribly dangerous things like bar brawls and charging dragons, dragging Rincewind along with him. Twoflower would probably start to grate very quickly if he were on his own, but when he's contrasted with Rincewind, it makes a nice character dynamic. The final main character to mention is the Luggage. The Luggage is probably my favourite character, if only for the possibilities that it brings to the story. The material that the Luggage is made of is a specific kind of wood that will follow their owner no matter what circumstances he should find himself in. It also has a habit of eating people. Basically it's a murderous, walking bag of holding, a phrase that I never thought I would write down and it makes me want to cackle at the sheer brilliance of it. I suppose I should also mention Death, who makes a few short appearances here. I'm looking forward to reading more about him, as he sounds like a riot. That and he also speaks with Christopher Lee's voice in my head, which is quite fun.

Overall, a great introduction to the Disc. I'm looking forward to reading more of this series, especially since there's a cliffhanger ending to this one. This isn't perfect though, so I'm hoping that the books improve as they go along. 3.5/5

Next review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Signing off,

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

A note about updates this month

As some of you will no doubt already know, NaNoWriMo starts today. NaNoWriMo, for those currently baffled by that last sentence, is short for National Novel Writing Month, a challenge where people aim to write a 50k word novel during the month of November. This is my first year taking part. Hence I shall probably not be reading quite as much as I would normally do (which is variable anyway, but I digress). So for those of you eagerly awaiting a new review (very few, I know) they will be much scarcer this month. Sorry about that.

In any case, wish me luck!

Signing off,

Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy

The main reason I picked this book out off the second hand book stall is that I'd heard that this had been made into a film starring Dustin Hoffman, an actor I adore after seeing him in Rainman. But does reading this make me actually want to watch Midnight Cowboy? Not especially.

If I'm honest, I was utterly underwhelmed by this novel. Midnight Cowboy follows a young Texan named Joe Buck, who decides that he's going to make his fortune in New York as a gigolo; when he arrives, however, he finds that he isn't really cut out for success as a hustler, quickly becoming homeless and falling in with crippled con-man Ratso Rizzo. The story itself is interesting enough, I can't really complain there. No, my main complaint is the use of Joe as the point-of-view character: simply put, I don't particularly like him. He is a person that I can imagine being irritated with extremely quickly in real life, for various reasons. Firstly, he is very slow; that may be a mean thing to point out, but it is a main character trait of his and it's one that really slowed down the narrative for me, as it meant that nothing actually happens to move him forward. Secondly, his stupidity means that he is manipulated by pretty much everyone that he meets in this narrative. I know that this is meant to show how tough you have to be to survive on the streets, as it were, but when you compare Joe to Ratso it just seems that Joe is incredibly weak-minded and malleable; every decision he makes is either something he drifted into by chance or influenced by smarter or more persuasive people around him, up until the end, where it soon makes no real difference. This leads me on to the third reason that I wasn't fond of Joe as the main protagonist: considering quite how naive and stupid he is, choosing to be a hustler seems like an uncharacteristically cynical/nonsensical move on his part especially considering that he already has a steady job; I would imagine that prostituting yourself would only be an option if 1) you were desperate for money and couldn't get it any other way or 2) you had gotten so jaded that prostitution really didn't seem that big a step. Joe has neither of those excuses, which is incredibly frustrating; he just gets the idea in his head that he can earn loads of money as a hustler without any effort on his part. Basically that one stupid move has essentially removed whatever capability Joe has for being sympathetic, for me at least, as I couldn't help but feel that he kind of deserved a lot of what he got for being an idiot.
There were two things that I think saved it from being a total waste of my time though. The first is Ratso, who I think would have made a much more interesting main character, but then that's my opinion. The idea of him being played by Dustin Hoffman is the one thing that still makes me consider watching the film adaptation. The other thing that saved this book from utter condemnation is the ending, where Joe and Ratso have a few moments of really touching camaraderie, which seemed oddly absent considering that this is supposedly a book with friendship as a main theme.

I may have moaned about this a heck of a lot, but in all honesty this is mainly because I wanted this book to be really good, and there are elements that work well or show a lot of potential, but it's written in such a way that it just left me feeling...well...'meh'. There's no other way I can really put it. 2.5/5

Next review: The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,