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Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud

When it comes to trilogies, the middle installments are often the ones that end up being forgotten, because they don't have the benefit of being needed for context that first installments have, and by default usually have less at stake when compared to final installments. In comparison, I have always thought of The Golem's Eye as being the point where things really start having impact. It is an example of how to get a trilogy absolutely right. As in my previous review, this is more an analysis of themes that I found particularly interesting re-reading The Golem's Eye as an adult. 

The Golem's Eye again follows Nathaniel, now known to the wider world as John Mandrake, after he has started work as a junior minister in the government ministry of Internal Affairs. At the tender age of 14, he is tasked with tracking down and apprehending the commoner group known as the Resistance. They have been making a general nuisance of themselves through a series of artefact thefts and minor attacks on magician-heavy areas, but so far it has all been fairly minor. Until one night when an entire street of shops catering to magicians are gutted in the space of a night. Nathaniel finds himself summoning Bartimaeus again, in order to find out whether the Resistance is truly responsible and, if not, who is. Additionally, the reader is introduced to the viewpoint of Kitty Jones, a commoner and member of the Resistance whose comrades are preparing for the raid of their lives. 
When I re-read The Golem's Eye, I realised pretty quickly that I would probably find most to talk about in the Resistance, for one primary reason: this is the first time they've really been introduced as more than a side note, and boy do they make an impression. When I was younger, I don't think I was really in a position to appreciate just how important Kitty's character is in the grand scheme of things. Back then, she was just the everywoman who is there to ground the narrative after spending time with characters who just regard all the magical chaos with a considerably more casual attitude. Now, having gotten more interested in politics of feminism, LGBT+ and disability rights, she becomes so much more personal and relevant. In this new light, Kitty's narrative becomes a warning against the things that can tear apart a budding movement, even before you take into account all the magic trying to take them down. Kitty and the rest of the Resistance are spurred into action largely through the personal injustices that they and their loved ones have suffered, combined with discovering their resilience to magic and a means of fighting back. At the beginning of Kitty's narrative, she finds them in the unenviable position of being considered more as a nuisance than a real voice of revolution, and with no-one willing to put forward alternative strategies. Adding to this, it's obvious from the offset that there are a couple of points that are creating divisions within the group, yet no-one ever tries to talk through them or resolve them. The first and most obvious is the attitude towards what the group does with the magical artefacts that they steal, specifically the ones that can be activated with nothing more than a few phrases. There are some within the group who believe that any weapon that can be used in resisting the magicians should be used, while others believe that using these weapons will only make them as bad as the group they're opposed to. When it comes to protest and the whole violence/non-violence question, I would argue that there are situations where both can be appropriate, but it's always a slim line. The Golem's Eye seems to weigh in more on the non-violence end of the spectrum, but that's as much because there's an acquisitive angle to it. Towards the group's lowest point, it's obvious that the remaining Resistance members are stealing these items as much for their symbolic value as for the use that they are to the cause. When they start wanting these objects for themselves and not for their use, then they become that much closer to the people that they hate. It's an interesting point to consider, but seems a little bit difficult to fully empathise with. The second division seems to be one that only Kitty is concerned about, but I would argue is the more important of the two. At the beginning of Kitty's narrative, she and two of her comrades steal some items from a shop that caters to magicians. Then, against Kitty's express orders, the other two set the shop on fire. While she is inwardly complaining that they're subverting her authority, she audibly makes the argument that the majority of the people who worked in that shop were commoners, not magicians. Her companions don't seem bothered by her complaints, brushing it off as inconveniencing collaborators. Despite the fact that the majority of commoners thus support the magician's regime, simply because they do everything that magicians don't want to do. And that summarises the most insidious thing that can happen in a group based on politics and ideals: when certain parts of a group refuse to consider specific types of people worthy to be in the same league as them. You get it in all sorts of movements: feminists who shun transwomen because "they're not real women", gay men and lesbians who shun bisexuals "not picking sides", and mentally disabled people who are dismissed because their disability isn't visible. If your politics are very black and white, you risk alienating a large proportion of people who would ordinarily support your cause. It makes me disappointed that it doesn't really get addressed as much in series. I would have liked to have seen how the Resistance continued, whether they would get more extremist or whether they would mellow out. Alas. 

A fantastic continuation of the series, The Golem's Eye really ups the stakes and the tension. Bartimaeus is dry and witty as always, and Nathaniel's evolution is subtle but worrying. A worthy middle installment. 5/5 

Next review: Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud 

Signing off, 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

This review is going to be a little bit different from my norm for one simple reason. The Amulet of Samarkand is a book that I have a long and beautiful history with. Having checked the publication date, I am pretty sure that I first picked it up probably not long after it had first been published. It was the beginning of the series that was to accompany me and be one of a few bright spots in a period of my life where my school made me very unhappy. It was a series that I read aloud to my mum in its entirety when other books were abandoned. Hell, it's one of the few books that I have actually gotten signed. I love this book. A lot. So when I realised that on my to-read list I had reached its prequel, The Ring of Solomon, I couldn't help but decide to re-read the full trilogy before I tackled the spin-off. The review will follow my general structure of plot overview followed by analysis, but there will be less focus on whether the elements discussed make it good or bad, since my opinion is stated pretty baldly here. Let us truck on then. 

When the djinni Bartimaeus is summoned by a pre-teen boy, his assumption is that his latest master will ask him to perform some trivial trick like levitation. What he doesn't expect is for the boy to charge him with stealing an amulet of great power and reputation from a magician named Simon Lovelace. The boy in question is Nathaniel, the talented apprentice to a mediocre magician, and he has chosen the amulet as the means of humiliating and possibly ruining the magician who publicly shamed him two years prior. What neither of them know is the conspiracy that their theft will uncover, leading them to become wildly out of their depths as they try to get out alive and in one piece. 
When I started re-reading The Amulet of Samarkand, I was kind of expecting it to have not lived up to the way that I saw it through rose-tinted glasses. I knew that it would still be good, but part of me expected that the magic would have faded a little; the humour wouldn't be as good as I remembered it, Bartimaeus wouldn't have been as interesting. But I found myself pleasantly surprised. Admittedly, The Amulet of Samarkand is probably the weakest of the trilogy simply by dint of it needing to do a lot of set-up, but there is still a lot that is a heck more adult than I remember it being. I guess that this had always been the more child-like installment in my mind, simply because I would have read it at around the age of 12/13. But the thing that struck me most when re-reading this as an adult was just how dark some of the central themes are. 
First, there's the whole slavery issue with Bartimaeus and Nathaniel. It gets expanded more in the later books, but there's a fair bit to go on here. While Bartimaeus' sections are predominantly written in a charming and humourous way, there's no way to miss just how grim his life is. Constantly being ripped away from his home and forced into the service of creatures determined to think of him as a necessary evil at the very best. There's a point where Bartimaeus learns Nathaniel's birth name, leading to a temporary redress of the power balance between them and the djinni is utterly ecstatic because at long last there is a situation that he has a modicum of control over. Only for it to be set abruptly back to the status quo. As much as I can sympathise with Nathaniel in this installment, that's a moment where I can't help but hate him a little bit in that moment. 
Second, it really concerns me that the adults are so useless here. Much like The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I get a really strong impression that the author was trying to impress on adult readers just how dangerous it is to forget what childhood is like. I mean, I know that useless adults is a literary device common in children's books simply to stop adults jumping into the fray and instantly solving things, but The Amulet of Samarkand really goes a step beyond that. The majority of the adults here take on a surprisingly old-fashioned view of children, namely that they are just miniature adults who happen to be worse at things than the full-sized adults are. As such, the adults here appear largely malevolent and cruel, using any excuse to restrain, silence and humiliate their young charges. It is a setting where Nathaniel is forced to grow up incredibly quickly in order to keep up with an abusive system, where his master (explicitly stated to be intended as a replacement father-figure) fails to protect him from outside cruelty and even blames him for his victim status, where the only benevolent adult figures are non-magical women whose lessons to maintain a sense of honour are well-intentioned but essentially useless. It's a setting that only reveals its true horrors when seen through adult eyes. What makes it worse is that what these abusive systems are creating from their apprentices are adults who don't really have any functional skills. When Nathaniel briefly hits rock bottom, he has to rely on Bartimaeus to provide all of his essentials like food and shelter. But even he's not as bad as the adults in the climax. When they are confronted by the antagonist's master plan, their first course of action is to throw magic at it and hope that it goes away. When that doesn't work out, they run out of options and start panicking. At no point do any of them consider non-magical means to tackle the villain. Honestly, this is the only children's series that I can think of that makes the whole "adults are useless" trope quite so horrifying, and it just adds extra depth to the already decadent and privileged magician society. 

I will always recommend this book to anyone who wants to get into fantasy, whether they be children or adults. For the kids, there are great characters and really funny writing, as well as a plot that doesn't speak down to them. For the adults, the themes reveal themselves to be a lot darker and far-reaching than they initially seem, rendering it just as interesting after the whole growing up business. Arguably the weakest of the trilogy, but necessary for the really good stuff to happen in the rest of the trilogy. 4.5/5 

Next review: The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud 

Signing off, 

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

If you've followed my blog for a while, you will know that I am a HUGE Sherlock Holmes fan. So when I found The House of Silk in my stocking a few Christmases back, I was rather excited, to put it lightly. If ever there was a character to act as a role model for me when I was a child, then it was Sherlock Holmes. I still want to be like him (minus the whole cocaine/morphine habit, obviously) so much that it hurts. But in the time between getting The House of Silk and actually reading it, I have been a little bit burned by my desire to read Holmes-related books beyond the canon. Mainly through the utter farce that was The Baker Street Phantom. Since my prior bad experience, I was a bit more cautious. Was it well founded?

The House of Silk begins as most Holmes stories do, with a distressed member of the public turning to 221B Baker Street with an inexplicable problem. In this case it is an art dealer by the name of Carstairs, who is being followed by a strange silent figure who bears a striking resemblance to an Irish-American gangster who he inadvertently had dealings with over a year before. When the case progresses to murder though, Holmes and Watson find themselves plunging headfirst into a massive conspiracy surrounding the eponymous House of Silk.
Let me say this right off the bat. I like this book. Horowitz has written a compelling narrative that fits into the Holmes canon rather nicely and explores a few areas of Victorian society that are perhaps overlooked in the main canon. It is perfectly serviceable and is a fast, enjoyable read. I will, however, be nitpicking for the remainder of the review, because there are a couple of things that just don't sit right with me as a Holmes purist.
One of the first things that struck me was how obvious it was that The House of Silk was written by a fan. And not in a good way. The narrative is positively crawling with references to the main Holmes canon, in ways that only someone who has already read most or all of the canon will know. First of all, that is really distracting to a long-term fan of the universe, because it's just not something that's really done. If I wanted to re-read his other adventures, I would. I feel like Horowitz is sabotaging his own book by reminding long-term fans that they could be reading other, better Holmes stories. Second, this has to be really confusing for people who have never read any Holmes stories before. With the exception of "The Empty House", the Sherlock Holmes canon is one where you can basically pick any one of the stories and be perfectly aware of what's happening, because they are self-contained. For a potential new fan, the sheer amount of references alone is going to be alienating because there is no way for them to really get the importance of any of them. Additionally, some of the references made are really quite obscure. While it might be one of my favourites, I am aware that "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" is not one of the more well-known, so when I saw that referenced I was more than a little confused. It just seems like a mis-step.
The other thing that really bugs me strays a little into spoiler territory, so if you still want to read The House of Silk, then I would skip to the review summary. Let's just say that there's a pretty glaring plot hole that sort of makes its place in the main canon a bit suspect.
Right, so Holmes gets arrested early on in the narrative and Watson finds himself in a meeting with Moriarty as a result. Due to his and Holmes' matching goals with regards to the House of Silk, Moriarty gives Watson the key to Holmes' cell so that he can work out a means of escape, on the condition that Watson keep their meeting a secret. Watson decides to smuggle the key into prison by concealing it in the spine of one of Holmes' books and then hiding a coded message on one of the pages. As it turns out, Holmes manages to escape by himself, meaning that the key is unnecessary. At which point, the book isn't mentioned. What happens to it? Watson can hardly give it back or Holmes would notice. But Holmes will also notice that it's suddenly gone missing. Perhaps a little thing, but it does make it seem like Moriarty's presence was shoe-horned into the narrative as a moment of literary fanservice.

Overall, The House of Silk is a competently written addition to the Holmes canon, if perhaps not as high in quality compared to the originals. It's perhaps an unfair comparison, but an obvious one considering that the novel has been officially sanctioned by the Conan Doyle estate. Generally enjoyable, with a few reservations. It's perhaps a bit too distractingly referential for long-term fans, while the references are likely to alienate new fans. 3.5/5

Next review: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

Signing off,

Friday, 12 June 2015

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

A few years ago, The Lies of Locke Lamora garnered nothing but praise from fantasy readers everywhere. A few days before I finished my last book, my fiance left this rather pointedly behind at my house with some heavy implication that he wouldn't take it back until I'd read it. So, with only a little bit of blackmail, I set to reading a book that I'd had my eye on for a little while.

The Lies of Locke Lamora follows the eponymous Locke and his band of flamboyant thieves known collectively as the Gentleman Bastards. They make their living by pulling off high-stake heists that liberate the riches from the nobles of the merchant city of Camorr. This is despite the fact that there is a secret agreement between the nobles and the head of the local thieves: if the thieves stick to the poorer parts of town, then the city guards can be persuaded to turn a mostly blind eye. Things look about to change though, as a mysterious figure going by the moniker the Grey King has been making his presence known by brutally murdering several gang leaders. Though they try to keep low, the Gentleman Bastards find themselves caught in the middle of a war brewing between the Grey King and the King of Camorr's thieves, Capa Barsavi.
There's one thing that I need to get out of the way before I continue. The Lies of Locke Lamora is bloody brilliant. First, the plot is fast-paced and constantly defied my expectations of where it would go next. Honestly, I didn't realise that it would get quite so grim as quickly as it did, and I absolutely loved it. It's been a long time since a novel has consistently surprised me whilst still being utterly believable within the context that it has set up. Second, the protagonists are wonderful. There's the title character, Locke Lamora, the thief so well known for his elaborate cons and silver tongue that he has earned a reputation as the fabled Thorn of Camorr. There's the Sanza twins, Calo and Galdo, who are some of the best comic relief characters and really exploit the whole identical twins thing. Bug is the youngest of the Gentleman Bastards as well as the most reckless by far. And finally, there's Jean Tannen, the sensitive brawler of the bunch who I might be just a little bit in love with. I wanted so badly for them to do well, and every loss sustained along the way felt like a punch to the gut. Third, the setting looks to be really interesting, if a little underexplored. One of the most prominent features in the landscape of Camorr are the towers made of Elderglass, a mysterious substance left behind by the previous civilisation and seemingly indestructible. Where they came from and what that previous civilisation were like isn't really explored in great detail, but I'm seriously hoping that more is revealed as the series progresses. Likewise, I'm looking forward to learning more about the magic system of the Bondsmagi, a group of elite magicians, as well as the different gods introduced. I don't think that I could be any more enthusiastic about this book if I tried.

Read this book. Now. That's about the sum of my opinion and if you're any kind of fantasy fan, there is really is no excuse for you to not read it. Seriously. Get to it. 5/5

Next review: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Signing off,

Friday, 5 June 2015

Shadow and Betrayal by Daniel Abraham

Shadow and Betrayal was another book that I picked up at a second hand book stall, and I had a real hankering for some proper fantasy at the time. I'd just started uni and my reading requirements were a far sight from the material that I had hoped to read. So when I found this book, with its vague yet obviously epic fantasy blurb, I couldn't resist. Finally getting round to reading it now, I was reminded that this is an omnibus, collecting the first two books in a quartet named The Long Price. So what I actually had, in one nice package, was a bit of a question. Should I review this as Shadow and Betrayal, or should the books contained be reviewed separately? As you see here, I plumped for the former, as I thought that the two volumes would be similar enough in theme and plot for the review to run smoothly. I may have underestimated what I could take on. 

As stated above, this book combines the first two books in a quartet, the first named A Shadow in Summer and the second A Betrayal in Winter. They take place in a world where the most prominent merchant cities have risen to power through the presence of the poets, sorcerers who wield concepts-made-spirit known as andat, and the iron rule of the Khai, emperors who must earn their seat through ritual fratricide. The two main characters know this world intimately: Maati Vaupathai, a student poet, and his first teacher Otah Machi, who was offered the power of the poets but refused. A Shadow in Summer sees them in Saraykeht, where they become involved in a plot to cause the fall of the city by bringing about the escape of the resident poet's andat, Removing-The-Part-That-Continues (also known as Seedless). Then in A Betrayal in Winter, they find themselves both involved in the bloody, conspiracy-laden succession of the Khai Machi when someone outside the family dispatches one of the heirs, despite being against centuries of tradition. 
It took me a little while to get into each of these books, but by their respective ends both had me absolutely hooked. Honestly, where do I start with all the things that the first half of The Long Price gets so right. I suppose the first thing that comes to mind is the world-building. Firstly, it isn't just a rehash of your standard fantasy epic, instead taking more of an Eastern approach to the setting. In addition, it paints the social structure of this culture in minute detail whilst still being largely unobtrusive; from the hierarchy of the ruling classes to the local customs and even to the level of formality in their gestures and honorifics, I don't think that there's an area that was missed out. Of particular interest in the setting is the presence of the aforementioned andat. They are the spiritual and physical incarnations of a concept that the poet wishes to take advantage of. But a being of power like that cannot simply be summed up in a phrase, so the poet must define its other characteristics before being able to wield it. And you cannot resummon an andat without the difficulty and danger increasing, so if the poet suffers as a result of their andat they must live with it. It's a magic system with some really interesting and unexpected consequences and I'm really interested to see how it's continued in the rest of the quartet. 
The second thing that I love is the moral complexity. The problems in both books are such that there is a power manipulating from the shadows, but an open and large scale confrontation with them is not an option because it would result in the death and suffering of thousands of innocents who have no interest in the machinations of a few of their ambitious leaders. Additionally, the "villains" in both books are written so that their motivations are understandable enough that you can't wholly condemn them. Their actions may be terrible and deserving of due punishment, but I couldn't help but still really like them, as conflicted as that made me feel at times. 
The final thing that I really like is that there is a really interesting examination on women in society, both in terms of reproductive rights and inheritance. I was especially impressed that Abraham managed to include a depiction of abortion that walks the delicate line where it is neither trivialised or demonised. Considering that it's an issue that makes people very emotive, it's treated with a measure of respect that I so rarely see. 
The only thing that I am still a little dubious about is that there's a time skip of over a decade between the two books, during which the characters have changed drastically enough that it's like watching entirely different people at times. It was a little jarring at the beginning of A Betrayal in Winter when you realise just how much time has passed between the two novels. Not a huge issue, but it does bother me a little. 

A novel that I would thoroughly recommend to any fantasy fan. Complex and well thought out, these two installments bode well for the second half of the series. I honestly have no criticism that is big enough to be considered as more than a quibble. 5/5 

Next review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch 

Signing off,