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Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

I started Keeping It Real with some rather mixed expectations. On the one hand, I had picked the book up in Forbidden Planet, saw the blurb and liked it. I mean, from the description, it sounded kind of similar to the setting of the Shadowrun games, but with more of a romantic slant to it, so what's not to like? On the other hand, my occasional guest poster has since read another of Justina Robson's books in the meantime, The Glorious Angels, and he absolutely despised it. I think it's the first time that I've ever actually seen him get disgusted that something like it got published, especially by Gollancz, an imprint that he seems to rather like. And having read some of that, I could see why. So what enthusiasm I had for the book initially had waned somewhat, but I still figured that I'd give it a go. What could go wrong?

Keeping It Real follows Lila Black, a secret agent who is assigned to her first mission after being rebuilt into a cyborg body. She is assigned to protect Zal, an elven singer who is causing controversy by being the decadent rock-star that the Elf realm is entirely opposed to. But there is more to this musician than he will admit to her, to the point where the fate of all the other realms may hinge upon his safety. The fact that there is some magically-enhanced sexual tension brewing between the two will only make Lila's job more difficult.
I really don't know why I still entertained a shred of hope that Keeping It Real would be in any way good. I want to try and talk about its failures in a structured way, but honestly there's a lot to cover. Let me just say to start with that my overwhelming impression of the book is that this is the result of telling an alien the basics of writing and certain genres, then telling it to have a go. The elements of a good or at least passable novel are in there, but they only seem to be there in order to push the plot along. The characters for example. I tried so hard to warm to them, to relate to them, but all seemed absolutely futile. Characters will be going along quite happily, sticking to the logical path for their attributed characteristics, only to then go and do something monumentally stupid or weird in order to push the plot along. Then they'll go right back to how they were, as if this were totally normal behaviour. As a result, this makes both the political intrigue and the sex scenes fall totally flat. For the political intrigue, the fact that I had no idea what anyone actually wanted or why made the latter chapters where Lila is pretending to be controlled by a ghost living in her body tedious and confusing; if I can't pick out a motive, connect it to a personality and understand why the two work together, then political intrigue turns into needless complexity. Normally I like intrigue. Normally I don't find myself urging the protagonist to just break the antagonist's neck because that's the quickest way out of this interminable situation. And as for the sex scenes. I should not be bored by a sex scene. Even badly written sex scenes have an element of humour to appreciate them with. The absence of personality from an otherwise decently written sex scene is an absolute kiss of death. It makes you pick holes in the entire scenario. The first one is particularly confusing to consider. Lila and her travelling companion are in a rush and being actively pursued, so why would they pick that exact moment for sexy times? For that matter, why with each other considering that said travelling partner is the reason that she is mostly robotic in the first place? I can appreciate putting differences aside when your goals are the same, but this is ridiculous unless it's hate sex (this isn't). And then it makes me think of more general questions about Lila having sex in the first place. Why would the government agency that put her back together include a fully functioning vagina alongside an arsenal of weaponry in each limb? That is, quite honestly, the last thing I think someone would include in their design for a walking death machine. Additionally, she's powered by a mini nuclear reactor, presumably somewhere in her abdomen. Does that not cause concern for any sexual partners, or does it take more exposure for that particular issue to become evident? In a more engaging book, I wouldn't be thinking about all the downsides of putting your dick next to a nuclear reactor, but here I am.
Additionally, the plot has an unpleasant habit of introducing setting and character details just as they become narratively important, almost like the author forgot until the last minute. Sure, I don't mind the odd surprise cropping up in a narrative, but it has to be properly set up first. The gun needs to appear in act one before you can fire it in act two, otherwise it just looks like the author is making shit up as they go along. For example, I mentioned above that Lila is possessed at one point. Whilst possessed, she destroys a little flower belonging to the ghost possessing her. Said flower was never mentioned before this point despite the rest of his earthly possessions being detailed, and yet it is monumentally important both in terms of the ghostly possession itself and in a more social context. That's just poor writing.

Don't bother. The characters are flat and do hugely stupid things that are out of character for any sane person, purely to move the plot along. The political intrigue is tedious because the motives are difficult to determine or so asinine as to be not worth mentioning. The sex scenes are competently written but devoid of any feeling, meaning you pick holes in the whole premise of the scene and the characters therein. And the plot introduces important elements mere moments before they come into play. It's so poorly constructed that I marvel that it was ever picked up in the first place. 1/5

Next review: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.

Signing off,

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

With a string of installments that have been pretty strong more recently in the Chronicles of Narnia, I went into The Silver Chair with somewhat decent expectations. I mean, it didn't include any of the Pevensies this time, but it was still continuing the part of the series that I've found most rewarding, so the verdict should be a pretty good one, right?

The Silver Chair starts off with our protagonists Eustace, introduced in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and his school-friend Jill as they try to hide from some bullies. Attempting to escape through a door in the schoolyard wall, they find themselves transported to Narnia. Charged by Aslan to find the missing son of King Caspian, they find themselves facing temptation on all sides as they attempt to stick to the strict instructions given to them.
Let me say before I continue that The Silver Chair is a perfectly enjoyable book. The characters are well-written and the adventure is very well-crafted with a fantastic final confrontation with the villain of the piece. With that in mind, I came to a realisation that is possibly true of the preceding installments in the Chronicles of Narnia, but is especially evident here. The humans really don't do a great deal of good here. See, they're given four instructions to carry out by Aslan, all of which will make their job of rescuing the prince that bit easier, but all Eustace and Jill really manage to do is get distracted by temptation whenever it turns out that this whole adventuring lark might get a bit unpleasant at points. Honestly, if it had just been the two of them, I don't think they'd have even gotten started on their journey. As it was, I think the unsung hero of this book is Puddleglum, the Marsh-wiggle who is tasked with guiding them to their destination in the Wild Lands of the North. With his gleefully pessimistic demeanour and focus on how everything could go wrong at any time, he's pretty much the only thing that keeps the party on track at all. While he's no Reepicheep, he was a breath of fresh air compared to the bumblings that the human children bring to the proceedings. Now, while I reiterate that I still really like The Silver Chair, I now find myself questioning it. If the children brought to Narnia fail to contribute to the plot, then what purpose do they actually serve? I mean, I suppose the obvious answer would be that this is meant to be a narrative about how things that are clear in principle can be muddy when applied to real life, or about how easy it is to fall to temptation. And in theory I can accept that. But while I do accept that there's probably a thematic reason for the children being so useless, there is a part of me wondering what it would be like to have a book with Reepicheep and Puddleglum as the main adventurers. Now that there is an absurd scenario that I would love to see.

Another thoroughly solid fantasy adventure. Puddleglum is another gem of a Narnian, even though he doesn't quite match up to the majesty that was Reepicheep. The children are more or less useless in terms of actually focusing and getting stuff done in the narrative, but if you consider The Silver Chair as more a contemplation of temptation then it does feel a bit more understandable. 4/5

Next review: Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

Signing off,

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

There are some of you out there, very few I would imagine, who can remember when this blog reviewed books on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Those of you who do remember my experimental phase will remember that the second book that I looked at was The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Turns out there's a series of children's/young adult's novels that he's written, of which my current subject of review, The Midnight Palace, is the second installment of. I had certain issues with the previous installment, so I wanted to see if they carried over to this newer story.

The Midnight Palace starts in 1916 Calcutta, as a man desperately runs through the city streets, attempting to find safety for a set of newborn twins whilst being pursued by assassins intent on the children's deaths. The story then jumps forward 16 years, to the summer in which Ben and his friends grow out of the orphanage system that has been their home for all or most of their young lives. Coming together for a final meeting of their secret society, they stumble upon a mystery that is closely tied to Ben's unknown family past when Ben meets the sister that he never knew about. Much as he would like to get to know his sister better, Ben finds their reunion cut short as they are hounded by the same shadowy figure that tried to kill them as newborns.
I'm kind of disappointed to say it, but Carlos Ruiz Zafon doesn't really seem to write young adult novels terribly well. Right, so I suppose that I should start with what I liked about The Midnight Palace, give me at least something positive to say here. So, I really liked the atmosphere of menace and uncertainty that the book manages to keep up for the majority of the plot. There's something palpably unnerving about a group of teenagers attempting to combat an entity that is so far beyond the scope of what they can even begin to deal with, and it's a source of tension that Zafon is very good at implementing and has implemented just as masterfully in his adult novels. It does get you rooting for the heroes quite effectively, a desire to see the underdog win as it were.
Onto the first thing that I wasn't fond of. Apart from the villain Jawahal and the twins, the characters are practically two-dimensional. Possibly this is where The Prince of Mist benefitted, as that had a comparatively small cast. Here, there are eight teens to try and flesh out, and there just isn't enough room to give them anything more than a couple of superficial character traits. For example, there was one character whose sole characteristic shown in the narrative is that he's a fast runner. According to some of the narration, he can also pick locks like a champ, but it never comes up as a skill that he actually used. Not that it matters, since running and lock-picking are not personality traits. Sure, one can imply certain things from someone who is good at these skills, but really those are traits that should be shown directly. There's another character whose sole trait is that she's the female member of the group. Practically nothing else. It's frustrating as I started reading Zafon's work via his adult works, The Shadow of the Wind specifically, where there is a large cast that still manages to be vivid and interesting and utterly heartbreaking. So to see the cardboard cut-out excuses of characters in The Midnight Palace gives me no end of frustration, because I have seen him do so much better when he gives himself room to breathe.
The second thing that bothers me is the ending. Up until the ending, I was having a reasonably good time. Sure, the characters were flatter than pancakes, but the mystery was engaging and I wanted to see how the villain could be overcome. My disappointment with the ending is twofold and kind of spoilery, so if you still want to read the book, I'd advise maybe skipping to the summary at the end of the review. Okay, so firstly, it's disappointing because Zafon wrote almost the exact same ending in The Prince of Mist: the villain is exorcised, but only at the cost of the life of one of the protagonists, hanging over the lives of the rest of the cast from then onwards. I don't mind there being thematic or symbolic similarities between the two books if they're meant to be part of a series, but when your ending follows the same pattern, then I start wondering what the point of reading any of the other installments is. Secondly, it just smacked of adult bitterness and in terms of tone, it just felt wrong. Up until the final confrontation between Ben and Jawahal, it had been a young adult book, leaning more towards the younger end of the genre's age range. The ending itself would have been more fitting in an adult novel about childhood and growing up, because it just felt too bitter to appeal to an audience of around the same age as the characters. I guess that I'm disappointed because up until then, there had been an emphasis on the family that a person chooses for themselves through their friendships, and the cast's desire to hold onto it even as they moved into the uncertainty of adult life. It's a theme that I can really get behind, but it was all dashed by an epilogue that could be more or less summed up as "everyone has died or will die alone and isolated from humanity." I tell you, it's saying something when the young adult's book has a bleaker ending than the violent and mercenary world of Joe Abercrombie's books, and it's nothing good. Sure, make the ending bittersweet if it makes sense, but there comes a point where you may as well have not bothered with the narrative at all if the finale makes everything a pyrrhic victory that the author hasn't signposted well enough.

I want to like The Midnight Palace more than I do. While I was frustrated by the stunted character development, I was still enjoying myself with a pretty decent mystery compounded by a supernatural threat. Then the ending ruined it all by being almost identical to The Prince of Mist in formula, and by being bleak for bleakness' sake. The tone just went all wrong. 2.5/5

Next review: The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

Signing off,

Monday, 20 June 2016

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie is one of those authors that I had heard a lot of very good things about over the years, so when I found Best Served Cold at a secondhand book stall, I thought that this would be as good a place as any to try out some of his work. While technically part of his wider First Law series, it was touted as a standalone novel, so should theoretically make sense for someone with no other knowledge of the series. Figured that if it worked as a standalone, then the rest of the series would be good to check out.

Best Served Cold follows Monza Murcatto, the general of a mercenary army and a woman who has carved out a name for herself by being harder and more feared than anyone else. Her exploits have made a powerful man out of her employer, the Grand Duke Orso of Talins, and turned her into an extremely popular figure with his subjects. Unfortunately, this popularity is a shade too far for her employer, who fears the day when she will turn and betray him. Forced to watch her brother die, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Monza decides that the only course left to her is to take revenge on all of those present at the murder of her brother. To do so, she gathers together a motley and mercenary crew: a barbarian who wants to become a better man, a convict obsessed with numbers, the most talented and treacherous poisoner in Styria, a world-weary lady torturer, and the flamboyant drunkard who was her predecessor amongst the mercenaries she once led.
Sweet Jesus, I am so sorry that I didn't get to Abercrombie's work sooner. While I'm fond of most fantasy, I find my tastes naturally gravitating more towards worlds that are perhaps a little bloodier, a bit more backstabbing in nature. Honourable knights are all very well and good, but I do like a good bit of treachery every once in a while. And what can be more entertainingly gory than a good tale of revenge? Abercrombie certainly knows how to deliver on this score.
The most important part of this is probably the characters. Firstly, everyone who has a major part in Best Served Cold is really fleshed-out and vivid. It doesn't take long for the reader to identify who the point of view character is in any one section because, despite having an overall cynical outlook, each has a very distinctive voice. In particular, I found myself falling a little bit in love with Friendly, the aforementioned convict, simply because his voice sounded so familiar to me and made so much sense. There's something wonderful about finding a character so obviously autistic who isn't in a position where he can be pitied, to the point that I could have forgiven Abercrombie for a sizeable number of errors (had he made them anyway). Secondly, the character arcs are well-paced and never stray into the ridiculous, regardless of their comparative levels of drama. For example, there's Shivers, the barbarian who only wants to be a good man, and the way that he copes with the immoral actions that he finds himself assisting in; that one is the most obvious alteration over the course of the novel, as much because he initially prides himself on being a moral person. Comparatively, Monza's attitude towards her quest for revenge and the dead brother who inspired it is a much more low key affair, but it is no less affecting for that. I think if it had been a similar sort of intensity as Shivers' was, it would be melodramatic, but instead it suits her no-nonsense style personality.
In regards to whether Best Served Cold is a good starting point for readers looking to read Joe Abercrombie's work, I find myself a little torn. On the one hand, Best Served Cold is a self-contained narrative and there wasn't anything that I really struggled to understand because of not reading the First Law trilogy before this. On the other hand, there were plot elements brought up, especially towards the end, that would obviously have more significance with the added context of further reading. So while I could more or less glean that figures like the Cripple and whoever runs the bank of Valint and Balk were important, I feel that mentioning them is kind of wasted for new readers. The setting is interesting and complex enough that I would be more than happy to read more into the world of First Law.

For fantasy readers who like their worlds bloody and unforgiving, I don't think that you can really get much better than this. A decent starting point for those new to Abercrombie's work, although the significance of some characters is lessened by lack of context from the earlier books. Really though, I think Best Served Cold works because of the fantastic character building and interaction. I actually can't think of anything that I really disliked about it. 5/5

Next review: The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Signing off,

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis

Having been pleasantly surprised by Prince Caspian, I found myself rather looking forward to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader considering that this was another direct follow-up story. There was a part of me made just a little wary though, due to a particular line in the blurb where it describes how Edmund and Lucy are accompanied by "their awful cousin Eustace". Just how awful were we talking here?

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader follows the younger half of the four Pevensie siblings, Peter and Susan now apparently too old to journey to Narnia, and their stuck-up cousin as they are sucked into Narnia through a picture in their aunt's house. They find themselves reunited with Caspian, who has pledged to journey into the uncharted waters of the East, hoping to find the men who were driven away by his uncle several years before, and possibly even as far as finding the country where Aslan originates at the easternmost region of the world.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is an interesting one in comparison to the preceding book, specifically that they seem to swap strengths and weaknesses. While Prince Caspian was strong on plot but a bit disappointing when it came to vivid characters, Voyage of the Dawn Treader does some really solid characterisation and development arcs whereas the plot is choppy at best.
I think I'll start with the plot, get that part out of the way. I think that the manner of the journey that is taken here severely limits what sort of coherence the plot and tone can have. Because the characters are essentially exploring uncharted waters, it's more or less a string of short stories as opposed to one overarching plot. Each of the individual story sections as they find a new island to explore is well crafted in and of themselves, but there is a definite stop-start sort of feel to the overall narrative because of the defined limits set by having each section on a separate island or stretch of sea.
The deficiencies of the plot are definitely made up for though by the characterisation. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader does two things really well. First, Eustace has a great character arc, going from the kind of child that reminds me of all the reasons that I never want to be a parent, to a human being not automatically destined to become an obstructive bureaucrat. It's nice to see him learn from the bad consequences of his petty bullying, and realise that he might not actually be someone that people like and that maybe he isn't the one reasonable person in the group. Second, it made me sad that there isn't more of Reepicheep in the Chronicles of Narnia. Seriously, whatever I dislike about the plot or the writing style in this series, it's all made up for by the inclusion of Reepicheep. He's a giant talking mouse who acts more or less like an Errol Flynn character, whisker twirling and all. What's not to like? And while the fate that he gets does make me simultaneously smile and feel a little weepy, it makes me sad that he's unlikely to reappear in the series again. Everything needs more Reepicheep.

While the plot is a bit choppy due to the whole exploring uncharted islands thing, I think that whatever deficiencies you may find with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader's story are more than made up for by the excellent character work. Hell, Reepicheep is worth the price of admission alone. 4/5

Next review: Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Signing off,

Plugged by Eoin Colfer

I've been a fan of Eoin Colfer's since I was around 9 years old, mainly for his Artemis Fowl series. But I was only really aware of him as an author of children and young adult books, so when I saw Plugged, a crime novel for adults, I was intrigued.

Daniel McAvoy's life is decidedly on the discontent side. Working as a doorman at a seedy casino in New Jersey, he goes from dealing with sleazy customers at work to dealing with a psychotic neighbour and encroaching baldness at home. His life is about to become a whole lot worse, however, when his on-off girlfriend is found dead outside the casino and his best friend, a doctor practicing without a license and with a dubious grasp on both medical procedure and good business practices, goes missing. With conspiracies crowding in and making his life ever more hazardous, Dan must draw on his former army experiences in order to get out alive.
Normally I would shy away from a crime novel that was this blatantly aiming for humour, but because my experiences with Colfer's work has been largely positive thus far, I decided that I'd give it a shot. It works really well, and for one reason that is normally absent in crime fiction. I think the reason that the comedy works in Plugged is because all the characters are kind of rubbish. Normally in crime fiction, the stakes are really high and every mistake is going to come back at some point to bite the characters where it hurts. In Plugged, everyone involved are ultimately small players in the wider scheme of things. They're not in New York proper, they're in some ratty small town in New Jersey. While the crime boss that Dan has to deal with is a threat, he's only a big player on this small stage. It makes it feel kind of like a story that the Cohen brothers would direct, full of characters who are, to quote the game Fiasco, full of "powerful ambition and poor impulse control". Mistakes happen almost constantly throughout the narrative, and it's absolutely wonderful to see Dan just have to add that to the list of shit that he needs to deal with. It really makes the humour work, and I was already a big fan of Colfer's sense of humour. I don't think I've grinned so much at the bus stop in a long while.
In comparison to the comedy side of things, I think that the actual crime part could use some work. While I'm all for seeing more of Colfer writing about these small-time crooks, I think the tone maybe needs a bit of tightening. While I did like the humour, I thought that it was sprinkled perhaps too liberally during the scenes that should be really tense. Shootouts and standoffs feel like they should be handled more seriously, even if the people involved are nowhere near as important as they think they are. I mean, considering how high the body count gets, it doesn't really feel all that shocking, even when it really should do. It's not a huge problem for me, but if you like your murders with a bit more seriousness then this might be a bit blase for you.

A very funny novel about conspiracies and small-time crooks who want to be big-time crooks. The humour is absolutely stellar, though it does take away from the impact of some scenes that would otherwise be more shocking and impactful. 4/5

Next review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis

Signing off,

Monday, 6 June 2016

Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan

Amongst the fantasy fans out of my group of friends, there are certain author names that seem to crop up a lot, regardless of the sub-genre or tone that these readers tend to plump for. Trudi Canavan is one of those, especially in connection to her Black Magician trilogy. So when I found that my younger sibling owned the first of her Age of the Five trilogy, Priestess of the White, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Priestess of the White follows quite a few groups of people, but primary amongst them is Auraya. She is a young priestess, talented both in her magical gifts and her ability to mediate, who finds herself chosen as the last of the White, a group of priests and priestesses hand-picked by the gods as their most powerful servants. While she is thrilled by the trust that her deities have placed in her, she finds that being one of the White brings up a lot more difficulties that she had ever expected. Firstly, she must prepare herself and the allies of the White for war when word reaches them of a great army being raised against them in the South of the continent, led by a cult who proclaim that the White worship dead gods. Secondly, she must try and reconcile her present role with her relationship to the only friend she has left from her days before entering the priesthood, Leiard; while she is naturally inclined to empathise and like him, he is a Dreamweaver, one of a cult that her gods have deemed blasphemous.
There are a lot of things to like about Priestess of the White. Firstly, the characters are all really well-constructed with a lot of conflicting and paradoxical viewpoints. For example, there's Auraya. Her natural instinct is to encourage tolerance and acceptance amongst all the people that she can influence through peaceful means. But in her role as a priestess, she has to come to terms with the fact that she wants people to join her faith specifically, and the consequence that means that she will eventually cause her friend Leiard's way of life to die out completely, even as she preaches tolerance for his faith. With Leiard, there is his faith that Auraya will never knowingly hurt him or his kind conflicting with the equally strong belief that he will still come out second best if Auraya had to choose between him and the gods. And my personal favourite, Tryss, a member of a fragile flying sub-species of humanity, whose determination to give his people a means to defend themselves ultimately leads to him having to face the prospect of his family and friends going to war, despite their already low numbers. And each main character that the narrative focuses on has these kinds of interesting conflicts within themselves, where they have to figure out if what they want is really all they had hoped that it would be.
Secondly, the setting is really detailed and interesting, with some unexpectedly grey morals and politics. For example, on the one hand, Auraya is obviously a good person and she does seem to genuinely want to help humanity in her position as one of the White. But on the other hand, you get hints and implications that the gods that she worships have ordered quite a bit of dirty work in the past, the impact of which still resonates in the form of the prejudice towards the Dreamweavers, despite their roles as healers. It does bring doubt into what she does for her gods, whether she or the other White truly understand the implications of what they are. Plus there's a lot of mundane politics that is really interesting, where the White have to change up their tactics in order to appeal to different nations and groups of people.
I will say that while the plot is solid more or less throughout, there is a section around the halfway/two-thirds mark where it does seem to slow down as you then have to get through a lot of army management stuff. Not entirely tedious, but a bit of a drag at times I found. Still worth working through though.

Definitely a solid recommendation for fantasy fans. The characters and setting are really fleshed out and detailed, with some fascinating character conflict going on. The plot does slow down a bit during the second half of the novel, but it's not as big a flaw as it could have been. I'd definitely be interested in taking a look at the next installment in the series. 4/5

Next review: Plugged by Eoin Colfer

Signing off,